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The trial of Peter Stumpp, involving the breaking wheel in use in Cologne in the early modern period.
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The breaking wheel, also known as the Catherine wheel or simply the wheel, was a torture device used for capital punishment in the Middle Ages and early modern times for public execution by cudgeling to death. It was used during the Middle Ages and was still in use into the 19th century.



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Breaking on the wheel was a form of torturous execution formerly in use in France, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Romania, colonial Louisiana (pre-United States), Russia, and other countries.

The wheel was typically a large wooden wagon wheel with many radial spokes, but a wheel was not always used. In some cases the condemned were lashed to the wheel and beaten with a club or iron cudgel, with the gaps in the wheel allowing the cudgel to break through. Alternatively, the condemned were spreadeagled and broken on a St Andrew's cross consisting of two wooden beams nailed in an "X" shape,[1][2] after which the victim's mangled body might be displayed on the wheel.[3] During the execution of the parricide Franz Seuboldt in Nuremberg on 22 September 1589, a wheel was used as a cudgel: the executioner used wooden blocks to raise Seuboldt's limbs, then broke them by slamming a wagon wheel down onto the limb.[4]

In France, the condemned were placed on a cartwheel with their limbs stretched out along the spokes over two sturdy wooden beams. The wheel was made to revolve slowly, and a large hammer or an iron bar was then applied to the limb over the gap between the beams, breaking the bones. This process was repeated several times per limb. Sometimes it was 'mercifully' ordered that the executioner should strike the criminal on the chest and stomach, blows known as coups de grâce (French: "blows of mercy"), which caused fatal injuries. Without those, the broken man could last hours and even days, before shock and dehydration caused death. In France, a special grace, the retentum, could be granted, by which the condemned was strangled after the second or third blow, or in special cases, even before the breaking began. Afterwards, the condemned's shattered limbs were woven ('braiden') through the spokes of the wheel, which was then hoisted onto a tall pole so that birds could eat the sometimes still-living individual.

In the Holy Roman Empire, the wheel was punishment reserved primarily for men convicted of aggravated murder (murder committed during another crime, or against a family member). Less severe offenders would be cudgelled 'top down', with the first blow to the neck, causing death; more heinous criminals were punished 'bottom up', starting with the legs, and sometimes being beaten for hours. The number and sequence of blows was specified in the court's sentence. Corpses were left for carrion-eaters, and the criminals' heads often placed on a spike.[5]

Legend has it that St Catherine of Alexandria was to be executed on one of these devices, which thereafter became known as the Catherine wheel, also used as an iconographic attribute.

The breaking wheel was used to execute eleven slaves in Louisiana who revolted against their masters between 1730 and 1754.[6]

In Scotland, a servant named Robert Weir was broken on the wheel at Edinburgh on June 26, 1604. This punishment had hardly ever been used before in that country. The crime had been the beating to death of a husband on behalf of the man's wife.[7]

Metaphorical uses

The breaking wheel was also known as a great dishonor, and appeared in several expressions as such. In Dutch, there is the expression opgroeien voor galg en rad, "to grow up for the gallows and wheel", meaning to come to no good. It is also mentioned in the Spanish expression morir en la rueda, "to die at the wheel", meaning to keep silent about something. The Dutch phrases ik ben geradbraakt, literally "I have been broken on the wheel", the German expression sich gerädert fühlen, "to feel wheeled", and the Swedish verb rådbråka, "to break on the wheel", all carry a meaning of exhaustion or mental exertion. In Danish, however, the similar word "radbrækket" refers almost exclusively to physical exhaustion. In Finnish teilata, "to execute by the wheel", refers to forceful and violent critique or rejection of performance, ideas or innovations. In Norwegian, the verb radbrekke is generally applied to art and language, and refers to use thereof which is seen as despoiling tradition and courtesy, with connotations of willful ignorance and/or malice.

The word roué, "dissipated debauchee", is French, and its original meaning was "broken on the wheel". As execution by breaking on the wheel in France and some other countries was reserved for crimes of peculiar atrocity, roué came by a natural process to be understood to mean a man morally worse than a "gallows-bird", a criminal who only deserved hanging for common crimes. He was also a leader in wickedness, since the chief of a gang of brigands (for instance) would be broken on the wheel, while his obscure followers were merely hanged. Philip, Duke of Orléans, who was regent of France from 1715 to 1723, gave the term the sense of impious and callous debauchee, which it has borne since his time, by habitually applying it to the very bad male company who amused his privacy and his leisure. The locus classicus for the origin of this use of the epithet is in the Memoirs of Saint-Simon.

In English, the quotation "Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?" from Alexander Pope's "Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot" has entered common use as referring to putting massive effort into achieving something minor or unimportant

The college shield of St. Catharine's College, Cambridge, depicting a breaking wheel.

Coats of Arms with Catherine Wheels

  • Altena, Germany
  • Hjørring, Denmark, where Saint Catherine is the patron-saint of the Town.
  • Kaarina, Finland, until 2009 and Piikkiö's union with Kaarina
  • Sinaai, Belgium
  • Goa, India, when it was in Portuguese possession
  • Prien am Chiemsee, Germany, where Saint Catherine is the patron-saint of the Town.

See also


  1. ^ Abbott, Geoffrey (2007). What A Way To Go. New York: St. Martin's Griffin. pp. 36. ISBN 978-0312366568. 
  2. ^ Kerrigan, Michael (2001/2007). The Instruments of Torture. Guilford, Connecticut: Lyons Press. p. 180. ISBN 978-1599211275. 
  3. ^ Abbott ibid.. pp. 40–41, 47. 
  4. ^ Depicted in the contemporary woodcut An Aggravated Death Sentence, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg.
  5. ^ Evans, Richard J. (9 May 1996). Rituals of Retribution: Capital Punishment in Germany 1600-1987. USA: Oxford University Press. p. 29. ISBN 978-0198219682. 
  6. ^ "Executions in the U.S. 1608-2002: The Espy File" (PDF). Death Penalty Information Center. Retrieved 25 February 2010. 
  7. ^ Chambers, Robert (1885). Domestic Annals of Scotland. Edinburgh: W & R Chambers.

External links

This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain. This article incorporates text from the public-domain Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913.


1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

Missing image

WHEEL, BREAKING ON THE, a form of torture and execution formerly in use, especially in France and Germany. It is said to have been first used in the latter country, where the victim was placed on a cart-wheel and his limbs stretched out along the spokes. The wheel was made to slowly revolve, and the man's bones broken with blows of an iron bar. Sometimes it was mercifully ordered that the executioner should strike the criminal on chest and stomach, blows known as coups de grace, which at once ended the torture, and in France he was usually strangled after the second or third blow. A wheel was not always used a f P 0 Q 0 1 x S b In some countries it was upon a frame shaped like St Andrew's Cross that the sufferer was stretched. The punishment was abolished in France at the Revolution. It was employed in Germany as late as 1827. A murderer was broken on the row or wheel at Edinburgh in 1604, and two of the assassins of the regent Lennox thus suffered death.

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