Peter Kürten, also known as "The Vampire of Düsseldorf", was Germany's most notorious serial killer. His victims far outnumbered those of the better-known British "Jack the Ripper".
The Creation of a Killer
Peter Kürten was born on the 26th May, 1883 in Mulheim, Germany, as the oldest of 13 children. His life was not destined to be anything resembling a normal one. His father was a drunken, violent brute who held the whole family in a grip of terror, frequently beating his wife and family for little or no reason. When the mood took him he would rape his wife in front of the children. Being so poor, the entire family lived in a single room, where escape from it all must have seemed impossible. Any remaining traces of sanity in his childhood were destroyed by a dogcatcher who lodged in the same house as him. His father meanwhile spent some time in jail for commiting incest against his daughters. The dogcatcher spent most of his time with the young Peter showing the small boy how to abuse and torture the unclaimed dogs.
By the time he was nine, he would decapitate swans and drink the blood from their necks. His first murder was at the age of ten when he drowned one of his playmates in the Rhine. When a second boy attempted a rescue of his friend, Peter held him underwater until he drowned also. Varying sources of information differ as to the exact details of this event, and some believe it never happened at all, except in his imagination. Regardless of the veracity of this particular incident, it is clear by now that Kürten was developing into a very disturbed individual...
Kürten's family moved to Düsseldorf in 1894, and the growing boy found employment as a moulder's apprentice. Work would appear to have kept him busy during this period of his life, his violence only being expressed against animals, such as pigs which he used to stab as he abused them. He was to carry out acts of bestiality during the remainder of his life.
By 1899, the 16-year old Kürten was living with a prostitute twice his age. Not long afterwards that same year, he sexually molested a girl in the local woods. This attack involved strangulation, which was to become a trademark of his later killings. She survived, but told no one of her traumatic ordeal, which only came to light many years later. Afterwards, Kürten only became worse in his crimes. These were initially small, but deceitful, misdemeanours increasing to such larger offences as burgulary. He eventually went to prison for 4 years, where he claimed later that he had killed two fellow inmates by means of poison.) Rather than learn from his mistakes, he only became resentful of his treatment instead. Revenge on society at large begins to figure in his motives from this point.
Kürten added arson to his crimes during the year of 1904. This is a significant point in his descent into evil, as several other serial killers since that time have followed the same pattern as they escalated towards the point of killing. He later claimed he found the flames stimulating in a sexual manner.
In the years that followed, Kürten spent some time living on the streets, and was in and out of jail on short sentences. All in all, Kürten was to spend more than 20 of his 48 years in various prisons.
His first successful murder as an adult was not to take place till 1913 in Cologne, when he killed a 10 year old girl named Christine Klein. He had broken into the inn where she lived intending to rob it, but when he saw the sleeping child on a bed, the temptation to kill could not be resisted. First he strangled her until she lost consciousness again, sexually abused her briefly, then used his pocket knife to slit her throat. He made a serious error in dropping an initialled hankerchief at the scene of the crime, but by a bizarre coincidence, the father's name was Peter Klein and the matching letters at first made him the prime suspect. Peter Klein's brother Otto, who had recently argued with him over money and who had threatened him, was also suspected of the crime. It went to court, but luckily this innocent man was released due to the lack of evidence against him.
The following day, Kürten sat in a café, listening with pleasure to the people around him discussing the horrible attack with shock and repulsion. Later that same year, he attacked two strangers with an axe, saying later that he received sexual pleasure from watching the flowing of their blood. Both individuals died due to the severity of their wounds.
During the whole of World War I, Kürten was in prison - he'd deserted from the army. He felt a growing animosity to authority, preferring to be the master of his own destiny, rather than blindly taking orders. Whilst the opportunity for killing legitimately existed within the army, it is unlikely that simply shooting at enemy soldiers would have provided much excitement as victims to his twisted desires, and so would have been most unappealing to him. From 1914 till 1921, he was locked away from the world, but his obsessions continued to grow inwardly. He disliked having to associate with the other prisoners and preferred to spend his time imagining various crimes and the violations of potential victims. He would purposely break small rules in order to be sent to solitary confinement, where he could enjoy his mental ruminations undisturbed.
