Shortly before he was executed by guillotine, Peter Kurten, the so-called Vampire of Dusseldorf, asked the prison psychiatrist: “Tell me, after my head has been chopped off will I still be able to hear; at least for a moment, the sound of my own blood gushing from the stump of my neck?”
When the doctor replied that his ears and brain probably would function for several seconds after the blade struck, Kurten replied: “That would be the pleasure to end all pleasures”.
Peter Kurten was clearly a very sick individual and his execution in July 1931 was greeted with a wave of relief by the people of the city of Dusseldorf, which was struggling in the midst of the Great Depression.
Two years later the Nazis came to power and one of their attractions was a pledge on law and order and a promise to crack down on “degenerates” such as Kurten and another serial killer, Fritz Haarmann, who had been executed in Hanover in 1925.
Ironically, had Kurten been around a decade later, he would no doubt have joined the Nazis and his sadistic appetites would have been given free rein. He would probably have ended up a senior figure in the
But it was not to be. Kurten’s bloodlust went out of control in 1929 and he was eventually caught, convicted of nine murders (though he was suspected of committing up to 68) and executed. His victims were mainly women and girls and his motivation was sexual sadism, which can be traced back to his childhood.
Kurten was born, the eldest of 13 children, in Cologne on 26 May 1883 and his childhood was one of unremitting poverty and violence. The Kurten family rented a one-bedroom apartment and lived in fear of Peter’s father, a moulder by trade, a habitual drunkard. He would return home from the local inn, beat his children (Peter, as the eldest, felt the brunt of the violence) and rape his wife in front of them. In later years he also sexually assaulted his daughters.
Nineteenth century Germany was no place for a battered wife and Peter’s mother was forced to endure her violent marriage in silence. Subjected to this daily routine of violence, Peter became twisted and formed an unhealthy friendship with a dogcatcher who lived in the same building.
At the age of nine Peter pushed a friend off a raft as they played on the river Rhine. When another boy jumped in to try and help the drowning youngster Peter held him under the water until he suffocated. The death of the two boys was attributed to an accident and Peter was cleared of any blame.
Kurten ran away from home at the age of 16 and shortly afterwards his father was jailed for three years after being convicted of incest with Peter’s 13-year-old sister.
Criminal career begins
Young Peter lived by his wits and often stole food and clothing to survive. He would be in and out of jail for the next 24 years and claimed his brutal treatment in the penal system made him hell-bent on wreaking revenge on society.
A charming, handsome and (when money allowed it) dapper young man, Kurten did not have trouble attracting women but his violent lust and complete lack of empathy or normal human emotions meant that he was incapable of falling in love.
In May 1913, not long after being released from prison again, he was prowling the streets of Cologne looking for somewhere to rob. Above an inn in Wolfstrasse he found a young girl asleep in her bed. When the body of 10-year-old Christine Klein was found the next morning suspicion fell on her uncle, Otto, who had argued with the girl’s father the night before and threatened to do “something he would remember all his life”.
Otto was charged with murder but fortunately acquitted by a jury, which decided there was insufficient evidence. The identity of Christine’s killer would not become clear for another 18 years.
In 1914, with war clouds growing over Europe, Kurten was called up into the Kaiser’s army. But military life did not suit the self-centred and ill-disciplined Kurten and he soon deserted.
He was caught and sent to jail and would remain there throughout the war and its aftermath. Kurten spent much of his time in solitary confinement, he would often deliberately infringe rules so he would be locked up alone and would spend his time amid violent fantasies. He would imagine attacking people, setting fires and even sabotaging railways in order to kill as many people as possible.
On his release in 1921 he went to stay with his sister in the small town of Altenburg. There he met his future wife, a former prostitute who herself had spent four years in jail for shooting a man who had jilted her at the altar. She was eaten up by guilt and spent the rest of her life convinced that she must accept her fate to gain redemption for her sins.
Eventually they wed and lived in Altenburg until 1925, with Kurten gaining employment in a factory as a moulder. He also became an active trade unionist. The couple moved to Dusseldorf to find work and Kurten gradually found his self-control eroding. Between 1925 and 1928 he attacked four women in Dusseldorf, strangling them to the point of unconsciousness, often during sex.
He also took up arson and would derive sexual satisfaction from imagining that a tramp was burning alive in a barn he had just torched. Then, on the night of 9 February 1929, he waylaid an eight-year-old girl, Rosa Ohliger, as she walked down a Dusseldorf street. She was stabbed three times and found under a hedge. Kurten, who had tried to set fire to the body with petrol, later recalled having had an orgasm at the height of the attack.
The murder of Rosa Ohliger was only the start of a stream of attacks on women, girls and occasionally men in and around Dusseldorf. Some, such as Maria Kuhn, survived, she was stabbed 24 times.
The reign of terror lasted throughout 1929 and into 1930 and the panic and outrage grew in the Dusseldorf area as each crime was luridly recounted in the German newspapers, with references to “monsters” and “vampires”. One of the most horrendous crimes occurred on 23 August 1929 as people in the town of Flehe were celebrating an annual fair. Kurten approached two foster sisters as they left the fair and asked the older one, Louise Lenzen, 14, to run an errand for him. “Would you be very kind and get some cigarettes for me? I’ll look after the little girl,” he said. Louise agreed but as soon as she was out of sight he strangled five-year-old Gertrude Hamacher and slit her throat. When Louise returned she too was dragged off the path, strangled and almost decapitated with Kurten’s pocketknife.
