The Breaking Wheel
The wheel or ‘breaking wheel’ was a popular punishment in Europe from antiquity until the nineteenth century. Legend states it began with the martyrdom of St Catherine of Alexandria who died on the wheel in 305 AD for refusing to renounce her Christian faith. By the middle ages, those broken on the wheel were less exhaulted personages than Christian saints. Instead, they were murderers of one sort or another.
The punishment could take two forms. A person could either be broken by the wheel or broken on the wheel. The first version may well date from Frankish times when it was customary to dispose of certain criminals by driving a wagon over them. By the middle ages, it involved using a single wheel to break the criminal’s body.
Procedures from the blood court of Zurich in the fifteenth century describe how the condemned was placed belly down on a board. The wheel was then slammed down twice on each arm and leg. The ninth blow was to the spine. The broken body was then woven between the spokes of the wheel, which was then hammered to a pole. This pole was then erected and the victim was left to die.
To be broken on the wheel involved tying the limbs of a criminal to the wheel and then smashing them with a cudgel. In France, the wheel revolved to add an extra dimension of uncertainty to the punishment. However, the number and sequence of blows were no random things. The court, at sentencing, determined them. If mercy was judged to be appropriate, the executioner would despatch a criminal after one or two blows by strangling them. Alternatively, they could be killed with one blow to the neck- or the chest. This chest blow was known in France as the coups de grace- the blow of mercy.
In the worst cases, limbs were broken legs first, working upwards, in a sequence guaranteed to make the pain last. In 1581, mass murderer Peter Niers, a German bandit convicted of 544 murders was tortured for two days and given 42 strikes on the wheel before being quartered alive. Most criminals, however, would be left on the wheel to die after their cudgeling, eventually expiring of shock, dehydration or animal attacks. Most survived no longer than three days.