After his release from prison, Kürten seemed to start his life anew. He began work in a factory, living an average life, gradually gaining the trust of those around him. With a few years he became a trade unionist and was viewed with respect, although he made no effort to form friendships. By 1925, he had met a prostitute, who he soon married. The newly-wed couple moved to an apartment in central Düsseldorf. It was this move to the city which seemed to trigger off the recently dormant impulses to kill again. Minor crime and arson had held the beast at bay for a while, but now it wanted blood again...
The Vampire of Düsseldorf
His murders and attacks were motiviated by an uncontrollable sexual frenzy, but also by a need to revenge himself on a world which had tortured his entire existence. He often targetted children as they were less of a physical problem to dispatch.
During the period of 1925 till 1929, Kürten struck again and again, his victims including prostitutes, the poor and homeless, several mistresses and any other strangers who wandered into his path. His need to kill and strike fear into those around him was insatiable. He reached a peak of activity during the summer of 1929, which left Düsseldorf paralysed with terror. People suspected family members and friends, not just strangers. Women were scared for their lives, and concerned parents would quickly call their children indoors as it grew dark. Rumours that the killer actually was a vampire were taken seriously by a growing number of the populace. The social fabric of the city was being torn apart.
The police suspected a single person of many murders and related attacks, but there was never any leads that would reveal the identity of the attacker. Forensic science was still in its infancy, and Kürten often varied aspects of his attacks - he used different weapons - knives and scissors for the women and children for the most part; cudgels, then strangulation for the ones he lay in ambush for.
Depending on his mood, he chose victims on the basis of whether they appealed to him or promised some particular form of temporarily satiating his murderous and violent impulses, rather than a particular class of individual. All they really knew was that the attacks were carried out by a person in a maniacal frenzy, and that there was a sexual element to the rage.
On the 3rd of February, 1929, a woman called Frau Kühn was attacked by Kürten on her way home and stabbed 24 times before he fled. Luckily, she survived her many wounds. Kürten was still unsatisfied though, although he had added the thrill of returning to the scene of a crime to his collection of pleasures. A mere six days later, he attacked and killed a 8-year old girl, Rosa Ohliger, stabbing her 13 times. He had abused her after death, then poured petrol onto her body and partially burned it.
On the 13th of February, scant days after this murder, he set about Rudolf Scheer, a 45 year old mechanic, who was found dead with 20 stab wounds, mostly in the head and shoulder regions. He had been attacked as he walked home along a lonely road from the beer cellar. Kürten, filled with high spirits himself, actually returned to the site of the murder the next day and started up a conversation with one of the investigators at the site. The detective confirmed this story later at Kürten's trial.
With the edge taken off his bloodlust, there was a lull in murders till August - on the 21st, two women and a man were attacked, seemingly at random. They suffered knife wounds to the back and ribs, but all three survived. Three days later near a fairground, Kürten killed two young girls, Luise Lenzen aged 14, and Gertrud Hamacher, aged 5. Gertrud was the first to die, her throat cut. Luise followed minutes later after being strangled then decapitated. One source reports that he sucked the blood from her head to enhance his pleasure...
Later, the same day, the 24th, he approached a young servant girl, Gertrude Schulte and tried to talk her into having sex with him. She unwisely said "I'd rather die". Kürten responded with the words "Die then!", and stabbed her deeply. Gertrude survived and managed to gave a good description of her attacker, although there was nothing that stood out about him enough to identify him.
Some time around this month, Maria Hahn a 20 year old servant girl was attacked and stabbed 20 times. Kürten originally intended to crucify her and put her on display for passers-by on the banks of the Rhine, but he couldn't work out a way to get her up on a cross and buried her instead. Her body was not found till late Autumn, so an exact date of death could not be established.
