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Did The Iron Maiden Actually Exist?

What was the iron maiden, and how did the iron maiden work? The medieval torture device, a human-sized sarcophagus filled with spikes, seems almost too gruesome to be true. According to 19th-century scholars, the iron maiden caused a slow, painful end, as people bled from shallow wounds while their torturers opened and closed the contraption's doors to impale them. Sharp spikes lined up with the eyes, causing blinding pain.

It might be featured in multiple torture museums, but did the iron maiden exist? While examples flourished in the 1800s, with the mechanism even appearing at a World's Fair, there's no evidence it was actually used. In fact, the story of the iron maiden hoax ranks at the top of the list of historical myths that most people believe

Though it may not have been a real medieval device, it does share similarities with tales dating back to the ancient era. And in spite of its status as a historical fake, the apparatus still managed to inspire a modern psychopath to create - and use - an iron maiden of his own.

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  • The Iron Maiden Supposedly Caused A Slow, Painful Demise
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Iron Maiden Supposedly Caused A Slow, Painful Demise

    It's considered one of the most vicious medieval torture devices. The iron maiden was a box large enough to fit a human. The inside was lined with spikes. An unlucky person would be forced inside the chamber, and when his torturers closed the door, the spikes would pierce the body.

    The iron maiden wasn't a quick death. The placement of the spikes guaranteed that. Instead, the victim would slowly bleed out from multiple wounds, none of which were enough for an instant end.

    Except there's no evidence the iron maiden actually existed during the medieval period.

  • The First Evidence For The Iron Maiden Appeared In The 1800s
    Photo: Vinzenz Katzler / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The First Evidence For The Iron Maiden Appeared In The 1800s

    No references to the iron maiden exist during the medieval period. The first reference to the device dates to the late 18th century, followed by a growing number of mentions in the 1800s. 

    It wasn't until the 19th century that iron maidens began appearing across Europe. The Chicago World's Fair in 1893 even featured one, spreading tales of gruesome medieval barbarians even wider. The first iron maiden was actually created by Victorian collector Matthew Peacock, who used medieval materials to construct the device. Peacock then donated it to a museum, where, not surprisingly, visitors believed it was real.

  • A Philosopher Helped Spread The Myth Of The Iron Maiden
    Photo: Wellcome Images / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

    A Philosopher Helped Spread The Myth Of The Iron Maiden

    In the late 18th century, philosopher Johann Philipp Siebenkees recorded the first description of an iron maiden. Siebenkees wrote about the device in a guidebook about Nuremberg, Germany. According to Siebenkees, a 1515 execution used the iron maiden, described as an Egyptian mummy case lined on the inside with spikes.

    "Slowly, so that the very sharp points 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 shoulder, and his buttocks," Siebenkees wrote, "but not enough to kill him, and so he remained making great cry and lament for two days, after which he died."

    The description was so vivid that many believed Siebenkees, and the myth of the iron maiden was born.

  • Iron Maidens In Museums Were Built... For Museums
    Photo: Lestat (Jan Mehlich) / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Iron Maidens In Museums Were Built... For Museums

    Actual iron maidens appear in multiple torture museums across Europe. If it wasn't a real device, where did all the iron maidens in museums come from?

    Most of them were probably built in the 19th century - specifically for museums. That's what Matthew Peacock did with the first iron maiden, which he built himself. Similarly, the famous Iron Maiden of Nuremberg was built in the early 19th century, long after the medieval era. Rather than being used as torture devices, these iron maidens were built to terrify museum visitors.

  • The Fake Device Was Linked To The Middle Ages To Make It Seem Barbaric 
    Photo: Vinzenz Katzler / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Fake Device Was Linked To The Middle Ages To Make It Seem Barbaric 

    During the Age of Enlightenment, many looked back on the medieval era as a barbaric time in human history. It's not surprising, then, that an 18th-century myth about a medieval torture device caught on.

    The Middle Ages were an uncivilized, barbaric time, according to many Enlightened thinkers. As proof, they pointed to the iron maiden, a brutal device that only a medieval sadist could have invented. One of the popularizers of the iron maiden in the 19th century reportedly said the device was meant to "show the dark spirit of the Middle Ages in contrast to the progress of humanity." 

    Except the iron maiden was actually created by an 18th-century historian, who was so convinced of his own era's superiority that he invented a hoax about the past.

  • Some Claimed The Head Represented The Virgin Mary
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Some Claimed The Head Represented The Virgin Mary

    Stories about the iron maiden continued to circulate in the 19th century, sometimes growing quite elaborate. One rumor claimed the Catholic Church used iron maidens during the Inquisition as a way to torment non-believers. The woman's head atop the device was meant to be the Virgin Mary, according to the story. Targets of the iron maiden would see the Virgin Mary as their last sight before being sealed inside the device.

    The Virgin Mary might seem an unusual reference on a torture device, but her presence was meant to symbolize the victory of religion over heresy. The woman's head on the iron maiden earned it several other names, including the Virgin and Jungfer - German for spinster.