As we so thoroughly documented in our previous article regarding brutal historical executions, we can be really quite unpleasant to each other. So unpleasant, in fact, that some of the nastier stories were left on the cutting-room floor.
That said: fuck it. Here are some more awful stories of man’s inhumanity to man.
Black Magician terrorises rural Germany, gets broken on the wheel
Rural Germany during the Middle Ages was not really a place you wanted to be. As with the rest of Europe, highwaymen and bandits were rife, there not being a ye olde 911 to ring in case some dick with a crossbow waylaid your carriage and demanded your money or your life (or, quite often, both).
It was in this lawless area that one Peter Niers thrived. Reputed to be a black magician of formidable powers, Niers terrorised rural Germany and the French borderlands with a gang of like-minded ruffians. No end of supernatural powers were attributed to Niers, including the ability to shapeshift, transform into vapour, become invisible, and move without making a sound. His reputation was no doubt boosted when, after being captured and admitting to the murder of some 75 women, Niers escaped custody and vanished into thin air.
Whilst more contemporary analyses of Niers’ abilities suggest that the guy was just really fucking good with a wig, there’s still no denying how terrifying he was to the people of 15th-century Germany. The man was responsible for north of 500 murders, and he reputedly fuelled his diabolic magicks by way of the bodies of foetuses harvested from pregnant women he killed.
Niers was eventually undone by his own infamy, however. Stopping at an inn and entrusting his bag to the innkeeper, the bandit went to the public bathhouse. Several people, however, recognising him from wanted posters, convinced the landlord to open Niers’ bag o’ tricks. Inside was a whole bunch of baby parts.
Eight men went to apprehend Niers who, recognising when the jig was up, confessed to his crimes and awaited punishment.
And what a punishment it was. Niers was tortured for two days with boiling oil and hot coals before finally being put to the wheel.
Breaking on the wheel
One of the more unpleasant execution methods used in medieval Europe (and it’s got some real competition), breaking on the wheel involved taking, unsurprisingly, a heavy carriage wheel and first breaking the victim’s arms and legs in several places. That accomplished, the condemned would have their now-shattered limbs threaded through the spokes of the wheel and be suspended for however long it took them to die of shock and dehydration. In ‘merciful’ cases, a coup de grâce would be administered either before the breaking began or after only a few blows; this act of mercy meant that the victim would receive a blow to the chest or else be garrotted before it got too painful.
Niers was given no such mercy – unsurprising given the depravity of his crimes – and he lasted a day on the wheel after the already-considerable amount of torture he’d undergone.
English readers familiar with Bonfire Night may unwittingly be conversant with one such relic of this cruel punishment – the firework known as a ‘Catherine Wheel’ is named after the martyr St. Catherine, herself broken on the wheel.
And speaking of Bonfire Night…
Catholic rebel plots regicide, gets hanged drawn and quartered
Unless you’re English, your primary exposure to Guy Fawkes probably came as a result of the surprisingly decent 2005 comic-book adaptation V for Vendetta, and with the result popularity of V’s Guy Fawkes mask with any number of millennial edgelords.
Guy Fawkes was born in 1570 to Protestant parents, but after his father’s death, his mother remarried into a Catholic family, which in turn prompted Fawkes to become a Catholic.
Fawkes was a passionate defender of the faith, travelling to the Netherlands to fight for Catholic Spain against the Protestant uprising in the Dutch lowlands. Following this Fawkes unsuccessfully lobbied for Spanish support for a Catholic uprising against the Protestant King James I.
Undeterred, Fawkes returned to England and was soon embroiled in a regicidal conspiracy fronted by a man named Robert Catesby. Said plan was relatively straightforward: rent an undercroft (Olde English for ‘cellar’ or ‘basement’) that was directly under the Houses of Parliament, fill it with gunpowder, and send it sky-high when King James opened Parliament.
Alas, the plot was foiled when an anonymous letter was sent to the Catholic Lord Monteagle who was supposed to be in attendance on the fateful day. The letter, written before spelling was invented, advised Lord Monteagle to “retyre youre self into yowre contee whence yow maye expect the event in safti for … they shall receyve a terrible blowe this parleament”.
