Defanged and Decapitated: The Mummified Head of the Düsseldorf Vampire

September 12, 2018 — It’s the mummified, decapitated head of a serial killer known as the Vampire of Düsseldorf. It’s like, every monster wrapped into one single, disturbing object.

And it’s freely available for your children to visit.

Germany is a country great at monster-making. It has given us Nosferatu, Krampus, that guy with the truncated mustache and the broken propeller blade on his arm. It also gave us Peter Kürten, aka the Düsseldorf Monster, aka the Vampire of Düsseldorf.

Peter Kürten was born in 1883 in Mülheim am Rhein, Germany. He had an abysmal upbringing, crammed into a one-room house with 12 other siblings and an alcoholic, abusive, incestuous, rapist father…whom he decided to one-up when he grew up. If the human race collectively found something abominable, Kürten found it embraceable—arson, rape, pedophilia, bestiality, murder. And those awful words don’t even describe the depths of…verve…with which he perpetrated each act. He was a pathetic force of chaos and brutality.

Kürten’s entire timeline was filled with crimes and obscenities, but his full rampage didn’t start in earnest until 1929 in Düsseldorf and the surrounding area. Most of his victims were women and girls, although some were men. It was a random enough sampling that it confused the police enough to not recognize a connection among the string of vicious acts perpetrated across their city. It took a survivor of his victimization to finally put the second-to-last nail in his coffin, the last nail going to his wife. When it was obvious his time as a free monster was nearing an end, he advised her to turn him in and collect the reward money. Every dark heart has a silver lining.

He was officially tried for nine murders and seven attempted murders, although he admitted to 10 and 31, respectively. You had a one in three chance of surviving an encounter with Kürten, but a zero in zero chance of escaping that encounter unviolated or unmaimed.

His weapon of choice was a hammer, but he got his Stokerian nickname from his obsession with blood. He would sometimes taste and drink his victims’ red stuff. He found it erotic. It’s rumored that his last words before bending before the guillotine were to the prison doctor, “Tell me, after my head is 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? That would be the pleasure to end all pleasures."

He was caught about a year later, in 1930, tried, found guilty quicker than you can wipe something disgusting off your hands, and then executed in Dusseldorf in 1931. But he was such a monster, that they couldn’t just chunk him into anonymous ground. They had to open his head to see his brain. Because no way could such a creature be human. His brain must have sharp teeth and eyeballs. It must be green and slimy. But no. It was a regular human brain. Possibly swollen thymus, but otherwise just like yours and mine.

And that head is still preserved and accessible today.

To see this artifact, you don’t have to dig deep into the forensic archives of the Düsseldorf police station. You don’t have to grave-rob a prison cemetery. You just have to go on a family vacation…to the Wisconsin Dells.

The Wisconsin Dells is a vacationland. Lots of t-shirt, souvenir, and fudge shops. Arcades. Restaurants. Half a dozen waterparks. And anytime you have a tourist town of that quality, you better believe there’s a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum.

And that’s where the head of the Vampire of Düsseldorf is on display, 90 years after it met the cold edge of gravity-propelled steel.

To see it, I (and my family) made our way through a room made of duct tape, around a two-headed cow, and past a python made of fake fingernails. Eventually, we ended up in a vampire exhibit: Statue of Vlad the Impaler, vampire killing kit, vampire dummy in a coffin with buttons on his chest that you can press for trivia. Fun with fangs.

And then, on the back wall of a five-foot-tall opening that looked like the mouth of a black fireplace, were spray-painted the words: “The Darker Side of Ripley’s.”

We ventured inside and up a small spiral staircase to a small room. There was a mannequin in a tub of blood representing Elizabeth Bathory, a sculpture of a witch being burned at the stake made out of angel hair pasta, an English warlock chest, and in a glass case framed in a wooden guillotine…the head of Peter Kürten. It was suspended on a hook and slowly rotating.

The head looked as if it had been peeled in two halves like banana skin. Each side featured a hollow cavity where the very normal brain had been, as well as a bisected spinal chord, sinuses, and teeth. The skin wrapped around the face was finely preserved down to the nostril hair and eyelashes. The eye sockets were hollow and black. You could almost match the head up to the photograph of Kürten beside it.

So how did this revolting lump of mummified flesh get into a family attraction in a Great Lakes state? After World War II, it came into the personal collection of Arne Coward, an antiques dealer in Hawaii who really like to collect instruments of torture—thumb screws, tongue tearers, executioner swords. If it was made to inflict pain, he wanted it in his living room. They say his interest in mankind’s more sadisitc tendencies could be traced to his time spent imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, but whatever the reason, Kürten’s hollow head fit right into the theme.

In 1979, the Coward died, and his pieces went up for auction. Ripely’s bought the head and then installed it in their latest museum in 1990 in the Wisconsin Dells, where it’s spun slowly and disturbingly ever since. Where you can see it today.

Where I and my family saw it before eating ice creams and playing claw machines.

It will probably haunted me for the rest of my life.