The deaths continued... Kürten seemed relentless in his attacks, raping, then battering to death 31-year old Ida Reuter, another servant girl, with a hammer on the 29th September. On the 12th October he struck again, beating to death Elizabeth Dorrier, also a servant girl. Two women, Frau Meurer and Frau Wanders, met with further hammer attacks, both on the 25th of October, although both lived.
Finally, the last of Kürten's murders... Five year-old Gertrud Alberman vanished on the 7th of November. After two days of searching revealed nothing, a local paper received a letter accompanied with a map, showing the location where her body could be found. The little girl had been strangled and stabbed 35 times. Nobody knew it at the time, but she was the last person to die at Kürten's hands, although he continued his hammer attacks and various attempts at strangling people all the way from February 1930 till May...
It was not till the 14th of that month, that Kürten was to make a blatant and puzzling mistake. Maria Budlick (sometimes refered to as Budlies) was a poor woman, who had not heard of the vampire murders in Düsseldorf. She had travelled to the city, looking for work as a domestic servant. At the train station she was approached by a man who offered to show her the way to the nearest woman's hostel. At first, she accepted, but then grew suspicious of his intentions. When she grew afraid of him, the man began to harrass her, and it was then that he was driven off by an benign-looking, older gentleman, who asked her if she needed assistance. This second man looked far safer and she promptly accepted his help. Unfortunately, this "gentleman" was nothing of the sort...
They first went to Kürten's own house where they had a light snack. When Budlick noticed the way Kürten was looking at her, she suddenly announced that she didn't want sex. Kürten agreed, and said he would take her to the hostel instead. On the way there, as they journeyed through a woodland section, he seized her by the throat and demanded sex from her. Budlick capitulated under the circumstances, and because she seemed willing, Kürten presumably stopped thinking of her as a victim. I say, "presumably" because a strange turn of affairs was about to occur. He asked the shaking woman if she remembered where he lived "in case she needed my assistance again". Budlick lied, and said she had no idea where they had travelled from, so Kürten took her to a tram station and released her. An unheard of behaviour, given his previous actions.
It is possible that such was the self-assurance of Kürten, having killed for around four decades, he simply no longer perceived a chosen victim as any conceivable threat to himself. (This was noticeably similar to how Albert De Salvo, aka The Boston Strangler was finally caught. He also, for unknown reasons, released a victim who then was responsible for the identification and arrest of their attacker.)
Budlick, being too scared to talk to anyone else, and surrounded by the strangers of Dusseldorf wrote to her friend, Frau Bruckner, but the name on the letter was misread and the similarly-named Frau Brugmann received the letter instead.
Ironically, the mistake over a name was reminiscent of the first adult murder Peter Kürten had carried out with the loss of the long-forgotten initialled hankerchief. Perhaps fate's hand was at work here, finally... It was to be his downfall this time. Brugmann opened the letter, took one glance at the contents and immediately informed the police. They traced Budlick to her address in Düsseldorf and questioned her about what had happened. Budlick remembered all too well where Kürten had lived, the prominent brass plaque of the street, illuminated by the gas lighting had stuck in her mind, and she was able to guide the police to his address. To confirm her attacker's identity, they had her enter the house, and wait inside. Kürten returned and noticed Budlick standing on the stairwell leading up to the next level. He seemed surprised briefly, then hesitated for a moment as if considering ascending the stairs to meet her there, but then changed his mind, and entered his apartment. Within a few minutes he left again, hurriedly, wearing a thick coat and hat to obscure his appearance.
Kürten knew he was running out of time. She had undoubtably led the police to his house. At the moment, they suspected only the rape, but it was only a matter of time before they discovered the rest... He must make plans - and quickly!
The Circle Closes...
When he realised his arrest was inevitable, he confessed all his crimes to his wife, recounting many gory details to convince her. She was understandably upset by this revelation (as Kürten had despite his reign of terror, managed to live a reasonably normal life at home), but Kürten told her to tell the police everything she knew as there was a substantial award for information leading to his arrest, and this way she would have no financial problems afterwards. He was arrested on the 24th of May, 1930 by four policemen armed with revolvers. He had arranged the meeting with his wife and told her to tell the police when and where he would be. When he saw them he smiled and said "There is no need to be afraid."
