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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 bludgeoning to death. It was used during the Middle Ages and was still in use into the 19th century.
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 their limbs were beaten with a club or iron cudgel, with the gaps in the wheel allowing the limbs to give way. Alternatively, the condemned were spreadangled and broken on a saltire, a cross consisting of two wooden beams nailed in an "X" shape, after which the victim's mangled body might be displayed on the wheel. During the execution for parricide of 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.
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 condemned on the chest and abdomen, 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, during which birds could peck at the helpless victim. Eventually, 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.
In the Holy Roman Empire, the wheel was punishment reserved primarily for men convicted of aggravated murder (murder committed during another crime, or against a family member). Less severe offenders would be cudgelled "top down", with a lethal first blow to the neck. More heinous criminals were punished "bottom up", starting with the legs, and sometimes being beaten for hours. (One executed criminal, Christman Genipperteinga is said to have been kept alive for 9 days by being given strong drink every day.) The number and sequence of blows was specified in the court's sentence. Corpses were left for carrion-eaters, and the criminals' heads often placed on a spike.
The "Zürcher Blutgerichtsordnung" (Procedures for the Blood Court in Zurich) and contains a detailed description of how the breaking on the wheel shall occur: Firstly, the delinquent is placed belly down, bound hands and feet outstretched to a board, and thus dragged by a horse to the place of execution. The wheel is then slammed two times on each arm, one blow above the elbow, the other below. Then, each leg gets the same treatment, above and below the knees. The final ninth blow is given at the middle of the spine, so that it breaks. Then, the broken body is woven onto the wheel (i.e, between the spokes), and the wheel is then hammered onto a pole, which is then fastened upright in its other end in the ground. The criminal is then to be left dying "afloat" on the wheel, and be left to rot.
Legend has it that St Catherine of Alexandria was sentenced to be executed on one of these devices, which thereafter became known as the Catherine wheel, also used as an iconographic attribute. The wheel inexplicably broke when she touched it; she was then beheaded.
In Scotland, a servant named Robert Weir was broken on the wheel at Edinburgh in 1603 or 1604 (sources disagree). This punishment had been used infrequently there. The crime had been the murder of John Kincaid, Lord of Warriston, on behalf of his wife. Weir was secured to a cart wheel and was struck and broken with the coulter of a plough. Lady Warriston was later beheaded.
The breaking wheel was frequently used in the Great Northern War in the early 1700s when the Tsardom of Russia challenged the supremacy of the Swedish Empire in northern Central Europe and Eastern Europe. Russian forces used this method to execute Cossacks and during the massacres of civilians at Baturyn and Lebedyn. The Swedish king, Charles XII also ordered the Livonian nobleman Johann Patkul to be broken alive on the wheel for high treason.
This method of execution has been used in 18th-century America following slave revolts. It was once used in New York after several whites were killed during a slave rebellion in 1712. Between 1730 and 1754, 11 slaves in French-controlled Louisiana, who had revolted against their masters, were killed on the wheel.
The breaking wheel was used as a form of execution in Germany as recently as the early 19th century. Its use as a method of execution was not fully abolished in Bavaria until 1813, and still in use until 1836 in Hesse-Kassel. In Prussia, the punishment of death was inflicted by decapitation, with a large sword, by burning, and by breaking on the wheel. At the time, the Prussian penal code required a criminal to be broken upon the wheel when a particularly heinous crime had been committed. However, the king always issued an order to the executioner to strangle the criminal (which was done by a small cord not easily seen) before his limbs were broken. The last execution by this stronger form of capital punishment was on 13 August 1841.
The breaking wheel was also known as a great dishonor, and appeared in several expressions as such. In Dutch, there is the expression opgroeien voor galg en rad, "to grow up for the gallows and wheel," meaning to come to no good. It is also mentioned in the Chilean expression morir en la rueda, "to die at the wheel," meaning to keep silent about something. The Dutch expression ik ben geradbraakt, literally "I have been broken on the wheel", is used to describe physical exhaustion and pain, like the German expression sich gerädert fühlen, "to feel wheeled," and the Danish expression "radbrækket" refer almost exclusively to physical exhaustion and great discomfort.
