In the middle ages torture was used to extract information, force
confessions, punish suspects, frighten opponents, and satisfy personal
Historically, ancient Greeks and Romans used torture for interrogation.
Until the second century AD, torture was used only on slaves.. A
slave's testimony was admissible only if extracted by torture.
The word 'torture' comes from the French torture, originating
in the Late Latin tortura and ultimately deriving the past
participle of torquere meaning 'to twist'. Many characteristically
Christian tortures rely on a twisting of the limbs, twisting ligatures,
or turning screw mechanisms as the Church discouraged the shedding
The Norman French who came to England with William the Conqueror
used torture to extract treasure from the Anglo-Saxons in their
new kingdom. During the Anarchy, the Norman supporters of both of
the claimants to the throne practiced torture to extract gold and
silver from the peasantry. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 1139
They hanged them by the thumbs, or by the head, and hung fires
on their feet; they put knotted strings about their heads, and
writhed them so that it went to the brain ... Some they put in
a chest that was short, and narrow, and shallow, and put sharp
stones therein, and pressed the man therein, so that they broke
all his limbs ... I neither can nor may tell all the wounds or
all the tortures which they inflicted on wretched men in this
Medieval and early modern European courts used torture, depending
on the accused's alleged crime and social status. Torture was deemed
a legitimate means to extract confessions or to obtain the names
of accomplices or other information about a crime. In theory, it
was permitted only if there was already half-proof against the accused.
Defendants already sentenced to death would be tortured to force
them to disclose the names of accomplices.
Torture was used almost exclusively for the crime of treason. In
civil society this meant in practice that it was generally restricted
to monarchs and the highest nobles. In the Church, matters were
different. The Church taught that any deviation from orthodoxy amounted
to lèse majesté against God, and therefore treason
again the King of Kings. This meant that in contrast to civil society,
treason and therefore torture were common in the Church. It was
not only the Inquisition that practised torture but it is the Inquisition
that has lodged in the popular mind as masters of the trade.
As many historians have noted, the most vicious procedures in Medieval
times were inflicted on devout Christians by even more devout Christians.
Dominicans gained a reputation as the most fearsomely innovative
Torture had long been practised by bishops, but it was formally
authorised for the Medieval Inquisition in 1252. It should have
ended in 1816 when a papal bull forbade its use, but secret torture
continued in the Papal States until they were seized by French Forces
in the 1870s.
Torture was usually conducted in secret, often in secure underground
dungeons. In contrast, torturous executions were usually public,
and drew large crowds of spectators. Public holidays were often
declared and free penances given to spectators to ensure large attendences.
Deliberately painful methods of execution for severe crimes were
taken for granted as part of justice until the development of Humanism
in 17th century philosophy, and "cruel and unusual punishment"
was denounced in the English Bill of Rights of 1689. The Age of
Enlightenment in the western world further developed the idea of
universal human rights. The adoption of the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights in 1948 marks the recognition of a general ban of
torture by all UN member states.
Torture and Execution Methods
Remarkable ingenuity has been shown in the invention of instruments
and techniques of physical torture.
devices can be classified in many ways.
- Tortures that leave a visible mark v those that do not
- Tortures that draw blood v those that do not (in theory the
Catholic Church permitted only the latter)
- Physical torture v psychological torture
- Tortures used to extract information v tortures used as an additional
punishment to prolong death
Here is our classification of torture types with examples of corresponding
- Restraint or confinement in painful or damaging positions
- Extremes of heat and cold
- Physical Damage - Piercing
- Physical Damage - Crushing
- Physical Damage - Mutilation
- Physical Damage - Amputation:
- Physical Damage: Twisting & Stretching
- Restrictions on Breathing
- Sensory or Sleep Deprivation
Torture and Execution Devices
Axes and Swords for Beheading
Beheading was a form of execution rather than a form of torture,
but it could form part of a programme of torture. For example beheading
was a part of the process of drawing, hanging, and quartering.
Decapitation has been used as a form of capital punishment for
millennia. The terms "capital offence", "capital
crime", "capital punishment," derive from the word
caput, Latin for "head", referring to the punishment for
serious offences involving the forfeiture of the head.
Decapitation by sword or axe was considered the "honourable"
way to die for a noble, who, being a warrior, could often expect
to die by the sword in any event. In England it was considered a
privilege of noblemen and noblewomen to be beheaded. Others suffered
a dishonourable death death on the gallows or through burning at
the stake. In medieval England the penalty for treason by men was
to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. The penalty for women traitors
was to be burned at the stake. In practice sentences of nobles were
almost always commuted to beheading. In legends of Christian martyrdom
the fictitious saints withstood all attempts to execute them, until
the wicked heathens finally beheaded them.
the headsman's axe or sword was sharp and his aim true, decapitation
was quick and presumed to be a painless form of death. If the instrument
was blunt or the executioner clumsy, multiple strokes might be required.
The person to be executed was therefore advised to give a gold coin
to the headsman to ensure that he did his job with care. Robert
Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, and Mary, Queen of Scots, both required
three strikes at their executions. Margaret Pole, 8th Countess of
Salisbury, required ten strokes before being dispatched by a fatal
To ensure that the blow would be fatal, executioners' swords were
usually blade-heavy two-handed swords. If an axe was used, it almost
invariably would be wielded with both hands. In England a special
form of axe was used for beheadings, with the blade's edge extending
downwards from the tip of the shaft.
Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, first cousins and the second
and fifth wives of King Henry VIII were both condemned to be burnt
alive for adultery, but on Henry's orders they were both beheaded.
Lady Jane Grey was also condemned to burn as a traitoress but again
the sentence was commuted to beheading by Mary I.
|The Execution of Lady Jane Grey
by Paul Delaroche (17971859)
Oil on canvas
National Gallery, London
Giovanni Battista Bugatti, executioner of
the Papal States between 1796 and 1865, carried out 516 executions
(Bugatti is pictured here offering snuff to a condemned prisoner).
The Vatican City abolished its capital punishment statute
Barrel Pillory, or Spanish Mantle
barrel is fitted over the entire body, with the head sticking out
from a hole in the top. The person is kept locked in the barrel,
forcing him to kneel in his own filth, and in some cases suffer
extremes of hot or cold.
For a short time this was merely unpleasant, but prolonged confinement
could cause death through hunger or thirst, or scaphism - allowing
or encouraging insects to breed on and feed on the victim's flesh.
The defenceless individual's faeces accumulated within the container,
attracting ever more insects, which would eat and breed within his
or her exposed and often gangrenous flesh.
Feeding the victim would often be allowed each day in some cases
to prolong the torture, so that dehydration or starvation did not
provide him or her with the release of death.
Delirium would typically set in after a few days.
Death, when it eventually occurred, was probably due to a combination
of dehydration, starvation and septic shock.
A less horrific variation was used to punish drunkards, the feet
projecting through the bottom of the barrel. It was used for a range
of other misdemeanours, often represented pictorially on the exterior
of the barrel.
In 1655, Ralph Gardner wrote that in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England
he hath seen men drove up and down the streets with a great
tub or barrel opened in the sides, with a hole in one end to put
through their heads, and so cover their shoulders and bodies, down
to the small of their legs, and then close the same, called the
newfangled cloak, and so make them march to the view of all beholders;
and this is their punishments for drunkards and the like.
In 1641, the diarist John Evelyn wrote that in Delft, Holland the
Senate House contained a weighty vessel of wood, not unlike
a butter churn, which the adventurous woman that hath two husbands
at one time is to wear on her shoulders, her head peeping out at
the top only, and so led about the town, as a penance for her incontinence
The Drunkards Cloak was used in 1862 on soldiers in the American
Civil War. An eyewitness was extremely amused to see a rare
specimen of Yankee invention, in the shape of an original method
of punishment drill. One wretched delinquent was gratuitously framed
in oak, his head being thrust through a hole cut in one end of a
barrel, the other end of which had been removed; and the poor fellow
loafed about in the most disconsolate manner, looking for all the
world like a half-hatched chicken.
large Cauldron was filled with water, oil, tar, tallow or molten
lead. The liquid was then boiled. Sometimes the victim would be
placed in the cauldron before it was boiled so as to be cooked slowly.
Or they would be placed, usually head first, into the already boiling
This was more frequently a way to execute a prisoner rather than
to extract a confession.
In England, statute 22 passed in 1531 by Henry VIII, made boiling
a legal form of capital punishment. It began to be used for murderers
who used poisons after the Bishop of Rochester's cook gave a number
of people poisoned porridge, resulting in two deaths in February
It was employed again in 1542 for a woman who used poison. The
act was repealed in 1547.
This form of capital punishment was also used for counterfeiters
and coin forgers during the Middle Ages (who were technically guilty
|Boiling water was also used as an ordeal
Boot, Spanish Boot, Buskin & Foot Press
Spanish boot was an iron casing for the leg and foot. Wedges were
hammered in between the casing and the victim's flesh. A similar
device, commonly referred to as a shin crusher, squeezed the calf
between two curved iron plates, studded with spikes, teeth, and
knobs, to fracture the tibia and fibula.
Forerunners of the archetype can be found dating back as far as
a thousand years.
The first Scottish effort, referred to as a buskin, made use of
a vaguely boot-shaped rawhide garment that was soaked with water,
drawn over the foot and lower leg, and bound in place with cords.
This contraption was heated over a gentle fire, drastically contracting
the rawhide and squeezing the foot until the bones were dislocated,
though there would not have been sufficient pressure actually to
crush the bones of the foot.
A variant, found in both the British Isles and France, consisted
of a trio of upright wooden boards that splinted around and between
the feet and were tied in place by cords. Wedges were hammered between
the boards and the feet to dislocate and crush the bones. An example
from Autun, France, consisted of high boots of spongy, porous leather
that were drawn over the feet and legs. Boiling water was poured
over the boots, eventually soaking through the leather and eating
the flesh away from the feet.
Oversized boots of iron or copper, often brazed onto the floor,
received the prisoner's bare feet as he lay in stocks or sat bound
in a chair. The boots were filled with boiling water, or molten
lead, to consume the feet and legs. A variant applied in Ireland
to Dermot O'Hurley consisted of lightweight metal boots that were
filled with cool water and heated with the feet inside over a fire
until the water boiled.
Foot press or Foot screw
The foot press or foot screw consisted of a pair of horizontal
iron plates tightened around the foot by means of a crank mechanism
to lacerate the flesh and crush the bones of the foot.
Although it was standard to line the lower plate with ribs to prevent
the bare foot from popping out of the grip of the instrument as
it became sweatier, a crueller variant of this device in Nuremberg
lined the upper plate with hundreds of sharp spikes.
A version from Venice connected the crank mechanism to a drill,
so that a hole was drilled in the centre of the instep while the
instrument was tightened.
|A Spanish Boot
|Urbain Grandier was tortured by having his lower legs smashed
in a boot, having been convicted of trumped up charges by a
Cardinal and an Abbess.
instep borer was a medieval German instrument of torture that externally
resembled an iron boot. It was hinged to permit the insertion and
removal of the bare foot.
A crank projected from a housing over the instep, which concealed
a long, thick, serrated iron blade, grooved so as to inflict maximum
damage and promote liberal blood flow.
Turning the crank slowly advanced the blade into the boot, punching
a hole through the centre of the instep. The resultant wound was
so large that it was common for the prisoner to die of toxaemia
It seems that the instep borer was used only in Nuremberg.
Human branding or stigmatising is the process in which a mark,
usually a symbol or ornamental pattern, is burned into the skin
of a living person, with the intention that the resulting scar makes
it permanent. This is achieved using a very hot or very cold branding
In criminal law, branding with a hot iron was a mode of punishment
by which marking the subject as if goods or animals, sometimes concurrently
with a reduction of status.
Brand marks have also been used as a punishment for convicted criminals,
combining physical punishment, as burns are very painful, with public
humiliation, especially if marked on a normally visible part of
the body, providing an indelible criminal record
The punishment was adopted by the Anglo-Saxons, and the ancient
law of England authorised the penalty. By the Statute of Vagabonds
(1547) under King Edward VI, vagabonds and Gypsies were ordered
to be branded with a large V on the breast, and brawlers with F
for "fraymaker"; slaves who ran away were branded with
S on the cheek or forehead. This law was repealed in England in
1550. From the time of Henry VII, branding was inflicted for all
offences which received Benefit of clergy (branding of the thumbs
was used around 1600 at Old Bailey to ensure that the accused who
had successfully used the Benefit of Clergy defence, by reading
a passage from the Bible, could not use it more than once), but
it was abolished for such in 1822. In 1698 it was enacted that those
convicted of petty theft or larceny, who were entitled to benefit
of clergy, should be "burnt in the most visible part of the
left cheek, nearest the nose." This special ordinance was repealed
in 1707. James Nayler, a Quaker who in the year 1655 was accused
of claiming to be the Messiah, convicted of blasphemy in a highly
publicised trial before the Second Protectorate Parliament and had
his tongue bored through and his forehead branded B for 'blasphemer'.
In the 16th century, German Anabaptists were branded with a cross
on their foreheads for refusing to recant their faith and join the
Roman Catholic Church.
In the North-American Puritan settlements of the 17th century,
men and women sentenced for having committed acts of adultery were
branded with an "A" letter on their chest (men) or bosom
Canon law sanctioned the punishment, and in France, in royal times,
various offences carried the additional infamy of being branded
with a fleur de lys. In Germany however, branding was illegal.
In the Lancaster criminal court a branding iron is still preserved
in the dock. It is a long bolt with a wooden handle at one end and
an M (malefactor) at the other; close by are two iron loops for
firmly securing the hands during the operation. The brander would,
after examination, turn to the judge and exclaim"A fair mark,
milord." Criminals were formerly ordered to hold up their hands
before sentence to show if they had been previously convicted.
In the 18th century, cold branding or branding with cold irons
became the mode of inflicting the punishment on prisoners of higher
rank. "When Charles Moritz, a young German, visited England
in 1782 he was surprised at this custom, and in his diary mentioned
the case of a clergyman who had fought a duel and killed his man
in Hyde Park. Found guilty of manslaughter he was burnt in the hand,
if that could be called burning which was done with a cold iron"
(Markham's Ancient Punishments of Northants, 1886).
Such cases led to branding becoming obsolete, and it was abolished
in 1829 except in the case of deserters from the army, which were
marked with the letter D, not with hot irons but by tattooing with
ink or gunpowder.
|A letter B brand. "B" for Blasphemer
|A cross brand,
as used by Roman Catholics on German Anabaptists
|The practice of branding as a punishment was widespread in
Christendom. It was also used on slaves and animals to indicate
ownership. These are slave brands.
|A slave being branded.