The attacks, many of them fatal, continued throughout the summer and autumn of 1929. On 7 November, after killing five-year-old Gertrude Albermann, Kurten sent a map to a local newspaper showing where her body could be found under a pile of builders’ debris. She had been strangled and stabbed 35 times.
German police had few clues to go on, those who had survived the attacks were only able to give a basic description of a tall white man, which could have fitted half the residents of Dusseldorf.
Kurten continued his onslaught throughout the winter and spring of 1930 but fortunately he did not claim any more lives. Then, on 14 May 1930, an unemployed domestic servant called Maria Budlick arrived in Dusseldorf from Cologne looking for work. The Great Depression had hit Germany particularly hard and millions were jobless.
She met a man who offered to show her the way to a boarding house where she could stay the night. But when he tried to show her a short-cut through a park she became worried and, remembering the newspaper stories about the Vampire of Dusseldorf, began arguing and making her excuses. Suddenly a second man intervened on her behalf and rescued her from the first man.
Maria told the man she was out of work and had nowhere to go and he offered to put her up in his apartment in Mettmanner Strasse. He did not introduce himself, but his name was Peter Kurten. He took her back to his apartment, his wife was away for the night and tried to have sex with her but she demurred and he agreed to find her somewhere else to stay.
They got on a tram and he then led her into the Grafenberger woods. Kurten grabbed her by the neck and raped her before leading her back to the tram and letting her go free. Asked later why he had not killed her he said: “I had no intention of killing her as she offered no resistance. “I also did not think that Budlick would be able to find her way back to my apartment in the rather obscure Mettmanner Strasse.”
But Maria remembered the street name and Kurten’s apartment vividly.
Deeply traumatised, and ashamed of the stigma of being a rape victim, she did not go to the police but wrote a letter to a friend telling her of the experience. By chance the letter was misdirected and was opened by a woman, who immediately took it to the police. Detectives traced Maria Budlick and persuaded her to give a full account of the incident.
Eventually she led officers back to 71 Mettmanner Strasse and saw Kurten on the stairs. She was too terrified to point him out, even in the presence of so many police officers and by the time she did open her mouth he had packed a bag and fled. Kurten moved into an apartment nearby and told his wife what happened with Maria Budlick. He told her he would be sent to jail for many years and, she without his earnings, would be destitute.
Kurten recalled later: “She raved that I should take my life, then she would do the same, since her future was completely without hope.” But he came up with a plan. He confessed to her that he was the Vampire of Dusseldorf and said she should take advantage to obtain the large reward being offered for information leading to his capture. She eventually agreed
Kurten had planned to carry out one more spectacular attack before his capture but his wife went immediately to the police and when he met her again, as arranged outside the St Rochus Church on 24 May police armed with revolvers surrounded him. Kurten freely confessed to his crimes and indeed relished going into great detail and seeing police officers and stenographers wincing and grimacing at his horrors.
He had relived his crimes many times over in his mind and had an almost photographic memory, he could recall tiny details of Christine Klein’s bedroom from 17 years before. Kurten went on trial in April 1931 and he initially withdrew his confession and pleaded not guilty. But he later changed his mind, under questioning by the examining magistrate and was eventually convicted of nine murders and sentenced to death.
On the night before his execution he ate a last meal of Wiener Schnitzel, fried potatoes and white wine and made the comment to his psychiatrist about being able to hear his own blood flowing.
At 6am on 2 July 1931, despite protests by the German Humanitarian League, he was led to the guillotine and beheaded. The nightmare was over.
This profile of Peter Kurten was written by BBC News Online’s Chris Summers.
Peter Kürten (26 May 1883–2 July 1931) was a German serial killer dubbed The Vampire of Düsseldorf by the contemporary media. He committed a series of sex crimes, assaults and murders against adults and children, most notoriously from February to November 1929 in Düsseldorf.
Kürten was born into a poverty-stricken, abusive family in Mülheim am Rhein, the third of 11 children. As a child, he witnessed his alcoholic father repeatedly sexually assault his mother and his sisters. He followed in his father’s footsteps, and was soon sexually abusing his sisters. He engaged in petty criminality from a young age, and was a frequent runaway. He later claimed to have committed his first murders at the age of five, drowning two young friends while swimming. He moved with his family to Düsseldorf in 1894 and received a number of short prison sentences for various crimes, including theft and arson.
As a youth he was employed by the local dogcatcher, who taught him to masturbate and to torture dogs. He also performed acts of bestiality including stabbing sheep to bring himself to climax. He also confessed to burning down a farmhouse and watching from the bushes while masturbating.
Kürten progressed from torturing animals to attacks on people. He committed his first provable murder in 1913, strangling a 10-year-old girl, Christine Klein, during the course of a burglary. His crimes were then halted by World War I and an eight-year prison sentence. In 1921 he left prison and moved to Altenburg, where he married. In 1925 he returned to Düsseldorf, where he began the series of crimes that would culminate in his capture and his sentencing to prison for several years.
