For many people the iron maiden represents the epitome of torture from the Middle Ages. It did for me, until recently.

The iron maiden has permeated popular culture, not just in photos and film but also in popular names, which isn’t surprising considering that this horrific device has symbolized the cruelty of medieval torture for centuries. An example of the iron maiden’s deep-rooted cultural significance: the primary listing for “iron maiden” on Wikipedia relates to the English heavy metal band formed by Steve Harris in London in 1975.

I was completely taken aback to find, in the other Wikipedia entry for “iron maiden (torture device),” that the iron maiden wasn’t even invented until the 19th century. In 1793, Johann Philipp Siebenkees reported an iron maiden being used to execute a coin forger on August 14, 1515. Ironically, his story was a hoax. Still, he provides for us in his account one of the first mentions of this instrument. Several earlier mentions in 1783 and 1788 suggest that this instrument primarily served as a tourist or museum attraction – perhaps as an indication of how cruel people were in the past.

The image shown here is a copy of the most famous iron maiden, the Iron Maiden of Nuremburg. Although the Iron Maiden of Nuremburg was publicly displayed in the early 19th century, the original was completely destroyed in the 1944 Allied bombings of Nuremburg. This copy is the most important surviving specimen of an iron maiden still in existence.

This copy, which is now a valued artifact itself, was made in 1828 as decoration for the “Gothic Hall” of a patrician palace in Milan, and has been held in a private collection since 1974. The workmanship that went in to producing it is amazing in terms of both craft and cruelty. Actually coming face to face with such a noteworthy artifact is an unforgettable experience, particularly when you learn the rest of the story.

Although they weren’t used in the Middle Ages iron maidens have, unfortunately, been used. On Saturday April 19, 2003, TIME World News reported an iron maiden was found in the Iraqi National Olympic Committee compound in Baghdad. Fingers were pointed at Uday Saddam Hussein, head of the Committee, who reportedly oversaw torture of Iraqi athletes who had not performed to expectations. It reminds us that torture still occurs around the world and not for reasons we might assume – to extract information – but instead to destroy individuals who have done nothing wrong, to instill fear in populations, and to establish power over people.

It is sobering to think about. Although few people exhibit the pathological cruelty of Uday Hussein, most people have the capacity to mistreat others under certain circumstances. Fortunately, on the other hand, we also have the ability to stand up against torture and those who perpetrate it. Perhaps the original creation of the iron maiden in the 19th century was an attempt to spur active opposition to cruel and inhumane treatment. Hopefully its enduring presence can serve the same function in contemporary society.