Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Peter Kürten: The Vampire of Dusseldorf

The Early Crimes

Peter Kurten mugshot
Peter Kürten mugshot

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, specializing 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 ten, 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 ten-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.

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