Branks or Scold's bridle or Gossip's Bridle
were used to punish nagging, slander, cursing, witchcraft and criticism
A scold's bridle, sometimes called a "branks", was a
punishment device usually for for women, also used as a 'mild' form
of torture. It was an iron muzzle or cage for the head with an iron
curb-plate projecting into the mouth and pressing down on top of
the tongue. The 'curb-plate' was often studded with spikes so that
if the tongue remained lying calmly in place, it inflicted a minimum
The branks was used as a formal legal punishment, first recorded
in Scotland in 1567. Branks were also used in England, where it
may not have been formally legalised as a punishment.
Kirk-sessions and barony courts in Scotland inflicted it upon transgressors
or women that were considered to be 'naggers' or 'common scold'
. Branking was a punishment for"'gossips", "shrews"
or "scolds" (women of the lower classes whose speech was
"riotous" or "troublesome") and women accused
of witchcraft by preventing them from speaking.
It was also used as corporal punishment for other offences, notably
on female workhouse inmates. The women were placed in a public place
for additional humiliation and were sometimes beaten.
Once the branks was placed on the 'gossip's' head, they would be
led through town to show that they had been doing something wrong
or scolding too often. This would also humiliate them into 'repenting'
their 'riotous' actions.
Quaker women were punished with the branks for preaching in public
In 1567 Bessie Tailiefeir slandered Baillie Thomas Hunter in Edinburgh,
saying that he was using false measures. She was sentenced to the
brankit and set on the cross for one hour.
In Walton on Thames, in England, a scold's bridle is displayed
in the vestry of the church. It is dated 1633, with the inscription
"Chester presents Walton with a bridle, To curb women's tongues
that talk too idle." The story is that a man called Chester
lost a fortune due to a Walton woman's gossip, and presented the
town with the instrument of torture out of anger and spite.
The branks was in use at Bolton-le-Moors, Lancashire as late as
Variants might be shaped like an animal's head, for example a cow
for a lazy bones, a donkey for a fool, a hare for an eavesdropper
or a pig for a glutton.
Alternatively, another part of the body could be restrained as
in a Shrew's Fiddle or a Noisemaker's Fife
|a Shrew's Fiddle
This is a double Shrews' Fiddle at the torture museum in Freiburg
It was used when two women had an unseemly public argument. They
were locked together facing each other, both equally helpless and
humiliated. They were obliged to remain locked together until reconciled
to each other.
The photograph on the right shows a modern reconstruction.
|a Shrew's Fiddle
|a Noisemaker's Fife
The Brazen Bull was invented in Ancient Greece by Perillos of Athens.
Perillos proposed his idea of a painful means of execution to Phalaris,
the tyrant of Akraga. Phalaris liked the idea of the Brazen Bull,
and had one made made. Once finished, Phalaris ordered it to be
tested on Perillos himself.
The Bull was made wholly of brass. It was hollow and furnished
with a door in the side.
When a victim was placed inside the brazen bull, he or she was
roasted to death by a fire lit underneath it. A system of tubes
made the victim's screams sound like an infuriated bull, and also
made the bull's muzzle snort smoke.
In the Middle Ages it was used in Central Europe.
the Middle Ages burning was used both as a form of torture and as
a capital punishment.
As a form of torture the victims feet could be held to a fire,
or trapped into metal boots that were heated up, or they could be
strapped into an iron chair with a fire lit underneath, or red hot
irons could be applied. Metal torture instruments were often heated
- pincers, pliers and so on. Burning or molten liquids could also
by used, the victims being forced to dip limbs in them or even having
them poured down their throats.
According to the Talmud, the "burning" mentioned in the
Bible was done by melting lead and pouring it down the convicted
person's throat, causing immediate death. The particular form of
execution by burning in which the condemned is bound to a large
stake is more commonly called burning at the stake.
As a form of capital punishment, burning has a long history for
crimes such as treason (heresy, blasphemy and witchcraft being regarded
by the Christian Churches as treason against God). Sodomy was also
punished by burning alive, again because it was seen as a crime
The Burning of two "sodomites"
at the stake outside Zürich, 1482 (Spiezer Schilling)
Adopting an old Roman practice, the Christian Church adopted burning
as a favoured form of capital punishment. Under the Byzantine Empire,
burning was introduced as a punishment for Zoroastrians because
of the erroneous belief that they worshiped fire. The Christian
Emperor Justinian (r. 527-565) ordered death by fire, and confiscation
of all possessions by the State as the punishment for heresy against
the Christian faith in his Codex Iustiniani (CJ 1.5.), ratifying
the decrees of his predecessors the Christian Emperors Arcadius
and Flavius Augustus Honorius.
In 1184, the Roman Catholic Synod of Verona confirmed this form
of punishment, legislating that burning was to be the official punishment
for heresy, as Church policy was against the spilling of blood.
It was also widely believed that the condemned would have no body
to be resurrected in the afterlife. This decree was reaffirmed by
the Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1215, the Synod of Toulouse
in 1229, and numerous spiritual leaders up to the nineteenth century.
Civil authorities burnt persons judged to be heretics under the
medieval Inquisition, Burning was also used by Protestants during
the witch-hunts of Europe.
Among the best-known individuals to be executed by burning were
Jacques de Molay (1314), Jan Hus (1415), St. Joan of Arc (30 May
1431), Savonarola (1498) Patrick Hamilton (1528), John Frith (1533),
William Tyndale (1536), Michael Servetus (1553), Giordano Bruno
(1600) and Avvakum (1682). Anglican martyrs Hugh Latimer and Nicholas
Ridley (both in 1555) and Thomas Cranmer (1556) were also burnt
at the stake.
If the fire was large (for instance, when a large number of prisoners
were executed at the same time), death often came from smoke inhalation
or carbon monoxide poisoning before flames actually caused harm
to the body. If the fire was small, however, the convict would burn
for some time until death from heatstroke, shock, loss of blood
or the thermal decomposition of vital body parts. Several records
report that victims took over 2 hours to die. In many burnings a
rope was attached to the convict's neck passing through a ring on
the stake and they were simultaneously strangled and burnt.
When this method of execution was applied with skill, the condemned's
body would burn progressively in sequence: calves, thighs and hands,
torso and forearms, breasts, upper chest, face before death intervened.
When the Catholic Inquisitions burned people they generally ensured
a good distance between the flames and the victim, so that he or
she was actually roasted to death rather than burned to death.
In later years in England some burnings only took place after the
convict had already hanged for half an hour. In many areas in England
condemned woman (men were hanged, drawn, and quartered) was seated
astride a small seat called the saddle which was fixed half way
up a permanently positioned iron stake. A similar "seat"
resembling a peg can be seen between the legs of the male victims
in the painting of St Dominic presiding over an Auto-da-fe, shown
on the right.
In Britain the stake was about 4 metres high and had chains hanging
from it to hold the condemned woman still during her punishment.
Having been taken to the place of execution in a cart with her hands
firmly tied in front of her she was lifted over the executioner's
shoulder and carried up a ladder against the stake to be sat astride
the saddle. The chains were then fastened and sometimes she was
painted with pitch which was supposed to help the fire to burn her
Edward Wightman, a Baptist from Burton on Trent, was the last person
to be burnt at the stake for heresy in England in the market square
of Lichfield, Staffordshire on 11 April 1612.
The "baptism by fire" of Old Believer
leader Avvakum in 1682,
condemned by the Orthodox Church
Cat o' Nine Tails
The cat o' nine tails, commonly shortened to the cat, is a type
of multi-tailed whipping device that originated as an implement
for severe physical punishment, notably in the Royal Navy and Army
of the United Kingdom, and also as a judicial punishment in Britain
and some other countries.
The cat is made up of nine knotted thongs of cotton cord, about
2 1/2 feet or 76 cm long, designed to lacerate the skin and cause
intense pain. It traditionally has nine thongs as a result of the
manner in which rope is plaited. Thinner rope is made from three
strands of yarn plaited together, and thicker rope from three strands
of thinner rope plaited together. To make a cat o' nine tails, a
rope is unraveled into three small ropes, each of which is unraveled
Chair of Torture or Iron Chair
There are many variants of the chair, though they all have spikes
covering the back, arm-rests, seat, leg-rests, and foot-rests. The
number of spikes ranges from 500 to 1,500.
victim's wrists were tied to the chair or bars pushed the arms against
arm-rests for the spikes to penetrate the flesh even further.
In some versions of iron chair, there were holes under the chair's
bottom where the torturer placed red hot coal to cause severe burns.
In other versions weights would be placed on the victim's thighs
or feet. In some there were spikes on the head rest.
It was a common practice to extract a confession by forcing one
victim to watch another being tortured with this instrument.
No spikes penetrated a vital organ and wounds were closed by the
spikes themselves, this delayed blood loss and ensured a lingering
Chaining & Constraints
Simply restricting movement is a form of torture - the more restrictive
the constraint, the more severe the torture.
As with the pillory or the stocks, victim cannot turn to look in
certain directions, they cannot open or close windows, They cannot
make themselves comfortable by moving or dressing or undressing,
or scratching an itch, or moving inside or outside. They cannot
make adjustments for heat or cold, or light or dark. They cannot
visit a lavatory. They cannot defend themselves against physical
or sexual abuse. They cannot shoo away insects or rats. They cannot
eat or drink easily, and in some cases cannot eat or drink at all
- leading to death within days.
prisons run by Churches, the victims were generally restricted to
a diet of stale bread and foul water - in line with a biblical text
- and so were effectively condemned to death, since even a diet
of good bread and water will sustain human life for only around
existed for crushing many parts of the body, but the most common
screw equipment, vices, for crushing limbs.
Sometimes the crushing was achieved by hammering wedges into constrained
spaces where the limbs were confined - see Boot.
Tools resembling nut crackers could also inflict significant pain
when applied to various parts of the body.
|This torture device was used to crush the victim's knees
Denailing-the forcible extraction of the fingernails or toenails,
or both, was a favourite method of medieval torture, the quicks
under the nails being particularly sensitive..
In its simplest form, the torture is conducted by constraining
the prisoner on a tabletop and using a metal forceps or pliers (often
heated red-hot) to grasp each nail in turn and tear it from the
finger or toe.
A crueller variant used in medieval Spain introduced a sharp wedge
of wood or metal between the flesh and each nail. The wedge was
slowly hammered ever further under the nail until it was torn free.
Medieval German witch-hunters conducted this torture with rough
wooden skewers dipped in boiling sulphur. A number of skewers were
slowly driven into the flesh under the prisoner's toenails. Alternately,
the skewer could be dipped in boiling oil, which served a dual purpose
of burning the incredibly sensitive flesh and lubricating the skewer
so that the torturer could more easily explore the surface area
beneath the nail. When enough skewers had been driven home to pry
each nail loose from its bed, the nail was torn out at the root
with a pair of pliers.
Although poorly documented, it is clear that some torturers were
familiar with a range of drugs that could elicit confessions even
when physical torture failed. Medieval monasteries were expert in
all kinds of herb, including toxins and hallucinogens.
The following is from H. Sidky's Witchcraft, Lycanthropy, Drugs
and Disease (pp. 208-211)
Drugs administered by torturers and exorcists to produce desired
states of mind among their victims and patients, respectively,
may prove to be more significant than any opiate of narcotic used
by alleged witches. In his Cautio Criminalis (1632), Spee wrote
that torture technicians who were unable to extract a confession
from their victims forced them to drink a potion which produced
disorders of the brain, thus leading to bizarre confessions. Similarly,
Weyer, in his treatise De Lamiis (1577), pointed out that confessions
to impossible crimes were "elicited by administering potions
causing drunkenness or mental disturbance." In Rottenburg,
Germany, in 1530, authorities obtained confessions from three
women suspected of witchcraft, who had resisted 186 applications
of the strappado, through the administration of a special potion.
A similar concoction was employed for the same purpose in the
German town of Esslingen in 1562. Likewise, an accused werewolf
from Westphalia, who resisted twenty applications of torture,
finally confessed after being forced to imbibe an intoxicating
draught. A comparable incident occurred in Denham, England (1585-1586),
when an intoxicating potion was used to exorcists to induce their
patient into believing that she really was possessed.
European torture technicians, we have already seen, had a wide
assortment of tools and techniques at their disposal for extracting
confessions, ranging from mechanical devices designed to inflict
gross tissue damage, to psychological and physiological techniques,
such as solitary confinement and sleep deprivation. Hallucinogenic
or psychotomimetic drugs appear to have been part of this arsenal
of weapons at the disposal of the interrogators. Although drugs
have not proven to be effective tools for "brainwashing,"
i.e., radically and permanently altering the personality, drug-induced
psychosis can be an extremely unnerving experience, and chemical
torture can thus be a formidable tool.
Atropine and scopolamine, for instance, often produce frightening
and disagreeable symptoms, and subjects who have experienced such
effects rarely use these drugs a second time. This may explain
why the witches' ointments were applied topically: inunction (introducing
a drug into the body through the skin) is often used when it is
necessary to maintain low levels of a drug in the blood stream.
A person under the influence of Atropine, according to Schenk,
"may easily be subordinated to another's will, for he is
completely open to influence and will do whatever he is told.
If he has swallowed a great deal of the poison, this state of
confusion and sensory derangement leads to a temporary, but acute,
mental disorder exactly resembling a symptomatic psychosis. Sudden
outbursts of delirium and increasingly intense periods of mania
create a terrifying and uncanny clinical picture, which finally
ends in convulsions similar to those of epilepsy." Similarly,
hyoscyamine, when given even in moderate doses causes, among other
symptoms, delirium, near blindness, and unbearable pain. Mixtures
containing both these drugs, as well as those containing extracts
of mandrake and datura, which would have had similar effects,
were administered to suspected witches prior to torture.
Such drugs, used to induce debility, would, by disrupting the
perceptual and conceptual processes, confuse and weaken the victim.
The result of such psychochemical torture would be a mixture of
fantasy, delusional and hallucinatory memories, interspersed with
random real ones, precisely the kinds of confession magistrates
and torture technicians sought and obtained. Again, according
to Lewin: "We find these plants [the Solanaceae species discussed]
associated with incomprehensible acts on the part of fanatics,
raging with the flames of frenzy and fury and persecuting not
only witches and sorcerers but also mankind as a whole. Garbed
in the cowl, the judge's robe, and the physician's gown, superstitious
folly instituted diabolical proceedings in a trial of the devil
and hurled its victims into the flames or drowned them in blood."
