The Girl in the Basement: Elisabeth Fritzl

It was a hot day in August 1984 when 18-year-old Elisabeth Fritzl vanished into thin air. Her mother was distraught about her daughter’s whereabouts and quickly filed a missing persons report. For weeks, there was no information about Elisabeth until a letter arrived in the mail stating she had run away.

Elisabeth Fritzl / Josef Fritzl / Josef Fritzl.
Source: Getty Images

Her father, Josef, told investigators he had no idea where she would run away to. The truth was that Josef knew exactly where his daughter was because he had imprisoned her 20 feet below ground. Her ordeal started as an innocent request and turned into 24 years of horror.

“Can You Help Me?”

On August 28, 1984, Josef Fritzl called his daughter Elisabeth into the basement to help him finish a project. He needed her assistance putting a door on its frame in the newly renovated cellar he had been working on for months. She helped her parents around the house, so it wasn’t an odd request.

A portrait of Elisabeth Fritzl.
Elisabeth Fritzl. Source: Pinterest

Elisabeth followed her dad down the stairs and helped him fix the door in the dusty confines of his underground creation. When it was safely on its hinges, Josef swung the door open and pushed Elisabeth inside the cellar. When she turned to leave, her world went dark.

Everything Went Dark

Josef held a piece of cloth soaked in ether over Elisabeth’s mouth and nose, causing her to pass out. When she regained consciousness, Elisabeth quickly realized she was trapped in the cellar her dad had built under the garden. She was stuck inside the dirt walls with no windows or sunlight.

A portrait of Josef Fritzl.
Josef Fritzl. Photo by SID Lower Austria/Getty Images

Elisabeth had no idea that she was helping her father complete his plan of imprisoning her. She was scared and confused as she sat just underneath her home. However, no one could hear her scream or cry, and no one was coming to rescue her. It would be over two decades before she got out.

Years in the Making

Josef had been working on his master plan for years before capturing his daughter. In the 1970s, he applied for permits to construct the cellar and received official permission from the city. It wasn’t difficult to get approval for underground construction because it was at the height of the Cold War.

A chief investigator shows a detailed picture of the cellar appartement.
Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images

The Fritzl family lived in Lower Austria, which found itself in the crosshairs of the Soviet Union during those tense times. Nuclear bunkers were a normal and necessary addition to most Austrian homes. Therefore, it didn’t raise any red flags when Josef wanted to build one. But he hid his true intentions.

Out in the Open

The local council gave Josef a grant for a couple thousand euros towards the building costs. His neighbors watched as the electrical engineer hired an excavator to remove tons of dirt from beneath his house. Josef was making way for the rooms he planned to build in the cellar.

Police escort Josef Fritzl to court.
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Josef was a precise planner and thought of every last detail. He secured concrete and steel supplies through construction companies where he previously worked. He built showers with working plumbing and electricity. As far as his neighbors knew, it was going to be the perfect bunker for emergencies or disasters.

No Way Out

There were only two access points to the cellar: a heavy hinged door and a metal door reinforced with concrete operable via a remote control. A total of eight doors had to be opened before reaching the cellar. The last door before the tomb-like enclosure was installed by Elisabeth.

An image of the hidden room where Josef imprisoned his daughter.
Photo by SID Lower Austria/Getty Images

Josef made it practically impossible for someone to escape unless they had keys to every door. No matter how hard Elisabeth tried, there was virtually no way out of the prison her father created. He had truly thought of everything.

Worried Sick

Following her disappearance, Elisabeth’s mom filed a missing persons report. Rosemarie had no idea what her husband had done, and she was worried about her daughter. Josef played along and pretended to be concerned about Elisabeth’s whereabouts. Rosemarie started to assume the worst.

A portrait of Elisabeth.
Elisabeth Fritzl. Source: Pinterest

The police came to their home to ask about Elisabeth and find out where she might have gone. Josef said he thought she ran away because she had previously talked about it. The police continued their investigation, which soon ran cold because there were no leads.

An Easy Cover-Up

Out of nowhere, a letter from Elisabeth arrived in the mail. She wrote that she had grown tired of her family life and had decided to run away. Josef forced her to write it, and it was easy enough for people to believe. Elisabeth had threatened to run away several times.

