• Weird History

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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  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.