The wheel is known as one of the, if not the most effective inventions in human history. Almost every domain of human society was fundamentally changed — including agriculture and transportation.
But the wheel was also used for more malicious intent: executions and torture. The name for wheels used for this malicious purpose is now the “breaking wheel.”
According to Geoffrey Abbott, author of What a Way to Go, the wheel started as a method of execution under the cruel Roman emperor of Commodus, memorialized by The Gladiator. Commodus secured people on a bench, then rolled a wheel with iron spikes over the body of the executioner. An executioner would also pound the wheel into the body of the victim, rolling it up the body of a victim and causing a gruesome amount of pain to someone by doing so.
Abbott notes there were two groups of people that would usually receive the wrath of the wheel: slaves and Christians. Sometimes, the wheel would roll from someone’s ankle to their face. Other times, the wheel would roll horizontally across the body, and either way, the wheel was one of the cruelest forms of torture and execution.
Sometimes, the wheel would be used for crucifixion. A wheel would be erected on a spit or spike, and for good measure, historian Josephus notes they even burned Christians on wheels with spits. After death, the body would still be on the wheel, which led the body to be desecrated by scavengers. In sheer mockery of Christianity, the idea of crucifixion by wheel was so someone could not go from death to resurrection.
Not everyone who underwent torture by wheel died. A medieval man found by researchers in Milan had his skeleton damaged very badly and had buckles found next to his corpse. Charlotte Edwards at The Sun cites researchers from the Journal of Archaeological Science who say it was one of the worst cases of torture ever.
As for how the method of execution originated, historian Pieter Spierenberg, author of The Spectacle of Suffering, says the Franks used wagons carrying a large weight to run people over.
The legend of St. Catherine of Alexandria is the most well-known victim of torture by wheel. However, as legend has it, St. Catherine did not suffer — God intervened right as she was getting secured to the rim of the wheel. The wheel broke and its spikes came off, hurting many spectators cheering on her death. This is why, today, another name for the breaking wheel is the Catherine wheel. Apparently, the Roman emperor tried to behead Catherine instead, but when she died, she was so holy milk flowed from her body instead of blood.
St. Clement was also apparently executed by wheel. He was secured to a wheel while Romans beat him with rods, dying in pain with a priest and two deacons.
Use in Medieval Europe
The wheel would later be used in France, exclusively for crimes of treason and murder. It would be altered while being used in France, leaving someone on a cartwheel while stretching out someone’s limbs among spikes. An iron bar was also included to break the bones of the torture. Each person would also receive a coup de grace, or a merciful death blow.
Charles-Henri Sanson, the storied executioner during the French Revolution who executed Louis XVI, supervised several executions using the wheel. Usually, the wheel was used to extract information — like most forms of torture. Criminals would be coaxed into giving the names of their co-conspirators. According to Natasha Sheldon at History Collection, the wheel started to be a much more common form of execution in the Middle Ages. And there were usually two ways to be tortured or killed by wheel — you could be tortured on the wheel or by the wheel.
Being tortured by the wheel, which seems to me to be the more cruel option, involved rolling it through several appendages, breaking the bones of the person. Essentially, being tortured by wheel was like being run over by a car, several times, and living through it. Being tortured and executed on the wheel included hitting someone with a hammer or other device while they were on the wheel. Sometimes, for added effect, the wheel would revolve to maximize the pain.
Another notorious victim of execution by wheel was Peter Niers, a German serial killer who was convicted of killing 544 people in 1581. Niers allegedly cut 24 fetuses out of pregnant women. Sheldon notes he was tortured for two days and hit with 42 strikes and slams of the wheel before his limbs were dismembered. Niers was alive until his limbs were dismembered. According to Abbott, another high-profile case was John Calas, an 86 year old English man accused of killing his own son. He was tortured on the wheel for two hours before he died. Before he died, he was tortured enough that he revealed the names of his accomplices.
Abbott says execution by wheel happened very differently in Germany than it did in France. In Germany, the execution was a huge spectator event, where a wheel was put on the top of a tripod and then rotated while someone was tortured. The difference between this method and others was that people watching from every angle could get a good view, while the executioner didn’t have to walk around the wheel. Like in other countries, the wheel was reserved for the worst of crimes.
Germany similarly had a famous executioner, like France had Charles Henri-Sanson. In Germany, Master Franz Schmidt was Germany’s “Warden of the Wheel” and chief executioner from 1573 to 1617. He prided himself on his competence and professionalism at the job — at one point, he even executed his own brother-in-law, hitting him 31 times with an iron bar before he died. Germany (mostly the Holy Roman Empire at the time) would have the most prolific and notorious wheel executions in history.
The country’s use of the wheel changed during the 19th country while it was still using the wheel to kill people. One traveler vividly described an 1819 execution of a man being bound, strangled, and beaten by a wheel for 15 minutes and convulsing as he bled to death. Perhaps the most vivid and horrifying description was the execution of John Reinhold Patkul, a Swedish nobleman that incurred the wrath of King Charles XII. King Charles classified Patkul as a traitor after he conspired with the Swedish Empire’s biggest enemies (Russia, Denmark-Norway and Saxony) to declare war on Sweden. Patkul was condemned to the worst of deaths because of his charges of treason.
Priest Lorentz Hagen described his execution in detail in a manuscript printed over 50 years later on Patkul’s final days. Patkul’s executioner had, in Hagen’s words, “no skill in his business” and brutally beat Patkul to death. Patkul prayed for mercy, begged the executioner to cut off his head. Eventually, his chest was beaten so viciously he couldn’t speak anymore, and after a lengthy public display, Patkul was beheaded and his limbs were dismembered.
Believe it or not, the wheel was used for even more insidious reasons than punishing the worst of criminals on the Western Hemisphere: to punish slaves. After slave revolts in New York and French Louisiana, death by wheel was used to cruelly punish slaves. Military officer John Gabriel Stedman remembered slaves being killed with no mercy on the wheel, with no coup de grace. In one instance, after a slave revolt, local officials tortured a slave for six hours, cutting off his limbs before killing him.
Death on the wheel would often be an act of mercy, as previously noted and reiterated by Brandon Christensen at RealClearHistory. In cases where officials really wanted subjects to suffer, they would leave the body on a wheel to have passersby watch and birds and scavengers eat the dead and decomposing body. In medieval tradition, this was so the soul never went to heaven.
The wheel was a form of execution meant to inflict maximum punishment and pain. These were often very public spectator executions meant to send a message, and as a form of torture, the wheel was often used to extract information. Catherine wheel executions were also meant to humiliate the victims. The article in the Journal of Archaeological Science from researchers at the University of Milan suggests execution and torture by wheel may have expanded into Italy, and been more expansive than originally thought.
Luckily, human society has come a long way from when the days of the Catherine wheel. But the breaking wheel is a testament to the human capacity for cruelty, even for landmark inventions intended for prosocial purposes. Nitrogen fixation, the chemical process that saved the world from world hunger, was also used to make poison gas during World War I. The wheel, an invention that revolutionized travel and transportation, was also used for execution and torture.
Originally published on May 9, 2021 on Frame of Reference.