Given the propaganda value of confessions and cases of demonic
possession, it is very likely that hallucinogenic drugs, administered
to produce dramatic effects, may have been used more extensively
for this objective than hitherto suspected.
|Atropa belladonna or Atropa bella-donna, commonly known as
belladonna or deadly nightshade, a source of Atropine.
An Illustration from Köhler's Medicinal Plants 1887
|An atropine molecule
|A flowering Brugmansia suaveolens, a member of the Solanaceae
family of flowering plants that contains many toxic plants.
Ducking Stool, Cucking Stool
(North America, Dunking Stool)
Ducking was a form of punishment that was mainly reserved for supposed
witches. The victim was tied to a chair and elevated by ropes above
a pond or river. She was lowered into the water until completely
submerged. The chair could be raised if the victim was about to
pass out, or to give the victim a chance to confess.
If the victim confessed they would be executed. This method was
widely used during the Spanish Inquisition and in England and France.
It was also used at the Salem Witch Trials in New England, where
victims were subjected to varying lengths of time and levels of
submersion. The victim was intermittently submerged for hours until
he or she confessed, revealed information or drowned.
While supposed witches were commonly tortured using this method,
thieves and murderers could be subjected to it in order to extract
a confession. This was more common when other more sophisticated
torture devices were not available.
Ducking or dunking was also used as punishment for common scolds.
|Punishing a common scold in the dunking stool.
Victims could be exposed to the elements by restraining them. In
winter exposure could cause death, even for example in the stocks
or pillory, or tied to a whipping post
In winter a torturer could poured water over a victim's head which
eventually became frozen causing the victim to die slowly and painfully.
Sometimes the body was left for the winter to dissuade any further
Alternatively, The victim could be buried up to his neck letting
any animals, insects or other people kill him slowly.
In addition to regular restraint, the gibbet, a large basket made
of iron or other metal, with holes large enough for arms and legs,
but not for an entire body to fit through, would be hung from a
pole with a person inside it. During hot days, the metal would heat,
causing pain. During cold days and nights, the chill, as well as
lack of protection from the wind, could easily sap a victim's body
heat. Holes in the grating were also big enough to allow carrion
birds to enter and pluck at a victim's skin and eyes.
Due to its cost efficiency and cruelty, the exposure torture was
very widespread in medieval Europe. The victim's remains often served
as a warning to the population.
In many cases, the victim was sentenced to a short period of exposure,
depending on the crime. However, death was frequent since they were
|Gibbet at Rothenburg
Flaying Knives (skinning knives)
Flaying alive, ie removing the skin, has been widely but infrequently
employed in |Christendom.
In 415, the philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria was flayed alive
by a Christian mob led by St Cyril.
Pierre Basile for shot and killed King Richard I of England with
a crossbow at the siege of Chalus in March 1199. Although the king
forgave him before he died, Basile was flayed subsequently alive
after the King's death, by order of the mercenary leader Mercadier.
in 1303 the Subprior and the Sacrist of Westminster Abbey broke
into the Chapel of the Pyx and treasury chamber, and stole from
the contents. It is thought that he was flayed, as the Pyx chapel
door has been found to have fragments of human skin attached to
it (as have the three doors to the revestry). According to well
documented ancient traditions, a number of churches in Essex, once
had human skins nailed to the Church door (as a warning to pagan
Searing or cutting the flesh from the body was sometimes used as
part of the public execution of traitors in medieval Europe.
A similar mode of execution was used as late as the early 18th
century in France; one such episode is recounted in the opening
chapter of Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish (1979).
Flogging Eqipment: Whips, Flails, Cats o'Nine Tails
Flagellation or flogging is the act of methodically beating or
whipping the human body. The word comes from the Latin flagellum,
"whip". Specialised implements for flogging include whips,
rods, switches, the cat o' nine tails. Typically, flogging is imposed
on an unwilling subject as a punishment; but was also undergone
voluntarily by religious and sadomasochistic individuals. As in
many forms of torture practised within Christendom, flogging provided
a pretext to expose women's naked or semi naked bodies. Inquisitors
and witch finders were renowned for finding reasons for exposing
A Christian flagellant sect was immensely popular in the Middle
In some circumstances the word "flogging" is used to
include any sort of corporal punishment, including birching and
caning. However, in British legal terminology, a distinction was
drawn (and still is, in some ex-colonial territories) between "flogging"
(with a cat-o'-nine-tails) and "whipping" (formerly with
a whip, but since the early 19th century with a birch). In Britain
these were both abolished in 1948.
A common form of punishment was to be flogged at a whipping post
and then taken to the pillory. This might account for the expression
"from pillar to post". The post was a whipping post and
the pillar was the pillory. The original version of our idiom, which
first appeared around 1420, was the other way around: from post
a flogging, the offender's upper half was bared and he or she was
suspended by the wrists from a post or beneath a tripod of wooden
beams (known as 'the triangle'). The offender's feet normally did
not touch (or barely touched) the ground. This helped to stretch
the skin on the back taut and centred the offender's weight in the
shoulders, which served to increase the pain of the whipping.
With the prisoner stripped and bound, either one or two floggers
administered the prescribed number of strokes, or "lashes,"
to the victim's back. If the offender had fainted from blood loss
or suffered extreme skin and flesh loss from the back, the punishment
was usually suspended until the offender had been restored to consciousness
(i.e. a bucket of water splashed on his face). Once the prisoner
was conscious, the remainder of the required lashes were administered.
Punishment was usually limited to 20, 50 or 100 lashes at one flogging,
though records exist of prisoners in the nineteenth century receiving
more than 3,000 lashes over a number of months or years. Following
the whipping, the prisoner's lacerated back was normally rinsed
with brine. While this caused additional pain, the brine was intended
to serve as an antiseptic.
|Photograph of a Whipped Slave
A garrote or garrotte is a handheld weapon, most often referring
to a ligature of chain, rope, scarf, wire or fishing line used to
strangle someone. The term especially refers to an execution device
but is sometimes used in assassination.
A garrote can be made out of many different materials, including
ropes, tie wraps, fishing lines, nylon, and even guitar strings,
telephone cord and piano wire.
Sometimes a stick used to tighten the garrote like a tourniquet.
The Spanish name refers to such a rod. In Spanish. In fact the word
garrote is used variously to denote the rod, the ligature, or a
device used to constrain the victim and mechanise the garrotting
One of the first depictions of a garrote occurs in Pedro Berruguete's
painting of, Saint Dominic presiding over an Auto-da-fe, reproduced
elsewhere on this page (see Burning)
At one point execution victims were killed by beating with a club
while constrained. Garrotting equipment was later refined to consist
of a seat to restrain the condemned person, while the executioner
tightened a metal band around his or her neck with a crank or a
wheel until suffocation of the victim was accomplished.
were used in the Middle Ages in Spain and Portugal, and employed
during the conquista of Latin America, as attested by the execution
of the Inca emperor Atahualpa.
In the 1810s, the earliest known metallic versions of garrotes
appeared and started to be used in Spain.
On 28 April 1828, the garrotte was declared the sole civilian execution
method in Spain.
Some versions of this device incorporated a fixed metal blade or
spike directed at the spinal cord to hasten the breaking of the
neck. The spiked version, called the Catalan garrote, was used until
1940. American authorities kept the garrote as a form of execution
in the Philippines after that Spanish colony was captured in 1898.
In May 1897, the last public garroting was carried out in Spain,
in Barcelona. After that, all executions would be held in private
inside prisons (even if the press took photos of some of them).
In March 1974 Heinz Ches (real name Georg Michael Welzel) and Salvador
Puig Antich, both concvicted of killing police officers, were executed
by garrotting. These were to be the last state-sanctioned garrotings
in the world.
In Spain,garroting was abolished, along with the death penalty,
in 1978. in 1990, Andorra, in 1990 became the last country to abolish
the death penalty by garroting,
|the execution of a sorcerer in Munich in 1666, whose sentence
was to have his right hand struck off then to be strangled and
burnt to ashes - the hand is about to be removed with a chisel
and mallet, and the executioner has his garotte round the sorcerer's
here for a form of Medieval Guillotine called the Halifax Gibbet.
A human shaped cage was known as a gibbet. It could be used as
a form of torture, exposing victims to the elements, animals, and
hunger and thirst. It could also be used as a method of close confinement
and public humiliation. Finally it could be used as a post mortem
punishment, supplementary to execution, generally as a deterrent
to others. In England gibbeting was common law punishment, which
a judge could impose in addition to execution.
Exhibiting a body in a gibbet could 'backfire' against a monarch,
especially if he was unpopular and the victim popular. Henry of
Montfort and Henry of Wylynton, enemies of Edward II, were drawn
and hanged before being exhibited on a gibbet near Bristol. People
made relics of these bloody and mutilated remains and surrounded
them with respect in violent protest. Bogus miracles were organised
at the spot where the bodies were hanging.
In cases of hanging, drawing and quartering, the body of the criminal
was cut into four or five portions, with each gibbeted in a different
In some cases, the bodies would be left until their clothes rotted
or even until the bodies were almost completely decomposed, after
which the bones would be scattered.
Oliver Cromwell was gibbeted after his death when monarchists disinterred
his body during the restoration of the monarchy.
Pirates were sometimes executed by hanging on a gibbet erected
close to the low-water mark by the sea or a tidal section of a river.
Their bodies would be left dangling until they had been submerged
by the tide three times. In London, 'Execution Dock' is located
on the north bank of the River Thames in Wapping; after tidal immersion,
particularly notorious criminals' bodies could be hung in cages
a little further downstream at either Cuckold's Point or Blackwall
Point, as a warning to other waterborne criminals of the possible
consequences of their actions. There was objection that these displays
offended foreign visitors and did not uphold the reputation of the
law, though the scenes even became gruesome tourist attractions.
that the public display might be prolonged, bodies were sometimes
coated in tar or bound in chains. Sometimes, body-shaped iron cages
were used to contain the decomposing corpses. For example, in March
1743 in the town of Rye, East Sussex, Allen Grebell was murdered
by John Breads. Breads was imprisoned in the Ypres Tower and then
hanged, after which his body was left to rot for more than 20 years
in an iron cage on Gibbet Marsh. The cage and Breads' skull are
still kept in the Town Hall.
The Common Law on Gibbeting was supplemented in England by the
Murder Act 1752, which explicitly empowered judges to impose gibbeting
for murder. It was most often used for traitors, murderers, highwaymen,
pirates, and sheep-stealers, and was intended to discourage others
from committing similar offences. The structures were therefore
often placed next to public highways (often at crossroads) and waterways.
There are many places named Gibbet Hill in England.
The Murder Act 1751 stipulated that "in no case whatsoever
shall the body of any murderer be suffered to be buried". The
cadaver was either to be publicly dissected or left "hanging
in chains" ie a gibbet. Since early times Christians had been
keen not to allow their enemies bodies to be buried as this was
popularly thought to be necessary for resurrection (this was also
why heretics were burned and their ashes scattered, and why amputees
were buried with their severed limbs wherever possible)
Samuel Pepys expressed disgust at the practice. The sight and smell
of decaying corpses were offensive, and regarded as "pestilential",
so a threat to public health.
The last two men gibbeted in England were William Jobling and James
Cook, both in 1832. Their cases are good examples of the different
attitudes to the practice.
William Jobling was a miner hanged and gibbeted for the murder
of Nicholas Fairles, a colliery owner and local magistrate, near
Jarrow, Durham. After being hanged the body was taken off the rope,
and loaded into a cart and taken on a tour of the area before arriving
at Jarrow Slake where the crime had been committed. Here the body
was placed into an iron gibbet cage. The cage and the scene were
"the body was encased in flat bars of iron of two and a
half inches in breadth, the feet were placed in stirrups, from
which a bar of iron went up each side of the head, and ended in
a ring by which he was suspended; a bar from the collar went down
the breast, and another down the back, there were also bars in
the inside of the legs which communicated with the above; and
crossbars at the ankles, the knees, the thighs, the bowels the
breast and the shoulders; the hands were hung by the side and
covered with pitch, the face was pitched and covered with a piece
of white cloth."
The gibbet was a foot in diameter with strong bars of iron up each
side. The post was fixed into a one-and-a-half ton stone base, sunk
into the Slake. The body was soon removed by fellow miners and given
a decent burial.
James Cook was a bookbinder convicted of the murder of his creditor
Paas, a manufacturer of brass instruments, in Leicester. He was
executed on Friday 10 August 1832 in front of Leicester prison.
"The head was shaved and tarred, to preserve it from the
action of the weather; and the cap in which he had suffered was
drawn over his face. On Saturday afternoon his body, attired as
at the time of his execution, having been firmly fixed in the
irons necessary to keep the limbs together, was carried to the
place of its intended suspension."
His body was to be displayed on a purpose-built gallows 33ft high
in Saffron Lane near the Aylestone Tollgate. According to The Newgate
"thousands of persons were attracted to the spot, to view
this novel but most barbarous exhibition; and considerable annoyance
was felt by persons resident in the neighbourhood of the dreadful
scene. Representations were in consequence made to the authorities,
and on the following Tuesday morning instructions were received
from the Home Office directing the removal of the gibbet."
In 1834 gibbeting was abolished in England, but In 1837 the body
of John McKay was gibbeted on a tree near the spot where he murdered
Joseph Wilson near Perth, Tasmania.
An example of an iron cage used to string up bodies on a gibbet
can still be seen in the Westgate Museum at Winchester.
Guillotine or Halifax Gibbet
Long before the French Revolutionaries adopted the execution device
known as a Guillotine, a similar device was in use in Halifax in
Halifax had held the right to execute criminals since 1280. Although
there is early reference to a gibbet, including a report that the
first person to be beheaded by it was John of Dalton in 1286, formal
records of victims did not begin until 1541, when the town acquired
a fixed machine which used a heavy, axe-shaped iron blade dropping
from a height of several feet to cut off the head of the condemned
Between 1541 and 1650, official records show that 53 men and women
were executed by the Halifax Gibbet. The Gibbet was taken down in
1650 after the execution of Anthony Mitchell and John Wilkinson,
but a replica was erected in 1974 on the original site at Gibbet
The Gibbet could be operated by either cutting the rope holding
up the blade or by pulling out a pin which prevented it falling.
