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The infamous Iron Maiden: A horrific form of execution intended to inspire terror

David Goran

The Iron Maiden was a presumed torture and execution device, uniquely a Germanic invention, consisting of an iron cabinet with a hinged front and spike-covered interior, sufficiently tall to enclose a human being.

The device was so tortuous that initially it was considered to be a fictional device with no real existence.

Various neo-medieval torture instruments. An iron maiden stands at the right. Photo Credit

Various neo-medieval torture instruments. An iron maiden stands at the right. Photo Credit

 

Left, an "iron maiden" with its doors secured; middle, a blindfolded prisoner is forced to kneel down before the "iron maiden" in a dungeon; right, an "iron maiden" with its doors open. Photo Credit

Left, an “iron maiden” with its doors secured; middle, a blindfolded prisoner is forced to kneel down before the “iron maiden” in a dungeon; right, an “iron maiden” with its doors open. Photo Credit

However, various documented proofs of the device were subsequently found and thus it was confirmed that the device was actually in vogue, although perhaps not during medieval times, as there is hardly any concrete evidence of it being used as a torture device during that era.

While it is disputed that the device was used during the medieval times, it is generally agreed that some variation of the device was used at some point in history.

2 According to some sources, the construction of Iron Maiden was inspired from a medieval device called Schandmantel which literally meant “coat of shame” or “barrel of shame”, made of wood and metal but without spikes. Photo Credit

According to some sources, the construction of Iron Maiden was inspired from a medieval device called Schandmantel which literally meant “coat of shame” or “barrel of shame”, made of wood and metal but without spikes. Photo Credit

 

The first historical reference to the iron maiden came long after the Middle Ages, in the late 1700s. Photo Credit

German philosopher Johann Philipp Siebenkees wrote about the alleged execution of a coin forger in 1515 by an iron maiden. Photo Credit1 Photo Credit2

The first recorded description of an Iron Maiden was from Johann Philipp Siebenkees, a German philosopher and archaeologist, in 1793.

According to Siebenkees’ colportage, it was first used on August 14, 1515. He wrote about a coin forger who suffered a terrible fate — being enclosed in a casket full of spikes that slowly impaled him.

Left - The Torture Museum - Prague - Iron Maiden. Photo Credit Right - Iron Maiden. Torture museum in Lubuska Land Museum in Zielona Góra. Photo Credit

Left – The Torture Museum – Prague – Iron Maiden. Photo Credit Right – Iron Maiden. Torture museum in Lubuska Land Museum in Zielona Góra. Photo Credit1 Photo Credit2

As it turns out, Siebenkees made up the story of the iron maiden. According to historians, he created the history of it as an actual mock-up of the real device implemented in the torture of witches and others who opposed the Christian church prior to 1793.

Iron maiden, Chillingham Castle, Northumberland, England. Photo Credit

Iron maiden, Chillingham Castle, Northumberland, England. Photo Credit1 Photo Credit2

The mechanism of operating the Iron Maiden was quite simple. Once inside, the doors were shut on the victim and the spikes would pierce several organs of the body. The spikes were supposedly short and positioned so that the victim wouldn’t die quickly.

This meant that they would only result in relatively small wounds and the victim would bleed to death over the course of several hours. To add to the abject horror of it all, two spikes were positioned specifically to penetrate the eyes.

The device consisted of double doors on the front with upright sarcophagus and spikes on the inner side. Photo Credit1 Photo Credit2

The device consisted of double doors on the front with upright sarcophagus and spikes on the inner side. Photo Credit1 Photo Credit2

Left - Iron Maiden of Nuremberg. Photo Credit Right - Nurember, postcard, 1921. Photo Credit

Left – Iron Maiden of Nuremberg. Photo Credit Right – Nuremberg, postcard, 1921. Photo Credit

Several 19th-century iron maidens are on display in museums around the world.

Probably the most famous, that popularized the design, is the Iron Maiden of Nuremberg, which was built in the early 1800s and destroyed in an Allied bombing in 1944.

We have another interesting read on ancient torture devices:  The Ancient Greek torture device “Brazen Bull” is considered to be one of the most gruesome creations of all time

This copy is the most important surviving specimen of an Iron Maiden still in existence.