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Okay, so I asked a similar question to this on the Medical Stack Exchange. It's not doing too well (2 downvotes), and I can kind of get it. Medical professionals want nothing to do with the harm of people, let alone torture. This question is different however, but before I begin, let me give the back story.

Peter Niers was a 16th-centry serial killer/bandit leader who was executed in an especially brutal way in 1581. The story is that on the first day of his execution, he had some of his skin flayed off and hot oil was poured onto his exposed muscles. Then, on the second day, his feet were roasted, and on the final day he was broken on the wheel and quartered alive. See, e.g. here.

What historical evidence is there specifically for the story of his execution?

The reason Wikipedia does not suffice is because none of the references about his tortuous death were contemporary. The earliest one was 1669, and it's in German so I can't evaluate whether or not it seems like a later add-on. There is one reference that appears to be contemporary, written 1582, but I can't read that book so I have no idea what it says, and it is not referenced in the description of his death.

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    The Zwo Newe Zeyttunng, Basel 1582 link doesn't give a description of his death. The tenor is more of a warning to good Christians of what happens when you give yourself up to the devil. Jun 21 at 7:42

2 Answers 2

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There is actually a contemporary account of Niers's crimes and execution. It can be found in a short pamphlet published shorty after his death:

"Warhafftige Newe Zeittungen / Erschröcklich unnd Erbärmlich / so alle kurtzlich in disem 1581. Jar geschehen seind / und auff das kürtzeste verfasset", Heidelberg: Jacob Müller 1582 (scan online)

My translation: "Truthful news reports, horrible and pitiful, about [events] that happened recently in this 1581st year, and written up in the briefest way."

Towards the end one finds:

Auch hett ich schier eine schreckliche zeitung dahinden gelassen / Von dem grausamen unnd schröcklichen Mörder / Peter Niers genannt / der zu Neumarck / fünff Meil von Nürnberg gelegen / fünfhundert und vier und viertzig Mördt gethan / hat vier und zwentzig schwangere Weiber umbgebracht / wie er auch entlich hernach gericht ist worden / Drey tag hat man ihn gepeiniget / zum ersten Riemen aus seinem Leibe geschnitten / und heiß Oel drein gegossen / Den andern tag die Solen an Füssen angezündet / Am dritten tag hat man ihn hinauß geführet / und im zwen und viertzig stöß mit dem Rad geben / darnach geviertheilt / unnd auff vier Strassen gehencket / Also laßt Gott das ubel nicht ungestrafft / das gut nicht unbelonet / Datum den 16. Septembris / Anno 1581.

My translation: "Finally I left one piece of horrible news to the end, of the barbarous and terrible murderer called Peter Niers, who committed 544 murders in Neumarck *, five miles from Nuremberg, and killed 24 pregnant women. This is how he was executed in the end. He was tortured for three days. On the first they cut out strips of skin from his body and poured hot oil into [the wounds]. On the second day they burned the soles of his feet. On the third day they led him out [of the town] and gave him 42 blows with the wheel. Thereafter he was quartered and hung along four roads. This is how god does not let evil [deeds] go unpunished and good [deeds] unrewarded. Date: September 16, 1581." [* Neumarkt in der Oberpfalz]

Given the heinous nature of Niers's (alleged) crimes, the methods of torture and execution described do not seem particular unusual for the time and thus seem entirely plausible.

The Deutsches Rechtswörterbuch (Dictionary of Historical German Legal Terms), provides three citations from legal codes from the south of Germany and Austria for Riemenschneiden (literally: strap cutting; cutting away strips of skin) from which is clear that this method of torture was added as an "enhancement" to the ordinary punishment due in cases of serious crimes.

As for torture by hot oil and burning, similar treatment was meted out to Robert-François Damiens in 1757 for the attempted but unsuccessful assassination of the French king. According to Wikipedia:

He was then tortured with red-hot pincers; the hand with which he had held the knife during the attempted assassination was burned using sulphur; molten wax, molten lead, and boiling oil were poured into his wounds.

