Medieval German bandit Peter Niers (died 1581) was a black arts practitioner, and one of history’s most prolific serial killers. He began his criminal career as a highwayman in Alsace, present day France, and eventually headed a gang of about 24 bandits. He also became a key figure in a loose network of bandit and highwayman gangs that joined forces on occasion to conduct major operations that required large numbers of men. His criminal activities spanned a large territory that included western France, the Rhineland, and Bavaria in southern Germany. He was no run-of-the-mill outlaw, however.
What set Niers apart from other bandits was his bloodthirstiness and gratuitous cruelty. He was not content to simply rob or kill his victims. He liked to torture those who fell into his hands and slew them in a variety of fiendishly inventive ways. As he confessed after his arrest, he murdered 544 people over a fifteen-year period, and cut the fetuses out of the wombs of 24 pregnant women. The fetuses were used as ingredients in his black magic, and he consumed them in horrific cannibalistic acts. He was captured in 1577, and under torture, confessed to 75 murders in the previous eleven years. However, he escaped before he could be executed, and went on to commit many more depravities.
15. This Horrific Killer Met a Suitably Horrific End
After his escape, Peter Niers resumed his criminal activities with even greater cruelty and bloodthirstiness. Indeed the majority of his horrific murders and depravities occurred in the four years after his escape. Whereas he had murdered 75 people in the eleven years before his arrest in 1577, he would murder an estimated 569 more people in the four years from 1577 to 1581, when he was arrested for a second and final time. He was taken to the Bavarian city of Neumarkt in der Oberpfalz for a public execution, in which the authorities went Medieval on Niers, literally and figuratively.
Even for an era in which horrific torture and gruesome executions were routine, Peter Niers’ execution, which commenced on September 16th, 1581, stood out as a particularly horrific affair. It was a three-day ordeal, and on the first of them, the authorities flayed Niers’ skin, then poured hot oil on his exposed muscles to slough off layers of his flesh. On the second day, his feet were coated in grease, and his lower body was slowly grilled over a low fire. On the third day, his body was broken on the wheel, with dozens of blows that smashed his major bones to pieces. Finally, the executioners quartered him while still alive, then sawed his body into pieces.
14. The Fickle Prince From Braveheart Died a Horrific Death
King Edward II of England (1284 – 1327), the fickle prince from Braveheart, was the son and successor of Edward I, one of England’s greatest monarchs (and the movie’s baddie king). Edward II was a disappointment to both his father while the latter lived, and to his subjects, after he ascended the throne in 1307. A weak and flighty monarch, Edward II relied on and elevated favorites who misgoverned the realm in his name. To compound the problem, he did little to counter the perception that those favorites were his gay lovers.
Poor government and perceived effeteness in a homophobic age earned Edward the widespread hatred and contempt of his subjects, and brought him to a horrific end. Early in his reign, Edward II angered his barons when he elevated to an earldom a frivolous favorite and rumored lover, Piers Gaveston. The barons demanded that Edward banish Gaveston and assent to a document that limited the king’s power over appointments and finances. Edward caved in and banished Gaveston, but allowed him to return a short while later. In response, the exasperated barons seized and executed Gaveston.
13. This King Humiliated His Queen, So She Deposed Him
In 1314, Edward II led an army into Scotland, but he was decisively defeated at the Battle of Bannockburn. At a stroke, he lost all the gains his father had made with years of toil and great expense to assert English control of Scotland. Humiliated, Edward was unable to resist his magnates when they formed a baronial committee that sidelined him and ruled the realm. It lasted until Edward found another favorite, yet another rumored lover, Hugh Despenser, and elevated him. As with the king’s earlier favorite, the barons demanded that Edward banish Despenser. This time, however, he fought back.
With the Despenser family’s support, Edward defeated the barons and regained his authority in 1322. However, his public displays of affection for Hugh Despenser humiliated and alienated Edward’s queen, Isabella. While on a diplomatic mission to Paris in 1325, she became the mistress of Roger Mortimer, an exiled baronial opponent of Edward. In 1326, the couple invaded England, executed the Despensers, deposed Edward II, and replaced him with his fourteen-year-old son, who was crowned Edward III in January, 1327. Roger Mortimer was made regent to govern England until the new monarch came of age.
