Peter Kurten, the ‘Vampire of Düsseldorf’
The Epitome of Sexual Deviancy
His mild manners and soft-spoken courteousness placed him above suspicion, and to most people he appeared to be totally harmless. Yet his bourgeois exterior concealed one of the most brutal sadists of modern times...
As night fell across the city that had lived through a year of terror, the streets rapidly emptied. People hurried through the narrow lanes to their homes. Children were plucked from playgrounds and sent to bed. Doors were bolted and curtains drawn. The people were in dread of a creature – a vampire – which had no face, no name, no shape. Already, it had committed 46 violent crimes, displaying every kind of perversion. Five bodies had been taken to the mortuary. But still it remained little more than a spectre.
As the lights went out on the night of August 23, 1929, the people of Düsseldorf, in the German Rhineland, felt almost inured to horror. Nothing more, they thought, could shock them now. As they slept fitfully, they little foresaw that the next few hours would demonstrate the full bestiality of the man they had labelled The Düsseldorf Vampire.
There was one bright and cheerful patch of light that evening. In the suburb of Flehe, hundreds of people were enjoying the annual fair. Old-fashioned merry-go-rounds revolved to the heavy rhythm of German march tunes, stalls dispensed beer and würst, there was a comforting feeling of safety and warmth in the closely packed crowd.
At around 10:30, two foster sisters, 5-year-old Gurtrude Hamacher and 14-year-old Louise Lenzen, left the fair and started walking through the adjoining allotments to their home. As they did so a shadow broke away from among the beansticks and followed them along a footpath. Louise stopped and turned as a gentle voice said:
“Oh dear, I’ve forgotten to buy some cigarettes. Look, would you be very kind and go to one of the booths and get some for me? I’ll look after the little girl.”
Louise took the man’s money and ran back towards the fairground. Quietly, the man picked up Gertrude in his arms and carried her behind the beanpoles. There was no sound as he strangled her and then slowly cut her throat with a Bavarian clasp knife. Louise returned a few moments later and handed over the cigarettes. The man seized her in a stranglehold and started dragging her off the footpath. Louise managed to break away and screamed “Mama! Mama!” The man grabbed her again, strangled her and cut her throat. Then he vanished.
Twelve hours later, Gertrude Schulte, a 26-year-old servant girl, was stopped by a man who offered to take her to the fair at the neighbouring town of Neuss. Foolishly, she agreed. The man introduced himself as Fritz Baumgart and suggested they take a stroll through the woods. Suddenly, he stopped and roughly attempted sexual intercourse. Terrified, Gertrude Schulte pushed him away and screamed, “I’d rather die!”
The man screamed “Well, die then!” and began stabbing her frenziedly with a knife. She felt searing pains in her neck and shoulder and a terrific thrust in the back. “Now you can die” said the man and hurled her away with such force that the knife broke and the blade was left sticking in her back. But Gertrude Schulte didn’t die. A passer-by heard her screams and called the police and an ambulance. By then, the attacker had disappeared.
In barely more than half a day, the Düsseldorf maniac had killed two children and attempted to rape and kill another woman. The citizens were stunned as they read their morning papers. Day by day, the attacks continued. Their increasing frequency and ferocity convinced medical experts that the Vampire had lost all control of his sadistic impulses.
In one half-hour, he attacked and wounded a girl of 18, a man of 30, and a woman of 37. The Bavarian dagger gave way to a sharper, thinner blade and then to some kind of blunt instrument. It was a bludgeon that hammered to death two more servant girls, Ida Reuter and Elisabeth Dorrier; the thin blade that killed five-year-old Gertrude Albermann, her body shredded with 36 wounds.
Twenty miles away, in the cathedral city of Cologne, a 21-year-old “domestic” named Maria Budlick read the anguished headlines and said to a friend: “Isn’t it shocking? Thank goodness we’re not in Düsseldorf.”
A few weeks later, Maria Budlick lost her job. On May 14, she set out to look for work and boarded a train for Düsseldorf... and an unwitting rendezvous with the Vampire.
On the platform at Düsseldorf station, she was accosted by a man who offered to show her the way to a girls’ hostel. They followed the brightly lit streets for a while, but when he started leading her towards the dark trees of the Volksgarten Park she suddenly remembered the stories of the Monster, and refused to go any farther. The man insisted and it was while they were arguing that a second man appeared, as if from nowhere, and inquired softly: “Is everything all right?” The man from the railway station slunk away and Maria Budlick was left alone with her rescuer.
