This Week in Odd History, a coin forger was stuffed inside a cabinet shaped like a Russian doll. The spikes lining the interior “penetrated his arms, and his legs in several places, and his belly and chest, and his bladder and the root of his member, and his eyes, and his shoulders, and his buttocks, but not enough to kill him; and so he remained making great cry and lament for two days, after which he died.”
That, anyway, was the story told by Johann Philipp Siebenkees in a 1793 pamphlet describing the history of the fearsome medieval instrument of torture known as the iron maiden. There is, however, one small problem with Herr Siebenkees’ story; it isn’t true. The first known references to the maiden appear in the late 18th century – besides Siebenkees’ pamphlet, a 1784 tour guide to Nuremberg allegedly whispered of “the Iron Maiden, that abominable work of horror that goes back to the times of Frederick Barbarossa” (by which it meant the 12th century). That guidebook might have referred to the infamous Iron Maiden of Nuremberg, which was destroyed in 1944, during the Allied bombing of Nuremberg. A copy of the Maiden, purchased by the Earl of Shrewsbury in 1890 and taken on a world tour, found its way back to Germany, and is now displayed at the Medieval Crime Museum in Rothenburg ob der Taube. Modern copies (like the one above) can be seen at Ripley’s Believe or Not and a variety of wax museums.
Fraud or not, the Maiden and her kin do have historical precedents. Marcus Atilius Regulus, a Roman consul, was taken prisoner by the Carthaginians in 256 BCE and pressed to death between spiked boards. In the Middle Ages, certain minor lawbreakers were sentenced to wear a weighted wooden garment known as a Cloak of Shame in public, while their friends and neighbors pelted them with offal and insults and rotten fruit. According to Wolfgang Schild, a law professor at the University of Bielefeld, the 19th century maidens were likely built from medieval and Renaissance scrap and stories like these – bits and pieces of genuine instruments of torture, combined with ancient descriptions of mechanically-aided interrogations and plenty of imagination.
Despite its gruesome reputation, the only person believed to have used an iron maiden was Saddam Hussein’s son Uday, who had a penchant for torturing athletes who failed to live up to his expectations. In April 2003, several months before Uday’s death at the hands of the American military, a group of looters at the Iraqi Olympic headquarters in Baghdad found a replica of the Iron Maiden of Nuremberg in a pile of leaves. They weren’t interested in the Maiden, but TIME Magazine was. It reported that she was “clearly worn from use, [the] nails having lost some of their sharpness.”
Note: The Daily Bleed lists the date of the fictitious forger’s death as August 15, 1515. However, most other sources say he died (or at least made the acquaintance of the Maiden) on August 14, 1515. Not having a copy of Siebenkees’ pamphlet to hand, I can’t say for sure.
Photo of the Iron Maiden of Nuremberg, as seen at Ripley’s Orlando, by cliff1066™ on Flickr.
Famous Torture Intruments: The Earl of Shrewsbury’s Collection Soon to Be Exhibited Here
Iron Maiden Found in Uday Hussein’s Playground
The Iron Maiden of Nuremberg
Old Time Torture Machines
Pentagon: Saddam’s Sons Killed in Raid
Torture of Iraq’s Athletes
What is an Iron Maiden?