If the offender was to be executed for stealing an animal, the end
of a rope was fastened to the pin holding the blade in place and
tied to the animal, which was then driven off, causing the pin to
pull out and the blade to drop. Otherwise, the bailiff of the Lord
of the Manor or his servant cut the rope.
The Halifax Gibbet Law gave the Lord of the Manor of Halifax the
power to try and execute any felon for thefts of the value of 13½
pence or more.
In 1577 William Harrison described the Halifax Gibbet:
There is and has been of ancient time a law, or rather a custom,
at Halifax, that whosoever does commit any felony, and is taken
with the same, or confess the fact upon examination, if it be
valued by four constables to amount to the sum of thirteen-pence-halfpenny,
he is forthwith beheaded upon one of the next market days (which
fall upon the Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays), or else upon
the same day that he is convicted, if market be then holden. The
engine wherewith the execution is done is a square block of wood
of the length of four feet and a half, which does ride up and
down in a slot, rabbet or regall, between two pieces of timber,
that are framed and set upright, of five yards in height. In the
nether end of the sliding block is an axe, keyed or fastened with
an iron into the wood, which being drawn up to the top of the
frame is there fastened by a wooden pin (with a notch made into
the same, after the manner of a Samson's post), unto the midst
of which pin also there is a long rope fastened that cometh down
among the people, so that, when the offender hath made his confession
and hath laid his neck over the nethermost block, every man there
present doth either take hold of the rope (or putteth his arm
so near to the same as he can get, in token that he is willing
to see true justice executed), and, pulling out the pin in this
manner, the head-block wherein the axe is fastened doth fall down
with such a violence that, if the neck of the transgressor were
as big as that of a bull, it should cut in sunder at a stroke
and roll from the body by a huge distance. If it be so that the
offender be apprehended for an ox, oxen, sheep, kine, horse or
any such cattle, the self beast or other of the same kind shall
have the end of the rope tied somewhere unto them, so that they,
being driven, do draw out the pin, whereby the offender is executed.
William Harrison, Description of Elizabethan England 1577,
The Halifax Gibbet is referred to in Thomas Deloney's ballad "Thomas,
of Reading" (1600), while the reputation of Halifax for strict
law enforcement was noted by Daniel Defoe, who gave a detailed description
in his Travels; by the antiquary William Camden; and by the "Water
Poet" John Taylor, who penned the Beggar's Litany: "From
Hell, Hull, and Halifax, Good Lord, deliver us!"
Louis XVI banned the use of the breaking wheel In 1791. The National
Assembly researched a new method to be used on all condemned people
regardless of class. Their concerns contributed to the secular humanist
idea that capital punishment's purpose was the ending of life instead
of the infliction of pain.
A committee was formed under Antoine Louis, physician to the King
and Secretary to the Academy of Surgery. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin,
a professor of anatomy at the faculty of medicine in Paris, was
also on the committee. The group was influenced by the Italian Mannaia
(or Mannaja), the Scottish Maiden and the Halifax Gibbet.
Laquiante, an officer of the Strasbourg criminal court, made a
design for a beheading machine and employed Tobias Schmidt, a German
engineer and harpsichord maker, to construct a prototype. Antoine
Louis is also credited with the design of the prototype. Schmidt
suggested placing the blade at an oblique 45-degree angle and changing
it from the curved blade. The first execution by guillotine was
performed on highwayman Nicolas Jacques Pelletier on April 25, 1792.
The basis for the machine's success was the belief that it was
a humane form of execution, contrasting with the methods used in
pre-revolutionary, Ancien Régime France. In France, before
the guillotine, members of the nobility were beheaded with a sword
or axe (which typically took at least two blows before killing the
condemned), while commoners were usually hanged, a form of death
that could take minutes or longer. Other more gruesome methods of
executions were also used, such as the wheel, burning at the stake,
etc. In the case of decapitation, it also sometimes took repeated
blows to sever the head completely
.The guillotine was perceived to deliver an immediate death without
risk of suffocation. Furthermore, having only one method of execution
was seen as an expression of equality among citizens. The guillotine
was then the only legal execution method in France until the abolition
of the death penalty in 1981, apart from certain crimes against
the security of the state, which entailed execution by firing squad.
The period from June 1793 to July 1794 in France is known as the
Reign of Terror or simply "the Terror". Most of the democratic
reforms of the revolution were suspended and large-scale executions
by guillotine began. The first political prisoner to be executed
was Collenot d'Angremont of the National Guard, followed soon after
by the King's trusted collaborator in his ill-fated attempt to moderate
the Revolution, Arnaud de Laporte, both in 1792. Former King Louis
XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette were executed in 1793.
Maximilien Robespierre became one of the most powerful men in the
government, and the figure most associated with the Terror. The
Revolutionary Tribunal sentenced thousands to the guillotine, known
as "Madame Guillotine" or "The National Razor".
Estimates of the death toll range between 16,000 and 40,000. At
this time, Paris executions were carried out in the Place de la
Revolution (former Place Louis XV and current Place de la Concorde)
near the Louvr); the guillotine stood in the corner near the Hôtel
Crillon where the statue of Brest can be found today.
For a time, executions by guillotine were a popular entertainment
that attracted great crowds of spectators. Vendors would sell programs
listing the names of those scheduled to die. Many people would come
day after day and vie for the best seats; knitting female citizens
(tricoteuses) formed a cadre of hardcore regulars, inciting the
crowd. Parents would bring their children. By the end of the Terror
the crowds had thinned drastically. Excessive repetition had staled
even this most grisly of entertainments, and audiences grew bored.
Eventually, the National Convention had enough of the Terror, partially
fearing for their own lives, and turned against Maximilien Robespierre.
In July 1794 he was arrested and executed in the same fashion as
those whom he had condemned. This arguably ended the Terror, as
the French expressed their discontent with Robespierre's policy
by guillotining him.
The last public guillotining was of Eugen Weidmann, who was convicted
of six murders. He was beheaded on 17 June 1939, outside the prison
Saint-Pierre rue Georges Clemenceau 5 at Versailles, which is now
the Palais de Justice. The allegedly scandalous behaviour of some
of the onlookers on this occasion, and an incorrect assembly of
the apparatus, as well as the fact it was secretly filmed, caused
the authorities to decide that executions in the future were to
take place in the prison courtyard.
The guillotine remained the official method of execution in France
until France abolished the death penalty in 1981. The last guillotining
in France was that of torture-murderer Hamida Djandoubi on September
In Germany, where the guillotine is known in German as Fallbeil
("falling axe"), it was used in various German states
from the 17th century onwards, becoming the usual method of execution
in Napoleonic times in many parts of Germany. The guillotine and
the firing squad were the legal methods of execution during the
German Empire (18711918) and the Weimar Republic (19191933).
The original German guillotines resembled the French Berger 1872
model but eventually evolved into more specialised machines largely
built of metal with a much heavier blade enabling shorter uprights
to be used. Accompanied by a more efficient blade recovery system
and the eventual removal of the tilting board (or bascule) this
allowed a quicker turn-around time between executions, the victim
being decapitated either face up or down depending on how the executioner
predicted they would react to the sight of the machine. Those deemed
likely to struggle were backed up from behind a curtain to shield
their view of the device.
In 1933 Adolf Hitler had a guillotine constructed and tested. He
was impressed enough to order 20 more constructed and pressed into
immediate service.] Nazi records indicate that between 1933 and
1945, 16,500 people were executed in Germany and Austria by this
method. When West Germany was formed in 1949, its constitution prohibited
the death penalty; East Germany abolished it in 1987, and Austria
The Scottish Maiden (based on the Halifax Gibbet) was introduced
to Edinburgh, by James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton in the 16th century.
It continued in use until 1708. The scaffold itself is now housed
in the National Museum of Scotland. In Sweden, where beheading was
the mandatory method of execution, the guillotine was used only
once, for the very last execution in the country, in 1910 at Långholmen
the Halifeax Gibbet,
The flat blade of the Halifeax Gibbet, like
a single gastly upper tooth.
the Halifeax Gibbet, with a horse operating
the release mechanism
A guillotine, with the characteristic angled
The guillotining of King Louis XVI
can be divided into two types: suspension by the limbs as a form
of torture, and hanging by the neck as a form of capital punishment.
Some variations are shown here.
For hanging as torture see Strappado
For hanging as capital punishment see Hanging, Drawing and Quartering.
Hanging, Drawing and Quartering
On 24 November 1326, Hugh Despenser the Younger was judged a traitor
and a thief, and sentenced to public execution by hanging, as a
thief, and drawing and quartering, as a traitor. Additionally, he
was sentenced to be disembowelled for having procured discord between
the King and Queen, and to be beheaded, for returning to England
after having been banished.
Immediately after the trial, Hugh was dragged behind four horses
to his place of execution, where a great fire was lit. He was stripped
naked, and Biblical verses denouncing arrogance and evil were written
on his skin. He was then hanged from a gallows 50 ft (15 m) high,
but cut down before he could choke to death. Hugh was then tied
to a ladder, and in full view of the crowd had his genitals sliced
off and burned (in his still-conscious sight) then his entrails
slowly pulled out, and, finally, his heart cut out and thrown into
the fire. Just before he died, it is recorded that he let out a
"ghastly inhuman howl," much to the delight and merriment
of the spectators. Finally, his corpse was beheaded, his body cut
into four pieces, and his head was mounted on the gates of London.
This execution seems to have provided a template for legislation
for later punishments for Treason in England.
To be hanged, drawn and quartered was from 1351 the penalty in
England for men guilty of high treason, although its use is first
recorded during the reign of King Henry III. Those convicted of
treason were drawn by horse on a wooden hurdle to the place of execution.
Once there, they were ritually hanged almost to the point of death,
emasculated, disembowelled, beheaded and quartered (chopped into
four pieces). As a warning against further dissent, their remains
were often displayed at prominent places, such as London Bridge.
For reasons of public decency, women convicted of high treason were
instead burnt at the stake.
Many notable figures were subjected to the punishment, including
over 100 treasonable priests executed at Tyburn. Catholic plotters
engaged in treasonable conspiracies like the Gunpowder Plot were
hanged, drawn and quartered, as were some of those involved in sentencing
Charles I to death. During the 1685 Bloody Assizes hundreds of rebels
were dispatched in less than a month.
The Treason Act of 1351, passed in the 25th year of Edward III's
reign and still in force today was enacted at a time in English
history when a monarch's right to rule was indisputable, and was
therefore written principally to protect the throne and sovereign.
The Act split the old feudal offence of treason into two classes.
Petty treason referred to the killing of a master (or lord) by his
servant, a husband by his wife, or a prelate by his clergyman. Men
guilty of petty treason were drawn and hanged, while women were
High treason was the most egregious offence an individual could
commit, and was seen as a direct threat to the king's right to govern.
Attempts to undermine his authority were viewed with as much seriousness
as if the accused had made a direct assault on his body, which itself
would be an attack on his status as sovereign. As such an attack
could potentially undermine the state, retribution was considered
an absolute necessity, for which the ultimate punishment was required.
The practical difference between the two offences therefore was
in the consequence of being convicted; rather than being drawn and
hanged, men were to be hanged, drawn and quartered, while for reasons
of public decency women were instead drawn and burnt. The act declared
that a person was committing high treason if engaged in one of the
following seven offences:
- compassing or imagining the death of the king, his wife or his
eldest son and heir,
- violating the king's wife, his eldest daughter if she was unmarried,
or the wife of his eldest son and heir,
- levying war against the king in his realm,
- adhering to the king's enemies in his realm, giving them aid
and comfort in his realm or elsewhere;
- counterfeiting the Great Seal or the Privy Seal, or the king's
- knowingly importing counterfeit money,
- killing the Chancellor, Treasurer or one of the king's Justices
while performing their offices.
After being sentenced, malefactors were generally held in prison
for a few days before being drawn by horse to the place of execution,
usually on a hurdle, their hands tied. Once stripped of their clothing,
they were taken to the scaffold and hanged for a short period, but
only to cause strangulation and near-death. They were then disembowelled,
and normally emasculated. Those still conscious at this point would
have seen their entrails burnt, before their heart was removed.
The body was then decapitated, signalling an unquestionable death,
and quartered. Each dismembered piece of the body was later displayed
publicly, as a warning to others.
The heads of the executed were often displayed on London Bridge,
for centuries the route by which many travellers from the south
entered the city. On occasion accompanied by the parboiled quarters,
such gruesome trophies served as a more permanent reminder of the
penalty for treason.
Before they were hanged, prisoners normally gave a public speech,
expressing their remorse and asking for forgiveness.
Tudor conspiracies, such as the Babington plot, resulted in further
...John Ballard a preest, and first persuader of Babington to
these odious treasons, was laid aloue vpon an hurdell, and six
others two and two in like sort, all drawne from Tower hill through
the citie of London, untu a field at the vpper end of Holborne,
hard by the high waie side to saint Giles in the field, where
was erected a scaffold for their execution, and a paire of gallows
of extraordinarie hight...and although the thousands were thought
(and indeed so seemed) to be numberlesse: yet somewhat to note
the huge multitude, there were by computation able men enow to
giue battell to a strong enimie...On the first daie the traitors
were placed vpon the scaffold, that the one might behold the reward
of his fellowes treason. Ballard the preest, who was the first
brocher of this treason, was the first that was hanged, who being
cut downe (according to judgement) was dismembred, his bellie
ript up, his bowels and traitorous heart taken out and throwne
into the fire, his head also (seuered from his shoulders) was
set on a short stake vpon the top of the gallows, and the trunke
of his bodie quartered and imbrued in his owne bloud, wherewith
the executioners hands were bathed, and some of the standers by
(but to their great loathing, as not able for their liues to auoid
it, such was the throng) besprinkled.
Holinshed, Raphael (1808), Chronicles of England, Scotland and
Ireland, London: Johnson, pp. 915-916
With the restoration to the throne of Charles II, Major-General
Thomas Harrison, a Fifth Monarchist and regicide who helped sentence
Charles's father Charles I to death, was himself executed for high
treason. His sentence, passed at the Old Bailey, was pronounced:
That you be led to the place from whence you came, and from thence
be drawn upon a hurdle to the place of execution, and then you
shall be hanged by the neck and, being alive, shall be cut down,
and your privy members to be cut off, and your entrails be taken
out of your body and, you living, the same to be burnt before
your eyes, and your head to be cut off, your body to be divided
into four quarters, and head and quarters to be disposed of at
the pleasure of the King's majesty. And the Lord have mercy on
Harrison was executed two days later, at Charing Cross. After being
hanged for several minutes, half-choking, he was cut open. Watched
by a large crowd of spectators, including the new king, Harrison
reportedly leaned across and hit the executioner-resulting in the
swift removal of his own head. His entrails were thrown onto a nearby
fire. Three days later his head adorned the sled which drew fellow
regicide John Cooke to his execution, before later being displayed
in Westminster Hall; his quarters were fastened to the city gates.