Tired and hungry, she agreed to accompany him to his one-room flat in Mettmannerstrasse, where she had a glass of milk and a ham sandwich. The man offered to take her to the hostel, but after a tram ride to the north-eastern edge of the city, she realized they were walking deeper and deeper into the Grafenburg Woods. Her companion stopped suddenly and said:
“Do you know where you are? I can tell you! You are alone with me in the middle of the woods. Now you scream as much as you like and nobody will hear you!”
The man lunged forward, seized her by the throat and tried to have sexual intercourse up against a tree. Maria Budlick struggled violently and was about to lose consciousness when she felt the man’s grip relax. “Do you remember where I live?” he asked. “In case you’re ever in need and want my help?” “No,” gasped Maria, and in one word saved her own life and signed the death warrant of the Düsseldorf Vampire. The man let her go and showed her out of the woods.
But Maria Budlick had remembered the address. She vividly recalled the nameplate “Mettmannerstrasse” under the flickering gaslight. And in a letter to a friend the next day, she told of her terrifying experience in the Grafenburg Woods with the quiet, soft-spoken man. The letter never reached her friend. It was misdirected and opened by a Frau Brugman, who took one look at the contents and called the police.
Twenty-four hours later, accompanied by plainclothes detectives, Maria Budlick was walking up and down Mettmannerstrasse trying to pinpoint the quiet man’s house. She stopped at No. 71. It looked familiar and she asked the landlady if “a fair-haired, rather sedate man” lived there. The woman took her up to the fourth floor and unlocked a room. It was the same one in which she had drunk her milk and eaten her sandwich two nights earlier.
She turned round to face even more conclusive proof. The quiet man was coming up the stairs towards her. He looked startled, but carried on to his room and shut the door behind him. A few moments later, he left the house with his hat pulled down over his eyes, passed the two plainclothes men standing in the street and disappeared round a corner.
Maria Budlick ran out and told the officers: “That’s the man who assaulted me in the woods. His name is Peter Kurten.” So far, nothing linked Kurten with the Vampire. His only crime was suspected rape. But he knew there was no longer any hope of concealing his identity. Early the following morning – after meeting his wife as usual at the restaurant where she worked late – he confessed: “I am the Monster of Düsseldorf.”
On May 24, 1930, Frau Kurten told the story to the police, adding that she had arranged to meet her husband outside St. Rochus Church at three o’clock that afternoon. By that time the whole area was surrounded by armed police. The moment Peter Kurten appeared, four officers rushed forward with loaded revolvers. The man smiled and offered no resistance. “There is no need to be afraid,” he said.
After exhaustive questioning, during which he admitted 68 crimes – not including convictions for theft and assault, for which he had already spent a total of 20 years in prison – the trial opened on April 13, 1931. He was charged with a total of nine murders and seven attempted murders.
Thousands of people crowded round the converted drillhall of the Düsseldorf police headquarters waiting to catch their first glimpse of the depraved creature who had terrorized the city. A special shoulder-high “cage” had been built inside the courtroom to prevent his escape and behind it were arranged the grisly exhibits of the “Kurten Museum” – the prepared skulls of his victims, showing the various injuries, knives, scissors and a hammer, articles of clothing, and a spade he had used to bury a woman.
The first shock was the physical appearance of the Monster. Despite his appalling crimes, 48-year-old Peter Kurten was far from the maniac of the conventional horror film. He was no Count Dracula with snarling teeth and wild eyes, no lumbering stitched-together Frankenstein’s Monster. There was no sign of the brutal sadist or the weak-lipped degenerate. With his sleek, meticulously parted hair, cloud of Eau de Cologne, immaculate suit, and well-polished shoes, he looked like a prim shopkeeper or minor civil servant.
It was when he started talking that a chill settled over the court. In a quiet, matter-of-fact voice, as if listing the stock of a haberdasher’s shop, he described his life of perversion and bloodlust in such clinical detail that even the most hardened courtroom officials paled.
His crimes were more monstrous than anyone had imagined. The man wasn’t a mere psychopath, but a walking textbook of perverted crime: sex maniac, sadist, rapist, vampire, strangler, stabber, hammer-killer, arsonist, a man who committed bestiality with animals, and derived sexual satisfaction from witnessing street accidents and planning disasters involving the deaths of hundreds of people.
