Breaking wheel

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The breaking wheel, also known as the Catherine wheel or simply the wheel, was a torture device used for capital punishment in the Middle Ages and early modern times for public execution by cudgelling to death. It was used during the Middle Ages and was still in use into the 19th century.

Breaking on the wheel was a form of torturous execution formerly in use in France, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Romania, Russia, Greece, Spain, Portugal, and other countries.


Description and uses

The wheel was typically a large wooden wagon wheel with many radial spokes, but a wheel was not always used. In some cases the condemned were lashed to the wheel and beaten with a club or iron cudgel, with the gaps in the wheel allowing the cudgel to break through. Alternatively, the condemned were spreadeagled and broken on a St Andrew's cross consisting of two wooden beams nailed in an "X" shape,[1][2] after which the victim's mangled body might be displayed on the wheel.[3] During the execution of the parricide Franz Seuboldt in Nuremberg on 22 September 1589, a wheel was used as a cudgel: the executioner used wooden blocks to raise Seuboldt's limbs, then broke them by slamming a wagon wheel down onto the limb.[4]

In France, the condemned were placed on a cartwheel with their limbs stretched out along the spokes over two sturdy wooden beams. The wheel was made to revolve slowly, and a large hammer or an iron bar was then applied to the limb over the gap between the beams, breaking the bones. This process was repeated several times per limb. Sometimes it was 'mercifully' ordered that the executioner should strike the criminal on the chest and stomach, blows known as coups de grâce (French: "blows of mercy"), which caused fatal injuries. Without those, the broken man could last hours and even days, before shock and dehydration caused death. In France, a special grace, the retentum, could be granted, by which the condemned was strangled after the second or third blow, or in special cases, even before the breaking began. Afterwards, the condemned's shattered limbs were woven ('braiden') through the spokes of the wheel, which was then hoisted onto a tall pole so that birds could eat the sometimes still-living individual.[citation needed]

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