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Ultra Rare German or Austrian Breaking, Execution Wheel, 18th C

The execution of Matthias Klostermayr, 1771

Execution by wheel was one of the most horrible punishments ever devised by man, reserved generally for the most heinous capital crimes . It is believed that this form of punishment had its roots as far back as the 6th Century in Europe, but it did not end until the 19th C. It became, according to some sources, the second most common form of execution in Europe behind hanging, until it was finally banned, with the last known execution by wheel performed in 1841.  It was such a common form of execution that the wheel has been used for centuries as a symbol of justice.  Execution by wheel was even used in Colonial America, primarily for slaves who revolted, being used in New York in 1712 after a slave rebellion killed several whites. Between 1730 and 1754, 11 slaves who had revolted where killed on the wheel in French-controlled Louisiana.

Execution by wheel took on different forms in different areas. In France it was common to tie the condemned to a wheel and then use a club to smash his/her limbs. It was done several times to each limb. Sometimes mercy would be shown and a blow to the head or chest would end the suffering, but often times after breaking their limbs the victim would be hoisted, alive and still tied to the wheel, onto a pole where they would eventually die in agony from shock and dehydration. All the while they were helpless to defend themselves against the carrion that would peck at their body. It could take hours or even days to die. In 1348 a man is recorded as having lived for 4 days and nights after being broken on the wheel.

In Germanic countries the executions were performed with the condemned staked spread-eagle on the ground, often with pieces of wood placed under certain parts of the body to aid in breaking the bones. A wheel was then used by the executioner to throw down on certain parts of the body to break the bones. The number and location of the blows was often spelled out in the court’s sentence. In some cases the court might be merciful and order that the condemned be strangled before being broken on the wheel. On the other extreme, in 1581, Peter Niers, found guilty of 544 murders, was broken on the wheel after 2 days of extended torture. He was struck 42 times by the wheel and finished off by being quartered alive. The head was often cut off and posted on a stake or displayed in a cage as a warning to others of the fate that awaited criminals.

While an ordinary wagon wheel was often used for executions, this wheel was made specifically for execution. Approximately 48" in diameter and weighing 65 pounds (nearly 30 kg), the wood rim is 2" wide by 2 3/4" high and fitted with 12 oval-section spokes. Rather than the rim being bare wood or fitted with a continuous metal band, it is fitted with five individual thick iron bands with upturned ends and clamped around the wheel’s rim. A sixth band is fitted with a thick blunted blade, 14" long by 3" high, over ½" thick at its base and 1/4" thick at the edge. This was not used to cut, but would have been highly effective at breaking bones. The hub was never fitted for an axle and there is a cross carved in relief in its center. Two iron bands, one on either side of the spokes, are fastened around the hub to hold it together. The large solid wood hub would inevitably develops cracks and tend to split and come apart without these reinforcing bands. Formed from a whole section of log, this hub shows numerous cracks radiating from its center. The entire wheel is painted red. Now faded, most of the paint remains on the wood, but little remains on the iron fittings, which are heavily corroded and flaking. Religious symbolism was an important part of the early European judicial system. The meaning of the carved cross is obvious; the 12 spokes likely represent the 12 apostles and the red paint may signify the Blood of Christ. As gruesome as these executions were, it was always the intent of the Church and the courts, at that time closely linked, for the condemned to find forgiveness and salvation. At the same time they felt it was necessary to protect the citizens from the spread of evil escaping a dying criminal, which they believed could be contagious. For this reason executioners were social outcasts and not allowed to interact with the populace. These religious symbols were thought to ward off evil spirits and help the condemned find salvation.

Very few purpose-built execution wheels remain in existence. In our 15+ year existence we have only seen one other genuine executioner wheel come on the market. Very few even exist in museums. Of all the torture/execution devices that we have offered, this is undoubtedly the most gruesome and rare.  Price includes shipping in the contiguous USA and Canada via motor freight in a custom wood crate.

T1201 $9, 995

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