It looked like it came straight from a gruesome movie; the Iron Maiden was one of the many medieval torture devices.

First mentioned in the late 1700s, the iron maiden is a torture device that looks like a coffin, only that the coffin decided to go grunge and now has tons of spikes inside. The person inside would be stabbed in the flesh with these spikes, of course, once you shut it close. What’s worse is that these spikes were just long enough and designed to avoid vital organs. Only the arms, legs, stomach, eyes, shoulders, and buttocks were stabbed so the person wouldn’t die immediately but would bleed to a slow and painful death.

Johann Philipp Siebenkees, a German philosopher, allegedly witnessed a coin-forger executed through the iron maiden in the city of Nuremberg in 1515. Despite this claim, there was no solid evidence that the iron maiden was indeed used in a way that it was popularly described. Perhaps it was supposed to be for acupuncture?  Perhaps the mere threat of it being used against you would be enough for you to give up any information or wealth that your captors wanted to acquire.  We may never know for sure.

Medieval Iron Maiden from the Ripley’s Exhibit Collection. Photo: Ripley’s

This method of execution was also associated with Spartan King Nabis. He invented the Apega of Nabis, which was similar to iron maiden, built as a replica of his wife, Apega. According to Polybius, the replica was even dressed in expensive clothing. This was to lure drunk Spartans who were unwilling to give him money into thinking it was the real Apega, with her arms outstretched. It is said that once the unsuspecting victim hugged the machine, it would trigger the arms to close, and the victim would be pressed and crushed against its arms, hands, and breasts of Apega that were covered with iron nails.

Nabis’ coin. Sparta.

Live Science reported that Polybus wrote, “When the man offered her his hand, he made the woman rise from her chair and taking her in his arms drew her gradually to his bosom” and then “both her arms and hands, as well as her breasts, were covered with iron nails… so that when Nabis rested his hands on her back and then by means of certain springs drew his victim towards her… he made the man thus embraced say anything and everything. Indeed by this means, he killed a considerable number of those who denied him money.”

The kind of hug that no one asked for.

Uday Hussein, the son of the infamous Saddam Hussein, looked like he took gruesome inspiration from these devices. He was found out to have owned an iron maiden in his backyard. Uday was the head of Iraq’s Olympic Committee and its soccer federation. Allegations of torture started to rise. One such allegation is that he ordered the torture of athletes who did not perform well: Players had their feet scalded, and toenails ripped off for failing to win tournaments. TIME later discovered “what may be the first tangible evidence pointing to torture in Uday’s own backyard, the administrative compound of the Iraqi national Olympic committee in central Baghdad. Hidden in a pile of dead leaves, not 20 yards from the building housing the Iraqi Football Association, was that must-have appliance of every medieval dungeon: an iron maiden.”

TIME journalist Bobby Ghosh tweeted just this year, “…The spikes had some dried blood on them, suggesting the torture device had recently been used.”

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