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March 1996

The Robber Kneißl : Bavaria's Robin Hood

Famous Bavarian Outlaw, Robber Kneißl, has his day in court

Robin Hood in England. Jesse James in America. Ned Kelly in Australia. Almost every country has an outlawfolk hero, someone who by choice or circumstance lived outside the law but who - -through a mixture ofaudacity and courage - -won the admiration of society. When the cold steel of the guillotine kissed the neck of 26-year-old Mathias Kneißl in February 1902, it did more than end the life of a notorious poacher, house-breaker, chicken thief, and police killer, it was the final act in the creation of Bavaria's own outlaw legend - -der Räuber Kneißl (the Robber Kneißl). Celebrated in both folk and modern songs, poems, and more than a dozen books, Kneißl is a cherished icon in Bavarian folk history. There's even a beer brewed in Maisach named after him. Between October 1900 and March 1901, Kneißl was the center of one of the largest manhunts ever mounted in Bavaria. A huge price was put upon his head and hundreds of police were mobilized for the chase, yet Kneißl made the law appear foolish as he calmly roamed the winter countryside on an elegant bicycle robbing at will. THE FUGITIVE Kneißl, a member of a family with a long history of conflict with the law, embarked upon a burglary spree in upper Bavaria in late 1900 with a hardened criminal called Holzleitner. The pair robbed a farmhouse in Oberbirnbach in the Holledauer region, an act which required no particular courage as the men of the farm were then out working in the fields. They escaped with 500 marks and several bank notes. Then the chase began. Holzleitner was arrested several weeks later and sentenced to 15 years in jail, but Kneißl, who had served time in prison between 1893 and 1899, swore he would never again be put behind bars. Exploiting his knowledge of the region between Aichach, Sulzemoos, and Fürstenfeldbruck (the area between Munich and Augsburg), Kneißl robbed and plundered his way across the landscape, thwarting the law for almost six months. As a lone thief, he contented himself with raids against isolated farmhouses and waylaying travelers. Most of his robberies were penny-ante crimes, netting little more than enough to pay his keep at the various criminal safehouses where he found refuge. But the high incidence of the robberies, as well as the mobility of the thief, attracted notoriety to Kneißl. "Robbers were nothing new," says Hans Sarkowicz, author of Bayerns Böse Buben (Bavaria's Bad Boys) printed by Eichborn in 1992. "Large bands of robbers had long plagued Bavaria and surrounding countries, particularly during the second half of the 19th century. But what made Kneißl unique is that he acted alone." "Dressed in a gray leather jacket and gray hat with a Black Cock feather, and carrying an ammunition belt and a loaded 'Drilling' hunting rifle inherited from his father, Kneißl was a distinctive figure and quickly achieved a feared reputation. He became the terror of upper Bavaria. At night all farmhouses were bolted tightly shut and fierce dogs were released to scare the robber away. Few people dared travel countryroads alone - -even during the day - -and no one ever ventured into the forest." Early police attempts to capture Kneißl proved futile as, like a fox, he twisted and turned, and laid false trails. As the hunt gathered in intensity, Munich newspapers began reporting the news from "the front," which was eagerly followed by the public. At the time, Bavaria was ruled by a monarchy and many people resented the police as the strong arm of this dictatorial system. BEWARE OF FALSE FRIENDS The closest the police came to capturing Kneißl was on November 30, 1900 in Irchenbrunn. Kneißl met Michael Rieger, an old friend of his father, outside a Wirtshaus in the town and asked for shelter. Rieger welcomed the young thief and took him home to the Flecklbauer farm. Rieger proved to be a false friend and sent a young farmhand to the Altomünster police to inform them of his guest for the evening. Two policemen soon arrived, accompanied by six strong local farmhands. The police entered and began searching the building. What happened next has been described by many people as self-defense, but the prosecutor at Kneißl's trial called it murder. When the police came close to his hiding place, Kneißl opened fire. Police Commander Brandmeier was killed outright and Constable Scheidler was mortally wounded in the shoot-out. He died three weeks