On 8 February 1929 he assaulted a woman and molested and murdered an eight-year-old girl. On 13 February he murdered a middle-aged mechanic, stabbing him 20 times. Kürten did not attack again until August, stabbing three people in separate attacks on the 21st; murdering two sisters, aged five and 14, on the 23rd; and stabbing another woman on the 24th.
In September he committed a single rape and murder, brutally beating a servant girl with a hammer in woods that lay just outside of Düsseldorf. In October he attacked two women with a hammer. On 7 November he killed a five-year-old girl by strangling and stabbing her 36 times with scissors, and then sent a map to a local newspaper disclosing the location of her grave. The variety of victims and murder methods gave police the impression that more than one killer was at large: the public turned in over 900,000 different names to the police as potential suspects.
The November murder was Kürten’s last, although he engaged in a spate of non-fatal hammer attacks from February to March 1930. In May he accosted a young woman named Maria Budlick; he initially took her to his home, and then to the Grafenberger Woods, where he raped but did not kill her. Budlick led the police to Kürten’s home. He avoided the police, but confessed to his wife and told her to inform the police. On 24 May he was located and arrested.
Trial and execution
Kürten confessed to 79 offenses, and was charged with nine murders and seven attempted murders. He went on trial in April 1931. He initially pleaded not guilty, but after some weeks changed his plea. He was found guilty and sentenced to death.
As Kürten was awaiting execution, he was interviewed by Dr. Karl Berg, whose interviews and accompanying analysis of Kürten formed the basis of his book, The Sadist. Kürten stated to Berg that his primary motive was one of sexual pleasure. The number of stab wounds varied because it sometimes took longer to achieve orgasm; the sight of blood was integral to his sexual stimulation.
Kürten was executed on 2 July 1931 by guillotine in Cologne.
Kürten said to the legal examiners that his primary motive was to “strike back at oppressive society”. He did not deny that he had sexually molested his victims, but he always claimed during his trial that this was not his primary motive.
In 1931 scientists attempted to examine irregularities in Kürten’s brain in an attempt to explain his personality and behavior. His head was dissected and mummified and is currently on display at the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum in Wisconsin Dells
Fritz Lang’s 1931 film M, in which a serial child killer terrorizes a big city, is often said to have been based upon Kürten, but Lang denied that Kürten was an influence. Because of the similarities between Kürten and the film’s villain, Hans Beckert, the film was known as The Vampire of Duesseldorf in some countries. While the location is never mentioned in the film, the dialect used by the characters and the several maps used throughout the film bearing the city’s trademark bear symbol heavily suggest that the action takes place in Berlin.
The first biopic about Kürten was Robert Hossein’s The Secret Killer (Le Vampire de Düsseldorf, 1965).
Playwright Anthony Neilson’s 1991 work Normal: The Düsseldorf Ripper is a fictional account of Kürten’s life, is told from the point of view of his defense lawyer. It was adapted for the screen as Angels Gone, and also released under the title Normal
Kürten is the subject of Randy Newman’s song “In Germany Before the War” from the album Little Criminals.
In 1981 the British noise band Whitehouse released an album titled Dedicated to Peter Kürten.
The American death metal band Macabre recorded a song called “Vampire of Düsseldorf” about Kürten.
A number of novels have made substantial mention of Kürten. In the 1975 novel ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King, Kürten’s history is summarized by Matt Burke as part of his research into factual vampirism, though Kürten is referred to as ‘Kurtin’ throughout. In Chapter 4 of D.M. Thomas’s The White Hotel (1981), the main protagonist, Frau Lisa Erdman, is haunted by Kürten’s story, which she experiences as a “compulsive daylight nightmare”. And in the novel Swimsuit (2009) by James Patterson, the character of Henri Benoit, a serial killer himself, makes a reference to Peter Kürten while recounting his own crimes for an autobiography. In the Arianna Franklin novel “City of Shadows” one of the main characters is a police inspector who helped to catch Kurten.
In the movie “Copycat” (1995) serial killer Daryll Lee Cullum states that Peter Kurten is the serial killer the police are looking for in current day San Francisco.
by Alexander Gilbert
The Early Crimes
In the entire history of crime no one killer has caused such widespread fear and indignation as that created by Peter Kürten in Düsseldorf in the inter-war period. It may be said – and without exaggeration – that the epidemic of sexual outrages and murders occurring between February and November 1929 provoked a wave of sheer horror and contempt not only in Germany, but throughout the entire world. The subject of extensive judicial examination, justice has sought not only to punish the killer for his crimes, but also to probe the mind and soul of this outrageously enigmatic man. A clinical study of Kürten has rewarded diligent and patient analysis with an enlargement of abnormal and pathological crime.
The killer’s first murder occurred in the city of Köln on May 25th 1913. Kürten had been stealing throughout the spring, specialising in public bars or inns where the owners lived in an apartment above the premises. On this particular evening, he was surveying an inn in Köln. Here, he himself, takes up the story,
“I broke into a house in the Wolfstrasse – an inn owned by Klein – and went up to the first floor. I opened different doors and found nothing worth stealing; but in the bed I saw a sleeping girl of about 10, covered with a thick feather bed.”