12. Edward II’s Killers Chose a Particularly Horrific Way to Do Him In
Roger Mortimer heard of plots to rescue the deposed Edward II. So he had him moved in April, 1327, to Berkley Castle in Gloucestershire, a more secure location. Reports of fresh plots to free Edward caused Mortimer to order him to move to various locations in the spring and summer of 1327 before he was finally returned to Berkley Castle. The continued political instability, and the uncertainty whether one of those plots might finally succeed, determined Mortimer to end the problem once and for all and put Edward II beyond rescue via murder.
Edward’s killers did not want to leave visible marks of foul play on the body. Contemptuous of his perceived effeminacy and homosexuality, they chose a particularly horrific means to do him in on the night of September 21st, 1327. The deposed monarch was held down, and a red hot poker was shoved up his rectum to burn his bowels from the inside. Another version has it that a tube was first inserted in his rectum, and a red hot metal bolt was then dropped down the tube into his bowels. Either way, his screams were said to have reverberated around the castle, and were heard far beyond its walls.
11. Before Al Qaeda or ISIS, There Were These Horrific Extremists
Long before the horrific depredations of Al Qaeda and ISIS there were the even more horrific Khawarij, whose name means “Outsiders” in Arabic. Centuries before Osama bin Laden was in diapers, the Khawarij were a radical fundamentalist faction of early Islamic dissenters who appeared on the scene after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. They came up with the concept of Takfir, whereby Muslims who disagreed with them were deemed apostates and kafirs (infidels). That gave them license to get around the Islamic prohibition against killing fellow Muslims.
As such, the Khawarij established the philosophical foundations for modern terrorists such as the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and ISIS. They emerged when a succession dispute erupted between those who believed that leadership after Muhammad’s demise should be confined to Muhammad’s family and bloodline, and those who thought it should be open to whomever the Muslim community chose. The former, a minority, coalesced around Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib and became known as the Shiites, or faction, of Ali. The latter, the majority, became known as the Sunnis.
10. A Succession Crisis That Birthed Islam’s First Radical Terrorists
The first three Caliphs, or successors of the Prophet, were elected by Muslims from outside his family, who bypassed Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law Ali each time. On the fourth try, after the murder of the third Caliph, Ali was finally elected as the Prophet’s successor. However, the third Caliph’s relatives alleged that Ali was implicated in the murder, and engineered the election of a rival Caliph, Muawiya, with a base in Damascus, Syria. The rival Caliphs went to war, but before the issue was settled in battle, Ali was prevailed upon to accept arbitration. The Khawarij, who until then had supported Ali, opposed arbitration.
They viewed the Caliphate as the collective property of the Muslim community, not the private property of Ali, and reasoned that Ali lacked the authority to make a decision about who gets to be Caliph. Election by the community was the sole legitimate process to bestow the Caliphate upon somebody, argued the Khawarij, and the Muslim community had already elected Ali. When Ali accepted arbitration to decide who would be Caliph, the Khawarij reasoned, he had overstepped his boundaries and usurped a power of decision that was not his to make.
9. Unwittingly, These Early Islamic Radicals Helped Establish the First Muslim Hereditary Caliphate
Ali ignored Khawarij’s objections and went ahead with the arbitration. In hindsight, he might have regretted it. The arbitration turned into a fiasco, and neither settled the succession dispute nor produced a result other than to weaken Ali politically. The Khawarij soured on Ali, whom they now viewed as much of a usurper as his rival. So they decided to get rid of both and hatched an assassination plot to kill the rival Caliphs on the same day during Friday prayers.
The Khawarij assassins who went after Ali succeeded and got their man in 661. However, those who went after his rival Caliph Muawiya only managed to wound him. He survived, emerged as the lone Caliph, and went on to establish the Umayyad Caliphate, a hereditary monarchy in all but name. The Khawarij rose in rebellion against Muawiya, now Islam’s sole ruler thanks to a helping hand from the Khawarij’s botched plot that had killed his rival, but left him alive.
