German postage stamp commemorating Voigt released in 2006. (Carsten Wolff/Wikimedia Commons)
There are people in the world who can convince anyone to do anything, and Wilhelm Voigt was definitely one of those guys. He could have been a cult leader, a politician, or a pied piper, but instead, this accomplished shoemaker and longtime thief just convinced an entire town in Germany to help him kidnap a governor so he could steal 4,000 marks, becoming a folk hero in the process.
Friedrich Wilhelm Voigt’s early years were anything but folkloric; he was just a kid from Tilsit, Prussia with a chip on his shoulder. He started his career in crime fairly early with an arrest for theft in 1863 when he was only 14 years old, earning him two weeks in prison. When he was released, he discovered he’d been expelled from school, so he turned to the family trade of shoemaking but never gave up his life of crime. He spent the next 27 years in and out of prison for burglary, forgery, and theft, 15 of which he served for the unsuccessful robbery of a court cashier’s office.
By 1906, Voigt was out of prison and out of options. He moved in with his sister in Rixdorf, a town near Berlin, where he worked as a shoemaker for a brief period of time, but he was soon pushed out of town by the police for his status as an ex-con. Well, not really. Voigt told everyone he was moving to Hamburg, but in reality, he hung around the city as an unregistered resident, keeping to himself. He may have seemed defeated, but he was just biding his time, quietly planning the heist that would turn him into a legend.