Kürten seized the girl by the neck and with both hands throttled her. The child struggled for some time before unconsciousness and Kürten then drew her head over the edge of the bed and penetrated her genitals with his fingers.
“I had a small but sharp pocket knife with me and I held the child’s head and cut her throat. I heard the blood spurt and drip on the mat beside the bed. It spurted in an arch, right over my hand. The whole thing lasted about three minutes. Then I went locked the door again and went back home to Düsseldorf.”
The child’s corpse was pallid. There was hardly any post-mortem staining and the tongue was severely bitten. On the throat there were two wounds separated from each other; the one shallow, only 1 to 2 mm deep; the other deep, 9 cm in length. The upper wound suggested a single stroke, the lower wound had been made by four movements.
Kürten’s first victim had been Christine Klein, a 10-year-old girl at school in nearby Köln. Her father, Peter Klein, kept the tavern and suspicion immediately fell on his brother Otto. On the previous evening, Otto Klein had asked his brother for a loan and had been refused; in a violent rage, he had threatened to do something his brother “would remember all his life.” In the room in which the child had been killed, the police found a handkerchief with the initials “P.K.,” and it seemed conceivable that Otto had borrowed it from his brother Peter.
Suspicion of Otto was deepened by the fact that the murder seemed otherwise motiveless; the child had been throttled unconscious, her throat had been cut with a sharp knife. There were signs of some sexual molestation, but not rape and again it seemed possible that Otto Klein had penetrated the child’s genitals in order to provide an apparent motive. He was charged with Christine’s murder, but the jury, although partly convinced of his guilt, felt that the evidence was not sufficiently strong enough and he was rightly acquitted.
On the following day, Kürten went back to Mullheim and in a café opposite the Kleins’ inn sat and drank a glass of beer. The killer later remarked that all around him people were talking about the murder and “all the horror and indignation did him good.” Kürten was safe from capture and his sadistic impulse had been awakened. With his bloodthirsty appetite whetted, Kürten soon began a series of axe and strangulation attacks on the people of Düsseldorf.
The period up until 1921 was spent in prison and, upon his entry to Altenburg and subsequent marriage, Kürten seems to have lived a perfectly normal and respectable life. He found permanent work in a factory and became very active in trade union circles. With his new guise as a political activist, there followed four years of peace and decency.
In 1925, Peter found his way to Düsseldorf and once again the town proved to be a catalyst for his criminal inclinations. Kürten saw Düsseldorf again in the evening light and rejoiced that “the sunset was blood-red on my return,” interpreting this as an omen of his destiny. Four years of arson attacks and petty crime seemed to have controlled the murderous streak, but these proved to be only a prelude to the horrors witnessed by Düsseldorf in the year of 1929.
A Year of Terror
The Düsseldorf police were first made aware of the atrocities on the 9 th of February 1929, when the body of an eight-year-old girl, Rosa Ohliger, was found under a hedge. She had been stabbed thirteen times and an attempt had been made to burn the body with petrol. The murderer had also stabbed her in the vagina and seminal stains on the knickers indicated that he had experienced emission.
The essential factors to be considered for diagnosis of the cause and time of death, as well as for the motive of the murderer, were the characteristic stabs, the congestion of blood that was found in the head and the injury to the genitalia. From these considerations, one may ascertain that Kürten’s objective had not been coitus, but that he must have inserted a finger smeared with semen under the unopened knickers of the child and thus inserted it into the vagina.
Six days earlier, a man overtook a woman named Kühn, grabbed her lapels and stabbed her repeatedly. Frau Kühn suffered twenty-four wounds before the man ran off. The sadistic appetite of Kürten was not yet satisfied and he had discovered a new sexual stimulant by returning to the scenes of his crimes.
“The place where I attacked Frau Kühn I visited again that same evening twice and later several times. In doing so, I sometimes had an orgasm. When that morning I poured petrol over the child Ohliger and set fire to her, I had an orgasm at the height of the fire.”
Only five days after the murder of Rosa Ohliger, a forty-five-year-old mechanic named Scheer was found stabbed to death on a road in Flingern; he had twenty knife wounds, including several in the head. On the following day Kürten once again returned to the scene of his attack and even had the audacity to strike up a conversation with a detective at the site. Although suspicious, the policeman clearly had no reason for concern and so spoke frankly about the crime; a fantastic cameo episode which was confirmed during the trial by the detective in question.
Shortly after this spate of violations, an idiot named Stausberg was arrested for assaulting two women with a noose. Naturally, the police accused Stausberg of the February attacks and for some reason, unknown to this day, he confessed to all the crimes and was removed to a lunatic asylum. It was fatal for the detection of the ‘Vampire’ that this irrelevant criminal was arrested for assaults so similar to the ones described above.
In August, however, a series of strangulation and stabbing incidents made the police aware that a madman was once again on the prowl. On the 21 st of the month, in the western suburb of Lierenfeld, three people were stabbed while walking home at night. The three random victims were all bidden “Good Evening” to before being subjected to a deep knife wound in their ribs and back.
