‘iron maiden’: meaning and origin

The noun iron maiden denotes an instrument of torture, supposedly used during the Middle Ages, consisting of an upright coffin-shaped box lined with iron spikes, into which the victim is shut.




1-: The noun iron maiden is first recorded as a loan translation from German Eiserne Jungfer in Travels through Germany, Bohemia, Hungary, Switzerland, Italy, and Lorrain. Giving a True and Just Description of the Present State of those Countries; their Natural, Literary, and Political History; Manners, Laws, Commerce, Manufactures, Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Coins, Antiquities, Curiosities of Art and Nature, &c. […] Carefully translated from the Second Edition of the German (London: Printed for A. Linde and T. Field, 1757), by the German author Johann Georg Keyssler (1693-1743)—the following is about Castel Sant’Angelo, in Rome:

In the castle is a handsome hall, adorned with gildings, fine paintings, and Adrian’s statue, whose busto, together with that of Antoninus, is to be seen without on the castle wall. The apartment to which Clement VII. withdrew, amidst the disturbances which he had brought upon himself by provoking the emperor Charles V. is at present a state prison for persons of rank, who, through a small window, may look into the chapel, and hear mass. Before this apartment is a trabochetto, or trap-door, through which a criminal might be unexpectedly let down into a deep dungeon, and meet with certain death; but at present an iron grate is placed over it.
[…] In the above-mentioned hall of the old arsenal is another trabochetto, or trap-door, through which malefactors were let fall into a machine, where, by a kind of large razors, they were at once cut to pieces. This instrument the French call Oubliettes, but at present no more of it is to be seen, in this castle, than of the iron maidens * (concerning which so many idle stories are told) at the castle of Plassenburg, the white tower at Prague and other places.

* The plural iron maidens corresponds to eiserne Jungfern in Keyssler’s original text, Neüeste Reise durch Teütschland, Böhmen, Ungarn, die Schweitz, Jtalien, und Lothringen, worin der Zustand und das merckwürdigste dieser Länder beschrieben und vermittelst der Natürl: Gelehrten, und Politischen Geschichte, der Mechanick, Mahler-, Bau- und Bildhauer-Kunst, Müntzen, und Alterthümer erläutert wird (Hannover: Nicolai Försters und Sohns Erben, 1740).

2-: The noun iron maiden occurs as a loan translation from German Eiserne Jungfrau in the description of the Hradschin, “the palace of Bohemian kings and emperors, for centuries”, in Prague—published in A Handbook for Travellers in Southern Germany; being a guide to Bavaria, Austria, Tyrol, Salzburg, Styria, &c., the Austrian and Bavarian Alps, and the Danube from Ulm to the Black Sea (London: John Murray and Son, 1837):

Four picturesque and Gothic-looking towers [are] the last remaining of 22, which have been destroyed by war, fire, and time. Those known by the names of the Black, or angular tower, and White, or round Towers, served as a state prison. For the most part only criminals of rank were confined in them; and they were often executed at once, without any form of trial, having first been subjected to the torture. There is a tradition that the Iron Maiden (Eiserne Jungfrau) was the instrument employed here. This was the figure of a female, in the body of which sharp instruments were concealed, which started out on being touched, and inflicted a horrible death on the victim who was pressed into its arms.




1-: Historical accuracy was apparently not a matter of concern to the anonymous author of the following paragraph, published in The Examiner (Washington, Pennsylvania) of Monday 3rd February 1823—for example, the French physician Joseph Ignace Guillotin (who, in 1789, recommended the use of the guillotine for executions) lived on long after the French Revolution, and died of natural causes in 1814, at the age of seventy-five:

It is a curious circumstance in the history of the three most celebrated engines of death, that the first persons who fell victims to these ingenious machines were the inventors themselves. The man who framed the iron maiden (an instrument of torture very celebrated in the annals of the inquisition) was the first who was crushed in her rugged embraces. The first roarings of the brazen bull were the groans of its unfortunate maker; and the first blood that stained the edge of the Guillotine axe, was that of the artist who invented it.

2-: The following is from the Vermont Journal (Windsor, Vermont) of Friday 1st September 1854:

Sketches of Travel.
Correspondence of the New York Observer.