In Finnish teilata, "to execute by the wheel," refers to forceful and violent critique or rejection of performance, ideas or innovations. The German verb radebrechen ("to break on the wheel") means abusing the language by speaking incorrectly, with a strong foreign accent, etc. Similarly, the Norwegian verb radbrekke is applied to art and language, and refers to use which is seen as despoiling tradition and courtesy, with connotations of willful ignorance and/or malice. The Swedish verb rådbråka (from German radebrechen), is used both as expression for mental exhaustion and for speaking poorly.
The word roué, "dissipated debauchee," is French, and its original meaning was "broken on the wheel." As execution by breaking on the wheel in France and some other countries was reserved for crimes of peculiar atrocity, roué came by a natural process to be understood to mean a man morally worse than a "gallows-bird," a criminal who only deserved hanging for common crimes. He was also a leader in wickedness, since the chief of a gang of brigands (for instance) would be broken on the wheel, while his obscure followers were merely hanged. Philip, Duke of Orléans, who was regent of France from 1715 to 1723, gave the term the sense of impious and callous debauchee, which it has borne since his time, by habitually applying it to the very bad male company who amused his privacy and his leisure. The locus classicus for the origin of this use of the epithet is in the Memoirs of Saint-Simon.
In English, the quotation "Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?" from Alexander Pope's "Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot" is occasionally seen, referring to putting great effort into achieving something minor or unimportant.
Coats of arms with Catherine wheels
- Altena, Germany
- Goa, India, when it was in Portuguese possession
- Hjørring, Denmark, where Saint Catherine is the patron-saint of the Town.
- Kaarina, Finland, until 2009 and Piikkiö's union with Kaarina
- Kremnica, Slovakia
- Kuldīga, Latvia
- Niedererbach, Germany
- Prien am Chiemsee, Germany, where Saint Catherine is the patron saint of the town
- Sinaai, Belgium
The Wheel, by Jacques Callot, 1633
Executions of Cossacks in Lebedin. From early-18th-century engraving.
The execution of Louis Dominique Cartouche, 1721
The cruel death of Jean Calas, Toulouse, 1762
The execution of Matthias Klostermayr, 1771
- The Catherine wheel firework named after it
- Catherine wheel (disambiguation)
- Revolt of Horea, Cloșca and Crișan
- Probertenencyclopaedia – illustrated
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- Lyrics in Modern Songs: www.thrashmetalbands.com
- Abbott, Geoffrey (2007). What A Way To Go. New York: St. Martin's Griffin. p. 36. ISBN 978-0-312-36656-8 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].
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- Abbott ibid. pp. 40–41, 47. Missing or empty
- Depicted in the contemporary woodcut An Aggravated Death Sentence, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg.
- Herber, Caspar. (1581). Erschröckliche newe Zeytung Von einem Mörder Christman genandt. Mainz, Holy Roman Empire: Caspar Herber. p. 6.
- Evans, Richard J. (9 May 1996). Rituals of Retribution: Capital Punishment in Germany 1600-1987. USA: Oxford University Press. p. 29. ISBN 978-0-19-821968-2 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].
- Müller, J. (1870). Der Aargau: Seine politische, Rechts-, Kultur- und Sitten-Geschichte. ¬Der alte Aarau, Volume 1. Zurich: Schultheß. p. 385-86. Retrieved 2013-03-24.
- Chambers, Robert (1885). Domestic Annals of Scotland. Edinburgh: W & R Chambers.
- Buchan, Peter (1828). Ancient Ballads and Songs of the North of Scotland 1. Edinburgh, Scotland. p. 296. Retrieved 21 March 2010.
- "Executions in the U.S. 1608–2002: The Espy File" (PDF). Death Penalty Information Center. Retrieved 25 February 2010.
- Blazek, Matthias: „Letzte Hinrichtung durch Rädern im Königreich Preußen am 13. August 1841“ (In the Kingdom of Prussia a criminal was broken upon the wheel for the last time on 13 August 1841), in: Fachprosaforschung – Grenzüberschreitungen. Deutscher Wissenschafts-Verlag (DWV), Baden-Baden, ed. 7, 2011, p. 339–343. Burrill, Alexander (1870). A Law Dictionary and Glossary 2 (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Baker Voorheis and Co. p. 620. Retrieved 21 March 2010. Rudolf Kühnapfel, assassin of Andreas Stanislaus von Hatten, the Bishop of Warmia, was sentenced to be executed in this manner, though he was killed by strangulation before his corpse was broken on the wheel.
- Svenska Akademiens Ordbok: Rådbråka (Swedish only) Retrieved 2011-12-12.
This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "St Catherine of Alexandria". Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company.