A photo of Elisabeth’s parents.
Rosemarie Fritzl, Josef Fritzl. Source: Pinterest

On more than one occasion, she was dragged back to her home by the police or her father. She once got as far as Vienna with a friend. When she disappeared that August, people believed Josef when he told them she ran off to join a cult.

The Daily Routine

It seemed like the world forgot about Elisabeth as her case hit a dead end. Even her family believed she had run away. Therefore, they didn’t think twice about Josef’s daily routine. He would head into the basement every day at 9 a.m. to draw plans for machines.

A picture of Elisabeth.
Source: Pinterest

His family thought Josef was working on the machines he sold. Sometimes he would spend the night in the basement, and Rosemarie didn’t worry because her husband was dedicated to his career. She never thought to check on what he was doing.

The Reality

Although his family thought he was working, Josef was actually abusing Elisabeth. He would visit her every day, at a minimum of three times per week. For the first two years, Josef left her alone, keeping her captive. However, that changed over time.

A video still of Josef smiling at the camera.
Josef Fritzl. Source: YouTube

After the first two years, Josef started to sexually abuse her. He made nightly visits to Elisabeth in the cold, damp cellar. He initially chained her to a bed but eventually removed the chain about six months into her captivity because it hindered his sexual activity with her.

He Was a Monster

Josef would sexually abuse Elisabeth multiple times a day. However, the abuse during her captivity wasn’t anything new. Her father had been abusing her since she was 11. She knew he was evil, but there was nothing she could do to stop him.

A closeup photo of Josef’s eyes during the trial.
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When she was a child, he would threaten Elisabeth to keep her quiet. She was young and afraid, so she never told her mom or anyone else about her father’s actions. It’s no wonder she wanted to run away. Unfortunately, Elisabeth couldn’t escape this time.

She Became Pregnant

Two years into her captivity, Elisabeth got pregnant. It was terrifying to know she could have her father’s child, but she miscarried at ten weeks. She thought she was in the clear, but she became pregnant again two years later. This time it was different.

An exterior shot of the house where Elisabeth was imprisoned.
Photo by Miguel Villagran/Getty Images

Elisabeth carried her second pregnancy to term. In 1988, she gave birth to her daughter, Kerstin. Two years later, Elisabeth gave birth to a boy named Stefan. The young mother of two did her best to protect the children.

Stuck With Two Kids

Elisabeth’s children remained in captivity with her. Josef would bring them weekly rations of food and water, which was just enough to sustain the three of them. Elisabeth did her best to teach Kerstin and Stefan with her basic education and give them a normal life.

A photo of cherry blossoms on the doorway floor of the Fritzl house.
Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images

She did her best under the horrific circumstances and tried to shield them from what her father was doing. They never saw the light of day and stayed underground for most of their childhoods. That was the only life the two children knew.

She Had More Children

Throughout her captivity, Josef assaulted Elisabeth at least 3,000 times. It resulted in five more children. One was allowed to stay in the cellar with her, one died shortly after birth, and the other three were taken to live with Josef and his wife.

A photo of Josef Fritzl at the courthouse.
Photo by SID Lower Austria/Getty Images

As the children underground got older, they often had to watch their mom being abused. Elisabeth didn’t want her children to see what was happening, but there was nowhere for them to go. She was also devastated when Josef took three of her kids away.

Another Letter From Elisabeth

Josef couldn’t just take the three children out of the basement and bring them to his wife, so he developed an elaborate plan. Josef made Elisabeth write letters to her mom for each one of the children in order to hide what he was doing.

A photo of Elisabeth’s mother / A portrait of Elisabeth.
Source: YouTube

He would drive miles away to put them in the mail, sending them to his home. The letters would say that she was well but couldn’t take care of the child. Josef would then place the children on the doorstep or in a bush, swaddled neatly.

No One Questioned the Children’s Appearance

Surprisingly, social services and Rosemarie never questioned the mysterious arrival of the children. The couple kept the children as their own, and everyone was under the impression that they were the babies’ grandparents. It made no sense, but there was no investigation.

An exterior shot of the Fritzl house.
Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Elisabeth was torn between being separated from her children but happy that they would have a better life than those in the basement. She didn’t know what was happening to them once they left the cellar, but it couldn’t be worse than what she was going through.

