Peter Kürten was born into extreme deprivation and poverty in Köln-Mullheim, a suburb of Cologne, Germany on 26 May 1883. The eldest of thirteen children, his father was an alcoholic with sadistic tendencies, who brutalised both wife and children, in the one room apartment that they all shared, for the duration of Kurten’s childhood.
This daily subjection to sexual violence must have had an immense influence on the boy who, aged 9, formed an unhealthy relationship with a dog-catcher living in the same building, who introduced him to the practise of bestiality, carried out initially on dogs.
Kurten claims to have drowned two school friends at the age of nine. Having pushed one overboard, the second dived in to his rescue. Kurten held both under water until they had suffocated. At the time the event was dismissed as a tragic childhood accident.
As Kurten matured sexually, his bestiality extended to sheep, goats and other farmyard animals, with the teenager discovering particular pleasure when the animal was stabbed during intercourse.
Kürten admitted to having decapitated a swan in order that he could drink the blood from the animal’s neck, achieving ejaculation in the process.
By 1899, at the age of sixteen, Kurten had progressed to petty crime, and ran away from home to escape the continuing violence. Shortly after his departure, his father was arrested for incestuous relations with Kurten’s 13-year old sister, and he was jailed for three years.
His petty crime soon led to the first of many prison sentences, mostly short-term, for various misdemeanours, that punctuated his existence over the following years. The appalling conditions within these prisons confirmed his sadistic tendencies, which he now transferred from farm animals to humans.
With each successive sentence, Kurten’s rage against society, and his capacity for depravity, increased; he discovered a fascination for brutal sexual acts whilst in solitary confinement, which enhanced his fantasies: so much so that he began to break prison rules to ensure the maximum time in solitary confinement.
After years of being rotated in and out of prison, Kürten committed his first murder in May 1913. Kürten was burglarizing a tavern in Cologne when he happened upon a sleeping 10-year-old girl in a bedroom above the pub. Kürten stabbed the girl to death. He returned the next day to a pub across the street, so he could sit and drink while listening to peoples’ reactions to the vicious murder. Two months later Kürten murdered again, this time a 17-year-old girl whom he strangled. The killer later admitted that he experienced an orgasm during the course of this murder. Peter Kürten now realized he needed to kill for sexual pleasure.
After the start of WWI, Kürten was called into military service, but he soon went AWOL. Shortly after, he was arrested for a series of arsons and burglaries and sentenced to six years in prison. Once he was released in 1921, he married a former prostitute with whom he attempted to live a somewhat normal life, and, for a few years anyhow, he worked a steady job in the town of Altenburg. His old desires and impulses, however, eventually drew him back to Düsseldorf, the scene of many of his crimes.
As always, Kürten fell back into his old criminal habits. Starting in February 1929, he embarked on a bloody murder and assault spree that terrified the city of Düsseldorf. First, Kürten stabbed an elderly woman over 20 times with a pair of scissors. The victim survived, but a pattern was set into motion. Kürten continued attacking random victims in random ways, including stabbing, strangulation, and occasionally bludgeoning with a hammer. The arbitrary nature of the crimes perplexed Düsseldorf police, who had no solid leads on who was menacing the city.
Discovering a 17-year-old girl named Gertrud Franken, Kürten manually strangled the girl, ejaculating at the sight of blood spouting from her mouth.
He strangled a nine-year-old girl named Rosa Ohliger into unconsciousness, before stabbing her in the stomach, temple, genitals and heart with a pair of scissors, spontaneously ejaculating as he knifed the child and inserting his semen into her vagina with his fingers.
Kürten accosted a 27-year-old housemaid named Gertrude Schulte, whom he openly asked to engage in sex with him. Upon being rebuffed, Kürten shouted, “Well, die then!” before repeatedly stabbing the woman in the head, neck, shoulder, and back.
For the next nine months, Düsseldorf was a city under siege. Kürten stabbed a 13-year-old to death and set her body on fire. A 45-year-old mechanic was stabbed to death. Several more died from hammer blows, or from Peter Kürten’s own hands. Kürten committed his final murder on November 7, 1929 when he stabbed 5-year-old Gertrude Albermann with a pair of scissors. As in earlier attacks, Kürten achieved orgasm during his vicious crimes. Though he continued his attacks after Albermann’s murder, all of his subsequent victims survived.
The end of Peter Kürten’s murderous stranglehold over Düsseldorf occurred in May 1930. His downfall began when Kürten lured a young woman to his apartment with the offer of a place to stay, hoping to have sex with her. When she refused, he took her into the forest and raped her. For some reason, he then let her go. Instead of reporting the rape to police, the young woman detailed her terrible experience in a letter to a friend; however, she accidentally sent the letter to the wrong address. The woman who had mistakenly received the letter turned it over to the Dusseldorf police, the police tracked down the author of the letter, and she led them to the apartment where Peter Kürten lived. Finally, authorities had what they needed.
Kürten was not home at the time, and as he was returning he spotted the police with the woman he had attacked. Kürten decided to come clean – but in an unusual way. As he was still fond of his wife, he confessed all the murders and attacks he had committed to her. Kürten did so for a very specific reason: He wanted his wife to turn him in, so she could collect the large reward being offered for the capture of the Düsseldorf Monster. Kürten’s wife agreed, alerted the police, and Peter Kürten was arrested. He quickly confessed.
Kürten showed no remorse whatsoever for his ghastly crimes at his trial in 1931. He told the judge and jury:
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. The punishments I have suffered have destroyed all my feelings as a human being. That was why I had no pity for my victims.
Peter Kürten was quickly found guilty and sentenced to death. On July 2, 1931, Kürten’s death sentence was carried out; he was beheaded by guillotine.
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.”