originally published July 20, 2013

Things aren’t looking great for serial killers. Don’t get me wrong, this is probably a good thing, I’m just saying that, like photomat operators or carpeted lamp salesmen, it’s a career path in jeopardy of falling right off the market. Back in the olden days, there was no DNA testing. Investigations into missing persons were often resolved with arbitrary, often grudge-based finger-pointing or simply blaming it on the local witch.

It was an easier gig to get away with back then. Not only that, but a serial killer’s reputation tended to grow with age, absorbing the hyperbolic flair of folklore, expanding sometimes to the point of legend. This means any tale of pre-modern-era mass murderers has to be taken with the long savvy pause of knowing the numbers – and indeed the stories themselves – have probably been fudged a little, just for effect.

It’s a forgivable crime of literary license. Enough time has passed that no family name need be sullied by these ancient human monsters, and we can all sink our teeth a little deeper into a good historical gorefest.

Which brings me to Peter Niers.

Back in 1581, a nomadic bandit in the Holy Roman Empire had a pretty good chance of eluding authorities, particularly one who possessed supernatural abilities. Remember how I mentioned some of these stories were exaggerated? Well, this one skips the last exit to Weirdsville and motors right along to East Whatthefucksburg. Peter Niers was part of a band of roaming robbers in the countryside near Alsace, France and in parts of what is now Germany. But Niers did a lot more than just rob.

Tales of his murderous deeds appear to date back to 1567, according to a member of his gang who couldn’t keep his mouth shut. When Niers was nabbed in 1577, he confessed to 75 acts of murder. Horrifying enough perhaps, but the reality – or the “reality” as we must accept it from historical record, which comes mostly in the form of pamphlets distributed at the time and ballads sung in hushed tones around a pot of gruel – is much darker and more sinister.

That’s right. He ate people.

Apparently Niers and his gang hooked up with the Devil himself while hanging out in Pfalzburg, and Niers was handed a monthly paycheck as well as some supernatural powers for doing the Devil’s bidding. This meant not only getting downright stabby with the Holy Roman public, but also getting into some freaky rituals, like killing pregnant women and harvesting their fetuses for snack-time.

Fetus-treats also came bundled with the magical power to turn Niers invisible. In fact, what led to his downfall was that he was separated from his magical bag and was unable to guzzle his grotesque elixir to keep from being spotted by authorities. Oh, and he could turn himself into a cat or a goat as well – that was handy.

We all know those stories aren’t true. And we can probably assume that Niers’ death toll of 544 may also be slightly exaggerated. But the story of his downfall is definitely worth a mention.

Niers wandered over to a bathhouse and was spotted by a local cooper – that’s a barrel-maker, another profession that doesn’t recruit a lot of undergrads out of college anymore. A bit of snooping by the locals uncovered Niers’ so-called ‘magic bag’, which contained numerous chunks of severed… well, let’s just say it was a pretty strong tip-off that it was actually Niers bathing in the other room. Eight men brought him down, and Niers confessed to his crimes.

Prison back then was reserved for lesser offenders. Once you’ve cracked the 500 mark in your killing spree, those Holy Romans had other plans for you. Niers had strips of his flesh peeled away, then hot oil was poured into the wounds. The next day – oh yes, they wanted to savor this – his feet were smeared with oil and literally roasted. Then on day three, he was ‘broken by the wheel’ (meaning bludgeoned all to hell), then quartered while still alive.

There was no appeals court hearing after that one.

In other depressingly psychotic news from the Germanic region, there’s the classic tale of Christman Genipperteinga. If Peter Niers was the Beatles of 16th-century Holy Roman serial killers, Christman Genipperteinga was the Rolling Stones – a lot more prolific, and without all that weird mystical stuff.

Christman started out his life in the town of Kerpen, just a couple miles down the road from Cologne. Christman wasn’t into dark magic, nor did he claim a history of hanging out with the Prince of Darkness. He was a bandit, pure and simple. He wanted money, along with the fulfillment of a handful of other basic urges. He also just happened to enjoy the shit out of killing people.

His lair – and yes, when you’re this much of a psycho butcher you can have your own lair – was a cave in a region known as Fassberg. From his hidey-hole he could keep his eyes on a number of major roads, and presumably bug out if he needed to. The thing is, he never did. Unlike most killers back then, Christman kept to that same lair during his entire murderous rampage.

(one man’s killing cave is another killer’s man-cave)

Christman would accost travelers, even if they were travelling in packs of four or five. He’d team up with other bandits, then dispatch of them in a gruesome manner whenever he felt it would be most profitable. Usually he’d lean on poison for those kills, dropping their bodies in a mineshaft near his cave when they’d expired. Of course, like any good serial killer, Christman was not above doing some really sick stuff.

He allegedly ran into a female traveler with whom he was somewhat taken. He dragged her back to his cave and kept her there as a prisoner for seven years. Well, more as a sex slave than a prisoner. And when she’d pop out a child (which she apparently did six times), Christman would kill the kid and hang the body like it was a fresh piece of meat, watching it sway in the wind.

His hubris was his downfall. When his sex slave pleaded for a chance to venture into Bergkessel to interact with other people, swearing oath upon oath that she’d never betray him, he let her go. Not a smart plan.

In true Hansel and Gretel style, the Bergkessel authorities had her leave a trail of peas from the town back to Christman’s cave. They nabbed him, read his diaries (stupid serial killers, always leaving paperwork lying around), and pinned a whopping 964 murders on him. Christman confessed that he’d been hoping to hit an even thousand. He spent nine days on the breaking wheel before they allowed him to die.

Gruesome and ghastly tales to be sure, but how much of them are true? I’m guessing just enough to keep one’s hairs standing on end.

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