Iron maiden

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

The iron maiden is a torture and execution device, consisting of an iron cabinet with a hinged front and spike-covered interior, sufficiently tall to enclose a human being. The first stories citing the iron maiden were composed in the 19th century. The use of iron maidens is a myth from the 18th century that was heightened by the belief that people of the Middle Ages were uncivilized; evidence of their popularity is difficult to prove.[1]


An open iron maiden

Despite its reputation as a medieval instrument of torture, there is no evidence of the existence of iron maidens before the early 19th century.[2] The device, known in German as the "Eiserne Jungfrau", looked very similar to an Egyptian mummy sarcophagus.[3] Wolfgang Schild, a professor of criminal law, criminal law history, and philosophy of law at the Bielefeld University, has argued that putative iron maidens were pieced together from artifacts found in museums to create spectacular objects intended for (commercial) exhibition.[4] Several 19th-century iron maidens are on display in museums around the world, including the San Diego Museum of Man,[5] the Meiji University Museum,[6] and several torture museums[7][8][9] in Europe.

The 19th-century iron maidens may have been constructed as probable misinterpretation of a medieval Schandmantel which was made of wood and metal but without spikes.[10] Inspiration for the iron maiden may also have 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,"[11] or from Polybius' account of Nabis of Sparta's deadly statue of his wife, the Iron Apega (earliest form of the device).[12][13]

The iron maiden of Nuremberg[edit]

The most famous iron maiden that popularized the design was that of Nuremberg, first displayed possibly as far back as 1802. The original was lost in the Allied bombing of Nuremberg in 1945. 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.[14] This copy was auctioned in the early 1960s and is now on display at the Medieval Crime Museum, Rothenburg ob der Tauber.[15]

Historians have ascertained that Johann Philipp Siebenkees made up the history of the device.[citation needed] According to Siebenkees' colportage, it was first used on August 14, 1515, to execute a coin forger.[16]

Cultural influence of the iron maiden[edit]

The British heavy metal band Iron Maiden was named after the torture device.[17]

An iron maiden features in the Bram Stoker short story "The Squaw", set in Nuremberg Castle.

"Iron Maiden" was the nickname given to a research centrifuge gondola designed for submerging a human body in water to counteract the effects of high-g acceleration, at the Aviation Medical Acceleration Laboratory (AMAL) of the Johnsville Naval Air Development Center. In 1958, researcher R. Flanagan Gray survived, experiencing 31.25 Gs for five seconds using AMAL's Iron Maiden.[18]

A makeshift iron maiden nicknamed the "Chokey" appears in Roald Dahl's Matilda, owned by the school headmistress Mrs Trunchbull and used on her students as a method of correction. It is constructed much like the Carthaginian example above, being non-injurious to health unless one leans for rest; the torture in this case comes from the students being forced by the Chokey to stand erect for long periods of time.

In the 1992 film Batman Returns, Bruce Wayne uses an altered version of an iron maiden to access the Batcave. The maiden is large enough inside that the spikes did not penetrate the person inside; the spikes withdraw within the doors of the maiden and the floor falls out below, leading to a tubular slide down to the Batcave.

In 2003, Time magazine reported that an iron maiden was found outside the Iraqi Football Association office of Uday Hussein in Iraq.[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Are Iron Maidens Really Torture Devices?". Live Science. Retrieved 2018-04-08.
  2. ^ Graf, Klaus (June 21, 2001), Mordgeschichten und Hexenerinnerungen – das boshafte Gedächtnis auf dem Dorf, archived from the original on August 28, 2004, retrieved July 11, 2007, 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."CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link).
  3. ^ Donnelly, Mark, and Daniel Diehl. The Big Book of Pain: Torture & Punishment through History. Stroud: History, 2008. Print. Schneiden (headcrusher)
  4. ^ Schild, Wolfgang (2000). Die eiserne Jungfrau. Dichtung und Wahrheit (Schriftenreihe des Mittelalterlichen Kriminalmuseums Rothenburg o. d. Tauber Nr. 3). Rothenburg ob der Tauber.
  5. ^ San Diego Museum of Man, Medieval Imposter: the Iron Maiden, archived from the original on 2015-02-18, retrieved 2015-01-17
  6. ^ Meiji University Museum, The Mission of the Meiji University Museum
  7. ^ Museum Kyburg Castle, The Iron Maiden, archived from the original on 2008-05-10, retrieved 2015-01-17
  8. ^ Český Krumlov Castle Museum of Torture, Museum of Torture, archived from the original on 2016-02-16, retrieved 2015-01-17
  9. ^ Seth Robson, "Prague: Torture Museum Offers a Blood-Curdling Collection", Stars and Stripes
  10. ^ Museum Digital, Schandmantel
  11. ^ Translation by Gerald G. Walsh, S.J., Demetrius B. Zema, S.J., Grace Monahan, O.S.U., and Daniel J. Honan.
  12. ^ Polybius, Translated by Evelyn Shirley Shuckburgh (2013-11-08), The Histories of Polybius, Volume II, Book XIII, Chapter 7
  13. ^ Pomeroy, Sarah B. (2002p), "Elite Women, The Last Reformers: Apega and Nabis and Chaeron", Spartan Women, Oxford University Press US, pp. 89–90, ISBN 978-0-19-513067-6 – via
  14. ^ "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".
  15. ^ 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").
  16. ^ Wolfgang Schild, Die Eiserne Jungfrau, 2002
  17. ^ Geoff Barton (27 October 1979), Blood and Iron: HM from the punky East End and nothing to do with Margaret Thatcher, sez Deaf Barton,, archived from the original on 29 June 2007, retrieved 8 October 2006
  18. ^ The Johnsville Centrifuge and Science Museum, R. Flanagan Gray’s “Iron Maiden”
  19. ^ Aparisim Ghosh (19 April 2003). "Iron Maiden Found in Uday's Hussein's Playground". Retrieved 7 February 2006.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]