8. These Early Terrorists Saw the Most Minor of Sins as Apostasy Punishable by Death
In their struggle against the first Umayyad Caliph, Muawiya I, the Khawarij contended that he was illegitimate because he gained the Caliphate by force of arms, rather than election by the Muslim community. In the protracted fight that ensued, the Khawarij earned an evil reputation among contemporary Muslims as horrific radicals. On the one hand, they adopted and stuck to democratic and egalitarian principles, whereby governance was to be entrusted to Caliphs elected by and responsible to the Muslim community.
Commendable as those principles might have been, they were more than counterbalanced by a fierce fanaticism that horrified and turned off many. They contended that Muslims who backslid or sinned, such as those who drank alcohol, fornicated, missed the daily prayers, failed to fast on Ramadan, or even engaged in idle gossip, had engaged in behavior that rendered them apostates, and thus worthy of the death penalty. The Khawarij launched a program of terror against the Caliph’s supporters, as well as those who failed to meet their purity standards.
7. Islam’s Early Anarchists Committed Horrific Atrocities
As their struggle with the Umayyad Caliphate and perceived sinners intensified, the Khawarij’s viciousness grew apace. Eventually, they came to view even neutral Muslims as enemies. As they saw it, their failure to support the Khawarij despite the glaringly obvious righteousness of their position proved their apostasy. That rendered them kafirs, and not fellow Muslims whose blood the Khawarij were prohibited from shedding. Horrific atrocities abounded. Captives were tortured and mutilated. Pregnant women had their bellies slit. Entire villages and towns were massacred.
Their most extreme faction, the Azariqah in southern Iraq, separated themselves from the entire Muslim community and declared death to all sinners – defined as all who did not share the Azariqah’s puritanical beliefs – and their families. Their rebellion was eventually crushed, but embers remained, and the Khawarij became the anarchists of Islam’s first centuries, an ever-present irritant and horrific menace. They rejected the Caliphate’s authority and pursued a campaign of terror and assassinations, combined with a low-level insurgency in backcountry regions that flared up every generation or two into a major rebellion that required considerable expense and effort to beat down.
Stella Kubler (1922 – 1994), born Stella Goldschlag, became infamous during World War II as “The Blond Ghost” or “Blond Poison”. Born and raised as the only child of an assimilated middle-class Jewish family in Berlin, she was treated like a princess by overprotective parents. Her family was well off, but not as affluent as other Jewish families with whose children she attended school. During WWII, she became infamous for her collaboration with the Gestapo to track down and denounce fellow Jews who sought to hide from the Nazis.
Stella had herself gone into hiding, and used forged IDs that listed her as Aryan. She was able to pull it off due to a blue-eyed and blond-haired Aryan appearance. However, she was denounced to the Gestapo four months later by a “Jew Catcher” – a Jew who worked for the Gestapo to find other Jews in hiding. Her boyfriend and later-husband offered the Nazis his services to become a Jew Catcher and bragged that he could “assemble an entire train” of Jewish deportees. As seen below, Stella eagerly joined him.
5. A Traitor Who Enthusiastically Helped the Nazis Exterminate Her People
Stella Kubler and her husband became highly effective Jew Catchers. They collected 300 Reichsmarks from the Gestapo for every Jew whom they turned in. The Gestapo also promised to spare Stella’s parents from deportation, so long as she continued to demonstrate her usefulness to the Nazis. Since they had themselves lived in hiding, the couple had an instinct for where to look. Stella in particular, because she knew many of Berlin’s Jews from her years in a Jewish school, was highly effective.
While the decision to become a Catcher might not have been of her own free will, how Stella exercised what freedom of choice she had in her work as a Catcher was entirely within her control. She pursued hidden Jews with tremendous zeal and inventiveness. After their arrest, when her job as a Catcher was presumably over, she enthusiastically participated in the horrific beatings, torture, and humiliation of Jewish prisoners. Despite her services, the Nazis broke their promises and sent Stella’s parents to their death in a camp.
