Born in Koln-Mulheim, Germany, in 1883, Peter Kurten was the product of a violent, abusive childhood. Thirteen members of his family existed in a single room, devoid of privacy, the atmosphere heavily charged with sexual tension. Kurten’s father, a brutal alcoholic, frequently compelled his wife to strip for sex in front of the assembled children, and he later went to prison for attempting to rape his own daughter. Peter likewise molested his sisters on occasion, and he was further influenced by a sadistic dogcatcher who lived in the same building. As a child, Kurten frequently watched this man torture his dogs, and was instructed in the art of masturbating animals for sport.
Kurten claimed his first murders at age nine, when he pushed a playmate from a raft on the banks of the Rhine. A second boy jumped in to help the first, and Kurten managed to push them both under the raft, where they drowned. As in the case of Carroll Edward Cole, a half-century later, these youthful murders were dismissed by the authorities as “accidental deaths.”
Around age twelve, Kurten moved with his family to Dusseldorf. Already twisted in his view of sexuality, he masturbated compulsively, attempting intercourse with his sisters and various schoolgirls. From age thirteen, he also practiced bestiality with sheep, pigs, and goats, deriving special satisfaction when he stabbed sheep to death during intercourse.
In his early teens, Kurten ran away from home to live as a nomadic robber, choosing girls and women as his prey. Back home in Dusseldorf at age sixteen, he briefly worked as an apprentice moulder, but his master proved abusive and Kurten absconded with cash from the till, settling in Coblenz with a prostitute who thrived on violence and perversion. Kurten logged his first arrest in Coblenz – one of seventeen indictments that would land him in jail for a total of twenty-seven years. Released in 1899, he learned his parents had divorced, and Kurten promptly moved in with another masochistic hooker twice his age.
Kurten claimed his first adult murder in November 1899, strangling a girl during sex in the Grafenberger Wald, outside Dusseldorf, but no body was found and his victim may well have survived it. He was jailed twice for fraud in 1900, then received another two years for attempting to shoot a girl with a rifle. Theft charges kept him behind bars until 1904, where he occupied his time with fantasies of violent sex and vengeance on society.
Drafted by the military on release from prison, Kurten soon deserted. He had started setting fires by this time, drawing sensual excitement from the flames. His targets normally were barns and hayricks, torched in hopes that sleeping tramps might be burned up alive. Sentenced to seven years on a theft charge, in 1905, Kurten later claimed to have poisoned several inmates in the prison hospital. On release, in 1912, he raped a servant girl, and shortly after that was found accosting women in a local restaurant. A waiter tried to intervene, and Kurten drove him off with pistol fire, earning another year in prison for his trouble.
On May 25, 1913, Kurten broke into a pub in Koln-Mulheim while the owners were away. Creeping up to their quarters, he found their 13-year-old daughter, Christine Klein, asleep in bed. He cut her throat and penetrated her vagina with his fingers, taking time to drop a handkerchief with his initials at the scene, but luck was with him. The victim’s father, Peter Klein, had recently quarreled with his brother Otto, the latter threatening to do something Klein “would remember all his life.” Otto Klein was indicted and tried for the murder, finally cleared for lack of evidence, while Kurten followed the proceedings with amusement.
Stepping up his schedule, Kurten found another sleeping victim but was frightened off by members of her family. In separate incidents, he struck a man and woman with a hatchet, reaching climax at the sight of blood. He also torched another hayrick and attempted strangulation of two women, prior to drawing eight more years in jail on unrelated charges.
Freed in 1921, he moved to Altenburg, informing new acquaintances that he had been a prisoner of war in Russia. Kurten met his future wife in Altenburg, a woman who had served five years in jail for shooting her fiancée. She initially rejected his proposals, but agreed to marry Kurten when he threatened her with murder.
Settling down on a peculiar version of domestic bliss, Kurten endured a “normal” life for several years before he had a relapse and was charged with sexually assaulting servant girls on two occasions. Moving back to Dusseldorf in 1925, he was delighted by a blood-red sunset on the night of his arrival. He was ready to begin his final reign of terror.
Based upon his subsequent confessions, Kurten bore responsibility, by 1928, in four attempted strangulations – all of women – and a rash of fires that claimed two homes and fifteen other targets. Still he did not hit his stride until the early weeks of 1929. On February 3, he stabbed a woman twenty-four times and left her lying in the street, but she recovered after months of care. Ten days later, Kurten scored his first fatality at Flingern, stabbing a mechanic twenty times and leaving him for dead.
On March 9, eight-year-old Rose Ohliger was found at a construction site in Dusseldorf; she had been raped, stabbed thirteen times, and efforts had been made to burn the corpse with paraffin. Comparing notes, detectives found their last three victims had been marked by stab wounds in the temples, but the choice of targets – first a woman, then a man, and now a child – apparently ruled out a pattern in the case.
In April 1929, police picked up a simple-minded transient for assaulting local women, but they found no evidence connecting him with homicide and he was sent to an asylum. Kurten rested from his labors, meanwhile, dallying with servant girls at home and “playfully” attempting strangulation during sex. Returning with a vengeance during August, Kurten later claimed that he had choked a woman by the name of “Ann” and dumped her body in the river, but no trace of her was every found. Before the month was our, three other victims – one a man – were stabbed in hit-and-run attacks in Dusseldorf, but all survived. On August 24, two children – Gertrude Hamacher, age five, and Lousie Lenzen, age 14 – were found dead near their homes, both strangled, with their throats cut. One day later, Gertrude Schulte was accosted on her way to see the fair, at Neuss. Confronted with a crude demand for sex, she said that she would rather die. “Well, die then,” Kurten answered, stabbing Gertrude several times before he fled. She lived and gave police a fair description of her would-be rapist, but detectives still rejected the suggestion of a single man behind their recent crime wave.
Kurten tried to strangle three more women in September, hurling one victim unto the river for good measure, but all survived. Ida Reuter was less fortunate, her skull crushed with a hammer near the end of the month. Another hammer victim, Elizabeth Dirries, was killed at Grafenbry, October 12. On the twenty-fifth, two more women were bludgeoned in separate attacks, but both recovered from their wounds.
Five-year-old Gertrude Alberman was reported missing in Dusseldorf on November 7, her body recovered two days later, after Kurten sent directions to a local newspaper. The child had been strangled, then stabbed thirty-six times for good measure. Following directions in Kurten’s letter, police also unearthed the remains of Maria Hahn, stabbed to death and buried in mid-August. Stabbed twenty times, Hahn had also been raped after death.
Kurten’s luck ran out on May 14, 1930, when he picked up Maria Budlick and took her home for a meal, thereafter strolling through the woods with sex and strangulation on his mind. Maria fought him off, and Kurten unaccountably released her after she assured him that she had forgotten his address. Police were summoned and, in custody, their suspect launched a marathon confession that would send him to his death.
Kurten’s trial opened on April 13, 1931, and ended eight days later. Jurors needed only ninety minutes to convict him on nine counts of murder, sternly rejecting Kurten’s insanity defense. Sentenced to death by decapitation, Kurten informed a psychiatrist that his greatest thrill of all time would be hearing the blood spurt from his own severed neck. He went to the guillotine, all smiles, on July 2, 1931.