June 17 of 1581 was the alleged condemnation date — the best specific calendar date we have — for the German robber/murderer Christman Genipperteinga or Gniperdoliga, who was broken on the wheel for a reported 964 murders.
A 1581 pamphlet “Erschröckliche newe Zeytung Von einem Mörder Christman genandt” is the earliest account we have of our inaptly named Christman (German Wikipedia entry | the surprisingly much more detailed English), and even this first source supplies us the seemingly outlandish body count.
Our man is supposed to have made a lair in the Rhineland wilds from which he preyed on German and French travelers, and even turned murderer of other bandits after partnering with them.
We of course lack any means to verify independently this murder toll exceeding six per month throughout the whole of his thirteen-year career; if we’re honest about it, we’re a little light on verification that this guy wasn’t a tall tale from the jump. Whether or not he really drew breath, or profited from the pre-modern propensity to overcounting bodies, his fame was certainly magnified by the burgeoning print culture … and its burgeoning fascination with crime. Joy Wiltenburg in Crime & Culture in Early Modern Germany:
It was in the 1570s that reports of robber bands multiplied, reaching a peak in the 1580s and continuing in lower numbers into the seventeenth century. Accounts of such activity were far-flung, from Moravia in the modern Czech Republic to Lucerne in Switzerland and from Wurttemberg in southwestern Germany to Bremen in the north. Although violence and malevolent magic were the most sensational aspects of the bands’ reported activities, stealing was central to their existence.
Even among these ubiquitous broadsheet outlaws, Christman Genipperteinga’s near-millennium stuck in the public imagination.
As years passed, the story has resurfaced in chronicles, histories, and popular lore running all the way down to our present era of listicle clickbait … and they’ve all somehow made this monster into an even more sinister figure than a mere nongenti sexagintuple slayer. Dubious evolutions include:
Genipperteinga kidnapping a woman and forcing her to become his mistress, murdering all the children they produced. (She subsequently betrays him to the authorities by arranging to leave a trail of peas to lead them to his hideout.)
Genipperteinga cannibalizing his victims, including his own infants.
And, Genipperteinga having literal supernatural powers (invisibility, congress with dwarven artificers).
For a larger-than-life criminal, a longer-than-death execution. The story goes that our Christman endured nine agonizing days on the breaking-wheel, his tormentors fortifying him with hearty drinks every day in order to prolong his sufferings.
Again, this real or fanciful detail profits by comparison to the trends in enforcement emerging to meet the social panic over crime. This was a period when Europe saw the death penalty flourish both in terms of its violent spectacle and, as Wiltenburg notes, its raw frequency:
There is some evidence that the swell in crime reports in the later decades of the sixteenth century coincided with a time of generally intense prosecution. According to figures compiled by Gerd Schwerhoff, a number of localities had especially high levels of execution in this period. Augsburg, for example, shows a distinct rise in the proportion of criminals executed in the last four decades of the sixteenth century — double or more the proportions of the preceding and following periods. Nuremberg too had a substantial rise in the last decades of the sixteenth century, with lower numbers before and much lower figures by the mid-seventeenth century. Zurich similarly executed a much higher proportion in the sixteenth century than in the fifteenth or the seventeenth, although its figures are not broken down by decade.