The Appalling Story Of Josef Fritzl, The ‘Monster’ Father Of Elisabeth Fritzl

Published September 22, 2023
Updated March 8, 2024

Go inside the horrific crimes of Josef Fritzl, the Austrian criminal who imprisoned and sexually abused his own daughter Elisabeth for 24 years.

In 2008, the world learned the horrifying story of Josef Fritzl, an Austrian man who’d imprisoned his own daughter Elisabeth for 24 years, raped her countless times, and forced her to bear seven of his children.

This disturbing story of incest and imprisonment shocked the world, and raised pressing questions about the man behind this brutal abuse. Who was Josef Fritzl? And how had he become such a monster?

From his turbulent early life to his heinous crimes to his eventual punishment behind bars, this is the story of Josef Fritzl, the sexual predator who enslaved and abused his daughter for over two decades.

How Josef Fritzl Became A Monster

Josef Fritzl

X (Formerly Twitter)Josef Fritzl meticulously planned the enslavement and abuse of his daughter, Elisabeth Fritzl.

Born in 1935 in Amstetten, Austria, Josef Fritzl had a troubled, violent childhood. A psychiatrist testified at his 2009 trial that Josef spent his childhood in “a severe state of anxiety” as his mother Maria did not love him, beat him, and frequently left him by himself.

The psychiatrist, Adelheid Kastner, further explained that Maria only had Josef to prove that she was not infertile, after her marriage broke up due to a lack of children, and that she caused Josef great stress by refusing to join him in air raid shelters during bombings that occurred in World War II.

“As a result, he suffered from an overwhelming sense of anxiety, not knowing when the air raid was over whether or not the only person in the world to whom he had any relationship would still be alive,” Kastner testified.

At the age of 21, SPIEGEL reports that Josef married his wife, Rosemarie, and he instantly began controlling every aspect of her life.

“He tolerated no dissent,” Rosemarie’s sister, Christine, later said of the couple’s relationship. “Listen, if I myself was scared of him at a family party, and I did not feel confident to say anything in any form that could possibly offend him, then you can imagine how it must have been for a woman who spent so many years with him.”

Though Josef and Rosemarie had seven children together, SPIEGEL reports that they eventually stopped having sex with each other. Rosemarie then stood by silently as Josef served 18 months in prison after a rape conviction and started taking solo sex vacations to Pattaya, Thailand.

But Josef also started focusing his sexual abuse closer to home. Around 1977 or 1978, he began to abuse his daughter Elisabeth, who was only about 11 or 12 at the time. Throughout her teen years, Elisabeth Fritzl ran away multiple times, but she was always brought back to her home at Ybbsstrasse 40 in Amstetten either by police or Josef.

Then, shortly after her 18th birthday, Elisabeth disappeared. Josef Fritzl told friends and family that she’d joined a sect. Given her history of running away, this was easy for people to believe. But the truth was much more horrific.

The Imprisonment Of Elisabeth Fritzl

Elisabeth Fritzl

YouTubeElisabeth Fritzl, pictured two years before her father Josef Fritzl imprisoned her in his basement.

Josef Fritzl started plotting to imprison his daughter as far back as the 1970s. Then, he began creating an elaborate cellar underneath the family home to hold her in sexual slavery.

In August 1984, Josef put his plan into action by asking Elisabeth for help installing a door in the cellar. As she turned to leave, he subdued her with ether, tied her to a bed, and began his cruel routine of daily rape and abuse.

“He developed an overwhelming desire to exert power — to dominate, control, and possess another person. These were fantasies that grew and grew and which he managed to realise,” Kastner, the psychiatrist, later testified at Josef Fritzl’s trial. She added that he’d “chosen” Elisabeth because of how she had resisted him before. “If you conquer someone you consider strong and stubborn, the effect is all the more gratifying.”

For the next 24 years, Josef Fritzl held his daughter prisoner in the basement. He raped her “at least 3,000 times,” resulting in seven children. Six of Elisabeth Fritzl’s children survived, three of whom were kept in the cellar, and three of whom appeared on the doorstep of Ybbsstrasse 40, ostensibly sent by the “runaway” Elisabeth for Josef and Rosemarie to raise.