No Medical Help

Throughout all of her births, Elisabeth had no medical help. To prepare her for each birth, Josef provided her with disinfectant, a dirty pair of scissors, and an old book about childbirth. She could have died each time, but, somehow, Elisabeth made it through.

A photo of the bathroom in the hidden room.
Photo by SID Lower Austria/Getty Images

When the babies came, it was a horror for her, but they provided her with company. Elisabeth also found a purpose after years of contemplating suicide. Despite the threats to her and her children’s lives, she kept going and made the best of it.

Life in Captivity

After the birth of her fourth child in 1994, Josef wanted to make the cellar bigger. He put Elisabeth and her children to work by making them dig out soil with their bare hands for years. They had a television, radio, cassette player, and a place to cook and store food.

An external photo of the Fritzl house.
Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images

The conditions were terrible. Water ran off the walls in such large quantities Elisabeth had to use towels to soak it up. During the summer, the cellar turned into an intolerable sauna. It was the worst time of year, and she wrote about it in a journal.

The World Kept Turning

During her years of captivity, the world moved on while Elisabeth stood stagnant. She missed the Chernobyl disaster, DNA first being used to convict criminals, and the fall of the Berlin wall. There was the release of Nelson Mandela and the LA riots after the beating of Rodney King.

A window of the house where Elisabeth was hidden.
Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images

Elisabeth was imprisoned for the OJ Simpson trial, the death of Princess Diana, the genocide in Rwanda, the introduction of the euro, and mad cow disease. So much happened during the 24 years that she was underground.

How Did Elisabeth Fritzl Escape?

It’s unclear how long Josef planned to keep Elisabeth captive in the cellar. He got away with it for 24 years, and he could have kept her for two more decades. Everyone thought she had run away, so no one looked for her after a few weeks.

A photo of the nameplate of Josef Fritzl’s house.
Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images

However, in 2008, one of Elisabeth’s children became very sick. It changed everything in Josef’s plan. The child was too sick to take drug store medications. At that point, Kerstin was 19, and Elisabeth begged Josef to get her medical attention.

Going to the Hospital

Kerstin had fallen rapidly ill, and Elisabeth was distraught. Reluctantly, Josef agreed to take the teenager to the hospital. However, he had to come up with a story to explain her sudden appearance. He removed her from the cellar and called an ambulance.

An image of an empty hospital bed.
Photo by Martha Dominguez Gouveia/Unsplash

Josef claimed that he had a note from Kerstin’s mother explaining her condition. He said the mother couldn’t afford to care for Kerstin while she was sick. Unfortunately, people weren’t so quick to believe his story this time. It seemed too suspicious.

It Didn’t Make Sense

The doctors were deeply concerned by the deadly pale girl with bad teeth who was practically dying in intensive care. Police started questioning Kerstin and asked the public for any information about her family. No one came forward because she had no family to speak of.

An image of broadcast vans and journalists crowding a street beside the Fritzl house.
Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images

There were several media appeals for Kerstin’s mom to come forward to help save her life. Elisabeth watched on TV, feeling helpless. When no one came forward, it raised red flags for the police. They became suspicious of Josef and reopened Elisabeth’s case.

Another Investigation

The police asked Rosemarie for the letters Elisabeth had sent her. They found inconsistencies in them. Josef repeated his story about Elisabeth running off to join a cult. Investigators looked at the most recent note from January 2008, posted from the town of Kematen.

A police car is parked outside the Fritzl home.
Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images

Investigators contacted Manfred Wohlfahrt, a church officer and expert on cults. He raised doubts about the existence of the group Josef described. He noted that Elisabeth’s letters seemed dictated and oddly written. Everything started to unravel around Josef’s story, and the police dug deeper.

He Grew Weak

Elisabeth begged her father to take her to the hospital. Josef was getting older, and his power over her was growing weaker. He was having trouble sustaining two families and started to hatch a plan to release Elisabeth without too many questions.

A picture of Josef Fritzl in court.
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On April 26, 2008, he released Elisabeth from the cellar for the first time in 24 years. Her sons stayed at the house while Elisabeth went to the hospital to see Kerstin. Josef told the hospital that the family appeared on his doorstep after escaping the cult.

