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 breaking the criminal’s bones/bludgeoning him to death. As a form of execution, it was used during the Middle Ages into the 18th century; as a form of post mortem punishment of the criminal, the wheel was still in use into 19th century Germany.
The wheel was typically a large wooden wagon wheel with many radial spokes. 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 and break.
Alternatively, the condemned were spreadeagled 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.
A wheel was sometimes used for the actual bludgeoning. 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.
The survival time after being “broken” could be extensive. Accounts exist of a 14th-century murderer who lived for three days after undergoing the punishment. In 1348, during the time of the Black Death, a Jew named Bona Dies underwent the punishment. The authorities stated he lived for four days and nights afterwards.
Possible Frankish origins
Pieter Spierenburg mentions a reference in sixth century author Gregory of Tours as a possible origin for the punishment of breaking someone on the wheel. In Gregory’s time, a criminal could be placed in a deep track, and then a heavily laden wagon was driven over him. Thus, the latter practice could be seen as a symbolic re-enactment of the previous penalty in which people were literally driven over by a wagon.
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.
Holy Roman Empire
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. The number and sequence of blows was specified in the court’s sentence (for example, in 1581, the arch-killer Peter Niers, found guilty of 544 murders was, after two days of extended torture, given 42 strikes with the wheel, and was, at last, quartered alive). 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) dates from the 15th century 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.
A case of an executioner’s willful malpractice
The 1st of October 1786 in the County of Tecklenburg, Heinrich Dolle was to be executed by being broken on the wheel, on account of the aggravated murder of a Jew. The court had decided that Dolle should be broken von oben herab: the first stroke of the wheel should crush his chest (traditionally thought to kill him instantly). The court instructed the executioner Essmeyer, however, that Dolle should be clandestinely strangled (by garrotte) prior to the first stroke. However, the bystanders were shocked by what they thought was a severely botched execution by Essmeyer and his son, and thought Dolle had been alive during the entire proceeding, and also after Essmeyer had secured Dolle onto the wheel, and raised it on a pole. The town physician climbed up on a ladder (the Essmeyers had gone by then), and could ascertain that Dolle was, indeed alive; Dolle lingered on until he expired six hours later.
The Essmeyers were brought to court for severe malpractice; it was established that the string around Dolle’s neck had not been drawn tight enough, Essmeyer had, contrary to his duties as an executioner, accepted the use of a wheel that was not heavy enough. That lacking weight meant that the chest had not been crushed, furthermore, one arm and one leg of Dolle had not broken according to proper penal procedure, and finally, the nail that customarily was hammered through the convict’s brain in order to fasten him upon the wheel had been hammered in far too low.
Many believed that Essmeyer’s act of malpractice had been not so much a display of gross incompetence, but rather a deliberate act of cruelty, because Dolle just prior to his execution had converted from Catholicism to that of the Reformed Church (the executioner Essmeyer was a devout Catholic). The court did not find sufficient evidence for deliberate malice on Essmeyer’s part, but sentenced him to two years’ hard labour, banning him from working ever again as an executioner. His young son was, on grounds of mercy, acquitted of any culpable wrongdoings.
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.
Colonial United States
This method of execution has been used in 18th-century Colonial United States 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.
At the end of the Revolt of Horea, Cloșca and Crișan, in 1785 (then under Habsburg rule, in the Principality of Transylvania (1711–1867)), two of the revolt leaders, Horea and Cloșca, were executed by the breaking wheel. Crișan hanged himself in prison, before that. According to a book published the same year by Adam F. Geisler, the two leaders were broken “von unten auf”, that is, the limbs were broken whilst alive.
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.
Johann Patkul was a Livonian gentleman who was condemned on charges of treason by Swedish king Charles XII in 1707. The priest Lorentz Hagen was a friend of Patkul, and described the horrors his friend had to endure, when Patkul was condemned to be broken on the wheel:
..Here the executioner gave him the first stroke. His cries were terrible. “O Jesus ! Jesus, have mercy upon me!” This cruel scene was much lengthened out, and of the utmost horror; for as the headsman had no skill in his business, the wretch under his hands received upwards of fifteen several blows, with each of which were intermixed the most piteous groans, and invocations of the name of God. At length, after two strokes given on the breast, his strength and voice failed him. In a faltering dying tone, he was just heard to say, ” Cut off my head !” and the executioner still lingering, he himself placed his head on the scaffold: in a word, after four strokes with an hatchet, the head was separated from the body, and the body quartered. Such was the end of the renowned Patkul: and may God have mercy on his soul!
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 be destined 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”) can refer to speaking incorrectly, for example with a strong foreign accent or with a great deal of foreign vocabulary. Similarly, the Norwegian radbrekke can be applied to art and language, and refers to use which is seen as despoiling tradition and courtesy, with connotations of willful ignorance or malice. In Swedish, rådbråka can be used in the same sense as the English idiom “rack one’s brain” or, as in German, to mangle language.
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 particular 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.
Legend of St. Catherine
Medieval hagiographies such as the Golden Legend told that St Catherine of Alexandria (an essentially legendary figure from Late Antique Egypt) was sentenced to be executed on one of these devices for refusing to renounce her Christian belief, which thereafter became known as the Catherine wheel, also used as her iconographic attribute. The wheel miraculously broke when she touched it; she was then beheaded. As an attribute it is usually shown broken in a small version beside her, or sometimes as a miniature she holds in her hand; the sword then used is also often shown.