Captain of Köpenick

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A police photo of Wilhelm Voigt

The Captain of Köpenick (born Wilhelm Voigt on February 13, 1849 - January 3, 1922) was a German shoemaker, criminal and impostor who became world-famous in 1906 for a trick he played in Berlin when he pretended to be a Captain in the army.

Early life[change | change source]

Voigt was born in Tilsit, a town which was then part of Germany but is now called Sovetsk near Kaliningrad, Russia. In 1863, aged 14, he was sent to prison for 14 days for stealing. He was expelled from school.

Voigt’s father taught him how to make shoes. However, Voigt continued to steal and forge and was often sent to prison. Eventually he was let out of prison in 1906.

Voigt travelled around until he went to live with his sister who lived near Berlin. He worked briefly as a court shoemaker until, on August 24, 1906, police expelled him from Berlin as an “undesirable” (someone who is not wanted). Although he was supposed to have gone to Hamburg he stayed in Berlin. He could not get a job because he was an unregistered citizen, but he could not register to live in Berlin because he had no job.

Captain of Köpenick[change | change source]

A statue of Wilhelm Voigt as the Captain of Köpenick at Köpenick city hall

On October 16 1906 Voigt was ready for the big adventure that made him famous. He had bought parts of a captain's uniform from different shops. He had resigned from the shoe factory ten days before. He put on the captain’s uniform and went to the local army barracks, stopped four grenadiers and a sergeant on their way back to barracks and told them to come with him. These soldiers had been taught to obey officers without asking any questions, so they did what they were told. He told the commanding sergeant to report to his boss, and told 6 more soldiers to come with him. Then he took a train with the soldiers to Köpenick, east of Berlin, occupied the local city hall and told the soldiers to guard all the exits. He told the local Police to go and look for people breaking the law, and told the local Post Office not to let anyone make telephone calls to Berlin for an hour (this was in the early days of the telephone when people could not dial numbers automatically: they had to ask the Post Office to make the connection).

He arrested the town secretary and the mayor, saying that they had been taking money from the town hall, and he took a large amount of money: 4002 marks and 37 pfennigs, signing a receipt for it, but using the name of the governor of the jail where he had been. Then he stopped two carriages and told the grenadiers to use them to take the mayor and the treasurer to the police so that they could be questioned. He told the remaining guards to stand in their places for half an hour. Then he went to the train station. Later he changed back into ordinary clothes and disappeared.

His capture[change | change source]

During the next few days the newspapers around the world reported what had happened. Everybody seemed to think it was a very amusing joke.

Voigt was arrested on October 26 and on December 1 he was sentenced to four years in prison for forgery, impersonating (pretending to be) an officer and wrongful imprisonment. However, so many people seemed to have sympathy with Voigt. Even the Emperor Wilhelm II was probably amused by it and he pardoned him on August 16, 1908.

In England everybody thought the whole story was funny. The English people thought it showed that the stereotype (idea) they had about Germans was right, i.e. that they were taught to obey orders and not to think.

Voigt’s last years.[change | change source]

After Voigt had been pardoned and let out of jail he spent his remaining years travelling to many countries including United States and Canada where he told people about his great adventure. He appeared in small theatres and signed lots of photographs. A waxwork was made of him in Madame Tussaud's museum in London.

In 1910, he moved to Luxembourg and worked as a waiter and shoemaker. Two years later, he bought a house and retired, but the inflation after World War I made him poor. Voigt died in Luxembourg.

Many plays and movies were written about him, including a play by the German author Carl Zuckmayer called Der Hauptmann von Köpenick (The Captain of Köpenick), Several movies were produced about the affair, including an English language adaptation by John Mortimer (1971).

Other Websites[change | change source]