One of the most disturbing things to the German people when he was apprehended was that Kürten looked so normal in appearance, with his neat hair and freshly-pressed suit. Could this harmless-looking man be the monster that they had feared for so long?
A great deal of information was gathered after his conviction, as Kürten was the first serial killer to be interviewed at length by a psychiatrist, Professor Karl Berg. He is quoted as having said "I have no remorse. As to whether recollection of my deeds makes me feel ashamed, I will tell you. Thinking back to all the details is not at all unpleasant. I rather enjoy it."
He was later described by Berg as "A king of sexual perverts"
and "narcissistic psychopath"
. In court, Kürten recounted with obvious relish how his deviant
thoughts had taken over his reason and actions -
"I thought of myself causing accidents affecting thousands of people and invented a number of crazy fantasies such as smashing bridges and boring holes in bridge piers. Then I spun a number of fantasies with regard to bacilli which I might be able to introduce into the drinking water and so cause a great calamity. I imagined myself using schools or orphanages for the purpose, where I could carry out murders by giving away chocolate samples containing arsenic which I could have obtained through housebreaking. I derived the sort of pleasure from these visions that other people would get from thinking about a naked woman."
During his trial, the prosecution
had very little work to do, as Kürten gladly recounted in detail each of his murders and attacks. His defense, Dr. Wehner had a much harder time of it as he tried to prove his defendant insane
, and so avoid the death penalty. In despair of achieving this verdict, he said -
"The man Kürten is a riddle to me. I can not solve it. The criminal Haarmaan only killed men, Landru and Grossman only women, but Peter killed men, women, children and animals; killed anything he found."
Kürten was formally charged with with nine murders and seven attempted murders... but in court he gave details of many more attacks. In reality, it is likely that he killed a minimum of 14 people. Combined with around 68 seperate attacks, many of which luckily ended in severe woundings rather than death, the total number dead seems likely around thirty or more. Kürten gloated that many of the poorer victims had not even been missed by the authorities.
He spoke at length on the details of his killings, from within a cage specially constructed around the witness stand. On one occasion becoming so overwhelmed with arousal at the effect his words were having on the court, he seemed to be suffering from hyperventilation. The court very nearly held its own breath until he recovered and continued his recital.
"Kürten spoke clearly and articulately. As he described each of the twenty-eight murders to which he confessed, he did so with the lurid lyricism of a thriller-writer, savouring once more in closest, nauseating detail the ecstasy of the kill." - Sefton Delmer (reporter), Trail Sinister (1961).
Peter Kürten was executed in Klingelputz prison, on 2nd July, 1931, by beheading. It is said that as he walked to the guillotine, he 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? That would be the pleasure to end all pleasures."
Even after his death, Kürten's life was the inspiration for two films - M (1931) by Fritz Lang and Le Vampire de Düsseldorf (1965).
Was he evil? Undoubtably so - but was he born evil? Almost certainly not. It is a sad fact that most serial killers had disturbed, nightmarish childhoods, breaking their spirits and minds at an early, fragile age. This trauma robs them of the ability to exist in the same manner as a normal member of society. Kürten almost certainly had sadistic tendencies from a young age, but with a more conventional upbringing it is a much less certain proposition that he would have followed the same path.
Despite the sympathy I found myself feeling at several moments during the research of this man's life, I cannot but help feel that his execution was the only solution remaining. He was a monsterous individual, even though he genuinely seemed to care for his wife's well-being. He murdered the weakest, most helpless people he could find, children and young women for the most part.
Ultimately though, the detailed analysis and study of Kürten, along with his own testimonials revealed a massive amount of previously unknown information on the psychopathic criminal mind, including their motivations and reasoning. For example, although becoming sexually gratified by his attacks, his victims were not all female, and it is this realisation that it was the act itself, rather than the victim which was the primary motivation. Many serial killers have sprung up since Kürten's time, and I could not help but notice the many similarities in their lives, leading me to conclude, in my own mind at least, that serial killers are not born... They are made...
Last Updated : 31st July, 2005