Iron maiden

This article is about the supposed torture device. For the band, see Iron Maiden. For other uses, see Iron Maiden (disambiguation).
Various neo-medieval torture instruments. An iron maiden stands at the right.

The iron maiden was a presumed 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 iron maiden is uniquely a Germanic invention, originated in the town of Nuremberg at some point in the high-Middle Ages (the period with which it is associated[1]); probably in the 14th century. The device, which is also known in German as the "Eiserne Jungfrau", looked very similar to an Egyptian mummy sarcophagus.[2] Wolfgang Schild, a professor of criminal law, criminal law history, and philosophy of law at the University of Bielefeld, has argued that putative iron maidens were pieced together from artifacts found in museums to create spectacular objects intended for (commercial) exhibition.[3] Several 19th-century iron maidens are on display in museums around the world, including the San Diego Museum of Man,[4] the Meiji University Museum,[5] and multiple torture museums[6][7][8] in Europe. It is unlikely that any of these iron maidens were ever employed as instruments of torture.

The 17th-century iron maidens may have been constructed as probable misinterpretation of a medieval Schandmantel ("coat of shame" or "barrel of shame"), which was made of wood and metal but without spikes.[9] 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",[10] or from Polybius' account of Nabis of Sparta's deadly statue of his wife, the Iron Apega (earliest form of the device).[11][12]

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 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.[13] This copy was auctioned in the early 1960s and is now on display at the Medieval Crime Museum, Rothenburg ob der Tauber.[14]

Historians have ascertained that Johann Philipp Siebenkees created the history of it as an actual mock-up of the real device implemented in torture of witches and others who opposed the Christian church prior to 1793. According to Siebenkees' colportage, it was first used on August 14, 1515, to execute a coin forger.[15]

Cultural influence of the iron maiden

The British heavy metal band Iron Maiden was named after the torture device.[16]

"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.[17]

In 2003, Time magazine reported that an iron maiden was found outside the Iraqi Football Association office of Uday Hussein in Iraq.[18]

See also


  1. Graf, Klaus: "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. Donnelly, Mark, and Daniel Diehl. The Big Book of Pain: Torture & Punishment through History. Stroud: History, 2008. Print. Schneiden (headcrusher)
  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. San Diego Museum of Man, Medieval Imposter: the Iron Maiden
  5. Meiji University Museum, The Mission of the Meiji University Museum
  6. Museum Kyburg Castle, The Iron Maiden
  7. Český Krumlov Castle Museum of Torture, Museum of Torture
  8. Seth Robson, Stars and Stripes, Prague: Torture Museum Offers a Blood-Curdling Collection
  9. Museum Digital, Schandmantel
  10. Translation by Gerald G. Walsh, S.J., Demetrius B. Zema, S.J., Grace Monahan, O.S.U., and Daniel J. Honan.
  11. Polybius, Translated by Evelyn Shirley Shuckburgh, The Histories of Polybius, Volume II, Book XIII, Chapter 7
  12. Pomeroy, Sarah B. Spartan Women, "Elite Women, The Last Reformers: Apega and Nabis and Chaeron" Oxford University Press US (2002), pp. 8990, 198 pages,, ISBN 0-19-513067-7 and ISBN 978-0-19-513067-6.
  13. "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".
  14. 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").
  15. Wolfgang Schild, Die Eiserne Jungfrau, 2002
  16. 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
  17. The Johnsville Centrifuge and Science Museum, 20th Century "Torture Device" Returns to Bucks County
  18. Aparisim Ghosh (19 April 2003). "Iron Maiden Found in Uday's Hussein's Playground". Retrieved 7 February 2006.

Further reading

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