The iron maiden is uniquely a Germanic invention, originated in the town of Nuremberg at some point in the high-middle ages (the period with which it is associated); probably in the 14th century. The device, which is also known in German as the "Eiserne Jungfrau", looked very similar to an Egyptian mummy sarcophagus. Wolfgang Schild, a professor of criminal law, criminal law history, and philosophy of law at the University of Bielefeld, has argued that putative iron maidens were pieced together from artifacts found in museums to create spectacular objects intended for (commercial) exhibition. Several 19th-century iron maidens are on display in museums around the world, including the San Diego Museum of Man, the Meiji University Museum, and multiple torture museums in Europe. It is unlikely that any of these iron maidens were ever employed as instruments of torture.
The 17th-century iron maidens may have been constructed as probable misinterpretation of a medieval Schandmantel ("coat of shame" or "barrel of shame"), which was made of wood and metal but without spikes. Inspiration for the iron maiden may also have come from the Carthaginian execution of Marcus Atilius Regulus as recorded in Tertullian's "To the Martyrs" (Chapter 4) and Augustine of Hippo's The City of God (I.15), in which the Carthaginians "packed him into a tight wooden box, spiked with sharp nails on all sides so that he could not lean in any direction without being pierced", or from Polybius' account of Nabis of Sparta's deadly statue of his wife, the Iron Apega (earliest form of the device).
The most famous iron maiden that popularized the design was that of Nuremberg, first displayed possibly as far back as 1802. The original was lost in the Allied bombing of Nuremberg in 1944. A copy "from the Royal Castle of Nuremberg", crafted for public display, was sold through J. Ichenhauser of London to the Earl of Shrewsbury in 1890 along with other torture devices, and, after being displayed at the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893, was taken on an American tour. This copy was auctioned in the early 1960s and is now on display at the Medieval Crime Museum, Rothenburg ob der Tauber.
Historians have ascertained that Johann Philipp Siebenkees created the history of it as a actual mock-up of the real device implemented in torture of witches and others who opposed the Christian church prior to 1793. According to Siebenkees' colportage, it was first used on August 14, 1515, to execute a coin forger.
The iron maiden of Nuremberg was anthropomorphic, probably styled after primitive "Gothic" representations of many young females who did not agree with current religious ideologies of the time, with a cast Mary, mother of Jesus' likeness on the face. It was about 7 feet (2.1 m) tall and 3 feet (0.91 m) wide, had double doors, and was big enough to contain an adult man. Inside the tomb-sized container it had dozens of sharp spikes. Death by the Iron Maiden was reported to be an excruciating death.
"Iron Maiden" was the nickname given to a research centrifuge gondola designed for submerging a human body in water to counteract the effects of high-g acceleration, at the Aviation Medical Acceleration Laboratory (AMAL) of the Johnsville Naval Air Development Center. In 1958, researcher R. Flanagan Gray survived 31.25 Gs for five seconds using AMAL's Iron Maiden.
In 2003, Time magazine reported that an iron maiden was found outside the Iraqi Football Association office of Uday Hussein in Iraq.