Serving as the inspiration behind Fritz Lang's classic film M, Peter Kürten remains one of the most infamous serial killers in European history. Nicknamed the "Vampire of Düsseldorf," Kürten terrorized Germany between 1913 and 1929, claiming the lives of at least nine in a series of bloody knifings and hammer attacks.
Kürten holds a prominent position among German serial killers, as he was a sadist without bounds whose sensational exploits instilled fear in an entire nation. Sometimes referred to as the "Düsseldorf Monster," Kürten was a child killer who also practiced necrophilia, cannibalism, and bestiality - a real-life bogeyman capable of unfathomable evil.
Peter Kürten was born in Köln-Mullheim, a suburb of Cologne, Germany, on May 26, 1883. He was the eldest of a staggering 13 children, and his parents struggled to provide for their massive brood, which was confined to a small, one-room apartment.
Growing up in extreme poverty, Peter - and the rest of his family - also had to endure an abusive and alcoholic father. Coming home after an evening of drinking, the Kürtens' patriarch would often rape his wife in plain view of his children. His father also served three years in prison for committing crimes of incest on Peter's 13-year-old sister.
Traumatic childhoods are often a unifying trait among serial killers, and Peter Kürten's experience as a youth - particularly as a witness to extreme sexual violence - certainly puts him that group.
Peter Kürten, by his own accounts, got an early start on his murderous career. After he was apprehended in 1930, he described to a court-appointed psychologist that at the age of just nine years old, he killed two of his classmates. In his version of the events, he pushed one boy into a nearby river, and when another jumped into help him, Kürten held the second boy under the water, resulting in the drowning death of both children. He never faced any consequences for this particular crime, which at the time was deemed to be a tragic accident.
Suffering from a chaotic and unstable life at home, at the age of nine, Kürten formed a strange and unhealthy bond with a neighbor. The man - who happened to be a dog-catcher - would introduce Kürten to the practice of bestiality, another dark turn on his path to mass murder.
As he grew into his late teens and early twenties, Kürten expanded his bestiality to farm animals, including cattle, goats, and sheep. It was during this experimentation that he discovered how much pleasure he derived from stabbing a creature to death during intercourse, a practice he would carry on as he graduated to violating humans.
It's typical for a serial killer to ramp up to the act of murder by committing a series of escalating crimes, and Peter Kürten certainly accumulated an impressive criminal resume on his road to killing. With convictions for arson, burglary, sexual assault, and even desertion during WWI, Kürten did almost 30 prison bids before his final arrest. He would later blame the conditions in the German penal system for fostering his sadistic tendencies, particularly his time spent in solitary confinement. It was in those isolated cells that Kürten began experiencing strong, murderous fantasies - visions that he enjoyed so much he committed further crimes while in prison just to be sent to solitary.