Category Archives: 16th Century

1564: Fabricius

(Thanks to John Lothrop Motley for the guest post on the rudely truncated burning of Christopher Smith, an apostate monk turned popular preacher under the name “Fabricius”, at Antwerp on this date in 1564. It originally appeared in Motley’s The Rise of the Dutch Republic: A History. -ed.)

A remarkable tumult occurred in October of this year, at Antwerp. A Carmelite monk, Christopher Smith, commonly called Fabricius, had left a monastery in Bruges, adopted the principles of the Reformation, and taken to himself a wife. He had resided for a time in England; but, invited by his friends, he had afterwards undertaken the dangerous charge of gospel-teacher in the commercial metropolis of the Netherlands.

He was, however, soon betrayed to the authorities by a certain bonnet dealer, popularly called Long Margaret, who had pretended, for the sake of securing the informer’s fee, to be a convert to his doctrines. He was seized and immediately put to the torture. He manfully refused to betray any members of his congregation, as manfully avowed and maintained his religious creed.

He was condemned to the flames, and during the interval which preceded his execution, he comforted his friends by letters of advice, religious consolation and encouragement, which he wrote from his dungeon. He sent a message to the woman who had betrayed him, assuring her of his forgiveness, and exhorting her to repentance. His calmness, wisdom, and gentleness excited the admiration of all.

When, therefore, this humble imitator of Christ was led through the streets of Antwerp to the stake, the popular emotion was at once visible.

To the multitude who thronged about the executioners with threatening aspect, he addressed an urgent remonstrance that they would not compromise their own safety by a tumult in his cause. He invited all, however, to remain steadfast to the great truth for which he was about to lay down his life.

The crowd, as they followed the procession of hangmen, halberdsmen, and magistrates, sang the hundred and thirtieth psalm in full chorus.

As the victim arrived upon the market-place, he knelt upon the ground to pray, for the last time. He was, however, rudely forced to rise by the executioner, who immediately chained him to the stake, and fastened a leathern strap around his throat. At this moment the popular indignation became uncontrollable; stones were showered upon the magistrates and soldiers, who, after a slight resistance, fled for their lives.

The foremost of the insurgents dashed into the enclosed arena, to rescue the prisoner. It was too late. The executioner, even as he fled, had crushed the victim’s head with a sledge hammer, and pierced him through and through with a poniard.

Some of the bystanders maintained afterwards that his fingers and lips were seen to move, as if in feeble prayer, for a little time longer, until, as the fire mounted, he fell into the flames.

For the remainder of the day, after the fire had entirely smouldered to ashes, the charred and half-consumed body of the victim remained on the market-place, a ghastly spectacle to friend and foe. It was afterwards bound to a stone and cast into the Scheld. Such was the doom of Christopher Fabricius, for having preached Christianity in Antwerp.

During the night an anonymous placard, written with blood, was posted upon the wall of the town-house, stating that there were men in the city who would signally avenge his murder. Nothing was done, however, towards the accomplishment of the threat.

The King, when he received the intelligence of the transaction, was furious with indignation, and wrote savage letters to his sister, commanding instant vengeance to be taken upon all concerned in so foul a riot. As one of the persons engaged had, however, been arrested and immediately hanged, and as the rest had effected their escape, the affair was suffered to drop.

1581: Peter Niers

The execution of legendary German bandit and mass-murderer Peter Niers took place in Neumarkt on this date in 1581 … or at least, it started on this date.

A veritable bogeyman figure thanks to the reputation-magnifying effects of early print culture, Niers/Niersch (English Wikipedia entry | the cursory German) enjoyed a years-long career in brigandage across the fractured German map, with upwards of 500 murders to his name.*

No matter the plausibility discount we we might reckon for this sensational figure, it is verifiable that Niers was was an early modern public enemy for years before his death. He enters the documentary trail in 1577 when the first of several known crime pamphlets** about him hit movable type upon Niers’s arrest in the Black Forest town of Gersbach. Under torture, he copped at that time to 75 murders … and then he broke out of captivity and into the nightmares of every German traveler wending gloomy highways through the unguarded wilds.

Actually “rather old,” according to an arrest warrant, with crooked figures and a prominent scar on his chin, the fugitive Niers gained an outsized reputations for disguise and ferocity. As Joy Wiltenburg describes in Crime & Culture in Early Modern Germany, that Niers of fable became like Keyser Soze “assimilate[d to] various supernatural elements” that elevated the crafty gangster into a shapeshifter or magician powered by a demonic patron.

The roving killer Peter Niers and his gang appeared in a number of accounts, several without demonic content. Johann Wick followed Niers’s career with horror; his collection includes three pamphlets on his misdeeds between 1577 and 1582. Niers was arrested and tortured in Gersbach in 1577, confessing to seventy-five murders. According to a song pamphlet from 1577, he learned the art of invisibility from an earlier arch-murderer, Martin Stier. (Wick also owned an account of Stier’s misdeeds and added a note in the margin of the Niers pamphlet, cross-referencing Stier’s 1572 execution in Wurttemberg.) Both Stier and Niers confessed to killing pregnant women. Each had also ripped a male fetus from the mother’s body, cut off its hands, and eaten its heart. Niers evidently escaped in 1577, to be rearrested in 1581 and this time finally executed. According to the pamphlet account, he was caught only because he was separated from the sack containing his magical materials and so could not turn invisible. Here the capture is considered an act of God, but the Devil gets no explicit credit for Niers’s evil magic or his 544 murders, including those of 24 pregnant women. Only the final pamphlet, printed in Strasbourg in 1583, fully explains the diabolical reason for the mutilation of fetuses. Here, the Devil makes an explicit pact with the killers and promises them supernatural powers from the fetal black magic.

He must have been a few fetuses late by the end, for it was his disguise that failed him when he slipped into Neumarkt in August 1581 intending to freshen up at the baths. Instead, he was recognized and arrested.

His body — already put to the tortures of pincers and oil — was shattered and laid on the breaking-wheel on September 16, 1581, but it was two agonizing days before this terror of the roads finally breathed his last.

* 500 murders sounds like plenty to you, me, and Ted Bundy, but it wouldn’t have even made him the most homicidal German outlaw executed in 1581.

** A 1582 print reporting Niers’s execution is available online here.