As Josef later admitted, he knew what he was doing was wrong.

Josef Fritzl's Cellar

YouTubeA map of the layout of the cellar where Elisabeth Fritzl was imprisoned.

“I knew Elisabeth didn’t want me to do what I did to her,” he said after his arrest. “I knew I was hurting her… It was like an addiction.”

But he also insisted that Elisabeth’s imprisonment was for her own good, as she drank alcohol and smoked as a teen and tried to run away from home. Josef further claimed that he treated Elisabeth and her children well.

“When I went into the bunker, I brought flowers for my daughter, and books and toys for the children, and I watched adventure videos with them while Elisabeth was cooking our favorite dish,” he said.

Elisabeth would later tell a very different story. According to Elisabeth, her father told her that she and her children would receive electric shocks if they tried to open the doors of the cellar, and that poison would fill the basement if they tried to escape. He frequently beat her, psychologically tormented her, and forced her to reenact scenes from violent pornographic films. And when Elisabeth became pregnant from his rapes, he gave her only disinfectant, a pair of scissors, and a 1960s book to assist her with childbirth.

This horrific abuse continued on for 24 years. Until, in 2008, one of Elisabeth’s children fell seriously ill and needed to be hospitalized.

How Josef Fritzl Was Finally Caught After Elisabeth Escaped

The Fritzl House

SID Lower Austria/Getty ImagesThe house at Ybbsstrasse 40 in Amstetten, Austria, where Josef Fritzl imprisoned his daughter in a cellar.

In April 2008, Elisabeth and Josef Fritzl’s eldest child Kerstin — who was kept in the basement with Elisabeth and two of her siblings — became extremely sick with agonizing cramps. Josef eventually agreed to take 19-year-old Kerstin to a hospital, where doctors, alarmed by her condition and unable to locate her medical records, asked to see her mother.

As The Guardian writes, Elisabeth begged her father to let her out of the basement to help her daughter, who was still in critical condition at the hospital.

And Josef, who was getting older and starting to struggle with maintaining his double life, agreed. He brought Elisabeth to the hospital, and told the staff and the police that she’d “escaped” from her “sect.”

Once Elisabeth Fritzl was separated from her father — and after she was assured that she would never have to see him again — she told the authorities the truth. Her father was promptly arrested and put on trial in 2009. Josef Fritzl was found guilty of enslavement, incest, rape, coercion, and false imprisonment. He also pleaded guilty to negligent homicide, admitting responsibility for the death of one of Elisabeth’s babies.

Police Photo Of Josef Fritzl

AP Photo/Police NiederoesterreichA police photo taken of Josef Fritzl shortly after his arrest.

He was sentenced to life in prison, where he remains to this day. Shockingly, he’s convinced that he’ll “definitely” see his family again and that they’ll forgive him for everything that he did. “I do understand people who want me to die in jail,” he said in 2023, according to The Sun. “But I want to experience freedom one day. I’ve never been afraid of dying.”

It is, however, all but certain that Josef Fritzl, who is now in his 80s and reportedly suffering from dementia, will die in prison.

Meanwhile, Elisabeth and her children have spent the last several years experiencing life outside of their prison. Today, Fritzl and her children live together in an undisclosed location in Austria known only as “Village X.” Though the children who were raised “upstairs” by Josef and Rosemarie reportedly suffer from feelings of guilt, and the children who were raised in the basement struggle with adjusting to normal life, they are all said to be recovering together.

Elisabeth, for her part, has reportedly taken to wearing colorful clothing and enjoying simple freedoms like driving a car. And Josef, who imprisoned her for more than two decades, will spend the rest of his life behind bars.

After reading about Josef Fritzl, discover the horrifying true story of Natascha Kampusch, the Austrian girl who was held captive for 3,096 days. Or, see how California couple David and Louise Turpin kept their 13 children locked up in horrifying conditions in their home for years.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Fraga, Kaleena. "The Appalling Story Of Josef Fritzl, The ‘Monster’ Father Of Elisabeth Fritzl.", September 22, 2023, Accessed May 21, 2024.