"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 my neck? That would be the pleasure to end all pleasures."
Peter Kürten was born into a poverty-stricken, abusive family, the third of 11 children. As a child, he witnessed his alcoholic father repeatedly sexually assault his mother and his sisters. He followed in his father’s footsteps, and was soon sexually abusing his sisters. He engaged in petty criminality from a young age, and was a frequent runaway. He later claimed to have committed his first murders at the age of nine, drowning two young friends while swimming.
As a youth he was employed by the local dogcatcher, who taught him to masturbate and torture dogs. He also performed acts of bestiality including stabbing sheep to bring himself to climax. He also confessed to burning down a farmhouse and watching from the bushes while masturbating.
Kürten progressed from torturing animals to attacks on people. He committed his first provable murder in 1913, strangling a 10-year-old girl, Christine Klein, during the course of a burglary. His crimes were then halted by World War I and an eight-year prison sentence.
On February 1929 he assaulted a woman and molested and murdered an eight-year-old girl. On 13 February he murdered a middle-aged mechanic, stabbing him 20 times. Kürten did not attack again until August, stabbing three people in separate attacks on the 21st; murdering two sisters, aged five and 14, on the 23rd; and stabbing another woman on the 24th. In September he committed a single rape and murder, brutally beating a servant girl with a hammer in the woods. In October he attacked two women with a hammer. On 7 November he killed a five-year-old girl by strangling and stabbing her 36 times with scissors, and then sent a map to a local newspaper disclosing the location of her grave. The variety of victims and murder methods gave police the impression that more than one killer was at large: the public turned in over 900,000 different names to the police as potential suspects.
The November murder was Kürten’s last, although he engaged in a spate of non-fatal hammer attacks from February to March 1930. In May he accosted a young woman named Maria Budlick; he initially took her to his home, and then to the Grafenberger Woods, where he raped but did not kill her. Budlick led the police to Kürten’s home. He avoided the police, but confessed to his wife and told her to inform the police. On 24 May he was located and arrested.
Kürten confessed to 79 offenses, and was charged with nine murders and seven attempted murders. He went on trial in April 1931. He initially pleaded not guilty, but after some weeks changed his plea. He was found guilty and sentenced to death. As Kürten was awaiting execution, he was interviewed by Dr. Karl Berg, whose interviews and accompanying analysis of Kürten formed the basis of his book, The Sadist. Kürten stated to Berg that his primary motive was one of sexual pleasure. The number of stab wounds varied because it sometimes took longer to achieve orgasm; the sight of blood was integral to his sexual stimulation. Kürten said to the legal examiners that his primary motive was to “strike back at oppressive society”. He did not deny that he had sexually molested his victims, but he always claimed during his trial that this was not his primary motive.
In 1931 scientists attempted to examine irregularities in Kürten’s brain in an attempt to explain his personality and behavior. His head was dissected and mummified and is currently on display at the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum in Wisconsin Dells.