later. Eleven children, the youngest only one-and-a-half years old, were left fatherless as a result. Kneißl again escaped, but the price upon his head rose from 400 to 1,000 gold marks (approximately DM 10,000; the average monthly income then for a farmer was about DM 5). Orders were issued for him to be shot on sight. Overnight Kneißl turned from a forgettable thief into a notorious criminal. "There was a lot of sympathy for him and he received a lot of support. He came from the lowest sector of a rigid class society and it was a form of solidarity amongst this class to help him," said Sarkowicz. "There was a well-established system of criminal safe houses and there a man on the run could go, eat and sleep, and know he would be protected. Kneißl was cushioned and supported by this system and it helped him greatly to slip through the hands of the police." For more than three months after the shoot-out, Kneißl eluded the police, but life on the run began to affect him. As the pressure for his capture or death intensified, he dreamed of making one last large robbery of a rich farm before escaping to America. But, -as with all such tales, -a traitor was involved. For Jesse James, it was Robert Ford, a member of his own gang, who shot him in the back. For Australian Ned Kelly, it was his good friend Aaron Sherrit. For Kneißl, it was his cousin Mathilde Danner. THE POLICE CLOSE IN The police received information that Kneißl was involved with his cousin. They approached her and she agreed to betray Kneißl for the reward. Police later received a tip-off that Kneißl would visit Mathilde and her mother in Geisenhofen. In the early hours of March 4, 1901, more than 160 police officers surrounded Mathilde's house in Geisenhofen and opened fire on the house. Kneißl returned the gesture and the siege lasted most of the day. Police eventually rushed the building, severely beat the robber, and arrested him. On March 5, Kneißl was carried into Munich on a hay wagon escorted by eight armed gendarmes. He was nearly dead from wounds to the abdomen, right arm and left hand, as well as from the thrashing he had received. During the five months he lay recovering in the Chirurgische Klinik, Kneißl was treated like a celebrity. His room was a sea of flowers sent by admirers, scores of prominent women wrote to him confessing undying love, and at least one nurse had to be removed to another ward for becoming too "intimate" with the robber. HIS DAY IN COURT Kneißl was finally brought to trial in Augsburg on November 14, 1901. He was charged with double murder as well as armed robbery and coercion. The case was followed throughout Bavaria. The trial began early on a cold, dark, rainy day. Yet the public gallery was filled and many more people crowded the corridors outside where Kneißl's mother stood crying piteously. Inside the court, Kneißl - -dressed in a new suit supplied by his mother - -cut an impressive figure and he bore himself courageously throughout the trial. During the trial, Kneißl forcefully and convincingly portrayed himself as a victim of society. He admitted to the crimes against him, but strongly denied murdering the two police officers. He claimed he tried to immobilize them, aiming for their legs so they could not follow him. VICTIM OR CRIMINAL? Was Kneißl a victim who struck back at a harsh society or simply a vicious killer? As with the lives of all such romanticized figures, it is possible to see both elements in the tale. Certainly Kneißl seems a hard-luck character. Born into a family with a long history of crime and whose family home in Unterweikertshofen was a refuge for criminals on the run, he had little chance from childhood. His uncle Pascolini was the leader of the most feared robber band in Upper Bavaria in the 1860s and died upon the guillotine. His reputation was a burden for the Kneißl children. Witnesses at the trial testified that Kneißl was continually reminded of his uncle's reputation by teachers and the local priest. It is not surprising then, that at school Kneißl was stubborn and had a tendency towards violence. In 1891, when he was 16 years old, Kneißl was caught poaching. A year later, his father died in police custody and his mother was sentenced to prison for receiving stolen goods. Seventeen-year-old Mathias Kneißl and his 15-year-old brother Alois were left to fend for themselves, which they did through a variety of ways, including breaking and entering and theft. When local police tried to arrest the two Kneißl boys - -or Pascolinis as they were