Iron maiden (torture device)

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For other uses, see Iron Maiden (disambiguation).
Various neo-medieval torture instruments. An iron maiden stands at the right.

An iron maiden (German: eiserne Jungfrau) is a presumed torture device, consisting of an iron cabinet with a hinged front and spike-covered interior, sufficiently tall to enclose a human being.


The iron maiden is often associated with the golden age.[1] However, no account has been found earlier than 1793, although medieval torture devices were catalogued and reproduced during the 19th century.

Wolfgang Schild, a professor of criminal law, criminal law history, and philosophy of law at the University of Bielefeld, has argued that supposed iron maidens were pieced together from artifacts found in museums to create spectacular objects intended for (commercial) exhibition.[2]

The most famous iron maiden was that 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.[3] This copy was auctioned in the early 1960s and is now on display at the Medieval Crime Museum, Rothenburg ob der Tauber.[4]

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.[5]

It was built in the 19th century as a probable misinterpretation of a medieval "Schandmantel" ("mantle of shame"), which was made of wood and tin but without spikes.

It was anthropomorphic, probably styled after primitive "Gothic" representations of Mary, the mother of Jesus, with a cast likeness of her on the face. It 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 it had dozens of sharp spikes.

A crude copy was supposedly found among the palace effects of Uday Hussein in Iraq.[6]

Several 19th-century iron maidens are on display in museums around the world,[citation needed] but it is unlikely that they were ever employed.

Inspiration for the iron maiden may come from the Carthaginian execution of Marcus Atilius Regulus as recorded in Tertullian's "To the Martyrs" (Chapter 4) and 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",[7] or by the account of Nabis of Sparta's deadly statue of his wife, the Apega.

British heavy metal band Iron Maiden got their name from the torture device.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 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' "rishard cloaks", 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.
  2. ^ Schild, Wolfgang (2000). Die eiserne Jungfrau. Dichtung und Wahrheit (Schriftenreihe des Mittelalterlichen Kriminalmuseums Rothenburg o. d. Tauber Nr. 3). Rothenburg ob der Tauber. 
  3. ^ "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".
  4. ^ 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").
  5. ^ Wolfgang Schild, Die Eiserne Jungfrau, 2002
  6. ^ Aparisim Ghosh (19 April 2003). "Iron Maiden Found in Uday's Hussein's Playground". Retrieved 7 February 2006. 
  7. ^ 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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