As the lights went out on the night of the 23rd August 1929, hundreds of people were enjoying the annual fair in the ancient town of Flehe. At around 10.30 p.m., two foster sisters, five-year-old Gertrude Hamacher and fourteen-year-old Louise Lenzen, left the fair and started walking through the adjoining allotments to their home. As they did so, a shadow broke away from among the trees and followed them along a footpath. The shadow stopped the children and asked whether Louise “would be very kind and get some cigarettes for me? I’ll look after the little girl.” Louise took the man’s money and ran back towards the fairground. Quietly, the man picked up Gertrude in his arms and strangled her, before slowly cutting her throat with a clasp knife. Louise returned a few moments later and was dragged off the footpath before being strangled and decapitated.
On the following afternoon, a servant girl named Gertrude Schulte was accosted by a man who tried to persuade her to have sexual intercourse. When she said, “I’d rather die,” he answered, “Die then” and stabbed her. Fortunately, though, Schulte survived and was able to give a good description of her assailant, who proved to be a pleasant-looking, nondescript man of about forty.
Kürten had by now reached his sexual overdrive and the increasing frequency and ferocity of the attacks convinced medical experts that the ‘Vampire’ had lost all control of his sadistic impulses. A young girl named Ida Reuter was raped and battered to death in September and, on the 12th of October, another servant girl by the name of Elizabeth Dorrier was beaten to death. This was followed by hammer attacks on Frau Meurer and Frau Wanders, both on the 25th of October.
Düsseldorf was thrown into a panic comparable to that caused by Jack the Ripper as the murder toll continued to mount. On the 7th of November, five-year-old Gertrude Albermann disappeared and two days later the newspaper Freedom received a letter with a map enclosed, stating that the child’s body would be found near a factory wall. The body was indeed found where the killer had described, amongst a mass of bricks and rubble. She had been strangled and stabbed thirty-five times.
The period between February and May of 1930 saw a continued spate of strangulation and hammer attacks, although none with fatal consequences. Despite the enormous manhunt now in operation, the killer had still not been apprehended and Düsseldorf was at the point of public outcry. Where as the motives may have been similar, the means used by the elusive Kürten were constantly changing and as such provided no clear pattern for the investigating detectives. By the May of 1930, sheer terror had gripped Düsseldorf and the ‘Vampire’ was still on the loose.
As is invariably the case with serial crime, the capture of the killer happened almost by chance. On the 14 th May 1930 an unemployed domestic servant named Maria Budlick left the cathedral city of Köln in search of work in nearby Düsseldorf. On the platform at Düsseldorf station she was accosted by a man who offered to show her the way to a girls’ hostel. They followed the brightly-lit streets for a while, but when he started leading her towards the park she suddenly remembered the newspaper stories of the murderer and refused to go any farther. The man insisted and it was while they were arguing that a second man appeared and inquired as to whether everything was all right. Clearly both upset and intimidated by the newcomer’s arrival, the man from the railway station soon slunk away and Fraulein Budlick was left alone with her rescuer, one Peter Kürten.
“The girl told me that she was out of work and had nowhere to go. She agreed to come with me to my room on the Mettmanner Strasse and then she suddenly said she did not want sexual intercourse and asked me whether I could find her somewhere else to sleep.”
The pair went by tram to Worringerplatz and walked deep into the Grafenberger Woods. Here Kürten seized Budlick with one hand by the neck and asked whether he could have her.
“I thought that under the circumstances she would agree and my opinion was right. Afterwards I took her back to the tram, but I did not accompany her right to it because I was afraid she might inform the police officer who was standing there. I had no intention of killing Budlick as she had offered no resistance.”
Kürten was remarkably calm and collected throughout the ordeal and made sure that no one on the tram saw him deposit the young girl at the station.
“I did not think that Budlick would be able to find her way back to my apartment in the rather obscure Mettmanner Strasse. So much the more was I surprised when on Wednesday, the 21 st of May, I saw her again in my house.”
Contrary to the opinion of Kürten, Fraulein Budlick had indeed remembered the address, vividly recalling the nameplate ‘Mettmanner Strasse’ under the flickering gaslight. Most crucially, however, Maria wrote of her encounter in a letter of the 17 th May to one Frau Bruckner. The letter never reached its intended recipient. It was misdirected and opened by a Frau Brugmann, who took one look at the contents and called the police.
Maria Budlick was immediately located and questioned extensively. After a long time and considerable hesitation she led Chief Inspector Gennat into the hallway of number 71 Mettmanner Strasse. The landlady ushered into an empty room, which Budlick immediately recognised and it was soon established that a man by the name of Peter Kürten occupied the premises. While at the house, Fraulein Budlick encountered even more conclusive proof when her attacker entered the house and began climbing the stairs towards her. He looked briefly startled, but carried on to his room and shut the door behind him. A few moments later he left the house with his hat pulled down over his eyes, passed the two plainclothes men standing in the street and disappeared round a corner.
Upon realisation of his inevitable capture, Kürten chose to explain the Budlick case to his wife. As the attempt at sexual intercourse could be considered as rape; along with his previous convictions, Kürten ascertained that it could be enough to ensure fifteen years penal servitude.
“Throughout the night I walked about. On Thursday, the 22 nd of May, I saw my wife in the morning in the flat and so fetched my things away in a bag and rented a room in the Adlerstrasse. I slept quietly until Friday morning.”
