The Captain of Köpenick Hits the Jackpot

From horrifying workplace violence, this week we look at a crime that is more amusing than serious. This is the case of Wilhelm Voigt, the shoemaker turned robber who gained fame as the Captain of Köpenick.

Meet Wilhelm Voigt

Friedrich Wilhelm Voigt was born in Tilsit, Prussia (now part of Russia) in 8149. We don’t know much about his early life. We do know that in 1863, at age 14, he served 14 days in prison for theft. Because of that, he was expelled from school. After his expulsion, he learned shoemaking from his father.

Wilhelm Voigt, the Captain of Köpenick, 1906 mugshot
Wilhelm Voigt, the Captain of Köpenick, 1906 mugshot (Public Domain)

Between 1864 and 1891, Voigt earned sentences totaling 25 years for thefts, forgery, and burglary. Released from prison in February 1906, he went to live with his sister in a Berlin suburb. He worked for a well-regarded shoemaker for a short time. But the police ordered him out of Berlin solely because of his criminal record. Officially he went to Hamburg, but he actually stayed as an unregistered resident in Berlin.

The Captain of Köpenick

Unable to resist a heist, Voigt planned his next escapade. He bought parts of used captain’s uniforms from several shops. Assembling the pieces into a complete uniform and put it on. On October 16, 1906, he commandeered four grenadiers and a sergeant and order them to follow him. Such was the respect for the Prussian military that the soldiers obeyed without question. Dismissing the sergeant, he commandeered six more soldiers at a shooting range. He and his impromptu squad then took a train to Köpenick, east of Berlin.

Statue of Wilhelm Voigt as the Captain of Köpenick at Köpenick city hall by Spartak Babajan
Statue of Wilhelm Voigt as the Captain of Köpenick at Köpenick city hall by Spartak Babajan (Public Domain)

At Köpenick, Voigt led the soldiers to the town hall. There he accused the mayor and treasurer of crooked bookkeeping and placed them under arrest. The mayor wondered why the captain was so old and wore his cap badge upside down, but he complied anyway. Voigt then confiscated 4,002 marks and 37 pfennigs (roughly $60,000 today) from the treasury, giving a receipt in return. Next, he commandeered two carriages and sent two grenadiers with the arrested men to Berlin for questioning. He told the remaining soldiers to stand guard for half an hour, then left for the train station. He changed into civilian clothes and disappeared.

Uniform worn by Wilhelm Voigt as the Captain of Köpenick
Uniform worn by Wilhelm Voigt as the Captain of Köpenick (Public Domain)

Voigt might have got away with it but a former cellmate who knew of the plan ratted him out. Police arrested him ten days after the heist on October 26. On December 1, he was sentenced to four years in prison for forgery, impersonating an officer, and wrongful imprisonment.

Epilogue

The Captain of Köpenick touched a chord with the German public. Rumor had it that even Kaiser Wilhelm II, who pardoned Voigt in 1908, found the incident amusing. And of course, English writers had a field day lampooning the German reverence for uniforms and military authority.

German postage stamp, 2006
German postage stamp, 2006

Wilhelm Voigt moved to Luxembourg in 1910 where he worked as a cobbler and a waiter. A rich Berlin dowager set him up with a pension and he lived well for a while. However, he went broke in the recession that followed World War I. He died in Luxembourg in 1922.

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