The head of Peter Kurten in Murderabilia by Harold Schechter

The Vampire of Dusseldorf

When I read Deranged by Harold Schechter in the 90s, I never would have imagined one day a piece of my work would be in his.

But now, a photo I captured of a serial killer’s severed head during a Wisconsin Dells trip for my daughter’s birthday is officially in print in Schechter’s new book Murderabilia: A History of Crime in 100 Objects.

Peter Kurten's head in the book Murderabilia by Harold Schechter

My photo of Peter Kurten’s head in Murderabilia by Harold Schechter

There’s an additional layer of surreality in the fact that, at the same time, I’ve been watching Schechter discuss Ed Gein in the new MGM+ docuseries Psycho: The Lost Tapes of Ed Gein.

My contribution to Murderbilia isn’t about Gein, though there is a chapter in the book dedicated to his mother Augusta’s crucifix. It isn’t Gein’s head hanging in the Waterpark Capital of the World – he’s still buried in Plainfield Cemetery among the graves left empty by his plundering.

The head in question belongs to someone considerably more abhorrent than Gein: Serial killer Peter Kurten, the “Vampire of Dusseldorf” who was executed in Cologne, Germany in 1931 for crimes exponentially more horrendous than anything the Butcher of Plainfield got up to.

Kurten was an awful human being, the details of his crimes nauseating, but I find it endlessly fascinating (and undeniably Wisconsin) that his mummified and anatomized head can be found spinning on a hook in the heart of kitchsy Wisconsin Dells, where you can have your food delivered by model train, a Zoltar fortunetelling machine lurks around every corner, there’s an upside down White House, and a giant Trojan Horse with a go-kart track running through its belly.

I mean, this is a place for families and children…and here’s the head of a guy who did horrible things to children and got off on drinking the blood from their wounds.

Despite the fact that the Dells has been home to Peter Kurten’s head since Ripley’s Believe It or Not! opened there in the early 90s (it was their key attraction) I had no idea it was there until 2017. When I was young, we made a couple family trips to the Dells, but we were basically just a hair over living in poverty. So I had walked past Ripley’s a few times, looking longingly through the windows, unable to explore the bizarre wonders inside.

In 2017, I had the opportunity to chat with true crime researcher and filmmaker John Borowski at a Chicago horror convention. He had recently made an appearance on the History Channel series American Ripper, where he weighed in on the theory that serial killer H.H. Holmes, could have escaped his own execution.

I had questions. Namely, how hard did the producers try to sway him into saying something that fit their narrative.

John was great, he was friendly, and it was a thoroughly fascinating conversation.

He also had a new series on Prime called Serial Killer Culture TV, about people who collect murder memorabilia.

He asked if I had watched the series. I admitted that, while I knew of its existence, I hadn’t actually made the effort to watch it yet.

Ask me about all the dumb things I’ve said to unintentionally insult famous people over the years.

Anyway, I felt guilty, because John was a really nice guy and I wanted to support his work. A day or two later, I put the show on. The entire episode was dedicated to the story of this serial killer’s head in Wisconsin Dells that I’d never heard of.

I dragged my kids along on our first pilgrimage to Kurten’s head a few weeks later – one last hurrah to peer into the gaping eye sockets of a decapitated sadist before summer break was over.

I was content for a while after that, but in January of 2020 (just before the COVID pandemic began) we embarked on a weekend getaway into the frozen Wisconsin wastes for my daughter’s 17th birthday.

Temperatures plummeted below zero. Wisconsin Dells was a ghost town. Vibrantly colored water slides contrasted starkly against empty pools and barren waterparks blanketed in snow. But our hotel room had a fireplace and a jacuzzi, so we couldn’t complain.

Our last stop of the weekend – before a harrowing two-hour drive home through a blizzard, in the dark, with little visibility – was to Ripley’s to shoot some new photos and video for various upcoming projects.

The photo in Murderabilia, a similar shot on the cover of my Wisconsin Travel Guide, and this video, were all taken then.

Murderabilia by Harold Schechter

Murderabilia by Harold Schechter

Murderabilia is available now. Grab your copy right here.