In all, 13 men were hanged, drawn and quartered for their involvement
in Charles's execution.
Petty treason was abolished in 1828. Hanging, drawing and quartering
was finally rendered obsolete in England by the Forfeiture Act of
1870, which limited the death penalty for treason to hanging alone;
although the 1814 Act allowed for the monarch to substitute beheading
|Illustration of Hugh the younger Despenser's execution from
a manuscript of Froissart (Bibliotheque Nationale MS Fr. 2643,
|The decapitated head of Jeremiah Brandreth, executed on 7
November 1817, one of the last people in England sentenced to
be hanged, drawn and quartered.
|Detail of London Bridge, Claes Jansz. Visscher (1616). Spiked
heads of executed criminals are visible above the gatehouse.
|The fate of the Gunpowder plotters 1606
heretic's fork was a torture device, consisting of a length of metal
with two opposed bi-pronged "forks" as well as an attached
belt or strap.
The device was placed between the breast bone and throat just under
the chin and secured with a leather strap around the neck, while
the victim was hung from the ceiling or otherwise suspended in a
way so that they could not lie down.
A person wearing it couldn't fall asleep. The moment their head
dropped with fatigue, the prongs pierced their throat or chest,
causing great pain. This very simple instrument created long periods
of sleep deprivation. People were awake for days, which made confessions
Traditionally, the fork was engraved with the Latin word abiuro
(meaning "I recant"), and was used by the various Inquisitions.
Pale (Spike for Impalement)
Impalement was a method of torture and execution in which a person
is pierced with a long stake.
The penetration can be through the sides, from the rectum, or through
method would lead to slow, painful, death. Often, the victim was
hoisted into the air after partial impalement. Gravity and the victim's
own struggles would cause him to slide down the pole.
Death could take many days. Impalement was practised in Europe
throughout the Middle Ages.
Vlad III Dracula, who learned the method of killing by impalement
while staying in Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire,
as a prisoner, and Ivan the Terrible have passed into legend as
major users of the method.
Impalement was Vlad's preferred method of torture and execution.
His method of torture was a horse attached to each of the victim's
legs as a sharpened stake was gradually forced into the body. Death
by impalement was slow and agonising. Victims sometimes endured
for hours or even days. Vlad often had the stakes arranged in various
geometric patterns. The most common pattern was a ring of concentric
circles in the outskirts of a city that constituted his target.
The height of the spear indicated the rank of the victim. The corpses
were often left decaying for months.
One of the most famous woodcuts of the period shows Vlad feasting
in a forest of stakes and their grisly burdens outside Bra?ov, while
a nearby executioner cuts apart other victims. This place was famously
known as the Forest of the Impaled.
|Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia (14311476), more commonly
known as Vlad the Impaler, also known as Dracula (little dragon)
This method of torture - or rather capital punishment - involved
making an incision in the abdominal area, separating the duodenum
from the pylorus, and attaching of the upper part of the intestine
to a crank.
The crank would then be rotated to extract the intestines from
the gastrointestinal cavity of the still conscious person. The outcome
was always death, but not immediately.
iron maiden (German: Eiserne Jungfrau) is a torture device, consisting
of an iron cabinet, with a hinged front, sufficiently tall to enclose
a human being. It usually has a small closable opening so that the
torturer can interrogate the victim and torture or kill a person
by piercing the body with sharp objects (such as knives, spikes
or nails), while he or she is forced to remain standing.
Inspiration for the "Iron Maiden" may come from the Carthaginian
execution of Marcus Atilius Regulus, as it was recorded in a passage
in 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 by the account of Nabis of Sparta's deadly
statue of his wife, the Apega.
The legendarium that has accrued to the early 17th-century Countess
Elizabeth Báthory features a very similar torture device,
which she allegedly dubbed the "iron virgin".The iron
maiden is often associated with the Middle Ages, but in fact was
not invented until the late 18th century: No account of the iron
maiden can be found earlier than 1793.
Geoffrey Abbot attributes to a French officer the following account
of discovering such a device in the dungeons beneath the headquarters
of the Inquisition:
In a recess in the subterranean vault, next to the private hall
where the interrogations were conducted, stood a wooden figure,
carved by the monks, and representing the Virgin Mary. A gilded
halo encompassed her head, and in her right hand she held a banner
extolling the glory of her Faith.
It appeared to us at first sight that, despite the silken robe
adorning her, she wore some kind of breastplate which, on closer
examination, was seen to be stuck full of extremely sharp, narrow
knife-blades, the points being directed towards the spectator.
The arms and hands were jointed, controlled by machinery concealed
behind a curtain.
One of the Inquisition staff was commanded to set it in motion,
and when the figure extended its arms, as though to press someone
most lovingly to its heart, a Polish grenadier was ordered to
substitute his well-filled knapsack for an imaginary victim. The
effigy hugged it closer and closer, and when finally it was made
to unclasp its arms, the knapsack had been perforated to a depth
of two or three inches, and remained hanging on the points of
the projecting daggers.
Persons accused of heresy, or of blaspheming God or the Saints,
and obstinately refusing to confess their guilt, were conducted
into this cellar, at the furthest end of which, numerous lamps
placed around a recess, threw a variegated illumination of the
gilded halo, and on the figure with a banner in her right hand.
At a little altar standing opposite to her, and hung with black,
the prisoner received the sacrament, and two ecclesiastics earnestly
besought him, in the presence of the Mother of God, to make a
confession. "See," they said, "how lovingly the
blessed Virgin opens her arms to thee! On her bosom thy hardened
heart will be melted; there thou wilt confess."
All at once the figure began to extend its arms; the prisoner
was led to her embrace; she drew him nearer and nearer, pressed
him almost imperceptibly closer and closer, until the spikes and
knives just pierced his chest.
Abbot, Geoffrey (April 2006). Execution. New York: St.
Martin's Press. pp. 287..
The iron maiden of Nuremberg was anthropomorphic. It was probably
styled after primitive "Gothic" representations Mary,
the mother of Jesus, with a cast likeness of her on the face. The
"maiden" 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, the iron maiden was fitted
with dozens of sharp spikes.
Several nineteenth century iron maidens are on display in museums
around the world.
|The first reference to an execution with the Maiden that has
yet come to light stems from August 14, 1515, although the instrument
had been in use for several decades by then. That day a forger
of coins was placed inside, and the doors shut slowly,
so that the very sharp points penetrated his arms, and his legs
in several places, and his belly and chest, and his bladder
and the root of his member, and his eyes, and his shoulders,
and his buttocks, but not enough to kill him; and so he remained
making great cry and lament for two days, after which he died
|The iron maiden of Nuremberg
The Judas Cradle is often attributed to the Spanish Inquisition
The Judas cradle was a tall stool shaped device with a metal or
wooden pyramid on top.
victim would be stripped, bound with ropes, and suspended above
the device. They would then be lowered, usually very slowly, on
to the device, making the pyramid enter the vagina, anus or scrotum.
The amount of pain the device inflicted could be changed in several
ways. The victim could be rocked, they could be dropped repeatedly
onto the device, one leg could be lifted, olive oil could be spread
on the pyramid, or brass weights could be hung from the victims
Sometimes to prolong torture the victim would be suspended above
the device over night, and torture would continue the next morning.
The device was rarely, if ever, cleaned. If victims did not die
from the device, they almost always died from infection. Torture
with the Judas Cradle could last several hours to several days.
Apart from the agonising pain one suffered, the humiliation was
the primary attraction for this method of torture. Whenever the
victim fainted from the pain, the torturer would lift the victim
until the tortured person was "awake" again to commence
with the process.
The Judas Cradle was used in several different countries, each
having their own names for it. In Italy it was known as "culla
di Giuda", in Germany "Judaswiege", and in France
"la veille".It is also known as the Judas Chair.
A similar device, known as a horse, is sometimes said to have been
used in Prussia to discipline soldiers. This device was not designed
to break the skin.
the Middle Ages mutilation was popular. As well as branding, Church
and Civil authorities carried out a range of mutilations, lopping
off hands, feet, ears, tongs, lips, noses, breasts and genitals.
In England ear lopping was particularly popular. Pamphleteers attacking
the religious views of the Anglican episcopacy under William Laud,
the Archbishop of Canterbury, had their ears cut off, including
Dr. Alexander Leighton (1630) and John Bastwick, Henry Burton and
William Prynne (1637).
In Scotland a Covenanter, James Gavin of Douglas of Lanarkshire
had his ears cut off for refusing to renounce his religious faith.
Pear of Anguish
This version of the pear has also been referred to as the "Pear
of Confession", the "Pope's Pear" (these due to reports
that such devices were used during the Inquisition); the "oral
pear", "vaginal pear", or "anal pear";
and just "The Pear".
A pear shaped instrument, consisting of four leaves that slowly
separated from each other as the torturer turned the screw at the
This device was used during the Middle Ages as a way to torture
women who conducted a miscarriage, liars, blasphemers, and homosexuals.
A pear-shaped instrument was inserted into one of the victim's
orifices: the vagina for women, the anus for those considered to
be male homosexuals, and the mouth for liars and blasphemers.
The instrument consisted of four leaves that slowly separated from
each other as the torturer turned the screw at the top. It was the
torturers decision to simply tear the skin or expand the "pear"
to its maximum and mutilate the victim.
The Pear of Anguish was usually very adorned to differentiate between
the anal, vaginal and oral pears. They also varied in size accordingly.
This torture very rarely caused death, but was often followed by
other torture methods.
The choke pear (or pear of anguish) is the modern name for a type
of instrument displayed in some museums, consisting of a metal body
(usually pear-shaped) divided into spoon-like segments that could
be spread apart by turning a screw. The museum descriptions and
some recent sources assert that the devices were used either as
a gag, to prevent people from speaking, or as an instrument of torture.
The instrument was inserted into the victim's mouth, and then slowly
spread apart as the screw was turned.
There is no contemporary first-hand account of those devices or
their use. The earliest mention is in F. de Calvi's L'Inventaire
général de l'histoire des larrons ("General inventory
of the history of thieves"), written in 1639, which attributes
the invention to a robber named Capitaine Gaucherou de Palioly in
the days of Henry of Navarre. Palioly would have used a mechanical
gag to subdue a wealthy Parisian while he and his accomplices robbed
the victim's home.
Further mentions of the device appear in the 19th century. They
are also mentioned in Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811)
as "Choak Pears," and described as being "formerly
used in Holland."
There are a number of extant examples of ornate and elaborate,
pear-shaped devices with three or four leaves or lobes, driven by
turning a key that rotates the central screw thread, which spreads
Pear of Anguish closed
Pear of Anguish open
Peine Forte et Dure
Peine forte et dure (Law French for "hard and forceful punishment")
was a method of torture formerly used in the common law legal system,
in which a defendant who refused to plead ("stood mute")
would be subjected to having heavier and heavier stones placed upon
his or her chest until a plea was entered, or as the weight of the
stones on the chest became too great for the condemned to breathe,
fatal suffocation would occur.
procedure was recorded by a 15th-century witness: "he will
lie upon his back, with his head covered and his feet, and one arm
will be drawn to one quarter of the house with a cord, and the other
arm to another quarter, and in the same manner it will be done with
his legs; and let there be laid upon his body iron and stone, as
much as he can bear, or more ..."
Common law courts originally took a very limited view of their
own jurisdiction. They considered themselves to lack jurisdiction
over a defendant until he had voluntarily submitted to it by entering
a plea seeking judgement from the court. A criminal justice system
that punished only those who volunteered for punishment was unworkable;
this was the means chosen to coerce them.
Many defendants charged with capital offences refused to plead,
since by refusing they would escape forfeiture of property, and
their heirs would still inherit their estate. If the defendant pleaded
guilty and was executed, their heirs would inherit nothing, their
property escheating to the Crown.
Peine forte et dure was abolished in the Kingdom of Great Britain
in 1772, although the last known actual use of the practice was
in 1741. In 1772 refusing to plead was deemed to be equivalent to
pleading guilty. This was changed in 1827 to being deemed a plea
of not guilty. Today, in all common law jurisdictions, standing
mute is treated by the courts as equivalent to a plea of not guilty.
The picquet (alternately spelled piquet) is a form of punishment
or torture. A particularly fiendish example is shown on the right
where a French Revolutionary woman is being subjected to it.
It was more commonly a military punishment in vogue in late medieval
Europe that was sufficiently cruel and ingenious to be characterised
by some as a method of torture.
The punishment of the picquet required extremely simple equipment,
a stake with one end in the ground and other, exposed end, facing
upward. The exposed end would be sharpened to a rounded point. The
malefactor, typically a soldier who had disobeyed orders, had one
thumb was suspended from a tree, while the sole of the opposite
naked foot was balanced on top of the stake.
The point of the stake was sharp enough to jab into the bony interstice
and cause considerable discomfort, but not sharp enough to draw
blood. To relieve pressure upon the suffering foot, the prisoner
relegated all his weight to the thumb, all but tearing the thumb
from its socket, which could, in turn, only be relieved by shifting
weight onto the tortured foot.
The procedure could be continued for as short a duration as a few
hours, or as long a duration as twenty-four hours (or even forty-eight
during extreme cases). The punishment did not cause lasting harm
but was tremendously effective in reminding the sufferer of the
supremacy of military discipline.
pillory was a device made of a wooden or metal framework erected
on a post, with holes for securing the head and hands, formerly
used for punishment by public humiliation and often further physical
abuse, sometimes lethal.
Like the lesser punishment called the stocks, the pillory consisted
of hinged wooden boards that formed holes. In the pillory the head
and hands were inserted in these holes. In stocks the feet were
inserted. In some variations both hands and feet were inserted.
The boards were then locked together to secure the captive. Different
pillories could accommodate one, two, three or more people.
The word is documented in English since 1274 , and stems from Old
French pellori, itself from medieval Latin pilloria, perhaps a diminutive
of Latin pila "pillar, stone barrier."
Pillories were set up to hold petty criminals outside churches,
in marketplaces, crossroads, and other public places. They were
often placed on platforms to increase public visibility of the punished
offender. Often a placard detailing the crime was placed nearby.