And yet he was quite sane. The most brilliant doctors in Germany testified that Kurten had been perfectly responsible for his actions at all times. Further proof of his awareness was provided by the premeditated manner of his crimes, his ability to leave off in the middle of an attack if disturbed, and his astonishing memory for every detail.
How did this inoffensive-looking man become a Vampire? In his flat, unemotional voice, Kurten described a life in which a luckless combination of factors – heredity, environment, the faults of the German penal system – had conspired to bring out and foster the latent sadistic streak with which he had been born.
Kurten described how his childhood was spent in a poverty-stricken, one-room apartment; one of a family of 13 whose father was a drunken brute. There was a long history of alcoholism and mental trouble on the father’s side of the family, and his father frequently arrived home drunk, assaulted the children and forced intercourse on his mother. “If they hadn’t been married, it would have been rape,” he said. His father was later jailed for three years for committing incest with Kurten’s sister, aged 13.
Kurten’s sadistic impulses were awakened by the violent crimes in his own home. At the age of nine, a worse influence took over. Kurten became apprenticed to a dogcatcher who lived in the same house, a degenerate who showed him how to torture animals and encouraged him to masturbate them. Around the same time, he drowned a boy while playing on a raft in the Rhine. When the boy’s friend dived in to rescue him, Kurten pushed him under the raft and held him down until he suffocated, too.
His sexual urges developed rapidly, and within five years he was committing bestiality with sheep and goats in nearby stables. It was soon after that he “became aware of the pleasure of the sight of blood” and he began to torture animals, achieving orgasm stabbing pigs and sheep.
The terrible pattern of his life was forming. It only needed one more depraved influence to transfer his sadistic urges from animals to human beings. He found it in a prostitute, twice his age, a masochist who enjoyed being ill-treated and abused. His sadistic education was complete and they lived together for some time.
Far from straightening him out, a two-year prison sentence for theft left him bitter and angry at inhuman penal conditions – particularly for adolescents – and introduced him to yet another sadistic refinement, a fantasy world where he could achieve orgasm by imagining brutal sexual acts. He became so obsessed with these fantasies that he deliberately broke minor prison rules so that he could be sentenced to solitary confinement. It was the ideal atmosphere for sadistic daydreaming.
Shortly after being released from prison, he made his first murderous attack on a girl during sexual intercourse, leaving her for dead in the Grafenburg Woods. No body was ever found and the girl probably crawled away, keeping her terrible secret to herself. More prison sentences followed, for assault and theft. After each jail term, Kurten’s feelings of injustice were strengthened. His sexual and sadistic fantasies now involved revenge on society.
“I thought of myself causing accidents affecting thousands of people and invented a number of crazy fantasies such as smashing bridges and boring through bridge piers,” he explained,
“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.”
The court was hypnotized by the revelations. To them, Kurten’s narrative sounded like the voice of Satan. It was almost impossible to associate it with the mild figure in the wooden cage. While hysteria and demands for lynching – and worse – reigned outside the court, the trial itself was a model of decorum and humanity, mainly due to the courteous and civilized manner of the Presiding Judge, Dr. Rose. Quietly, he prompted Kurten to describe his bouts of arson and fire-raising...
“Yes, when my desire for injuring people awoke, the love of setting fire to things awoke as well. The sight of the flames delighted me, but above all it was the excitement of the attempts to extinguish the fire and the agitation of those who saw their property being destroyed.”
The court was deathly quiet, sensing that the almost unspeakable had at last arrived. Gently, Dr. Rose asked, “Now tell us about Christine Klein...” Kurten pursed his lips for a second as if mentally organizing the details and then – in the unemotional tones of a man recalling a minor business transaction – described the horrible circumstance of his first sex-killing.
“It was on May 25, 1913. I had been stealing, specializing in public bars or inns where the owner lived on the floor above. In a room above an inn at Köln-Mülheim, I discovered a child of 13 asleep. Her head was facing the window. I seized it with my left hand and strangled her for about a minute and a half. The child woke up and struggled but lost consciousness.
“I had a small but sharp pocketknife 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 locked the door again and went back home to Düsseldorf.
“Next day I went back to Mülheim. There is a cafe opposite the Klein’s place and I sat there and drank a glass of beer and read all about the murder in the papers. People were talking about it all round me. All this amount of indignation and horror did me good.”
