Elisabeth Fritzl spent 24 years in captivity, confined to a makeshift cellar and repeatedly tortured at the hands of her own father.
On Aug. 28, 1984, 18-year-old Elisabeth Fritzl went missing.
Her mother, Rosemarie hastily filed a missing-persons report, frantic over the whereabouts of her daughter. For weeks there was no word from Elisabeth, and her parents were left to assume the worst. Then, out of nowhere, a letter arrived, from Elisabeth, claiming she had grown tired of her family life, and run away.
Her father, Josef, told policeman who came to the house that he had no idea where she would go, but that she likely joined a religious cult, something she had talked previously about doing.
But the truth was that Josef Fritzl knew exactly where his daughter was. She was about 20 feet below where the police officer was standing.
On Aug. 28, 1984, Josef called his daughter into the basement of the family’s home. He was re-fitting a door to the newly renovated cellar and needed help carrying it. As Elisabeth held the door, Josef fixed it into place. As soon as it was on the hinges, he swung it open, forcing Elisabeth inside and knocking her unconscious with an ether-soaked towel.
For the next 24 years, the inside of the dirt-walled cellar would be the only thing Elisabeth Fritzl would see. Her father would lie to her mother and the police, feeding them stories about how she’d run away and joined a cult. Eventually, the police investigation into her whereabouts would run cold and before long, the world would forget about the missing Fritzl girl.
But Josef Fritzl wouldn’t forget. And over the next 24 years, he would make that very clear to his daughter.
As far as the rest of the Fritzl family was concerned, Josef would head down to the basement every morning at 9 a.m. to draw plans for the machines that he sold. Occasionally, he would spend the night, but his wife wouldn’t worry – her husband was a hard-working man and was thoroughly dedicated to his career.
As far as Elisabeth Fritzl was concerned, Josef was a monster. At the minimum, he would visit her in the basement three times a week. Usually, it was every day. For the first two years, he left her alone, keeping her captive. Then, he began to rape her, continuing the nightly visits he had begun when she was just 11 years old.
Two years into her captivity, Elisabeth became pregnant, though she miscarried 10 weeks into the pregnancy. Two years later, however, she fell pregnant again, this time carrying to term. In August of 1988, a baby girl named Kerstin was born. Two years later, another baby was born, a boy named Stefan.
Kerstin and Stefan remained in the cellar with their mother for the duration of her imprisonment, being brought weekly rations of food and water by Josef. Elisabeth attempted to teach them with the rudimentary education she herself had, and give them the most normal life she could under her horrific circumstances.
Over the next 24 years, Elisabeth would give birth to five more children. One more was allowed to remain in the basement with her, one died shortly after birth, and the other three were taken upstairs to live with Rosemarie and Josef.
Josef didn’t just bring the children up to live with him, however. In order to conceal what he was doing from Rosemarie, he staged elaborate discoveries of the children, often involving placing them on bushes near the home, or on the doorstep. Each time, the child would be swaddled neatly, and accompanied with a note allegedly written by Elisabeth, claiming that she couldn’t take care of the baby and was leaving it with her parents for safe keeping.
Shockingly, social services never questioned the appearance of the children and allowed the Fritzl’s to keep them as their own children. Officials were, after all, under the impression that Rosemarie and Josef were the babies’ grandparents.
It is not known how long Josef Fritzl intended to keep his daughter captive in his basement. He had gotten away with it for 24 years, and for all the police knew he was going to continue for another 24. However, in 2008, one of the children in the cellar fell ill.
Elisabeth begged her father to allow her 19-year-old daughter Kerstin to get medical attention. She’d fallen rapidly and critically ill and Elisabeth was beside herself. Grudgingly, Josef agreed to take her to a hospital. He removed Kerstin from the cellar, and called an ambulance, claiming that he had a note from Kerstin’s mother explaining her condition.
For a week, police questioned Kerstin and asked the public for any information on her family. Naturally, no one came forward as there was no family to speak of. The police eventually grew suspicious of Josef and reopened the investigation into Elisabeth Fritzl’s disappearance. They began to read the letters that Elisabeth had supposedly been leaving for the Fritzls and began to see inconsistencies in them.
Whether Josef finally felt the pressure or had a change of heart regarding his daughter’s captivity, the world may never know, but on April 26, 2008, he released Elisabeth from the cellar, for the first time in 24 years. She immediately went to the hospital to see her daughter, where hospital staff alerted police to her suspicious arrival.
That night, she was taken into custody, to be questioned about her daughter’s illness, and her father’s story. After making the police promise she never had to see her father again, Elisabeth Fritzl told the tale of her 24-year imprisonment.
She explained that her father kept her in a basement, that she bore seven children. She explained that Josef was the father of all seven of them and that he would come down during the night, make her watch pornographic films and then rape her. She explained that he’d been abusing her ever since she was 11.
The police arrested Josef Fritzl that night.
After the arrest, the cellar children were also released, and Rosemarie Fritzl fled the home. She had allegedly known nothing about the events taking place right under her feet, and Josef backed up her story. The tenants who had lived in the apartment on the first floor of the Fritzl home also never knew what was happening right beneath them, as Josef had explained away all sounds by blaming faulty piping and a noisy heater.
Today, Elisabeth Fritzl lives under a new identity, in a secret Austrian village known only as “Village X.” The home is under constant CCTV surveillance, and police patrol every corner. The citizens don’t allow interviews anywhere within their walls and decline to give any themselves. Though she is now in her mid-forties, the last photo taken of her was when she was just 16 years of age.
The efforts to conceal her new identity were made to keep her past hidden from the media and let her live her new life. Many believe, however, that they’ve done a better job of ensuring her immortality as the girl held captive for 24 years.