The Catherine Wheel – Worst Punishments In The History of Mankind


There are many horrific devices of the distant
past that were intended to inflict unbearable pain or to flat-out kill their target. Some of these, such as the brazen bull, a
brass statue in which a victim would be burned alive, sound pretty terrifying. The Breast Ripper or Pear of Anguish are other
examples of things that you just know you wouldn’t want to have happen. But say you were a captive and those in charge
threatened to bring out the wheel. The Catherine Wheel. You might think well that doesn’t actually
sound so bad. You’d be in for quite a shock. We’ll explain why in this episode of the
Infographics Show, The Catherine Wheel—Worst Punishments. According to legends, the Catherine Wheel
is named after Saint Catherine of Alexandria who is a patron to those academically or philosophically
inclined and prevents unexpected death. Now, there is no mention of this individual
before the 9th century although she supposedly lived in the 4th, so it is suspected that
she did not truly exist. Nevertheless, her story was a well-known one
that began in Egypt. She was believed to be noble if not a princess
as well as very studious. However, some might consider it less than
wise that she rose up to protest the wrongs of the then-Roman emperor of the time, Maxentius,
who was relentlessly persecuting Christians. Maxentius allegedly selected several scholars
to engage in a battle of wits with the young Catherine, but ultimately the wise men lost. As a further insult, while she was imprisoned
for her words, Catherine managed to convert many of Maxentius’ soldiers and even his
wife to the Christian religion. Needless to say, that didn’t exactly sit
well with Maxentius. After torture, in which she declared Jesus
Christ her spouse, she was sentenced to death. This is when the wheel came into play, which
was the intended executionary device. The story goes that it shattered at her touch
and so in desperation the emperor ultimately had her beheaded. She was then carried to Mount Sinai. Interestingly, later on, Saint Joan of Arc
identified Catherine’s voice as one of the several she heard. So, what is this wheel that Catherine had
miraculously escaped but that went on to kill many of the less fortunate? Another name it is known by, the breaking
wheel, will probably give you some ideas. It was a wheel made of wood similar if not
the same as those used on carriages. In addition to being made of hefty wood, these
wheels were outfitted with a metal rim. Though sometimes these would be modified so
that they could inflict further damage with protruding iron blades. These massive wheels would then be dropped
on convicts all over their bodies, breaking bones upon impact. Another approach was to tie a person to the
wheel and hit his or her limbs with iron hammers or bars while the wheel was rotated. As long as bones were shattered that was all
that mattered. The exact amount of wheel drops or hammer
hits were already determined beforehand. This would depend on the extent of the convicts’
crimes, such as if they committed acts of robbery or of murder. For the worst offenders, efforts were made
to better match their punishment to their crimes. For example, sharp pieces of wood would sometimes
be set underneath the victim to bring yet further torture. On the other hand, for those they wanted to
spare the worst, they could deliver a fatal blow during the wheel dropping or iron hitting
process or right after it was over. Unfortunately, most were not so lucky and
the bone-breaking was only the beginning, or step one of two or three. Following step one, bodies were typically
threaded through the spokes of another wheel. While this would be difficult to do with a
normal person, it was much easier once their limbs were broken. The wheel was then attached to a pole and
displayed for all to see much like those who had undergone crucifixion. At this point, some would be cut apart or
strangled which would finally, though painfully, end their suffering. Others would be placed above a blazing fire,
or alternatively, thrown directly in one. It was even possible for the individual to
be hung while on the wheel. Though this option was generally reserved
for those who had been found guilty of either the very worst crimes or multiple serious
offenses. The executioners in charge had no mercy even
upon the souls of those they had killed. Bodies were simply left where they had been
thrown or hung to be eaten away by the beaks, teeth, and claws of wild animals. Many believed that this would prevent the
souls from ever finding eternal peace. It would also serve as a gruesome warning
to others. There was but one little hope for those sentenced
to death by a Catherine Wheel. And that was if they somehow became disengaged
or if the wheel in some way failed to do its job. In these circumstances, it was seen as divine
intervention, and the convict’s life would ultimately be spared. However, this was highly unlikely. It happened so rarely, that when it did, it
would become the subject of religious paintings depicting the miracle. More often than not, those given this sentence
never made it into works of art. Further, their suffering could drag on seemingly
endlessly before they died. There are stories of a murderer in the 14th-century
who held on for three days before he expired. Another time a man by the name of Bona Dies
lasted for four full days and nights. A more questionable account of a German serial
killer in the 1500s claimed that he remained alive with the help of alcohol for as many
as nine days. But, again, more likely than not, this last
account is just another legend. The Catherine or breaking wheel was quite
a horrible device. It was used as a method of public execution
in Europe from antiquity to early modern times. Bavaria utilized it until it was outlawed
1813 and its suspected last use was in Prussia as late as 1841. We are all too thankful, as are modern-day
criminals, that over time it lost favor with most societies. Which leads to the question, in the case of
convicted murderers who have taken the lives of others, what punishment is just and what
is going way too far? Also, be sure to check out our other video
called Most Horrifying Punishments in the History of Mankind! Thanks for watching, and, as always, don’t
forget to like, share, and subscribe. See you next time!

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