In the courtroom, the horrors were piling up like bodies in a charnel house. Describing his sexual aberrations, Kurten admitted that the sight of his victim’s blood was enough to bring on an orgasm. On several occasions, he drank the blood – once gulping so much that he vomited. He admitted drinking blood from the throat of one victim and from the wound on the temple of another. In another attack, he licked the blood from a victim’s hands. He also had an ejaculation after decapitating a swan in a park and placing his mouth over the severed neck.
Everyone in the courtroom realized they were not just attending a sensational trial, but experiencing a unique legal precedent. The prosecution hardly bothered to present any evidence. Kurten’s detailed, almost fussy, confession was the most damning evidence of all. Never before had a prisoner convicted himself so utterly; and never before had a courtroom audience been given the opportunity to gaze so deeply into the mind of a maniac.
Every tiny detail built up a picture of a soul twisted beyond all recognition. Kurten described with enthusiasm how he enjoyed reading Jack the Ripper as a child, how he had visited a waxwork Chamber of Horrors and boasted “I’ll be in there one day!” The whole court shuddered when, in answer to one question, Kurten pointed to his heart and said: “Gentlemen, you must look in here!”
When the long, ghastly recital was over, Kurten’s counsel, Dr. Wehner, had the hopeless task of trying to prove insanity in the face of unbreakable evidence by several distinguished psychiatrists. During Professor Sioli’s testimony, Dr. Wehner pleaded:
“Kurten is the king of sexual delinquents because he unites nearly all perversions in one person. Can that not change your opinion about insanity? Is it possible for the Kurten case to persuade psychiatry to adopt another opinion?”
Professor Sioli: “No.”
Dr. Wehner: “That is the dreadful thing: The man Kurten is a riddle to me. I cannot solve it. The criminal Haarman only killed men, Landru only women, Grossman only women, but Kurten killed men, women, children, and animals, killed anything he found!”
Professor Sioli: “And was at the same time a clever man and quite a nice one.”
Here was the final twist to the conundrum. The face peeping over the wooden cage was recognizably only too human. Witnesses had spoken of his courteousness and mild manners. Neighbours had refused flatly to believe he was the Vampire. Employers testified to his honesty and reliability. He could charm women to their deaths, indeed was regarded as a local Casanova. His wife had been completely unaware of his double life and had only betrayed him on his insistence, so she could share in the reward for his arrest. Right at the beginning of the Düsseldorf Terror, a former girlfriend who suggested he might be the Vampire was fined by the police for making a malicious accusation.
Some of the bourgeois puritanism which made Kurten so plausible burst out in his final statement before sentence was passed. Speaking hurriedly and gripping the rail, he said:
“My actions as I see them today are so terrible and so horrible that I do not even make an attempt to excuse them. But one bitter sting remains in my mind. I think of Dr. Wolf and the woman doctor – the two Socialist doctors accused recently of abortions performed on working-class mothers who sought their advice – When I think of the 500 murders they have committed, then I cannot help feeling bitter.
“The real reason for my conviction is that there comes a time in the life of every criminal when he can go no further. And this spiritual collapse is what I experienced. But I do feel that I must make one statement: some of my victims made things very easy for me. Manhunting on the part of women today has taken on such forms that...”
At such self-righteousness, Dr. Rose’s patience snapped. “Stop these remarks!” he ordered, banging his desk. The jury then took only 1½ hours to reach their verdict: Guilty on all counts. Dr. Rose sentenced him to death nine times.
On the evening of July 1, 1932, Peter Kurten was given the traditional Henkers-Mahlzeit or condemned man’s last meal. He asked for Wienerschnitzel, fried potatoes, and a bottle of white wine – which he enjoyed so much that he had it all over again. At six o’clock the following morning, the Vampire of Düsseldorf, a priest on either side, walked briskly to the guillotine erected in the yard of Klingelputz Prison. “Have you any last wish to express?” asked the Attorney-General. Without emotion, almost cheerfully, Kurten replied “No.”
For in the few minutes before that walk, and the blow that separated his head from his body, he had already expressed his last, earthly desire. “Tell me,” he asked the prison psychiatrist, “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?” He savoured the thought for a moment, then added: “That would be the pleasure to end all pleasures.”
First appeared in Crimes and Punishment 1973/1976 Phoebus Publishing Co.