These punishments generally lasted only a few hours.
Time in the pillory was more dangerous than in the stocks, as the
pillory forced the offender to remain standing and exposed. A criminal
in the stocks could expect to be abused but his or her life was
not targeted. A prisoner in the pillory was presumed to have committed
a more serious crime and usually triggered a more aggressive reaction
from the public.
As part of the punishment, crowds would throw rubbish, ordure and
other objects at the captive pilloried offender. With hands trapped,
he or she could not avoid thrown objects whether harmless items
like rotten food, or injurious ones such as heavy stones, which
could and often did result in blinding, permanent maiming, or death.
The criminal could also be sentenced to further punishments while
in the pillory: humiliation by shaving of some or all hair or regular
corporal punishment.. A pillory could also serve as a "whipping
post", for birching, caning or permanent mutilation such as
branding or having an ear cut off, as in the case of John Bastwick.
After 1816, use of the pillory was restricted in England to punishment
for perjury or subornation. It was abolished as a form of punishment
in England and Wales in 1837, but the stocks remained in use until
1872. The last person to be pilloried in England was Peter James
Bossy, who was convicted of "wilful and corrupt perjury"
in 1830. He was offered the choice of seven years transportation
or one hour in the pillory, and chose the latter.
In France, time in the "pilori" was usually limited to
two hours. It was replaced in 1789 by "exposition", and
abolished in 1832.
The poteau was a simple post, often with a board around only the
neck, and was synonymous with the mode of punishment. This was the
same as the schandpaal ("shamepole") in Dutch. The carcan,
an iron ring around the neck to tie a prisoner to such a post, was
the name of a similar punishment that was abolished in 1832. A criminal
convicted to serve time in a prison or galleys would, prior to his
incarceration, be attached for two to six hours (depending on whether
he was convicted to prison or the galleys) to the carcan, with his
name, crime and sentence written on a board over his head.
A permanent small tower, the upper floor of which had a ring made
of wood or iron with holes for the victim's head and arms, which
was often on a turntable to expose the condemned to all parts of
Like other permanent apparatus for physical punishment, the pillory
was often placed prominently and constructed more elaborately than
necessary. It served as a symbol of the power of the judicial authorities,
and its presence was a deterrent, like permanent gallows or a gibbet.
In Portugal several pelourinhos, typically on the main square or
in front of a major church or palace, are now counted among the
major local monuments, several bearing the emblems of a king or
queen. In Spain it was called picota.
There was a variant, called a barrel pillory, or Spanish mantle,
used to punish drunks. It fitted over the entire body, with the
head sticking out from a hole in the top. The criminal was put in
either an enclosed barrel, forcing him to kneel in his own filth,
or an open barrel, also known as "barrel shirt" or "drunkards
collar" after the punishable crime, leaving him to roam about
town or military camp and be ridiculed and scorned.
Another variant was the finger pillory, in which a person could
be trapped by locking a bent finger in it.
A Finger Pillory
|A Simple Pillory for one person
|A Pillory in London
|A pillory in a US prison
see Peine forte et
The rack is a torture device that consists of an rectangular, usually
wooden frame, raised from the ground, with a roller at one end or
both ends, having at one end a fixed bar to which the legs were
fastened, and at the other a movable bar to which the hands were
tied. The victim's feet were fastened to one roller, and the wrists
chained to the other.
The torturer turned a handle causing the ropes to pull the victim's
arms. Eventually, the victim's bones were dislocated with a loud
crack, caused by snapping cartilage, ligaments or bones. If the
torturer kept turning the handles the limbs would eventually be
This method was mostly used to extract confessions, not confessing
meant that the torturer could stretch more. Sometimes, torturers
forced their victim to watch other people be tortured with this
device to implant psychological fear.
Many Knights Templar were tortured with the rack. The limbs collected
from this and other punishments of the time were "emptied by
Sometime this method was limited to dislocating a few bones, but
the torturer often went too far and rendered the legs or arms (sometimes
both) useless. In the late Middle Ages, some new variants of this
instrument appeared. They often had spikes that penetrated the victim's
back - as the limbs were pulled apart, so was his or her spinal
cord increasing not only in physical pain, but the psychological
one of being handicapped.
As the interrogation progresses, a handle and ratchet attached
to the top roller are used to very gradually stepwise increase the
tension on the chains, inducing excruciating pain. By means of pulleys
and levers this roller could be rotated on its own axis, thus straining
the ropes until the sufferer's joints were dislocated and eventually
separated. If muscle fibres are stretched excessively, they lose
their ability to contract, rendering them ineffective.
One gruesome aspect of being stretched too far on the rack is the
loud popping noises made by snapping cartilage, ligaments, or bones.
One powerful method for putting pressure upon prisoners was to force
them to watch someone else being subjected to the rack.
A crueller variant of the rack included a rotating drum studded
with spikes. The prisoner was tied face-down to this rack; as he
was stretched, the rotation of the spiked roller against his abdomen
gradually disembowelled and killed him.
Confining the prisoner on the rack enabled further tortures to
be applied, typically including burning the flanks with hot torches
or candles or using pincers with specially roughened grips to tear
out the nails of the fingers and toes.
Its first employment in England is said to have been due to John
Holland, 2nd Duke of Exeter, the Constable of the Tower in 1447,
whence it was popularly known as the Duke of Exeter's daughter.
Being tortured on the rack was often referred to as being "put
to the question".
In 1628 the question of its legality was raised by the attempt
of the Privy Council to rack John Felton, the assassin of the Duke
of Buckingham. The judges , unanimously declared its use to be contrary
to the laws of England.
Well known victims of the rack in England include Guy Fawkes, Edmund
Campion and Anne Askew, venerable William Carter (1584), Elizabethan
dramatist Thomas Kyd (1592), William Wallace and Jesuit lay-brother
Saint Nicholas Owen (1606).
The French introduced an "improvement" to the rack in
the form of spiked rollers that were inserted under the spine of
the victim, thus causing even more severe pain and damage.
The Inquisition used the rack as one of its chief weapons of torture.
The term rack is also used, occasionally, for a number of simpler
constructions that merely facilitate corporal punishment, after
which it may be named specifically, e.g., caning rack.
Several devices similar in principle to the rack have been used
through the ages. One of these was the Wooden Horse, a device used
to torture prisoners during the Roman Empire by stretching them
on top of a tall wooden frame until the shoulders were dislocated
followed by a violent drop into a hanging position and beating.
In another variant used primarily in ancient times, the victim's
feet were fixed to the ground and his/her hands were chained to
a wheel. When the wheel was turned, the person was stretched in
a manner similar to the rack. The Austrian Ladder was basically
a more vertically oriented rack. As part of the torture, victims
would usually be burned under the arms with candles.
A cheap and effective way to torture someone was with rats. There
were many variants, but the most common was to force a rat through
a victim's body (usually the intestines) as a way to escape.
This was done as follows: The victim was completely restrained
usually being tied to the ground or any horizontal surface. He would
then have slits cut in his belly. Hungry rats would then be placed
in the slits to eat the victim from the inside. Gnawing the intestines
usually took hours or days of agonising pain for the victim. Unless
stopped almost immediately this torture always resulted in eventual
death (through peritonitis if nothing qhicker intervened).
Sawing is a method of torture and execution.
The victim was hung upside down and then sawed apart down the middle,
starting at the groin. Since the condemned was hanging upside-down,
the brain received a continuous blood supply in spite of the severe
bleeding. They would remain conscious until the saw severed the
major blood vessels of the abdomen, and sometimes even longer.
Scavenger's Daughter was invented as an instrument of torture in
the reign of Henry VIII by Sir William Skevington (also known as
William Skeffington), Lieutenant of the Tower of London. It was
an A-frame shaped metal rack to which the head was strapped to the
top point of the A, the hands at the mid-point and the legs at the
lower spread ends; swinging the head down and forcing the knees
up in a sitting position.
The Scavenger's Daughter was conceived as a complement to the Duke
of Exeter's Daughter (the rack) because it worked the opposite principle
to the rack by compressing the body rather than stretching it.
The Scavenger's Daughter is rarely mentioned in the documents and
the device itself was probably not much used. The bestt-documented
use is that on the Irishman Thomas Miagh, charged with being in
contact with rebels in Ireland.
It may be in connection with Scavenger's Daughter that Miagh carved
on the wall of the Beauchamp Tower in the Tower of London, "By
torture straynge my truth was tried, yet of my libertie denied.
1581. Thomas Miagh."
Another victim of the Scavenger's Daughter was Thomas Cottam, from
Lancashire who was executed for treason during the reign of Elizabeth
It is also known as Skevington's gyves, as iron shackle, as the
Stork (as in Italian cicogna) or as Spanish A-frame. Further it
is known as Skevington's daughter, from which the more commonly
known folk etymology using "Scavenger" is derived.
A Scavenger's daughter is on display in the Tower of London museum.
|An instrument similar in principal to the Scavenger's Daughter
see Pale (for impalement)
are devices used in the medieval times as a form of physical punishment
involving public humiliation. The stocks partially immobilised its
victims and they were often exposed in a public place such as the
site of a market to the scorn of those who passed by. Since the
purpose was to punish offenders against the standards of conduct
of the time, anybody could assault, revile or aim filth at the victim.
The stocks are similar to the pillory and the pranger, as each
consists of large, hinged, wooden boards. The difference is that
when a person is placed in the stocks, their feet are locked in
place, and sometimes as well their hands or head, or these may be
With stocks, boards are placed around the legs or the wrists, whereas
in the pillory they are placed around the arms and neck and fixed
to a pole, and the victim stands. Since stocks served an outdoor
public form of punishment its victims were subjected to the daily
and nightly weather. It was not uncommon for people kept in stocks
over several days in winter to die of hypothermia.
As for so many forms of torture, the Inquisition
found new variations
An fellon in the stocks might expect the punishment to be complemented
by tickling, verbal Insults, rotten food, kicking, spitting, urinating
and defecating. An unpopular one could expect whipping, bastinado
or even to be stoned to death. Fellons in the stocks for a prolonged
period would receive only bread and water, plus anything brought
by their friends.
Public stocks were typically positioned in the most public place
available, as public humiliation was a critical aspect of such punishment.
The stocks were popular among civil authorities from medieval to
early modern times. They were widely used in Elizabethan England,
and by the Puritans in the colonial period of American history.
Their last recorded use in the United Kingdom was in 1872 at Adpar,
Newcastle Emlyn, west Wales.
Spanish conquistadores introduced stocks as a form of punishment
and humiliation against those that impeded the consolidation of
Christian settlements in the new world. They were still used in
the 19th century in Latin America.
They are occasionally preserved in churches.
Finger pillories often went by the name of "finger stocks".
|Stocks for three people
|Stocks for hands and feet
Strappado is a form of torture in which the victim's hands are
first tied behind his back, and then he is suspended in the air
by means of a rope attached to wrists, which most likely dislocates
both arms. Weights may be added to the body to intensify the effect
and increase the pain.
Other names for strappado include "reverse hanging" It
is best known for its use in the torture chambers of the medieval
There are three variants of this torture. In the first one, the
victim has his or her arms tied behind their back; a large rope
is then tied to the wrists and passed over a pulley, beam or a hook
on the roof. The torturer pulls on this rope until the victim is
hanging from the arms. Since the hands are tied behind the victim's
back, this will cause a very intense pain and possible dislocation
of the arms. The full weight of the subject's body is then supported
by the extended and internally-rotated shoulder sockets. While the
technique shows no external injuries, it can cause long-term nerve,
ligament, or tendon damage. The technique typically causes brachial
plexus injury, leading to paralysis or loss of sensation in the
The second variation is similar to the first, but a series of drops
is added, meaning that the victim is allowed to drop until his or
her fall is suddenly checked by the rope. In addition to the damage
caused by the suspension, the painful jerk would cause major stress
to the extended and vulnerable arms, leading to broken shoulders.
In the third variant, the victim's hands are tied to the front.
The victim is also hung from the hands, but the ankles are tied
and a heavy weight is attached to them. This will cause pain and
possible damage not only to the arms, but also to the legs and hips.
This variant was known as "squassation".
The second variation with arms tied behind the back and with repeated
drops was the favoured method of the Medieval and Spanish Inquisitions.
According to William Godwin, Savonarola was tortured by strappado
multiple times before being put to death in a trial by fire; Savonarola
apparently renounced his confessions after being tortured.
It is believed that Niccolò Machiavelli, during his 1513
imprisonment after allegedly conspiring against the Medici family
in Florence, was also subjected to this form of strappado.
The medieval Spanish tablillas, was an instrument of torture used
to crush toes. The prisoner was bound face-upward to the rack and
stretched until the tension in his bare feet held his toes tense
and stiffly pointed. The tablillas were essentially a pair of pillories
for the feet - two small wooden tablets featuring five narrow holes
through which the toes were forced and immobilised. Before putting
each question, the torturer positioned a sharp wedge of hard wood
over the tip of one of the prisoner's toes. If he found the answer
unsatisfactory, the torturer sharply struck the wedge with a heavy
mallet, driving the wedge head-on into the toe with sufficient force
to obliterate the tiny bones. The toes were destroyed one by one,
ranging upward in size from the smallest toes to the great toes.
While the tablillas could theoretically be applied to the fingers
as well, the results were inferior: long, thin fingers were more
likely merely to snap under the wedge while short, stubby toes were
more readily pulverised. The pudgier the prisoner's toes, the stronger
his candidacy for successful torture by the tablillas.
Tarring and Feathering
Tarring and feathering is a physical punishment, used to enforce
formal justice. It was used in feudal Europe and its colonies in
the early modern period
In a typical tar-and-feathers attack, the subject of a crowd's
anger would be stripped to his waist. Hot tar was poured or painted
onto the person while he was immobilised. Then the victim either
had feathers thrown on him or was rolled around on a pile of feathers
so that they stuck to the sticky tar. Often the victim was paraded
around town on a cart or a rail. The aim was to inflict enough pain
and humiliation on a person to cause him to either reform his behaviour
or leave town.
Sometimes only the head was shaven, tarred and feathered. In some
cases a match was held to the feathers to light them, as well as
the tar, on fire to inflict pain.
The earliest mention of the punishment occurs in the orders of
Richard I of England, issued to his navy on starting for the Holy
Land in 1189.