Coming Clean

The doctors and police didn’t believe Josef’s tale. They took Elisabeth into a separate room, threatening to charge her with child abuse because of the way she had neglected her daughter. But Elisabeth gave them a completely different story from what they expected.

A group of police officers escorts Josef as he enters the courtroom.
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She said she would only tell the police the true story if they promised her she would never have to see her dad again. For two hours, she shared the story of her 24 years in captivity. Elisabeth detailed all the horrific things Josef had done.

Josef Was Arrested

Elisabeth told the police about the years of sexual abuse and how Josef made her children watch to humiliate her. Shortly after midnight, the police arrested Joseph on suspicion of serious crimes against family members. They also took Rosemarie, Elisabeth, and her children into protective care.

A closeup on Josef’s expression during the trial.
Photo Handout by APA/Getty Images

Josef told the police how to enter the cellar through a small hidden door and gave them the code to enter. Rosemarie had been completely unaware of what had been happening to Elisabeth. She felt awful for not being able to protect her child.

DNA Confirms Her Story

Elisabeth explained that she had given birth to seven children during her captivity, and Josef was the father of all of them. Two days after his arrest, DNA evidence confirmed Josef as the biological father of Elisabeth’s children. It shocked everyone who followed the story.

District commissioner Hans-Heinz Lenze answers journalists' questions.
District commissioner Hans-Heinz Lenze. Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images

Josef’s defense lawyer, Rudolf Mayer, said the DNA confirmed the incest, but evidence was still needed for the allegations of rape and enslavement. How could he argue that, when the only way for her to get pregnant would have been through rape?

“A Devoted Father”

Mayer tried to portray Josef as a devoted father. He claimed that Josef locked Elisabeth away to protect her because drugs, alcohol, and bad company threatened to drag her down. Mayer said Josef was a caring man who spent time and money maintaining both families.

A photo of Mayer in court.
Rudolf Mayer. Photo Handout by APA/Getty Images

This persona of a “devoted father” was not fooling anyone. Mayer told everyone that Josef gave Elisabeth a Christmas tree, schoolbooks, an aquarium, and a bird. Mayer claimed that the bird’s survival was proof that the air in the cellar wasn’t so bad.

Empty Threats

Elisabeth told the police that her father said if she and her children ever tried to escape, they would be killed. Josef claimed he installed a system so that the doors would give them electric shocks if they touched them, and poison would be released into the air.

A detailed view of the front side of the Fritzl house.
Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images

The police searched the cellar and never found any gas or electricity rigged to the doors. His empty threats were just psychological torture. It left Elisabeth with permanent mental health issues, and the physical abuse caused severe injuries. Josef denied everything.

Responsible for Murder

In 1996, Elisabeth’s son, Michael, died just 66 hours after his birth. He had severe breathing difficulties, and Josef did nothing to get him medical attention. Josef admitted to burning the baby’s body in an incinerator to get rid of the evidence.

A general backside view of the Fritzl house.
Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images

Until his trial, he denied that he was responsible for murder through negligence. He told the court, “I don’t know why I didn’t help.” He said he overlooked it because he thought the child would survive without help. Josef tried hard to present himself in a positive light.

Pleading Guilty

On March 16, 2009, Josef’s trial began, and he pled guilty to all the charges except for murder and heinous assault by threatening to gas his captives. His lawyer insisted Josef wasn’t a monster. However, the prosecution had a much stronger case.

A picture of the judge in the courtroom.
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The prosecutor described the damp and moldy conditions of the cellar, presenting objects retrieved from it. They also showed eleven hours of testimony recorded by Elisabeth. The tape was so disturbing that the jurors could only watch two hours at a time.

More Support

In addition to Elisabeth’s video testimony, her older brother testified that Josef also physically abused him as a child. Elisabeth also came to the second day of the trial. She covered up so people wouldn’t notice her.

An Austrian artist manifests in front of the court building during the trial.
Patrick Huber. Photo by Miguel Villagran/Getty Images

Her presence made Josef break down and change his plea to guilty on every charge without exceptions. Rosemarie and Elisabeth’s children refused to testify at the trial to protect their privacy, but there was enough evidence without them.

Swift Justice

Just three days after his trial began, Josef was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for 15 years. He accepted his sentence and didn’t try to appeal. Josef showed no signs of remorse when he was arrested, but seeing Elisabeth changed something.