[…] What tales that old palace of the kings could tell, if stones and dungeons had tongues. That Black Tower, and the White Tower, were in olden times the prisons of state; and many a victim of noble blood has taken his seat, unsuspectedly, in a chair, and been suddenly let down by a rope into a pit where sunlight never comes, and whence no cry of suffering ever rises to the air. The Iron Maiden stood there, and when the prisoner approached to say his prayers to the virgin, should put out her arms and press him to her hearts, while sharp knives, of which her arms were made, would cut him slowly to pieces.

3-: The noun iron maiden occurs in a figurative context in the following from The Memphis Daily Appeal (Memphis, Tennessee) of Thursday 22nd May 1862:

Poor Baltimore!

This unhappy city, cut off from the Southern people, from whom her prosperity has been built up, lies under the guns of a Federal fort—is held in fear by a Federal army—is governed by authorities imposed by her conquerors. There has been no town in Italy held by Austrian bayonets more in defiance of “the consent of the governed” than Baltimore. Yet this is the patent process by which union and fraternity is restored. In the words of a Yankee correspondent, writing from Fredericksburg, “They have not yet felt the closing of the iron-hand. When the pressure is really felt, and bones begin to crack, it is my firm belief that they’ll be ready to be folded in by the old Union.” Baltimore has felt this affectionate embrace—this clasp of the “Iron Maiden,” by which recusants used to be crushed into or recantation.

4-: The following is from the Boston Daily Journal (Boston, Massachusetts) of Saturday 8th June 1867:

(Foreign Correspondence of the Journal.)

Nuremberg, Bavaria, May 18, 1867
To the Editor of The Boston Journal
[…] This is the room of the Iron Maiden.
Here is the statue or image—a maiden with a hood upon her head, an iron ruffle around the neck, enveloped in an iron cloak. Suddenly the folds of the cloak are thrown apart, and by the dim light of the candle you see that the lining of the garment is set with sharp spikes. Take one step forward and the folds enclose you. Iron spikes pierce your body, and into your eye balls—clear through to the vertebra they penetrate. Not a quick embrace, but slowly you are enfolded—one turn of the screw, just enough to penetrate the flesh, just enough to touch the apple of the apple of the quivering eye; then, after an age of anguish another turn and a hundred spikes reach a little nearer to the nerves; and then, as heat, a thirst and fever rack the body, another gentle turn and another age of torture; and then one more advance of the spikes toward the vitals, till death comes on, and then the maiden, unfolding her arms, drops the victim through a trap-door, down—down—down into unknown depths! We drop a pebble and hear the faint splash of waters far beneath.
Here is a skull. Anatomists say it is the skull of a female. You may put your fingers into the holes where the spikes which entered the eyes came through! No name, no record. God only has the book of remembrance.
We think of this dungeon as connected with the barbarism of the middle ages, but we are not quite so far removed from those days of rigorous administration of law. Till Napoleon with the legions of France came across the Rhine, overthrowing all obstacles, this iron maiden held out her arms to receive offenders against the law. On the approach of the French army in 1803, the Virgin, as it is called, with other instruments of torture, were thrown into a cart and dispatched in haste out of the town, but fell into the hands of the victorious army. Not till then did the world know what sort of punishments were meted out to offenders of the law.
We are to remember that Nuremberg was a free city. About thirty patrician families for a long time monopolized authority, and chose a Council or State consisting of 8 persons who formed the Executive. This Executive was an irresponsible body. The world knew nothing of their secret administration of affairs. Men disappeared, and no one knew what became of them. The iron Virgin embraced them, and that was all. Another Virgin exists in Austria, at Neustadt. There are other horrors, enough to curdle the blood, not of the Roman Inquisition, but of German governments. The heart almost ceases its beating when you look upon their devilish inventions and think that though 1867 years have rolled away since Christ came to redeem the world, yet we are only half a century removed from these horrors.




In The Kiss of the Virgin: a Narrative of Researches made in Germany, during the years 1832 and 1834, for the purpose of ascertaining the mode of inflicting that ancient punishment, and of proving the often denied and generally disputed fact of its existence, published in Archaeologia: Or, Miscellaneous Tracts Relating to Antiquity. Published by the Society of Antiquaries of London (London: Published by J. B. Nichols and Son, 1838), one R. L. Pearsall tells how, during a tour in Germany in 1832, he visited Nuremberg and found a passage from an old chronicle “in a book entitled “Materialen zur Nürnbergerischen Geschichte herausgegeben von D. I. C. Siebenkees, Nürnberg 1792””:

The passage in question is represented to have been extracted from a Chronicle (which the author has not indicated) and may be thus rendered in English: “In the year of our Lord 1533, the Iron Virgin was constructed, for the punishment of evil doers, within the wall of the Froschthurm (or Frogs-tower) opposite the place called die Sieben Zeiler (that is to say, the Seven Ropes); so, at least, it was publicly given out to justify the thing. Therein was an iron statue, seven feet high, which stretched abroad both its arms in the face of the criminal; and death by this machine was said to send the poor sinner to the fishes. For so soon as the executioner moved the step, on which it stood, it hewed, with broad hand swords, the criminal into little pieces, which were swallowed by fishes in hidden waters.”