"Concerning the lawes and ordinances appointed by King
Richard for his navie the forme thereof was this... item, a thiefe
or felon that hath stolen, being lawfully convicted, shal have
his head shorne, and boyling pitch poured upon his head, and feathers
or downe strawed upon the same whereby he may be knowen, and so
at the first landing-place they shall come to, there to be cast
(transcript of original statute in Hakluyt's Voyages, ii. 21).
A later instance of this penalty being inflicted is given in Notes
and Queries (series 4, vol. v), which quotes one James Howell
writing from Madrid, in 1623, of the "boisterous Bishop of
Halberstadt", who, "having taken a place where there were
two monasteries of nuns and friars, he caused divers feather beds
to be ripped, and all the feathers thrown into a great hall, whither
the nuns and friars were thrust naked with their bodies oiled and
pitched and to tumble among these feathers, which makes them here
(Madrid) presage him an ill-death."
During the night of March 24, 1832, Joseph Smith, Jr., the leader
of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was dragged
from his home by a group of men who stripped and beat him before
tarring and feathering him. Smith was left for dead, but he limped
to the home of friends who spent much of the night scraping the
tar from his body, leaving his skin raw and bloody.
In 1851 a mob in Ellsworth, Maine tarred and feathered a Swiss-born
Jesuit priest, Father John Bapst, in the midst of a local controversy
over religious education in grammar schools.
The punishment was also used by the IRA in Northern Ireland in
the Twentieth century.
An excise man tarred and feathered in Pennsylvania
in 1794 after taxes on whiskey went up
A tarring and feathering victim in Northern
Ireland in 2007. Tied to a lamppost, the victim stands with
his head and upper body covered in tar and feathers. A makeshift
placard hung around his neck announces the reason for his
Tearing Limb from Limb
While traiters in England were hanged, drawn and quartered, in
France they were usually torn limb from limb. Out in the open each
limb was tied to a horse, and the horses would be goaded to gallop
off in four different directions. The torso would then be drawn
This was for example the fate of the regicide François Ravaillac
a Catholic zealot who stabbed the French King Henri IV in 1610.
The hand that had wielded the knife was first burned off with flaming
sulphur. Boiling lead, oil and resin was poured over him before
his execution at the Place de Grève in Paris .
On January 5, 1757, as King Louis XV of France was entering his
carriage, Robert-François Damiens rushed forward and stabbed
him with a knife, inflicting a slight wound. Damiens made no attempt
to escape, and was apprehended at once. He was tortured to force
him to divulge the identity of his accomplices. This was unsuccessful.
He was condemned as a regicide by the Parlement of Paris, and sentenced
to be drawn and quartered, by horses at the Place de Grève.
Brought from his prison cell on the morning of 28 March 1757, Damiens
was tortured first with red-hot pincers. His hand, holding the knife
used in the attempted assassination, was burned using sulphur. Molten
wax, lead, and boiling oil were poured into his wounds. After hours
of agony, he was remanded to the royal executioner. Horses were
lied to his arms and legs, but the attempted regicide's' limbs did
not separate easily. After several more hours, the executioner cut
Damiens' joints with an axe. Damiens was dismembered to the applause
of the crowd, and his torso - reportedly still living - was burnt
at the stake.
Damiens' fate provided amunition for anti-religious proponents
of penal reform including the philosopher Cesare Beccaria and Thomas
Paine. An allusion to Damiens's execution, and Casanova's account
of it, are used by Mark Twain to suggest the cruelty and injustice
of aristocratic power in chapter XVIII of A Connecticut Yankee
in King Arthur's Court. Damiens was the last regicide or attempted
regicide to be executed in this way.
|The execution of François Ravaillac in 1610
|The execution of Robert-François Damiens in 1757
The thumbscrews or pilliwinks is a torture instrument which was
first used in medieval Europe. It is a simple vice, sometimes with
protruding studs on the interior surfaces. The victim's thumbs or
fingers were placed in the vice and slowly crushed.
were also applied to crush prisoners' big toes.
The crushing bars were sometimes lined with sharp metal points
to puncture the nails and inflict greater pain in the nail beds.
Larger, heavier devices based on the same design principle were
applied to crush knees and elbows.
The pilliwinks used for this purpose probably differed from thumbscrews
by squeezing the fingers. According to the Tudor historian Eric
Ives, Anne Boleyn sent a pilliwinks to the nursemaid looking after
her daughter, the future Elizabeth I.
Water Cure (Water Torture)
cure as a term for a form of torture refers to a method in which
the victim is forced to drink large quantities of water in a short
time, resulting in gastric distension, "water intoxication",
and possibly death.
Often the victim has the mouth forced or wedged open, the nose
closed with pincers and a funnel or strip of cloth forced down the
throat. The victim has to drink all the water (or other liquids
such as bile or urine) poured into the funnel to avoid drowning.
The stomach fills until near bursting, and the victim is sometimes
beaten until the victim vomits. The torture then begins again.
While this use of water as a form of torture is documented back
to at least the 15th century, the first use of the term Water Cure
in this sense is indirectly dated to around 1898, by U.S. soldiers
in the Spanish-American war.
torture was used extensively and legally by the courts of France
from the Middle Ages to the 17th and 18th centuries. It was known
as being put to "the question", with the ordinary question
consisting of eight pints (3.6 litres) of water forced into the
stomach, and the extraordinary question consisting of sixteen pints
The French poet and criminal François Villon was subjected
to this torture in 1461. Jean Calas suffered this torture before
being broken on the wheel in 1762. The true case of the Marquise
of Brinvilliers was reported in fiction by Arthur Conan Doyle in
"The Leather Funnel", by Alexandre Dumas, père
in "The Marquise de Brinvilliers" and by Émile
Gaboriau in "Intrigues of a Poisoner".
A form of water cure known as the Swedish drink was used by various
international troops in the German states during the Thirty Years'
Water cure was among the forms of torture used by the Spanish Inquisition.
The Inquisition at Málaga subjected the Scottish traveller
William Lithgow to this torture, among other methods, in 1620. He
described his ordeal in Rare Adventures and Painful Peregrinations
"The first and second [measures of water] I gladly received,
such was the scorching drought of my tormenting pain, and likewise
I had drunk none for three days before. But afterward, at the
third charge, perceiving these measures of water to be inflicted
upon me as tortures, O strangling tortures! I closed my lips,
gainstanding that eager crudelity. Whereat the alcalde enraging,
set my teeth asunder with a pair of iron cadges, detaining them
there, at every several turn, both mainly and manually; whereupon
my hunger-clunged belly waxing great, grew drum-like imbolstered:
for it being a suffocating pain, in regard of my head hanging
downward, and the water reingorging itself in my throat with a
struggling force; it strangled and swallowed up my breath from
yowling and groaning." Hadfield, Andrew, ed. (2001). Amazons,
Savages, and Machiavels. Oxford University Press. p. 114.
Before pouring the water, torturers often inserted an iron prong
(known as the bostezo) into a victim's mouth to keep it open, as
well as a strip of linen (known as the toca) on which the victim
would choke and suffocate while swallowing the water.
This form of torture was famously used in the twenty-first century
by American agents as a way of extracting information and confessions
from suspected Islamic terrorists.
Wheel or Breaking Wheel or Catherine Wheel
The breaking wheel was a torturous capital punishment device used
in the Middle Ages and early modern times for public execution by
cudgelling to death, especially in France and Germany.
In France the condemned were placed on a cart-wheel with their
limbs stretched out along the spokes over two sturdy wooden beams.
The wheel was made to slowly revolve. Through the openings between
the spokes, the executioner hit the victim with an iron hammer that
could easily break the victim's bones. This process was repeated
several times per limb. Once his bones were broken, he was left
on the wheel to die. It could take hours, even days, before shock
and dehydration caused death. The punishment was abolished in Germany
as late as 1827.
Less severe offenders would be cudgelled 'top down', with the first
blow to the neck, causing death; more heinous criminals were punished
'bottom up', starting with the legs, and sometimes being beaten
for hours. The number and sequence of blows was specified in the
court's sentence. Corpses were left for carrion-eaters, and the
criminals' heads often placed on a spike.
The wheel used in France, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Romania, Russia,
Greece, Spain, Portugal, and other countries. It was typically a
large wooden wagon wheel with radial spokes, but a wheel was not
always used. The condemned was sometimes spread-eagled and broken
on a St Andrew's cross consisting of two wooden beams nailed in
an "X" shape, after which the victim's mangled body might
be displayed on the wheel. The condemned's shattered limbs were
woven ('braiden') through the spokes of the wheel, which was then
hoisted onto a tall pole so that birds could eat the sometimes still-living
In France, the condemned were placed on a cartwheel with their
limbs stretched out along the spokes over two sturdy wooden beams.
The wheel was made to revolve slowly, and a large hammer or an iron
bar was then applied to the limb over the gap between the beams,
breaking the bones. This process was repeated several times per
limb. Sometimes it was 'mercifully' ordered that the executioner
should strike the criminal on the chest and stomach, blows known
as coups de grâce (French: "blows of mercy"), which
caused fatal injuries. Without those, the broken man could last
hours and even days, before shock and dehydration caused death.
In France, a special grace, the retentum, could be granted, by
which the condemned was strangled after the second or third blow,
or in special cases, even before the breaking began.
In the Holy Roman Empire, the wheel was punishment reserved primarily
for men convicted of aggravated murder (murder committed during
another crime, or against a family member) or for belonging to a
Christian denomination other than the Catholic Church.
The wheel was sometimes called a Catherine Wheel, because of a
fictitious story that St. Catherine of Alexandria was executed on
one of these devices. The story seems to be a mangled version of
the murder of Hypatia of Alexandria by an early Christian mob.
In Scotland, a servant named Robert Weir was broken on the wheel
at Edinburgh in 1603. This punishment had hardly ever been used
before in that country. The crime had been the murder of John Kincaid,
Lord of Warriston on behalf of his wife. Weir was secured to a cart
wheel and was struck and broken with the coulter of a plough.
The breaking wheel was used in Germany as recently as the early
19th century for the crime of parricide, and the last known use
occurred in 1841 when the assassin of the Bishop of Ermeland in
Prussia was executed in this manner..
A wooden horse (or Spanish donkey) is a torture device, of which
there exist two variations.
The first is a sharply angled device with the sharp point of the
angle pointing upward, mounted on a saw-horse like support. The
victim is made to straddle the triangular "horse" and
place their full body weight on their genitals, which rested on
the point of the angle. Weights or additional restraints were often
added to keep the victim from falling off.
A punishment similar to this was used during the American colonial
period and later. Called Riding the Rail, the victim was often carried
through town in this predicament, often in conjunction with the
punishment of tarring and feathering. The crotch can be injured
and the victim could be left unable to walk without pain.
A less immediately painful variation, often dubbed the wooden pony,
is a single plank of wood supported (either again with wooden legs
or suspended from the ceiling) horizontal from the floor on its
side, with the thin edge up. Usually this edge is filed to a blunt
point or rounded off. The victim is made to straddle the plank,
which is adjusted (raised or lowered) in order to make the victim
stand on his tiptoes or rest his body weight on his genitals on
Psychological torture uses non-physical methods that cause psychological
suffering. Its effects are not immediately apparent unless they
alter the behaviour of the tortured person. Since there is no international
political consensus on what constitutes psychological torture, it
is often overlooked, denied, and referred to by different names.
Psychological torture is less well known than physical torture
and tends to be subtle and much easier to conceal. In practice the
distinctions between physical and psychological torture are often
blurred. Physical torture is the inflicting of severe pain or suffering
on a person. In contrast, psychological torture is directed at the
psyche with calculated violations of psychological needs, along
with deep damage to psychological structures and the breakage of
beliefs underpinning normal sanity. Torturers often inflict both
types of torture in combination to compound the associated effects.
Psychological torture includes deliberate use of extreme stressors
and situations such as mock execution, shunning, violation of deep-seated
social or sexual norms and taboos, or extended solitary confinement.
Because psychological torture needs no physical violence to be effective,
it is possible to induce severe psychological pain, suffering, and
trauma with no externally visible effects.
Rape and other forms of sexual abuse were and still are often used
as methods of torture for interrogative or punitive purposes.
The torture chamber was specifically designed to evoke fear in
the victims. It was usually built underground and only dimly lit.
Inside the chamber waited the executioner, his face covered and
wearing a black hood. When the sight of the chamber, the torture
instruments and the executioner did not cause the victim to confess,
a full-scale torture session was initiated.
During the Inquisition, the method of construction of the torture
chamber of the papal palace at Avignon has been described as ingenious.
The walls of the torture chamber were constructed in such a manner
as to project the shrieks of the tortured from wall to wall, without
ever reaching the outside. The chamber where the victims were being
burnt was of circular construction and resembled the furnace of
a glass-house with a funnel-like chimney at the top. Up to 1850
the chambers were shown to visitors after which time the ecclesiastical
authorities of Avignon decided to shut them down. The torture chamber
of the Spanish Inquisition in Lima, Peru had one metre thick walls
so that the screams of the victims could not penetrate them.
In Nuremberg and Salzburg torture chambers featured trapdoors on
their floors. In Nuremberg the room underneath the main torture
chamber featured torture machinery while in Salzburg, the room under
the trapdoor, functioned like a waiting room for prisoners. When
the time came the prisoner was pulled up and into the upper torture
chamber. In some places, deep water pits could be found under the
trapdoor, where the victims of the torture chamber could be thrown,
after a torture session, to drown.
The torture chamber was the final destination in a progression
of four cell types during incarceration at the Palace of the Inquisition.
The palace contained the Judgement Hall, the offices of the employees,
the private apartments of the Grand Inquisitor and the detention
cells adjacent to the apartments.
The detention cell gradations started with the cells of mercy reserved
mainly for rich transgressors who upon bequeathing all their property
to the Inquisition were normally let go after a time of detention
in the cells.
For more difficult prisoners the next cell stage was the cell of
penitence. These were situated in small round towers of about 3
metres (ten feet) in diameter. They were painted white and included
rudimentary furniture such as a stool and a bed. Very little light
was allowed in.
If the prisoner did not co-operate, the next step in the detention
process was the dungeon. The dungeon had walls 1.5 metres (five
feet) thick, double doors and was in complete darkness. No conversation
of any type was allowed in the dungeon. The food allowance for prisoners
was less than a penny a day including the profit of the warden while
any human refuse was removed every four days.
After a stay in the dungeon, uncooperative prisoners were moved
to the torture chamber.
One of the oddities of history is that today many castles buy old
torture equipment to attract visitors to their cellars so that they
can be presented as torture chambers. By contrast the overwhelming
majority of genuine torture chambers, owned and operated by the
Church, are closed to the public, their equipment destroyed or sold
off, and their very existence implicitly denied, presumably because
the scale of torture sanctioned by the Church over many centuries
is difficult to justify in a secular age.