Up to this point, nothing linked Kürten with the attacks of the ‘Vampire’. His only crime was suspected rape, but he knew now that there was no longer any hope of concealing his identity. Peter Kürten described the consequent events of Friday 23rd May in writing.
“Today, the 23 rd , in the morning, I told my wife that I was also responsible for the Schulte affair, adding my usual remark that it would mean ten years’ or more separation for us – probably forever. At that, my wife was inconsolable. She spoke of unemployment, lack of means and starvation in old age. She raved that I should take my life, then she would do the same, since her future was completely without hope. Then, in the late afternoon, I told my wife that I could help her.”
Peter proceeded to tell his wife that he was the infamous ‘Düsseldorf Vampire’ and disclosed every murder to her. Kürten then hinted that a high reward had been offered for the discovery of the criminal and that she could get hold of that prize if she would report the confession and denounce him to the police.
“Of course, it wasn’t easy for me to convince her that this ought not to be considered as treason, but that, on the contrary, she was doing a good deed to humanity as well as to justice. It was not until late in the evening that she promised to carry out my request, and also that she would not commit suicide. It was 11 o’clock when we separated. Back in my lodging, I went to bed and fell asleep at once.”
On May 24 th 1930, Frau Kürten told the story to the police, adding that she had arranged to meet her husband outside St. Rochus church at 3 o’clock that afternoon. By that time the whole area had been surrounded and four officers rushed forward with loaded revolvers the moment Peter Kürten appeared. The man smiled and offered no resistance.
“There is no need to be afraid”, he said.
The Making of a Killer
Unquestionably, the victim of a vicious background, Kürten was born in Köln-Mullheim on the 26 th May 1883. His childhood was spent in a poverty-stricken, one room apartment; one of a family of thirteen whose father was a brutal drunkard. There was a long history of alcoholism and mental trouble on the paternal side of the family and his father frequently arrived home drunk, assaulting the children and forcing intercourse on the mother.
“If they hadn’t been married, it would have been rape”, Kürten once remarked.
Irascible and self-possessed, Mr. Kürten was sexually uncontrolled and was later jailed for three years for committing incest with Peter’s sister, aged thirteen. Maternally, Kürten seems to have originated from fairly respectable stock. The daughter of an affluent proprietor, Mrs. Kürten had five brothers and sisters, all of whom lived to a ripe age. A separation was secured from her husband following his attempted incest and imprisonment and, in 1911, she remarried. She died in 1927.
Kürten’s sadistic impulses were awakened by the violent scenes in his own home.
“The whole family suffered through his drinking, for when he was in drink, my father was terrible. I, being the eldest, had to suffer most. As you may well imagine, we suffered terrible poverty, all because the wages went on drink. We all lived in one room and you will appreciate what affect that had on me sexually.”
At the age of nine, Kürten befriended a dogcatcher who lived in the same house, a degenerate who showed him how to masturbate and torture dogs. Whereas a normal child would have reacted with emotional recoil to this influence, the boy welcomed the friendship and a powerful and most significant bond developed. Around the same time, Kürten drowned a schoolfellow while playing on a raft in the Rhine. When the boy’s friend dived in to rescue him, he, too, was pushed under the raft and held down until he suffocated.
The sexual urges were developing rapidly and Kürten was soon committing bestiality on sheep and goats in the nearby stables. It was quickly discovered that he had his most powerful sensation when he stabbed a sheep as he had intercourse, an act that was performed with increasing frequency.
By the age of sixteen, Peter was stealing and had run away from home. He was soon to receive the first of twenty-seven prison sentences that would occupy twenty-four years of his life. The crimes were at first petty, mostly thieving for food and clothing and often gaining short sentences in Düsseldorf prisons. Upon release from detention in 1899, Kürten began living with an ill-treated masochistic prostitute twice his age. His ‘education’ was now complete and the inherent sadistic impulses were transferred from animals to human beings.
The first lengthy period of incarceration left Kürten bitter and angry at human penal conditions.
“I do not condemn those sentences in themselves, but I do condemn the way they are carried out on young people.”
Internment also introduced Kürten to yet another perverse refinement, a fantasy world where he could achieve orgasm by imagining brutal sexual acts. He became so obsessed with these fantasies that he deliberately broke minor prison rules so that he could be sentenced to solitary confinement. This proved to be the ideal atmosphere for sadistic daydreaming.
Shortly after a release from prison, Kürten made his first murderous attack on a girl during sexual intercourse, leaving her for dead in the Grafenberg Woods. No body was ever found and the girl most probably crawled away, keeping the terrible secret to herself. Inevitably, more confinement followed and, after each jail term, Kürten’s feelings of injustice were strengthened. Most worryingly for the people of Düsseldorf, his sexual and sadistic fantasies now involved revenge on society.
Confession & Trial
Once under arrest, Kürten spoke with remarkable frankness to Professor Karl Berg, an eminent German psychologist, who was later to write the most comprehensive guide to the career of Peter Kuerten in a book entitled The Sadist. Berg was supremely successful in winning the prisoner’s confidence and provided a fascinating insight into the mind of a killer. Kürten’s memory functioned with a most extraordinary clarity and the vividness with which he preserved the details of each crime gives us a measure of the gratification of the act. When Kürten dealt with matters that had no emotional value for him, his memory was often highly defective and flawed.
