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Iron maiden (torture): Wikis


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

An iron maiden (German Eiserne Jungfrau) is a torture device, consisting of an iron cabinet, with a hinged front, sufficiently tall to enclose a human being. It usually has a small closeable opening so that the torturer can interrogate the victim and torture or kill a person by piercing the body with sharp objects (such as knives, spikes or nails), while he or she is forced to remain standing.

A very similar torture device was constructed by Countess Elizabeth Báthory in the 16th century, which she allegedly dubbed the iron virgin.[1] The iron maiden is often associated with the Middle Ages, but in fact was not invented until the late 18th century:[2] No account of the iron maiden can be found earlier than 1793, although medieval torture devices were elaborately catalogued with horrified fascination and reproduced during the 19th century for collectors of the macabre.

Wolfgang Schild, a professor of criminal law, criminal law history and philosophy of law at the University of Bielefeld, has argued that any known iron maidens were in fact pieced together from several artifacts found in museums, in order to create spectacular objects intended for (commercial) exhibition.[3]

Given the same setting following the Napoleonic forces' capture of Toledo (1808), familiar from Edgar Allan Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum", Geoffrey Abbot[4] attributes to a French officer the following account of discovering such a device in the dungeons beneath the headquarters of the Inquisition:

In a recess in the subterranean vault, next to the private hall where the interrogations were conducted, stood a wooden figure, carved by the monks, and representing the Virgin Mary. A gilded halo encompassed her head, and in her right hand she held a banner extolling the glory of her Faith.
It appeared to us at first sight that, despite the silken robe adorning her, she wore some kind of breastplate which, on closer examination, was seen to be stuck full of extremely sharp, narrow knife-blades, the points being directed towards the spectator. The arms and hands were jointed, controlled by machinery concealed behind a curtain.
One of the Inquisition staff was commanded to set it in motion, and when the figure extended its arms, as though to press someone most lovingly to its heart, a Polish grenadier was ordered to substitute his well-filled knapsack for an imaginary victim. The effigy hugged it closer and closer, and when finally it was made to unclasp its arms, the knapsack had been perforated to a depth of two or three inches, and remained hanging on the points of the projecting daggers.
Persons accused of heresy, or of blaspheming God or the Saints, and obstinately refusing to confess their guilt, were conducted into this cellar, at the furthest end of which, numerous lamps placed around a recess, threw a variegated illumination of the gilded halo, and on the figure with a banner in her right hand. At a little altar standing opposite to her, and hung with black, the prisoner received the sacrament, and two ecclesiastics earnestly besought him, in the presence of the Mother of God, to make a confession. "See," they said, "how lovingly the blessed Virgin opens her arms to thee! On her bosom thy hardened heart will be melted; there thou wilt confess."
All at once the figure began to extend its arms; the prisoner was led to her embrace; she drew him nearer and nearer, pressed him almost imperceptibly closer and closer, until the spikes and knives just pierced his chest.

The most famous device was the iron maiden of Nuremberg, first displayed possibly as far back as 1802. The original was lost in the Allied bombing of Nuremberg in 1944. A copy "from the Royal Castle of Nuremberg", crafted for public display, was sold through J. Ichenhauser of London to the Earl of Shrewsbury in 1890, along with other torture devices, and, after being displayed at the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893, was taken on an American tour.[5] This copy was auctioned off in the early 1960s and is now on display at the Medieval Crime Museum, Rothenburg ob der Tauber.[6]

Historians have ascertained that Johann Philipp Siebenkees created the history of it as a hoax in 1793. According to Siebenkees' colportage, it was first used on August 14, 1515, to execute a coin forger.[7]

The Nuremberg iron maiden was actually built in the 19th century as a probable misinterpretation of a medieval "Schandmantel" ("cloak of shame"), which was made of wood and tin but without spikes.

The iron maiden of Nuremberg was anthropomorphic. It was probably styled after primitive "Gothic" representations Mary, the mother of Jesus, with a cast likeness of her on the face. The "maiden" was about 7 feet (2.1 m) tall and 3 feet (0.91 m) wide, had double doors, and was big enough to contain an adult man. Inside the tomb-sized container, the iron maiden was fitted with dozens of sharp spikes. Several nineteenth century iron maidens are on display in museums around the world, but it is unlikely that they were ever employed. The iron maiden probably was not used until the twentieth century, if at all. A crude copy of the Virgin of Nuremberg was found among the palace affects of Uday Hussein in Iraq. It was allegedly used on Iraqi soccer players for losing matches, but these claims are unconfirmed.

Inspiration for the "Iron Maiden" may come from the Carthaginian execution of Marcus Atilius Regulus, as it was recorded in a passage in Augustine of Hippo's The City of God (I.15) in which the Carthaginians "packed him into a tight wooden box, spiked with sharp nails on all sides, so that he could not lean in any direction without being pierced".[8], or by the account of Nabis of Sparta's deadly statue of his wife, Apega.


Cultural reference

The pioneering New Wave of British Heavy Metal band Iron Maiden take their name from the device.


  1. ^ Penrose, Valentine (trans. Alexander Trocchi) (2006). The Bloody Countess: Atrocities of Erzsébet Báthory. Solar Books.
  2. ^ Vortrag Klaus Graf: "Das Hinrichtungswerkzeug "Eiserne Jungfrau" ist eine Fiktion des 19. Jahrhunderts, denn erst in der ersten Hälfte des 19. jahrhunderts hat man frühneuzeitliche Schandmäntel, die als Straf- und Folterwerkzeuge dienten und gelegentlich als "Jungfrau" bezeichnet wurden, innen mit eisernen Spitzen versehen und somit die Objekte den schaurigen Phantasien in Literatur und Sage angepaßt. " ("The execution tool "Iron Maiden" is a fiction of the 19th century, because only since the first half of the 19th Century the early-modern-times' "cloaks of shame", which sometimes were called "maidens", were provided with iron spikes; and thus the objects were adapted to the dreadful fantasies in literature and legend.") Mordgeschichten und Hexenerinnerungen - das boshafte Gedächtnis auf dem Dorf, June 21, 2001 accessed July 11 2007.
  3. ^ Schild, Wolfgang (2000). Die eiserne Jungfrau. Dichtung und Wahrheit (Schriftenreihe des Mittelalterlichen Kriminalmuseums Rothenburg o. d. Tauber Nr. 3). Rothenburg ob der Tauber.  
  4. ^ Abbot, Geoffrey (April 2006). Execution. New York: St. Martin's Press. pp. 287.  .
  5. ^ "Famous torture instruments: the Earl of Shrewsbury's collection soon to be exhibited here", The New York Times, 26 November 1893 accessed 20 June 2009, refers particularly only to the "justly-celebrated iron maiden".
  6. ^ It was notably absent from the remainder of the collection, auctioned at Guernsey's, New York, in May 2009 (Richard Pyle, Associated Press, "For sale in NYC: torture devices").
  7. ^ Wolfgang Schild, Die Eiserne Jungfrau, 2002
  8. ^ Translation by Gerald G. Walsh, S.J., Demetrius B. Zema, S.J., Grace Monahan, O.S.U., and Daniel J. Honan.


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