The Heist of The Century – 10/17/1906

History |

Some crimes are you bizarre you can’t help but laugh.

On October 17, 1906, a man wearing a captain uniform approached a troop of soldiers near Berlin, Germany, and ordered them to follow him. Twenty miles later, he and his men stormed the town hall of Kopenik, arrested the mayor, and confiscated a strongbox containing 4,000 marks. After ordering the mayor taken to the police in Berlin, the captain disappeared.

With the money.

As you may have guessed, the man wasn’t a captain at all: He was Wilhelm Voigt, a 57-year-old shoemaker with a lengthy criminal record. Born in born in Tilsit, Prussia, during the winter of 1849, Voigt caught his first charge in 1863, at the age of fourteen, for petty theft. He served 14 days.

Before his daring heist at Kopenik, Voigt spent a total of twenty-five years in prison, once doing fifteen years for the failed burglary of a court cashier's office. He was released in February 1906 and spent several months drifting the German countryside before moving in with a sister near Berlin and taking a job with a reputable shoemaker. Sadly, Voigt was run out of the city by police in August as undesirable, given his history. For the record, he moved to Hamburg, but actually remained in Berlin.

During October, Voigt came up with the heist that would make him famous. He purchased a captain’s uniform in pieces from various shops around the city and practiced the part of the officer on several soldiers. On October 17, he made his move.

The German public (and Keiser Wilhelm himself) found the whole thing amusing. The army, however, did not, and launched a massive manhunt, resulting in Vogit’s arrest on October 26. In August 1908, Wilhelm pardoned Voigt, who went on to publish a best-selling book in his caper. He died almost penniless in 1922.

Vogit’s brazen robbery reflected poorly on the German military’s culture of unquestioning obedience. A piece in The Illustrated London News of October 27, 1906, states:

“For years the Kaiser has been instilling into his people reverence for the omnipotence of militarism, of which the holiest symbol is the German uniform. Offences against this fetish have incurred condign punishment. Officers who have not considered themselves saluted in due form have drawn their swords with impunity on offending privates.”

It is no surprise, then, that a man in a captain’s uniform was able to gather a small army no-questions-asked.

After all, the power of confidence (and a snazzy uniform) is irresistible even today.

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