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 andmurders against adults and children, most notoriously from February to November 1929 inDüsseldorf.
Kürten was born into a poverty-stricken, abusive family in Mülheim am Rhein, the third of 13 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 nine, drowning two young friends while swimming. He moved with his family to Düsseldorf in 1894 and received a number of short prisonsentences for various crimes, including theft and arson. As a youth he was employed by the local dogcatcher, a job which allowed him to indulge in animal cruelty.
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, sentencing to death and execution.
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). Kürten was subsequently played by Nigel Green in the LWT play Peter and Maria, written by Clive Exton and broadcast on 9 October 1970.
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.
Randy Newman’s song “In Germany Before the War” from the album Little Criminals is based on Kürten’s life, with some poetic license (the song is set in 1934, for example, despite the fact that Kürten was executed in 1931).
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 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”. In the novel Swimsuit (2009) by James Patterson, Henri Benoit, a serial killer himself, makes a reference to 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), a serial killer uses “Peter Kürten” as an alias (the protagonist, played by Sigourney Weaver, explains the reference).