Various European legal codes prescribed breaking with (or on) the wheel for murder and other serious crimes. This method of torture was designed to break the bones of a delinquent without killing them. The practice was only abolished in various German-speaking regions during the 19th century. Wikipedia describes it as follows:

Therefore, the most common form would start with breaking the leg bones. To this end, the executioner dropped the execution wheel on the shinbones of the convicted person and then worked his way up to the arms.

The manner of quartering described in Müller's pamphlet seems consistent with that prescribed in the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina (the legal code of emperor Charles V) of 1532 which applied to the entire Holy Roman Empire to which the region around Nuremberg also belonged. As cited by Wikipedia:

Zu der Viertheylung: Durch seinen gantzen Leib zu vier stücken zu schnitten und zerhawen, und also zum todt gestrafft werden soll, und sollen solche viertheyl auff gemeyne vier wegstrassen offentlich gehangen und gesteckt werden

My translation: "Concerning quartering: [He] is to be cut through his entire body and hacked apart into four pieces, and thus punished by death, and the quarters shall be hanged and staked publicly at four commonly-used roads."

A note on my translations: I have translated rather freely, and my attempts may not capture every nuance of the original historical German, which is about as similar to modern German as Shakespeare's English is to modern variants. I have enclosed as few clarifying additions in square brackets. Suggestions for corrections and improvements are welcome.

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  • Re "Auch hett ich schier eine schreckliche zeitung dahinden gelassen" I am not clear on this. Could it instead mean: "Additionally, I almost left out one piece of horrible news ..."?
    – njuffa
    Jun 21 at 5:19
  • could "vier wegstrassen" be a simple crossroads?
    – Jan
    Jun 21 at 5:48
  • @Jan I am not an expert on 16th century German. It may be implied, but it doesn't outright say that. I pondered it briefly and figured that not every medieval place of execution outside a town was near a crossroads, and therefore I think this only specifies that the four pieces of the body are to conspicuously displayed at four different locations along local roads, so as to maximize the deterrent effect.
    – njuffa
    Jun 21 at 5:57
  • Kudo! I had assumed that this would be one of those questions where we didn't have the sources to answer it. Very cool that you found it.
    – MCW
    Jun 21 at 17:16
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Yes, the story is plausible considering the amount, mannor and purpose of the crimes.

The first is that flaying someone's skin would cause a lot of bleeding.

Here I think the attempt would be made to do it a mannor that would not lead to a swift death.


Until the criminal law portion (Part II, Title 20) of the General State Laws for the Prussian States was replaced after the 30th of June 1851, it was common place for the punishment to correspond to the deed.

An arsonist would, for example, be burned:

Allgemeines Landrecht für die Preußischen Staaten - Zweyter Theil - Zwanzigster Titel (prALR, 1794)
§. 109. Wer in gedachter Absicht Städte, Dörfer, Vorrathshäuser, oder offene Magazine in Brand steckt, soll durch das Feuer vom Leben zum Tode gebracht werden.

Whoever intentionally sets fire to towns, villages, storehouses, or open storehouses, shall be brought from life to death by fire.

For murder, being broken on the wheel was the default punishment (§826).

  • the attempt would be punished with beheading (§827)

If you murdered your child or spouse the wheel would be applied and then you would be dragged to the place of execution and then executed (§874).

If you murdered a near relative you would only be dragged to the place of execution and then executed (§875).

For poisoning (§§856-866) has simlar provisions

  • poisoning with love potions is, however, an exception: 10-15 years (§867)
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    This may be a place to acknowledge that our predecessors had achieved mastery in some arts which we are damn glad are lost today.
    – T.E.D.
    Jun 21 at 18:16
  • The law you are citing is from 1794, 200 years after the discussed case.
    – K-HB
    Jun 21 at 20:59
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    @K-HB And yet, since it is one of the first compleate civil-codex (as apposed to precedent/common law) and based on the outgoing feudal system, it serves as a good example on how justice was seen during the feudal period being a summery/snapshot of precedent cases of the last centuries. Jun 21 at 23:11

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