The manner in which Kürten enumerated all his offences is quite astounding. He was not accused of these crimes one by one, but reeled off his own account, beginning with No.1 and ending with No.79. Every single case was dictated to the stenographer and Kürten even showed enjoyment at the horrified faces of the many police officers that listened to his shocking recital.
Such then is the so-called “great” confession attributed to Kürten after his arrest. The fullness and accuracy of the disclosure naturally awoke doubts as to its veracity and yet, aside from the occasional and perhaps understandable mistruth, the vast majority of his salient statements were adhered to in discussions with the examining magistrate and later with Professor Berg. Kürten himself recognised the obvious scepticism regarding his confession and consequently took time to describe each crime as precisely as possible to Berg.
“It is very easy to describe crimes one has not committed. One could scarcely credit it that a confession could be founded on very full newspaper reports and yet be simply an invention. To that extent, I quite understand your doubts, Professor.”
Kürten’s over-riding motivation to explain his wrongs was not, as one might expect, a feeling of guilt or repentance, but simply to secure a lucrative future for his wife. The consistently high regard paid to Frau Kürten throughout the ordeal is one of the most fascinating aspects in the account and contradicts much of what we know about Kürten’s persona. Even though unfaithful throughout his marriage, Kürten was still exceptionally fond of his wife and was desperate to ensure a substantial reward for her future years.
“I had already finished with my life when I first knew the police were on my track. I wanted to fix up for my wife a carefree old age, for she is entitled to at least a part of the reward. That is why I entered a plea of guilty to all the crimes.”
Charged with a total of nine murders and seven attempted murders, the trial of the ‘Düsseldorf Vampire’ opened on April 13th 1931. A special shoulder-high cage had been built inside the courtroom to prevent his escape and behind it was arranged some of the grisly exhibits of the Kürten museum. There lay skulls of his victims and body parts displaying the injuries inflicted by the killer, each meticulously presented in a chronologically fashion. Knives, rope, scissors and a hammer were on show, along with many articles of clothing and a spade he had used to bury a woman. It was indeed a gruesome exhibition.
The initial shock to the crowd, however, came with the physical appearance of the ‘Monster’. Dressed in an immaculate suit and with sleek, neatly parted hair, Kürten had the look of a prim and proper businessman. Speaking in a quiet, matter-of-fact voice, he initially denied his earlier confession and presented a not-guilty plea to the examining magistrate. He had, he said, confessed to the crimes on the first occasion only to secure the reward for his wife. Even though thoroughly persistent, Kürten was eventually broken down by the examining magistrate and, after a trying two months, reverted to his original and full confession.
The amplification of the crimes was more monstrous than anyone had imagined, yet the most brilliant doctors in Germany testified that Kürten had been “perfectly responsible for his actions at all times”. His motive was made clear from the start; he wanted to revenge himself on society for the wrongs he had suffered in prison. In answer to the judge’s question as to whether he had a conscience, Kuerten replied,
“I have none. Never have I felt any misgiving in my soul; never did I think to myself that what I did was bad, even though human society condemns it. My blood and the blood of my victims will be on the heads of my torturers. There must be a Higher Being who gave in the first place the first vital spark to life. That Higher Being would deem my actions good since I revenged injustice. The punishments I have suffered have destroyed all my feelings as a human being. That was why I had no pity for my victims.”
In his trademark flat, unemotional voice, Kürten described a life in which a luckless combination of factors – heredity, environment, the faults of the German penal system – had conspired to bring out and foster the latent sadistic streak with which Kürten believed he had been born. The court became hypnotised with the dramatic extent of the revelations, the killer at one point describing his thoughts on how to cause accidents involving thousands of people with no modicum of self-restraint.
“I derived the sort of pleasure from these visions that other people would get from thinking about a naked woman.”
Kurten went on to narrate the details of his killing, each individual incident presented in a manner of such organisation and efficiency never before seen. The confession was indeed so damning that the prosecution barely bothered to present any evidence. The defendant’s counsel, Dr. Wehner, had the hopeless task of trying to prove insanity in the face of unbreakable evidence from the many distinguished psychiatrists.
“The man Kürten is a riddle to me. I can not solve it. The criminal Haarman only killed men, Landru and Grossman only women, but Peter killed men, women, children and animals; killed anything he found.”
The jury took only one and half-hours to reach a unanimous verdict: guilty on all counts. The presiding judge, Dr. Rose, interrupted the continuing self-righteous ramblings of the defendant to sentence him to death nine times. Kürten behaved in a dignified fashion and did not challenge the judgement nor feign any remorse. He did, however, note every discrepancy in the accounts of the witnesses and also protested against the observations of the experts, which were not, in his opinion, wholly accurate.
On July 2nd 1932, the ‘Düsseldorf Vampire’ went to his death at a guillotine erected in the yard of the Klingelputz Prison. Kürten expressed his last earthly desire on the way to the yard: “Tell me”, he asked the prison psychiatrist, “after my head has been chopped off, will I still be able to hear, at least for a moment, the sound of my own blood gushing from the stump of my neck?” He savoured this thought for a while, then added, “that would be the pleasure to end all pleasures.”