Pearsall then went to the Town Hall of Nuremberg, where:

Dr. Mayer, who is the keeper of the archives [..], told me that the passage from the Chronicle quoted by Siebenkees was no fable: that the machine had formerly stood in a vault near to the Sieben Zeiler; and that he himself had seen part of the machinery which belonged to it, although the figure itself had disappeared.
“The figure,” said he, “stood at the brink of a trap-door; and when the individual who had suffered by its embraces was released from them, he fell downwards through it on a sort of cradle of swords, placed in a vault underneath, and which were arranged so as to cut his body into pieces, which dropt into running water over which the machine stood!”
He could not tell me the precise manner in which this machine operated, but said that he understood it to have been thus: two wooden cylinders were placed parallel to each other, so as to extend right across the inferior vault; into the front of each of these cylinders were screwed a great many iron blades, which projected in the face of each other, and crossed each other like scissor-blades; and into the rear of the same cylinders were screwed an equal number of curved bars of iron. The cylinders, being thus armed, were put in equilibrio by means of weights, and by placing the ends of the bars on strong beams, so that, when any thing heavy fell from above on the blades, they were put in motion, and made to perform a cutting movement. I need not say that in this manner the body of a man must have been soon minced to pieces; but in order to give the reader a clear idea of the contrivance in question, I must refer him to the drawing (Plate XV.)

Plate XV. Interior of a Chamber for punishment at Nuremberg, with the presumed form of the Instrument formerly in the Room beneath.

In 1834, Pearsall visited Vienna and chanced to hear that an Iron Virgin was actually in the possession of Baron Diedrich, at the Castle of Feistritz. He went there and saw the instrument shown in the following drawings:

Plate XVII. The Jungfer or Virgin, as it stood in 1834 in the Castle of Feistritz.

Plate XVIII. Profile, and Interior of the Figure of the Jungfer.

Pearsall then writes:

“I bought it,” said [Baron Dietrich] to me, “of a person who obtained it, with the left hand, during the French revolution, and had with it great part of the contents of the arsenal of Nuremberg. From him I received it in a cart with several things which had formerly belonged to that arsenal. It came to me rusted and in bad condition, deprived of its machinery, but accompanied by the pedestal on which it now stands, and which seems to have been made for it.”
Now let the reader look at the Plates which represent accurately the Virgin in question, and he will see something very like the costume of Nuremberg in the 16th century, which is precisely the epoch when the Virgin is said to have been constructed there.
Let him also understand that the Virgin, represented by the drawing, is just seven feet high, Nuremberg measure, and is made entirely of iron, and then, I think, he will agree with me that the Virgin now in the possession of M. De Diedrich must be the same machine which stood formerly in the subterranean vault of the before-mentioned city.
The construction of the figure was simple enough. A skeleton, formed of bars and hoops, was coated over with sheet iron, which was laid on and painted, so as to represent a Nuremberg-citizen’s wife of the 16th century, in the mantle then generally worn by that class of persons.
From the plate representing the interior of the machine, the reader will see that the front of it opened like folding doors, the two halves of the front part of it being connected by hinges with the back part. On the inside of its right breast are thirteen quadrangular poniards. There are eight of these on the inside of the left breast, and two on the inside of the face. These last were clearly intended for the eyes of the victim, who must have therefore gone backwards into it, and have received, in an upright position, in his breast and head, the blades to which he was exposed. That this machine had been formerly used cannot be doubted, because there are evident blood stains yet visible on its breast and on the upper part of its pedestal. How it was worked is not known, for the mechanism which caused it to open and shut is no longer attached to it; but that there was some such mechanism, is clear from the holes and sockets which have been cut out on the surface of the pedestal, showing the points where parts of the apparatus, intended to work it, must have been inserted.