The legendary medieval bandit Peter Niers would go down in history as one of Germany's most reviled criminals, raping and pillaging his way through 16th-century Europe. An alleged murderer of over 500 people, his escapades managed to cover just about every dark theme imaginable: theft, murder, infanticide, black magic, even cannibalism.
A master of disguise with a penchant for escape, the serial killer Niers was rumored to have received the gift of invisibility from the Devil himself, terrorizing an unsuspecting landscape for 15 long years and eventually becoming a folkloric figure. During a time when confessions and torture went hand in hand, his gripping capture led to some hair-raising admissions of fetal murder and one of the most grisly executions in history.
In the birthplace of punishments like the breaking wheel and the rack, "going medieval" on ne'er-do-wells was the law of the land, a reality never more clear than in the 1581 execution of Europe's greatest bogeyman.
Not a lot is known about the initial capture of Peter Niers in 1577. Even historical accounts on the subject are spotty at best, but what is known serves as the springboard to a most horrific tale of depravity and violence. For 11 long years, Niers and his unruly gang terrorized medieval Europe until they were apprehended in Gersbach, Germany. Tortured into submission by authorities, Niers copped to 75 murders, including the deaths of many local women. But just when it seemed he was doomed to rough justice, Niers cleverly escaped his confines and disappeared into the night, only to reappear in a much ghastlier form.
The torture and execution of Peter Niers gave new definition to the phrase "going medieval on someone," as he languished in agony for three grueling days. It was September 1581, and many people had come out to watch the suffering of this long-feared criminal. And boy, were they in for a treat.
According to a popular ballad written about the execution, on the first day, strips of his flesh were systematically ripped from his body while hot oil was poured into the open wounds. On the second day, the bottoms of his feet were smeared with grease and then held above burning coals, essentially roasting him alive. And on the third day, he was dragged through the streets and strapped to the infamous breaking wheel, where his body received 42 bone-breaking blows. When this did not kill him, the executioner quartered him by sawing his limbs from his body.
Why such a brutal execution? As it turned out, Peter Niers had been a very busy guy since his first capture, finally admitting to the death of an alleged 544 people. If true, that would make him one of the most prolific serial killers in history. Considering these were the brutal days of an eye for an eye (or an arm, or a leg, or a head), his punishment hardly seemed extreme.
Arguably the most popular and horrific of all medieval tortures, the device known as the breaking wheel was actually even worse than its name. Typically made from a wooden wagon wheel large enough to hold a person, the breaking wheel had radial spokes that could work in a variety of ways. Sometimes the condemned were lashed to the wheel while their limbs were beaten with a club or iron cudgel. Other times, they were laid out spread eagle on the top of the wheel, where they could be beaten and then properly displayed afterwards.
The French were particularly creative, placing the culprit on a revolving wheel with their limbs stretched out along the spokes. A large hammer then came down periodically to smash the person's appendages between the gaps. This would go on until the person's arms and legs were broken enough to intertwine through the spokes or until the crowd screamed for coups de grâce. At that point, the torturer would deliver a few "merciful" blows to the person's chest or abdomen, which brought about a quicker death. Otherwise, the poor soul could last days on the wheel, during which time his eyes would be pecked out by ravens. If that wasn't kind enough, some privileged victims might be strangled after just a few blows, or before they even began.
While there were accounts of the 14th-century murderer Bona Dies surviving on the wheel for four days after suffering such a punishment, most victims soon died from shock or dehydration.
As is often the case with folks who raise the bar on evil deeds, Peter Niers began to assume legendary status after escaping his torturers the first time. Not only had he admitted to being a straight-up serial killer, he had now managed to dissolve like a vapor into the medieval countryside where rounding up a criminal was easier said than done.
It was during this godless tour that Niers gathered his mates and supposedly took up arms with a force an even greater than himself - the Devil. Meeting in Pfalzburg, the men bonded with Satan, where he not only offered his blessing and his financial support to their diabolical plans, but endowed Niers with considerable supernatural powers. It was believed Niers developed the ability to shape-shift, taking on the physical form of something inanimate like a log or a stone, and later learned to assume any animal form at will. But these tremendous skills came with a steep price: he needed a constant supply of baby fetuses.
Various Germanic legends and contemporary authors specifically mentioned these practices as being a form of powerful black magic used by Niers to render himself invisible. It was also believed he used the flesh and fat of infants to make magic candles that, when lit, would allow him to silently break into homes at night without waking the owners.