Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Peter Kürten: The Vampire of Dusseldorf

Inside the Mind of a Psychopath

Even though it has long since been accepted that there is no single reason for serial crime, the same contributing factors rear their evil head in the case of nearly all killers of this type. Peter Kürten is no different and exhibits many characteristics of the so-called "lust killer." He was, essentially, a pathologically over-sexed psychopath — an individual so self-centered that, in his eyes, no other human being mattered.

Drawing of Peter Kurten
Drawing of Peter

Kürten admitted to a feeling of tension before and after the crime: a condition that convinced the experts of the sexual character of the motive. The attacks were planned and carried out in order to achieve a sexual satisfaction that could only be obtained through acts of violence. This is the ultimate operation of a monstrous and unique egotism — the satisfaction of one's sexual urges at all costs.

"I committed my acts of arson for the same reasons — sadistic propensity. I got pleasure from the glow of the fire, the cries for help."

A word about Kürten the man: in personal appearance Peter Kürten was well built, clean-shaven and fresh complexioned. In all his personal habits, he was meticulous and this narcissistic tendency truly reflected the self-satisfaction of the inner man. Kürten dearly loved himself and it was the kernel of his tragedy that he was unable to love any other human being.

Throughout his examination, Kürten constantly came back to the miseries of his childhood and his time spent in incarceration. He always spoke of them with great bitterness and often blamed them for turning him into the person he became. Perhaps more than any other killer of his type, Kürten seemed to understand exactly where, so to speak, it "all went wrong." As George Godwin, an analyst of Kürten, once remarked, "If he did become a victimiser of the innocent, it must be remembered that he began life as an innocent victimized."

Inevitably the question of his sanity, and hence his legal responsibility, became a major issue of the trial. It was decided that Kürten was suffering from no organic mental disease or from any functional mental disease and that he was, therefore, responsible in law for his crimes.

Psychoanalysts declare that the criminal differs from the man who adjusts himself to society in that he fails to sublimate the aggressive primitive urges. These actions are motivated by the wounds inflicted upon him by injustice. There can be no doubt that Kürten suffered harshly in prison and in this way he obtained the subject matter for an easy later rationalization.

"So 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."

This idea of vengeance and atonement is, in Kürten's case, rooted in sadism and is a mask for the sexual feeling. Even though studied by analysts in prison, these factors never seemed to come to the forefront of the evaluation. A basic prison diagnosis of sadism in the patient would have saved many lives, but Kürten was instead free to see his crimes as justification for the brutality witnessed throughout his life. He felt regret for the innocent victims, but never showed any remorse for his actions.

"How could I do so? After all, I had to fulfill my mission."

Kürten thought a lot about himself and reached a fair degree of self-recognition. He was aware of his fatal sadistic propensity, but always explained this due to heredity and his upbringing. There were a number of occasions, however, when Kürten seems to have recognised his evil nature and made it clear to a victim, in doing so almost apologising for his 'unnecessary' actions. This is highly unusual for lust killers of Peter's type, who are normally entirely convinced by their motives for atonement.

Also interestingly, when considering all the psychopathic tendencies exhibited by Kürten, is that his inclination to lie and deceive was supremely cultivated and the mask of a respectable citizen was scarcely penetrable. His calm assurance allowed him to time his attacks perfectly and then to move off swiftly into the night.

Yet the most puzzling characteristic of Kürten is the immense loyalty shown to his wife. For this killer, the infidelity of the assaults weighed more heavily than the bloody murder. A baffling character, Frau Kürten exhibited great humility throughout her married life and saw the bad times with Peter as punishment for her sinful former existence. As much as Kürten himself disrespected women, he seems to have understood this devotion and once commented,

"My relations with my wife were always good. I did not love her in the sensual way, but because of my admiration for her fine character."

Was it perhaps that Kürten loved his wife for her preoccupation with the concept of redemption, an emotion that he seems incapable of displaying? Maybe if others had provided him with more than crude sexual gratification — a selfless and self-effacing love — Peter Kürten would not have turned out quite the way he did.

It is, however, all pure conjecture. There will always remain the problem of the genesis of Kürten's sadistic perversions and we, as analysts of true crime, will never know the full truth. One may advance a number of heredity and emotional factors and yet still be without a convincing explanation to the psychological riddle he presents. Godwin once stated that "love is the gateway of life, as hate is the way of death; and it was Kürten's tragedy that he died without discovering this eternal truth." Whatever the answer may be to the great enigma that was Peter Kürten, perhaps it is fitting to leave the final words of this analysis to the killer himself.

"As I now see the crimes committed by me, they are so ghastly that I do not want to attempt any sort of excuse for them. I am prepared to bear the consequences of my misdeeds and hope that thus I will atone for a large part of what I have done. And when you consider my execution and recognize my goodwill to atone for all my crimes, I should think that the terrible desire for revenge and hatred against me can not endure. And I want to ask you to forgive me."

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