4. Up To 3000 Jews Were Turned In to the Nazis by “The Blond Ghost”
Although the Gestapo broke its promise to Stella Kubler and sent her parents to their deaths, and then sent her husband and his family to Auschwitz in 1943, her zeal on behalf of the Nazis did not falter. She met and married another Jew Catcher, and continued to work enthusiastically for the Gestapo. She thought the Germans would win, and obtained a promise from the Gestapo in 1944 that she would get declared an Aryan after the war. By war’s end, Stella had helped arrested hundreds – or thousands – of Jews, who were subsequently murdered.
The total number of her victims ranges from at least 600 to as high as 3000. They included many of her personal friends, former schoolmates and their families, and even some of her own relatives. Despite her horrific record, she got off light: captured by the Soviets, she was sentenced to ten years imprisonment. After her release, she moved to West Berlin, where she was tried again and sentenced to ten years, but served none of them. She then converted to Christianity and became a lifelong anti-Semite. She committed suicide in 1994, by jumping out the window of her Berlin apartment.
Few confidence tricksters throughout history were more sinister, cold-blooded, and horrific than Matthew Hopkins (1620 – 1647). In 1644, amidst the chaos of the English Civil War, he claimed to be England’s official “Witch Finder General” – a title and office that did not exist. He then traveled around the country, mostly in East Anglia, to offer his services – for a fee – to local governments to root out witches. Fears of witchcraft and sorcery were rife at the time, so Hopkins found many employers who paid him handsomely.
The entire affair would be humorous, if not for the fact that dozens of innocents were killed based on evidence manufactured by Hopkins. He was active for only two years, but in that time, he got over 100 people executed. In a fourteen-month stretch, he got more people convicted and executed than all English witch hunters of the previous 160 years. Indeed, Hopkins is responsible for about a fifth of all English witchcraft executions from the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries. As seen below, he pulled it off with brazen flimflam.
2. Fraudsters Used Special Trick Devices to “Prove” Witchcraft and Sorcery
In Matthew Hopkins’ day, there was a widespread belief that witches and sorcerers neither bled nor felt pain if they were pricked. In of itself, that was not proof positive that a person accused of witchcraft or sorcery was actually a witch or sorcerer. However, pricking was circumstantial evidence that could be used alongside other evidence and testimony to tip the scales towards conviction. Because everything about witch hunts was terrible, it is perhaps unsurprising that witch finders used flimflam. They routinely manipulated the process to demonstrate that they had, indeed, found a witch – and thus deserved to get paid.
Sharp needles were thrust into “normal” volunteers to draw blood. Then, through sleight of hand, a different needle was substituted to use on the accused. Some trick devices had hollow handles with retractable needles, that gave the optical illusion that they had been plunged into an accused’s flesh, yet failed to draw blood. Sometimes they used needles with a sharp end for demonstration, and a blunt end to use on the accused. Special needles with bends created the illusion of “piercing” a witch’s tongue without drawing blood. Trick knives were also used, with portions cut out of the blade to make it appear as if they had “cut” through an accused’s flesh or tongue, yet drew no blood.
The horrific career of Matthew Hopkins as a witch finder began in May 1644, when an associate, John Stearne, alleged that six women had tried to kill him with witchcraft. Hopkins saw a business opportunity and falsely declared himself “Witch Finder Generall” with a commission from Parliament. He then offered his services to towns and villages to root out witches in their midst, force their confession, and get them hanged by the authorities. His investigative methods amounted to torture. The accused were deprived of sleep, dunked in water, and tied in uncomfortable positions for hours. He also used fake prickings and trick knives to demonstrate that the accused, like witches, did not bleed when pierced or cut.
Hopkins’ flimflam bore its grisliest results on August 27th, 1645, in the small town of Bury St. Edmunds. That day, thanks to his machinations, eighteen men and women were hanged together for witchcraft. It was England’s biggest mass execution of witches. Hopkins retired in 1646 after he had earned a small fortune – and also because his activities had started to attract unwelcome attention from Parliament. In 1647 he published The Discovery of Witches, an instructional manual, and died shortly thereafter of tuberculosis. His malign legacy lived on, however. The following year, executions for witchcraft and sorcery began in New England, where authorities used The Discovery of Witches as a roadmap. The Salem Witch Trials of 1692-1693 also used the methods outlined in Hopkins’ book.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading