The iron maiden is a torture 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 function of iron maidens closing by themselves and killing people is considered to be a myth, heightened by the belief that people of the Middle Ages were uncivilized; evidence of their actual use is difficult to find.
Despite its reputation as a medieval instrument of torture, there is no evidence of the existence of iron maidens before the early 19th century. There are, however, ancient reports of the Spartan tyrant Nabis using a similar device around 200 B.C. for extortion and murder. The Abbasid vizier Ibn al-Zayyat is said to have created a "wooden oven-like chest that had iron spikes" for torture, which would ironically be used during his own imprisonment and execution in 847. The modern device, known in German as the "Eiserne Jungfrau", looked very similar to an Egyptian mummy sarcophagus. 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. Several 19th-century iron maidens are on display in museums around the world, including the San Diego Museum of Man, the Meiji University Museum, and several torture museums 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. 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," or from Polybius' account of Nabis of Sparta's deadly statue of his wife, the Iron Apega (earliest form of the device).
The iron maiden of Nuremberg
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. This copy was auctioned in the early 1960s and is now on display at the Medieval Crime Museum, Rothenburg ob der Tauber.
Historians have ascertained that Johann Philipp Siebenkees made up the history of the device. According to Siebenkees' colportage, it was first used on August 14, 1515, to execute a coin forger.
Cultural influence of the iron maiden
"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.
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 1967 film Hillbillys in a Haunted House, actress Joi Lansing is placed inside an iron maiden.
In the 1975 film Royal Flash, Malcolm McDowell hides inside an Iron Maiden.
In the 1978 film The Five Deadly Venoms, an iron maiden is shown, in which the character Snake attempts to use this to kill Toad.
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 the 1999 film Sleepy Hollow, an iron maiden features heavily in Ichabod Crane's resurgent and previously repressed childhood memories.
In 2003, Time magazine reported that an iron maiden was found outside the Iraqi Football Association office of Uday Hussein in Iraq.
In season 11, episode 4 of the British detective drama Midsomer Murders, a person is murdered inside an iron maiden.
- 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).
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- "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".
- 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").
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