Monthly Archives: November 2012

The Tinplate Toy that Celebrates a Thief

The Captain of Kopenick  is one of the rarest of the hundreds of tin toys that were made by the German company, Lehmanns. According to Randy Ibey, the owner of Randy’s Toy Shop in Noblesville, Indiana, the captain was made in 1909, stands almost eight inches tall and wears the uniform of a Hauptman or German officer. Hanging by his side is a sword and in his hand is a bag of money that says, “4000 MARK.”

Unlike many of today’s toy characters, says Randy, the Captain of Kopenick tin toy is no fictitious character.  He is a real person, beloved by the German people as an example of how one man can stand against an unreasonable and unfair government.  The real life Captain of Kopenick was named Friedrich Wilhelm Voigt and his story seems even more incredible when you realize that this hero is a thief.

Even as a young boy Friedrich Voigt always seemed to be in trouble. Apprenticed as a shoemaker, leather held little interest for him. Instead, by the he was 14 the records show that he had already spent two weeks in prison for stealing.

As the years went on, Voigt continued practicing both of his trades, quickly racking up an amazing 25 years in prison. When he was finally released in February of 1906, however, he was in a very bad way.

Cold, homeless and without prospects, he wandered the German countryside until he ended up at the home of his sister in Rixdorf, near Berlin. It didn’t take long, however, for the authorities to expel him as an undesirable. Voigt now found himself in the frustrating position of being unable to get work without a residence permit and unable to get a residence permit because he had no work.

Assuring the authorities that he would immediately leave for Hamburg, Voigt instead began to assemble a German officer”s uniform, piece by piece, from second-hand shops. Finally, he was ready.

A Captain of Kopenick stamp issued by the German Post Office in 2006.

Now dressed in full captain’s regalia, Voigt’s first stop on his way out of town was the local army barracks where he commandeered four grenadiers and a sergeant and ordered them to come with him. The men, in the manner of good German soldiers, obeyed immediately. Passing the rifle range, he added six additional soldiers to his ranks.  Together, the group boarded the train to the city of Kopenick.

Marching into city hall, Voigt ordered the soldiers to cover the exits, directing the local police to “care for law and order” and “prevent calls to Berlin for one hour.” The mayor and treasurer were promptly placed under arrest and charged with embezzlement. Voigt then confiscated the 4,002 marks and 37 pfennigs in the treasury, giving the officials a receipt, which he signed with the name of his former warden.

When the indignant mayor demanded a warrant, the Captain replied by pointing to the bayonets of his soldiers saying, “These are my authority.” He then ordered his men to take the mayor and treasurer to Berlin for interrogation while the rest of the soldiers were to stand watch at city hall for half an hour. Voigt left for the train station, changed into civilian clothes and disappeared into the countryside.

Were it not for his tendency to brag, Voigt might have gotten away with the whole thing. However authorities were soon on to him and on December 1, he was sentenced to four years in prison for forgery, impersonating an officer and wrongful imprisonment. The Germans public, however, was clearly on the side of the captain.  Even Kaiser Wilhelm II reportedly admired Voigt’s cleverness and pardoned him after less than two years. When Voigt left prison, he found himself a celebrity and quickly capitalized on his fame, signing photographs of himself as the “Captain of Köpenick” and appearing in vaudeville shows all over Europe.

That, however, is not the end of the story.

Six years after his pardon, his notoriety sagging, German newspapers received notices of Voigt’s death. The event received tremendous coverage in the press with newspapers somberly announcing the news and recapping his earlier exploits. Voigt, however, had not died and the bogus notices provided untold publicity for his shows. Der Haputmann von Kopenick had gotten them again.

Friedrich Wilhelm Voigt remains, to this day, a celebrated German folk hero. And if you go to the city hall in the German town of Kopenick, you’ll find the Captain on his way out the door like the little Lehmann toy which, when you wind it up, walks away with the money.

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

Joe Miller,

The Captain Kopenick toy is available from Randy’s Toy Shop for $1,837.50. Special thanks to Randy Ibey for the photo and his assistance with this article. The stamp comes from the Philatelieshop of Deutschepost and the photo of the Captain of Kopenick statue is by Lienhard Schulz.

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