Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Peter Kürten: The Vampire of Dusseldorf

Confession and Trial

Once under arrest, Kürten spoke with remarkable frankness to Professor Karl Berg, an eminent German psychologist, who was later to write the most comprehensive guide to the career of Peter Kuerten in a book entitled The Sadist. Berg was supremely successful in winning the prisoner's confidence and provided a fascinating insight into the mind of a killer. Kürten's memory functioned with a most extraordinary clarity and the vividness with which he preserved the details of each crime gives us a measure of the gratification of the act. When Kürten dealt with matters that had no emotional value for him, his memory was often highly defective and flawed.

The manner in which Kürten enumerated all his offences is quite astounding. He was not accused of these crimes one by one, but reeled off his own account, beginning with No.1 and ending with No.79. Every single case was dictated to the stenographer and Kürten even showed enjoyment at the horrified faces of the many police officers that listened to his shocking recital.

Such then is the so-called "great" confession attributed to Kürten after his arrest. The fullness and accuracy of the disclosure naturally awoke doubts as to its veracity and yet, aside from the occasional and perhaps understandable mistruth, the vast majority of his salient statements were adhered to in discussions with the examining magistrate and later with Professor Berg. Kürten himself recognised the obvious scepticism regarding his confession and consequently took time to describe each crime as precisely as possible to Berg.

"It is very easy to describe crimes one has not committed. One could scarcely credit it that a confession could be founded on very full newspaper reports and yet be simply an invention. To that extent, I quite understand your doubts, Professor."

Kürten's over-riding motivation to explain his wrongs was not, as one might expect, a feeling of guilt or repentance, but simply to secure a lucrative future for his wife. The consistently high regard paid to Frau Kürten throughout the ordeal is one of the most fascinating aspects in the account and contradicts much of what we know about Kürten's persona. Even though unfaithful throughout his marriage, Kürten was still exceptionally fond of his wife and was desperate to ensure a substantial reward for her future years.

"I had already finished with my life when I first knew the police were on my track. I wanted to fix up for my wife a carefree old age, for she is entitled to at least a part of the reward. That is why I entered a plea of guilty to all the crimes."

Charged with a total of nine murders and seven attempted murders, the trial of the 'Düsseldorf Vampire' opened on April 13th 1931. A special shoulder-high cage had been built inside the courtroom to prevent his escape and behind it was arranged some of the grisly exhibits of the Kürten museum. There lay skulls of his victims and body parts displaying the injuries inflicted by the killer, each meticulously presented in a chronologically fashion. Knives, rope, scissors and a hammer were on show, along with many articles of clothing and a spade he had used to bury a woman. It was indeed a gruesome exhibition.

The initial shock to the crowd, however, came with the physical appearance of the 'Monster'. Dressed in an immaculate suit and with sleek, neatly parted hair, Kürten had the look of a prim and proper businessman. Speaking in a quiet, matter-of-fact voice, he initially denied his earlier confession and presented a not-guilty plea to the examining magistrate. He had, he said, confessed to the crimes on the first occasion only to secure the reward for his wife. Even though thoroughly persistent, Kürten was eventually broken down by the examining magistrate and, after a trying two months, reverted to his original and full confession.

The amplification of the crimes was more monstrous than anyone had imagined, yet the most brilliant doctors in Germany testified that Kürten had been "perfectly responsible for his actions at all times". His motive was made clear from the start; he wanted to revenge himself on society for the wrongs he had suffered in prison. In answer to the judge's question as to whether he had a conscience, Kuerten replied,

"I have none. 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."

In his trademark flat, unemotional voice, Kürten 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 Kürten believed he had been born. The court became hypnotised with the dramatic extent of the revelations, the killer at one point describing his thoughts on how to cause accidents involving thousands of people with no modicum of self-restraint.

"I derived the sort of pleasure from these visions that other people would get from thinking about a naked woman."

Kuerten went on to narrate the details of his killing, each individual incident presented in a manner of such organisation and efficiency never before seen. The confession was indeed so damning that the prosecution barely bothered to present any evidence. The defendant's counsel, Dr. Wehner, had the hopeless task of trying to prove insanity in the face of unbreakable evidence from the many distinguished psychiatrists.

"The man Kürten is a riddle to me. I can not solve it. The criminal Haarman only killed men, Landru and Grossman only women, but Peter killed men, women, children and animals; killed anything he found."

The jury took only one and half-hours to reach a unanimous verdict: guilty on all counts. The presiding judge, Dr. Rose, interrupted the continuing self-righteous ramblings of the defendant to sentence him to death nine times. Kürten behaved in a dignified fashion and did not challenge the judgement nor feign any remorse. He did, however, note every discrepancy in the accounts of the witnesses and also protested against the observations of the experts, which were not, in his opinion, wholly accurate.

On July 2nd 1932, the 'Düsseldorf Vampire' went to his death at a guillotine erected in the yard of the Klingelputz Prison. Kürten expressed his last earthly desire on the way to the yard: "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 this thought for a while, then added, "that would be the pleasure to end all pleasures."

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