Despite being made aware of the letter, the conspirators decided to continue with the plan, reasoning that Lord Monteagle would assume it a hoax. Unfortunately for them, he instead warned the king.
Fawkes was arrested leaving the undercroft after the King ordered a search of all cellars under the Houses of Parliament. And then life got really bad for him.
What precisely happened to Fawkes during his interrogation was never made explicit, but the man could apparently take more punishment than that one guy from Casino. A common method of torture at the time was the rack – having one’s limbs bound and stretched, and if the signature Fawkes gave upon his confession was anything to go by, his interrogators really did a number on him. So steadfast was Fawkes, in fact, that the King himself expressed admiration of the man.
Not admiration enough, however, to put a halt to his torture or subsequent execution. Of course, this was kinda to be expected for someone convicted of high treason in the 17th century.
Hanging, drawing and quartering
Keeping up the proud tradition of completely barbaric European execution methods, hanging, drawing and quartering involved no small amount of suffering on the part of the victim.
The condemned were first placed on a wicker hurdle and dragged to the place of execution. Following this they underwent ‘slow’ hanging, in which they were strangled but not killed by the process.
This was followed by what would probably fall under ‘cruel and unusual’ in modern parlance: the victim was emasculated (this doesn’t mean their manliness was mocked; it means it was cut off) and disembowelled, and their viscera and genitals were burned in front of their eyes. They were finally cut into four (five, counting the head). In some cases (as in Mel Gibson’s), the different body parts were sent to the four corners of Britain.
Guy Fawkes proved himself a canny bastard, however, by jumping from the gallows and breaking his neck before the torturers could have their way with him.
American farmer denies witchcraft, is sentenced to ‘peine forte et dure’
The Salem Witch Trials have long sat in the popular consciousness as an enduring example of cruelty precipitated by unfounded hysteria. Nineteen people were hanged at the conclusion of the trials – fourteen women and five men. What you may not know, however, is of the death of the twentieth victim – an 80-year-old farmer who was found neither innocent nor guilty, and who died whilst authorities tried to extract a plea from him.
Giles Corey was an English-born American farmer who was a fairly prosperous man and, if historical record is anything to go by, not a particularly pleasant one. Corey was convicted in 1676 of using ‘unreasonable force’ on an indentured servant; in actual fact, Corey beat the man almost to death and refused him medical treatment for ten days, at which point the man was too far gone. Under the laws of the time, it was permitted to beat an indentured servant, and Corey merely received a fine.
Almost twenty years later, mass hysteria hit Essex County, Massachusetts in the form of what were to become known as the Salem Witch Trials. Amongst the accused was Corey’s wife, Martha Corey. Corey himself, not exactly an old romantic, initially supported the charges against his wife.
That was to change a few days later, however, when one of the accused women implicated him and denounced him as a wizard.
One of the peculiarities of European and early American law was something known as ‘standing mute’, i.e. refusing to enter a plea of either guilty or not guilty. The reason people opted for this was fairly simple; if a plea was entered then one’s lands and assets were forfeit. If a plea was not entered, however, then the accused’s inheritance was passed to the heirs. It was probably due to this that Corey refused to enter a plea.
Pressing, or peine forte et dure
The authorities had a way around this legal loophole, however. Using a process known as peine forte et dure (“hard and forceful punishment”), Corey had a wooden board placed over his body and rocks were placed atop him.
For an 80-year-old man, Corey showed more fortitude than perhaps anyone thought possible. Not only did he endure the extremely painful process in silence, he managed the remarkable feat of refusing to enter a plea. The only response that the farmer would give to his interrogators was ‘more weight’. He eventually died, having still refused to enter a plea or say anything other than ‘more weight’.
Corey’s stoicism in the face of horrifying torture netted some positive benefits; as he’d refused to plead either way, his property remained his and was passed on to his sons-in-law.
Corey’s case was the only time in American history that peine forte et dure was used, and may well have been responsible for turning the tide of popular opinion against the trials.