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.
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