The Halsman murder case was a major political and social affair in Austria, when Philippe Halsman was accused of patricide in 1928 and sentenced in a controversial trial in Innsbruck . It showed widespread Anti-Semitism in rural Austria in the time between the World Wars.

The murder

On September 10, 1928, Latvian Jewish dentist Morduch Max Halsman was murdered while on hiking tour in the Ziller Valley in Tyrol. The only other person present at the crime scene was his son, Philippe Halsman, then a 21-year-old student of Engineering at Dresden. Philippe said he was walking some steps ahead of his father, then heard a cry and saw him falling down to the precipice[1].

He climbed down to help his father and pulled his body out of the water. Then he cried for help and met a peasant women and a shepherd. The shepherd followed him to the place where the father's body lay, while the women ran to a nearby mountain inn, the Breitlahner, to call the Police. The police, accompanied by some local people, a doctor and the innkeeper from Breitlahner Josef Eder, arrived and investigated the scene. Philippe called it a tragic accident, but the others very soon considered the possibility of a murder and saw the son of the victim as their main suspect[2]. . He was brought to Breitlahner and formally arrested there. The next day the corpse of Morduch Max Halsmann was recovered and autopsied. Soon after, Philippe was brought to Innsbruck.

The trial

Trial began on December 13, 1928 at the Innsbruck state court. Many relatives and friends from the Halsman family's hometown Riga came to support Philippe, but his position was critical right from the start. He was a stranger, he behaved arrogantly in court and made contradictory statements about how his father could have died, still claiming it an accident, which was merely impossible[3].

Evidence against him came mostly from witnesses who found his behavior at the crime scene and at Breitlahner quite suspicious and from circumstantial evidence. A stone had been found at the crime scene, with which Morduch Max Halsman had been hit several times, the victim's blood and hair was found on it. But the crucial point for the defense was that the prosecutor was not able to provide the jury with any motive for the crime. After four days of trial, Philippe Halsman was found guilty and sentenced to ten years of imprisonment by the jury on a 9-3 majority.

The correctness of that judgement was immediately challenged by journalists and law scholars all over Austria and Germany. The Supreme Court of Austria reversed the verdict and sent the case back to Innsbruck. At the second trial on October 19, 1929, Halsman was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to four years of imprisonment[4].


Observers of the trial noted the widespread Anti-Semitism in Tyrol and the public condemnation of Halsman in advance. Leading intellectuals of the time, among them Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann campaigned for Philippe Halsman's release. Finally, on October 1, 1930 the President of Austria Wilhelm Miklas pardoned him but he was ordered to leave Austria and never return there[5].

In popular culture

The 2007 film Jump! starring Patrick Swayze and Ben Silverstone deals with the events surrounding the death of Morduch Halsman and the Philippe Halsman Trial.


  1. Marin Pollack: Anklage Vatermord. Der Fall Philipp Halsmann. Fischer, Frankfurt, 2004 (german)
  2. Marin Pollack: Anklage Vatermord. Der Fall Philipp Halsmann. Fischer, Frankfurt, 2004 (german)
  3. Marin Pollack: Anklage Vatermord. Der Fall Philipp Halsmann. Fischer, Frankfurt, 2004 (german)

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