On this date in 1931, the “Vampire of Düsseldorf” was beheaded for that city’s most infamous serial murder binge.
It was, perhaps, the logical end of a terrible journey.
A factory moulder and World War I deserter in his late forties, Peter Kürten commenced a series of uncommonly bestial rape-murders in early 1929 … the harvest of a lifetime’s twisted brutality.
He’d been the oldest of 11 children stuffed in a hellish one-room apartment with a violent drunk of a father who battered the children and openly raped their mother. Well, “if they hadn’t been married, it would have been rape,” in Peter’s words.
The future vampire took his refuge turning his own abuse on younger siblings and, with the help of a degenerate dogcatcher in the neighborhood, on obliging animals he could lay his hands on — which creatures he was soon learning to torture, and to rape, alongside more conventional human delinquencies like arson and burglary.
Kürten is known to have strangled at least one ten-year-old prior to World War I (he would also claim to have surreptitiously drowned a couple of school chums in his boyhood) but it was on the far side of the Great War — which he’d spent mostly in miserable prisons, nursing increasingly twisted fantasies of vengeance — that the beast truly emerged.
The spree that carried him to these pages began in Febuary 1929, when he slew an eight-year-old, attacked a middle-aged woman, stabbed a mechanic to death. Kürten’s crimes were irregular, but distinguished by a fiendish wrath: he abducted one young woman and hammered her to death in the woods outside town; he stabbed a five-year-old to death with scissors as he achieved his orgasm; he asked a teenager to run off and get him some cigarettes, so he could use her absence to slit her younger sister’s throat; he stabbed strangers randomly.
“I derived the sort of pleasure from these visions” of mayhem and cruelty, he said, “that other people would get from thinking about a naked woman.”
Düsseldorf endured a year of terror, finally aborted when Kürten’s own wife — whom he seems to have loved genuinely — turned him in, at Kürten’s own request, for the reward money.
At a packed trial, the accused’s accumulated hatred for the sadistic world poured out in words just as it had done in deeds over the months preceding.
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 …
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.
Amateurs though we are, we incline to doubt the sufficiency of the tit-for-tat explanation. Kürten might well have believed that about himself, but the “vampire” moniker gets at an essential, organic sensuality about his crimes whose roots go quite a bit deeper than revenge.
“Tell me,” the doomed murderer is supposed to have asked a prison doctor shortly before facing the guillotine, “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?”
The doctor indeed thought it possible the head might survive a few seconds.
“That,” mused the killer, “would be the pleasure to end all pleasures.”
Kürten is one of several predatory sex-slayers — also see the likes of Fritz Haarman and Carl Grossman — who prospered in interwar Germany, and helped to inspire Fritz Lang’s cinematic classic M. (Kürten is often thought the most direct model for that movie’s murderer, played by Peter Lorre. Lang denied that was the case, but in some countries’ releases it went out under the title not of M, but of The Vampire of Düsseldorf.)