Josef Fritzl covers his face as he arrives at the beginning of his trial.
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It seemed like he realized he was wrong, but that was not true. When a journalist interviewed him in his prison cell, Josef said, “just look into the cellars of other people; you might find other families and girls down there.” He did not think he was wrong.

He Had Done This Before

As a child, Josef’s father abandoned him and his mother. He claimed his mother would beat him and never showed him any love. Josef said she would call him “a Satan, a criminal, and a no-good.” In 1959, when he got married and bought his house, his mom moved in with him.

A picture of Josef Fritzl during the trial.
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When she moved in, the roles were reversed. Josef’s mom started to fear him. He later admitted that he locked his mom in the attic and bricked up her window. He kept her locked up until she died in 1980.

Pure Evil

Josef had been in jail before because he snuck into a woman’s home and raped her. During his first prison stint, he came up with the plan to lock his daughter up. He wanted to express his “evil side.” He should never have been let out of jail the first time.

A photo of Josef Fritzl’s eyes.
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He said, “I was born to rape, and I held myself back for a relatively long time. I could have behaved a lot worse than locking up my daughter.” The forensic psychiatrist later diagnosed Josef with severe combined personality disorder.

Locked Up

After his trial, Josef served time in an Austrian prison. In 2017, he changed his name to Josef Mayrhoff after getting into a prison fight. He had several teeth knocked out. Joseph was already 74 when he was sent to jail, and his health was declining.

An image of a man locked in prison.
Photo by Donald Tong/Pexels

In 2019, Joseph reportedly expressed that he didn’t want to live anymore. The prison put him on suicide watch, and he remained there for another two years. However, in early 2022, it was announced that Joseph would be moved to a unit for the criminally insane.

Possible Release

Josef is now 86 years old. After ten years in prison, he was separated from other inmates and examined by experts to determine his psychiatric and neurological condition. If the expert detects abnormalities, Josef will have to stay in the prison system.

Austrian police stand guard in front of the court building.
Photo by Miguel Villagran/Getty Images

However, if the expert deems that Josef is of “sound mind,” he could be released from prison in 2024. His sentence stated that he could be paroled after 15 years. Luckily, he won’t be able to find his daughter or her children if he is released from jail.

The Aftermath

After being taken into care, Elisabeth, her mother, and her children were treated for psychological damage caused by the ordeal. She and her children needed further therapy to adjust to the light after years of darkness. They also had to adjust to the extra space they now had.

An image of a psychiatrist consultation.
Photo by cottonbro/Pexels

Unfortunately, they were more traumatized than people believed. During captivity, Kerstin tore her hair out in clumps. Stefan could not walk properly because he was hunched over for many years due to the low ceilings. The children also suffered PTSD from dimming lights or doors closing.

Things Were Rocky

In July 2008, it emerged that Elisabeth ordered her mother out of the villa they had been sharing. She was upset that Rosemarie had been so passive during her upbringing. The following year, Elisabeth and her children were removed from the villa and returned to a psychiatric clinic.

An exterior shot of the house where Elisabeth was imprisoned.
Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images

The children required further therapy to reunite the “upstairs” and “downstairs” children. The “upstairs” children were traumatized by Josef’s lies about their mother abandoning them, and the “downstairs” children had to adapt to the outside world. They all had genetic problems because of the incest.

The House Was Sold

In 2013, workers began filling the cellar with concrete. Neighbors approved the proposal to sell the home, but many thought it should just be demolished due to its horrifying history. In December 2016, the home sold for 160,000 euros and was turned into apartments.

A view out of the doorway of the house.
Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images

We can’t imagine why anyone would want to live in that home knowing what occurred there. Elisabeth has never returned to her childhood house, and she will probably never go back. There are too many horrific memories there. It should be destroyed.

Where Is Elisabeth Fritzl Now?

When everything was over, Elisabeth started living under a new identity and took her children to live in an unknown village. She lives in a home with round-the-clock security and cameras. The family doesn’t allow interviews and keep their lives very private.

Shocked inhabitants of Amstetten are seen in front of the house.
Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images

The government’s efforts to keep her identity concealed were to help her stay hidden from the media so she could live a normal life. However, many feel they have done a better job at keeping her reputation alive as the girl held captive for 24 years.