The Palace of the Popes in Avignon where
the torture chambers were open to the paying public up until
Effects of torture
For survivors, torture often leads to lasting mental and physical
health problems. Victims were permanently mutilated, crippled or
disfigured. Prolonged confinement in a scavenger's daughter would
render the victim permanently unable to stand up.
The consequences of torture reach far beyond immediate pain. Victims
suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, with symptoms such as
flashbacks or intrusive thoughts, severe anxiety, insomnia, nightmares,
depression and memory lapses. Torture victims often feel guilt and
shame, triggered by the humiliation they have endured. Many feel
that they have betrayed themselves or their friends and family.
Such symptoms are normal human responses to abnormal and inhuman
Physical problems can be wide-ranging, and include sexually transmitted
diseases, musculo-skeletal problems, brain injury, post-traumatic
epilepsy and dementia or chronic pain syndromes. Mental health problems
are equally wide-ranging. Common are post-traumatic stress disorder,
depression and anxiety disorder.
Torture and the Christian Church
The Christian Churches, and especially the Catholic Church, not
only practised torture, they also provided the moral underpinning
for its use, and pioneered new techniques. The papal Inquisitions
were by far and away the most prolific and proficient torturers
for many centuries. They codified rules for the application of torture
but it is not clear why, since they routinely ignored all restrictions:
for example they tortured children, they carried out repeated tortures,
and they accepted as evidence the sort of tittle-tattle that no
civil court would countenance. Whenever they broke the rules they
were empowered to forgive each other.
Instruments of torture were regularly blessed and sprinkled with
Under the influence of increasing secular western society, the
Catholic Church abandoned the use of torture in the nineteenth century.
Today the Catechism of the Catholic Church condemns the use of torture.
In No. 2297-2298 it states:
Torture, which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions,
punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary
to respect for the person and for human dignity... In times past,
cruel practices were commonly used by legitimate governments to
maintain law and order, often without protest from the Pastors
of the Church, who themselves adopted in their own tribunals the
prescriptions of Roman law concerning torture. Regrettable as
these facts are, the Church always taught the duty of clemency
and mercy. She forbade clerics to shed blood. In recent times
it has become evident that these cruel practices were neither
necessary for public order, nor in conformity with the legitimate
rights of the human person. On the contrary, these practices led
to ones even more degrading. It is necessary to work for their
abolition. We must pray for the victims and their tormentors.
Despite first appearances, this is not an unconditional condemnation
of torture. For example it does not condemn the use of torture to
extract information such as the names of accomplices. Neither does
it recognise that the Church was responsible for the deaths of countless
thousands of people who were wholly innocent, or whose crimes would
not today attract so much as a small fine.
One of the many mass witch hunts, and possibly the worst, was that
at Bamburg in Germany. In many ways it was typical.
Bamberg witch trials
Bamberg witch trials took place in Bamberg in Germany in 1626-1631.
They resulted in the deaths of between 300 and 600, one of the greatest
mass executions in peace time.
The Bamberg Witch Trials erupted during a period of a series of
mass witch trials in the area of Southern Germany, contemporary
with the Würzburg witch trials and others. The witch craze
of the 1620s was not confined to Germany, but influenced Alsace,
Lorraine and Franche-Comté: in the lands of the abbey of
Luxueil the years 1628-30 have been described as a demonic epidemic.
The area around Bamburg had been devastated by war and conflicts
within the Holy Roman Empire, as well as a series of crop failures,
famines and plagues. The Church looked for supernatural explanations,
and accusations of witchcraft proliferated. Bamberg at the time
was a small state ruled by the Prince-Bishop Gottfried Johann Georg
II Fuchs von Dornheim, who took a leading role in the persecutions.
He earned the nickname Hexenbischof or "Witch-bishop."
The prince bishop built a "witch-house," complete with
torture-chamber adorned with appropriate biblical texts. The Bamberg
witch trials have been described as possibly the worst of the period.
The bishop's chancellor, Dr. Haan, was burnt for showing suspicious
leniency as a judge. He confessed to having seen five burgomasters
of Bamberg at the sabbat, and they too were duly burnt: one of the
was Johannes Junius, perhaps most known of the many victims of the
Bamberg witch trials, whose testemony of the torture he was exposed
to became famous.
Johannes Junius (1573 - August 6, 1628) was the Burgomeister of
Bamberg, who wrote a letter to his daughter from jail while he awaited
execution for witchcraft during the Bamberg witch trials. Junius
became Burgomeister in 1608 and remained in that position until
his arrest, which came shortly after his wife had been executed
on similar charges.
He was implicated in witchcraft by other victims of the witch craze,
who had been pressured under torture to reveal the names of their
accomplices. Court documents describe how Junius at first denied
all charges and demanded to confront his witnesses, and continued
to deny his involvement in witchcraft after almost a week of torture,
which included the application of thumbscrews, leg vices (Beinschrauben),
and the strappado. He finally confessed on July 5, 1628, and was
publicly burned to death one month later.
On July 24, shortly before his execution, Junius managed to write
a letter to his daughter, Veronica, which was smuggled out of jail
by his guard and successfully delivered. In the letter he defends
his innocence, claims that those who testified against him have
secretly begged his forgiveness, and recounts the abject horror
of his torture (inflicted on him by his own brother-in-law and three
others). He also says that at first he attempted to create a confession
in which he could not identify the other witches, but was forced
to name names under threat of further torture. Here is an English
translation of his famous heartbreaking letter:
Many hundred thousand good-nights, dearly beloved daughter Veronica.
Innocent have I come into prison, innocent have I been tortured,
innocent must I die. For whoever comes into the witch prison must
become a witch or be tortured until he invents something out of
his head and - God pity him - bethinks him of something. I will
tell you how it has gone with me. When I was first time put to
the torture, Dr. Braun, Dr. Kötzendörffer, and two strange
doctors were there. Then Dr. Braun asks me, "Kinsman, how
come you here?" I answer, "Through falsehood, through
misfortune." "Hear, you," he says, "you are
a witch; will you confess it voluntarily? If not, we'll bring
in witnesses and the executioner for you." I said, "I
am no witch, I have a pure conscience in the matter; if there
are a thousand witnesses, I am not anxious, but I'll gladly hear
the witnesses." Now the chancellor's son was set before me
... and afterward Hoppfens Elsse. She had seen me dance on Haupts-moor.
. . . I answered: "I have never renounced God, and will never
do it--God graciously keep me from it. I'll rather bear whatever
I must." And then cam also--God in highest Heaven have mercy--the
executioner, and put the thumb-screws on me, both hands bound
together, so that the blood ran out at the nails and everywhere,
so that for four weeks I could not use my hands, as you can see
from the writing. . . . Thereafter they first stipped me, bound
my hands behind me, and drew me up in the torture. Then I though
heaven and earth were at an end; eight times did they draw me
up and let me fall again, so that I suffered terible agony. .
And this happened on Friday, June 30, and with God's help I had
to bear the torture. . . . When at last the executioner led me
back into the prison, he said to me: "Sir, I beg you, for
God's sake confess something, where it be true or not. Invent
something, for you cannot endure the torture you will be put to;
and, even if you bear it all, yet you will not escape, not even
if you were an earl, but one torture will follow after another
until you say you are a witch. Not before that," he said,
"will they let you go, as you may see by all their trials,
for one is just like another. . . ."
And so I begged, since I was in wretched plight, to be given
one day for thought and a priest. The priest was refused me, but
the time for thought was given. Now, my dear child, see in what
hazard I stood and still stand. I must say that I am a witch,
though I am not, - must now renounce God, though I have never
done it before. Day and night I was deeply troubled, but at last
there came to me a new idea. I would not be anxious, but, since
I had been given no priest with whom I could take counsel, I would
myself think of something and say it. If were surely better that
I just say it with mouth and words, even though I had not really
done it; and afterwards I would confess it to the priest, and
let those answer for it who compel me to do it. . . . And so I
made my confession, as follows; but it was all a lie.
Now follows, dear child, what I confessed in order to escape
the great anguish and bitter torture, which it was impossible
for me longer to bear. . . .
Then I had to tell what people I had seen [at the witch-sabbath].
I said that I had not recognized them. "You old rascal, I
must set the executioner at you. Say--was not the Chancellor there?"
So I said yes. "Who besides?" I had not recognized anybody.
So he said: "Take one street after another; begin at the
market, go out on one street and back on the next." I had
to name several persons there. Then the Zinkenwert--one person
more. Then over the upper bridge to the Georgthor, on both sides.
Knew nobody again. Did I know nobody in the castle--whoever it
might be, I should speak without fear. And thus continuously they
asked me on all the streets, though I could not and would not
say more. So they gave me to the executioner, told him to stip
me, shave me all over, and put me to the torture. "The rascal
knows one on the market-place, is with him daily, and yet won't
name him." By that they meant Dietmayer: so I had to name
Then I had to tell what crimes I had committed. I said nothing.
. . . "Draw the rascal up!" So I said that I was to
kill my children, but I had killed a horse instead. It did not
help. I had also taken a sacred wafer, and had desecrated it.
When I had said this, they left me in peace.
Now, dear child, here you have all my confession, for which I
must die. And they are sheer lies and made-up things, so help
me God. For all this I was forced to say through fear of the torture
which was threatened beyond what I had already endured. For they
never leave off with the torture till one confesses something;
be he never so good, he must be a witch. Nobody escapes, though
he were an earl. . . .
Dear child, keep this letter secret so that people do not find
it, else I shall be tortured most piteously and the jailers will
be beheaded. So strictly is it forbidden. . . . Dear child, pay
this man a dollar. . . . I have taken several days to write this:
my hands are both lame. I am in a sad plight. . . .
Good night, for your father Johannes Junius will never see you
more. July 24, 1628.
[in the margin he had added]
Dear child, six have confessed against me at once: the Chancellor,
his son, Neudecker, Zaner, Hoffmaisters Ursel, and Hoppfens Elsse
- all false, through compulsion, as they have all told me, and
begged my forgiveness in God's name before they were executed.
. . . They know nothing but good of me. They were forced to say
it, just as I myself was. . . .
Decline of Routine Torture
In the early modern period, the torture of witches became commonplace.
Countless people were targeted and tortured for imaginary relationships
with the devil.
In England the trial by jury developed considerable freedom in
evaluating evidence and condemning on circumstantial evidence, making
torture to extort confessions unnecessary. For this reason in England
a regularise system of judicial torture never existed and its use
was limited to political cases, except under the short-lived Puritan
When the papacy was trying to find (or create) evidence against
the Knights Templar, it encouraged monarchs throughout Europe to
torture Templars to gain confessions. Torture was applied and the
confessions obtained in most countries, but His Holiness was shocked
to discover that the civil authorities in England were not prepared
to apply torture. When two Inquisitors were sent to England in 1310
to extract confessions from Knights Templars, they insisted on using
torture . The king allowed some torture to be applied "according
to ecclesiastical law", but apparently not enough to satisfy
the Inquisitors. The Pope wrote to the King:
We hear that you forbid torture as contrary to the laws of your
land; but no state can override Cannon Law, Our Law; therefore
I command you at once to submit these men to torture...Withdraw
your prohibition and we grant you remission of sins
(Letter from Pope Clement V to King Edward II of England. Regestum
Clementis Papae V, nunc primum editum cura et studio Monachorum
Ordinis S. Benedicti, (Rome, 1885-92) year 5, no. 6670, pp 84-6.
. The English translation is quoted from G. G. Coulton, Medieval
Panorama, (CUP, 1947) p 380.
Although torture was not permitted under English Common law, in
Tudor and early Stuart times it was applied, with the King's warrant,
under certain conditions. The confession of Marc Smeaton at the
trial of Anne Boleyn was presented in written form only, perhaps
to hide from the court that Smeaton had been tortured on the rack
for four hours, or because Thomas Cromwell was worried that he would
recant his confession if cross-examined.
When Guy Fawkes was arrested for his role in the Gunpowder Plot
of 1605 he was tortured until he revealed everything he knew about
the plot. This was not so much to extract a confession, which was
not needed to prove his guilt, but to extract from him the names
of his fellow conspirators. By this time a special warrant from
King James I was needed before he could be tortured. The wording
of the warrant shows concerns for humanitarian considerations, the
severity of the methods of interrogation were to be increased gradually
until the interrogators were sure that Fawkes had told all he knew.
In the end this did not help Fawkes much as he was broken on the
only rack in England, in the Tower of London.
Torture was abolished in England around 1640 (except peine forte
et dure, which was abolished in 1772).
In 1613 Anton Praetorius described the situation of the prisoners
in the dungeons in his book Gründlicher Bericht Von Zauberey
und Zauberern (Thorough Report about Sorcery and Sorcerers). He
was one of the first to protest against all means of torture.
In the 17th century the number of incidents of judicial torture
decreased in many European regions. Johann Graefe in 1624 published
Tribunal Reformation, a case against torture. In 1764 Cesare
Beccaria, an Italian lawyer, published "An Essay on Crimes
and Punishments", in which he argued that torture unjustly
punished the innocent and should be unnecessary in proving guilt.
Voltaire (1694-1778) also fiercely condemned torture.
While in Egypt in 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte wrote to Major-General
Berthier that the
barbarous custom of whipping men suspected of having important secrets
to reveal must be abolished. It has always been recognised that
this method of interrogation, by putting men to the torture, is
useless. The wretches say whatever comes into their heads and whatever
they think one wants to believe. Consequently, the Commander-in-Chief
forbids the use of a method which is contrary to reason and humanity.
(Napoleon Bonaparte, Letters and Documents of Napoleon, Volume
I: The Rise to Power, selected and translated by John Eldred
Howard (London: The Cresset Press, 1961), p 274.
European states abolished torture from their statutory law in the
late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Sweden and Prussia
was the first to do it in 1722 and 1754, respectively; Denmark abolished
it in 1770, Austria in 1776, France in 1780, and the Netherlands
in 1798. Russia abolished torture in 1801. Bavaria did it in 1806
and Württemburg in 1809. In Spain the Napoleonic conquest put
an end to the torture in 1808. Norway abolished it in 1819 and Portugal
in 1826. Swiss cantons abolished torture in the first half of the
Some forms of torture, most notably Water Boarding, a form of Water
Torture was re-introduced by the USA in the Twenty First Century.