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Published October 17, 2016

Iron Maiden of Nuremberg

On August 14, 1515, a coin forger was stuffed inside a cabinet shaped like a ghoulish nesting doll and lined with spikes that “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.”

At least, that was the story Johann Philipp Siebenkees told in a 1793 pamphlet describing the history of the fearsome medieval torture implement known as the iron maiden. There’s just 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 guide to Nuremberg thrilled tourists with lurid tales 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). More likely, the infamous Iron Maiden of Nuremberg dated all the way back to… the 18th century, and the fictions of Johann Philipp Siebenkees.

Wherever it came from, the Iron Maiden of Nuremberg was destroyed by Allied bombing in 1944. Copies of it live on—in 1890, the Earl of Shrewsbury took one of them on a world tour. It eventually found its way back to Germany, where it’s now on display at the das Kriminalmuseum in Rothenburg ob der Tauber. More modern replicas can be seen at Ripley’s Believe or Not and a variety of wax museums.

You never want to be the filling in a torture sandwich.

According to Wolfgang Schild, a law professor at the University of Bielefeld, the 18th- and 19th-century maidens were constructed out of medieval and Renaissance scraps and stories like these—bits and pieces from genuine torture chambers, combined with ancient descriptions of, shall we say, mechanically aided interrogations and liberal helpings of imagination.

Fraud or not, the iron maiden and its kin do have historical precedents. In 256 BCE, the Carthaginians captured a Roman consul, Marcus Atilius Regulus, and pressed him to death between spiked boards. In the Middle Ages, minor lawbreakers might be sentenced to wear the Cloak of Shame—a weighted wooden garment that made it difficult to flee, even while your friends and neighbors pelted you with rotten fruit and offal and insults.

And there has been at least one person in the modern era thought to have used an iron maiden for its intended, horrible purpose—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 a Special Forces Task Force, 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 it, but TIME was. It reported that the artifact was “clearly worn from use, the nails having lost some of their sharpness.”

Uday Hussein’s iron maiden? Allegedly.

Note: This post originally appeared on the late, lamented, It has been cross-posted to Medium.


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