known locally - -at their home, Alois greeted them with gunshots. Station Commander Gößwein later died. Alois died in detention. Mathias had to shoulder the blame for his brother's action and, as a result, received a particularly long sentence. After his release from prison in February 1899, Kneißl made a determined effort to become an honest man. He sought employment as a carpenter and earned a reputation as a skillful and diligent worker. Despite a law forbidding police from watching young first-time offenders, they harassed Kneißl and continually visited his employers. When his past became common knowledge, Kneißl was invariably dismissed. Kneißl worked for Master Christoph at Nußdorf for seven months. At the trial Christoph testified he was happy with Kneißl and would have gladly kept him on, despite the continual visits of the local police commander who insisted that a man such as Kneißl should not remain in the town. Unfortunately, when the other carpenters learned of Kneißl's past, they refused to work with him and the master reluctantly dismissed him. Kneißl then seems to have simply lost the courage to look for further work. He fell in with Holzleitner and their brief rampage began. Says Sarkowicz, "Kneißl had his family's reputation against him and, after he served time in prison himself, then he was lost. The society then was extremely hard on anyone who had been to prison. They had no reputation, and could earn no money." THE VERDICT Kneißl was found guilty of the murder of Brandmeier and of injuring Scheidler with the intent to kill. He was sentenced to death. Kneißl looked pale when the sentence was read out, but bravely mounted the guillotine on February 21, 1902 and laid his head on the block. According to legend, among his last words he is reputed to have said, "Da Wocha geht scho guat o, am Montag wer i köpft" (The week is off to a great start, -on Monday I get my head cut off). Kneißl was buried an hour after his execution in the Catholic cemetery in Augsburg. Hundreds of on-lookers crowded the cemetery walls and watched the short burial ceremony which was only interrupted by a shout in guttural Bairisch: "Soll dös aa no a Gerechtigkeit sei?! Umbracht habts'n, ös Justizmörder!" (Is this supposed to be justice? You have used justice to murder him). It was his mother still registering her support for her son. THE LEGEND LIVES ON Although authorities buried Kneißl, they never managed to bury his spirit. Even during his own lifetime, Kneißl was a romanticized figure celebrated in print and in poems and songs, such as The Ballad of Räuber Kneißl, which played in bars and music halls and was even popular among society's elite. Today Kneißl has emerged as a full-blown, legendary Bavarian figure. He is largely viewed as someone hounded into a life of crime by authorities, as the underdog who struck back, and as a Robin Hood pitted against the cold, self-righteous hypocrisy of society. "No one thinks of him as a murderer, but as someone who outwitted and made fools of the police," says Sarkowicz. "It is quite incredible the amount of admiration that one man on a bicycle has won." Kneißl's life has been featured in newspaper articles, a radio play, exhibitions at the Bavarian State Archives and the Munich City Museum, and a 1978 Bayerischer Rundfunk TV-movie entitled simply Kneißl, which dealt rather graphically with the violence in his life.The area between Augsburg and Munich is still sometimes referred to as Räuber Kneißl country and an old-timer auto rally, held annually in Sulzemoos, is named after him-, though a bike race would be more appropriate. And, as with other Bavarian icons, such as King Ludwig and Ludwig Thoma, it is even possible to drink a beer named after Kneißl. Ten years ago, the small regional Maisach brewery began making a Kneißl beer in his honor. "In 1985, we had the idea of brewing a Räuber Kneißl beer because of his association with our area. He was born near here, lived near here and captured just near Maisach," said Martina Wieser, manager of the Maisach Brewery. "It was his standing among local inhabitants that first convinced us it was a good idea. Kneißl is definitely seen by most people as a hero, -a sort of Bavarian Robin Hood. He never had a chance from the beginning." The dark, reddish-brown export beer now accounts for 20 percent of the company's output and is marketed with the slogan Räuber Kneißl: g'jagd...g'suacht...g'fund'n (Robber Kneißl: Hunted...Sought...Found).

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