Inside the Mind of a Psychopath
Even though it has long since been accepted that there is no single reason for serial crime, the same contributing factors rear their evil head in the case of nearly all killers of this type. Peter Kürten is no different and exhibits many characteristics of the so-called “lust killer”. He was, essentially, a pathologically over-sexed psychopath – an individual so self-centered that, in his eyes, no other human being mattered.
Kürten admitted to a feeling of tension before and after the crime: a condition that convinced the experts of the sexual character of the motive. The attacks were planned and carried out in order to achieve a sexual satisfaction that could only be obtained through acts of violence. This is the ultimate operation of a monstrous and unique egotism – the satisfaction of one’s sexual urges at all costs.
“I committed my acts of arson for the same reasons – sadistic propensity. I got pleasure from the glow of the fire, the cries for help.”
A word about Kürten the man: in personal appearance Peter Kürten was well built, clean-shaven and fresh complexioned. In all his personal habits, he was meticulous and this narcissistic tendency truly reflected the self-satisfaction of the inner man. Kürten dearly loved himself and it was the kernel of his tragedy that he was unable to love any other human being.
Throughout his examination, Kürten constantly came back to the miseries of his childhood and his time spent in incarceration. He always spoke of them with great bitterness and often blamed them for turning him into the person he became. Perhaps more than any other killer of his type, Kürten seemed to understand exactly where, so to speak, it ‘all went wrong’. As George Godwin, an analyst of Kürten, once remarked,
“If he did become a victimiser of the innocent, it must be remembered that he began life as an innocent victimized.”
Inevitably the question of his sanity, and hence his legal responsibility, became a major issue of the trial. It was decided that Kürten was suffering from no organic mental disease or from any functional mental disease and that he was, therefore, responsible in law for his crimes.
Psychoanalysts declare that the criminal differs from the man who adjusts himself to society in that he fails to sublimate the aggressive primitive urges. These actions are motivated by the wounds inflicted upon him by injustice. There can be no doubt that Kürten suffered harshly in prison and in this way he obtained the subject matter for an easy later rationalization.
“So I said to myself in my youthful way
You just wait, you pack of scoundrels! That was more or less the kind of retaliation or revenge idea. For example, I kill someone who is innocent and not responsible for the fact that I had been badly treated, but if there really is such a thing on this earth as compensating justice, then my tormentors must feel it, even if they do not know that I have done it.”
This idea of vengeance and atonement is, in Kürten’s case, rooted in sadism and is a mask for the sexual feeling. Even though studied by analysts in prison, these factors never seemed to come to the forefront of the evaluation. A basic prison diagnosis of sadism in the patient would have saved many lives, but Kürten was instead free to see his crimes as justification for the brutality witnessed throughout his life. He felt regret for the innocent victims, but never showed any remorse for his actions.
“How could I do so? After all, I had to fulfill my mission.”
Kürten thought a lot about himself and reached a fair degree of self-recognition. He was aware of his fatal sadistic propensity, but always explained this due to heredity and his upbringing. There were a number of occasions, however, when Kürten seems to have recognised his evil nature and made it clear to a victim, in doing so almost apologising for his ‘unnecessary’ actions. This is highly unusual for lust killers of Peter’s type, who are normally entirely convinced by their motives for atonement.
Also interestingly, when considering all the psychopathic tendencies exhibited by Kürten, is that his inclination to lie and deceive was supremely cultivated and the mask of a respectable citizen was scarcely penetrable. His calm assurance allowed him to time his attacks perfectly and then to move off swiftly into the night.
Yet the most puzzling characteristic of Kürten is the immense loyalty shown to his wife. For this killer, the infidelity of the assaults weighed more heavily than the bloody murder. A baffling character, Frau Kürten exhibited great humility throughout her married life and saw the bad times with Peter as punishment for her sinful former existence. As much as Kürten himself disrespected women, he seems to have understood this devotion and once commented,
“My relations with my wife were always good. I did not love her in the sensual way, but because of my admiration for her fine character.”
Was it perhaps that Kürten loved his wife for her preoccupation with the concept of redemption, an emotion that he seems incapable of displaying? Maybe if others had provided him with more than crude sexual gratification – a selfless and self-effacing love – Peter Kürten would not have turned out quite the way he did.
It is, however, all pure conjecture. There will always remain the problem of the genesis of Kürten’s sadistic perversions and we, as analysts of true crime, will never know the full truth. One may advance a number of heredity and emotional factors and yet still be without a convincing explanation to the psychological riddle he presents. Godwin once stated that “love is the gateway of life, as hate is the way of death; and it was Kürten’s tragedy that he died without discovering this eternal truth.” Whatever the answer may be to the great enigma that was Peter Kürten, perhaps it is fitting to leave the final words of this analysis to the killer himself.
“As I now see the crimes committed by me, they are so ghastly that I do not want to attempt any sort of excuse for them. I am prepared to bear the consequences of my misdeeds and hope that thus I will atone for a large part of what I have done. And when you consider my execution and recognize my goodwill to atone for all my crimes, I should think that the terrible desire for revenge and hatred against me can not endure. And I want to ask you to forgive me.”