Top Ten Torture Methods and Devices Throughout History

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Posted on January 28th, 2008

Human history is littered with instances of brutality and barbarism. Despite international norms, torture whether as a method of extracting information from suspects or as a punitive mechanism, has enjoyed popularity uninterruptedly. As time goes on and the sensibilities of human beings begin to balk at the more barbaric forms of torture, an effort has been made to sanitize these methods. Whereas in the past we had the rack and other methods of physical torture, the focus now is to inflict psychological torture through methods such as sleep deprivation. It’d be nice to look back however, and go back to torture’s roots.

10. The Boot

This torture method almost didn’t make the list, but when you look throughout history, this device is probably one of the more pervasive torture devices. It was used widely, with variants popping up in Spain, Nuremberg, Scotland, Britain, Italy and France. It involved wrapping the foot, either with a rawhide garment or some contraption made of wood with the intent of crushing the foot, or dislocating bones. A variant that emerged in Italy even had a spike with it, which was meant to drill onto the foot and create a hole. One variant involved a boot made of iron placed on the foot and pouring boiling water inside so as to slowly eat away at the foot. No matter the variant, the intention is clear: you won’t be walking away after you’ve gone through it. For this reason, The Boot holds firm at number 10. (If you’re interested in boots, the real thing, read The Guide to Boots)

9. Heretic’s Fork

Heretic Fork
A Heretics Fork
Stretching may be a good way to warm-up for exercise, but the various Inquisitions, from which a great legacy of torture was gleaned from, also thought of it as a good way to inflict pain. The Heretic’s Fork was composed of a strap attached to a piece of metal with both ends having bi-pronged spikes. The strap is wrapped around the neck to secure the fork in place with one end placed under the chin with the other end placed against the ribcage. This extends the neck — inflicting pain — while ensuring that the head stays in place. If you can contemplate that pain without wincing, then you’re a better person than all those "heretics" who recanted under the pressure of those prongs.

8. Instep Borer

Somewhat like the Boot, only more brutal and bloodier, the instep borer was in the shape of a boot where the victim places his or her foot. A serrated blade is also a part of the apparatus and through a crank mechanism, punches through the instep. The result is free-flowing blood the size of the produced hole dictates. It was not uncommon for the victim to end up dead after a few days because of the wound. This method of torture trumps others in that its appeal is not simply to inflict pain but to ensure the gushing of blood. The literal bloodthirstiness ups its gruesomeness score.

7. Tablillas

Imagine these toes subjected to the Tablillas, OUCH!
Since we’re on the subject of crushing bones and gruesome attacks on the feet, meet number seven. Tablillas was meant to render the toes immobile. They were usually used in conjunction with the rack. The toes were inserted individually through the holes of wood tablets. Whenever the prisoner chose to stay silent or the torturer was dissatisfied with the answers, a wedge was bored through the tip of the toe. Once the toe had been completely secured, the torturer, with the use of a mallet, crushed the bones. This torture method ranks as such because of the anticipation that comes in the few seconds between driving the wedge and the descent of the mallet implies the subject bracing him or herself as the crushing blow is made. Never underestimate the psychological factor that comes with knowing that you’re going to lose your toes one by one.

6. The Head Crusher

Head Crusher
The Head Crusher
Torture isn’t limited to stretching. Squeezing is also another method. In the case of number six, it’s all about compressing the head. The torturer also has the option of prolonging the entire process by stopping the compression or reversing it so as to provide a little relief before resuming brutality again. If the compression is continuous, the teeth are eventually shattered and the victim’s eyes pop out before he or she dies. The latter was such a common occurrence that some variants even had a container that was meant to "catch" the eyeballs as they leave the skull. Migraines are no match for the Head Crusher.

5. Judas Chair (Pyramid Variant)

Judas Chair Pyramid
A very paiful chair to sit on
Another popular form of torture used widely in the various Inquisitions was the "Judas Chair". It involved a chair with a spike on the seat. The individual to be tortured sat on this spike with the anus or, in the case of women, the vagina resting on the tip. There are several theories as to what the instrument hoped to accomplish when used. Some say that the chair was simply meant to inflict pain on the tortured individual via pressing against the orifices and positioning the victim to achieve maximum pain. Others contend that the purpose was to stretch the orifices as time went on, causing rips and shreds that would force a confession. Still there are those accidental results that lead to this form of torture causing death, perhaps even through impalement.

4. Waterboarding

Water Boarding
Water Boarding at its best
One of the more pervasive, if not the most pervasive, methods of torture is waterboarding and its variants. It appears in practically every era of history: the Spanish Inquisition, World War II, the Khmer Rouge regime and is even used in America’s War on Terror. This torture method is meant to simulate the feeling of drowning without actually drowning the victim thereby creating the illusion that he or she is about to die. Generally, a cloth is placed over the nose and mouth and water is poured over the cloth. This forces the victim to swallow the water and at the same time does not allow breathing. Apart from being one of the most popular, it is also probably one of the most effective. Most cannot help but give in to the pressure that this torture method imposes.

3. Judas Chair (the one with a billion spikes)

Judas Chair Spikes
The spiked Judas chair
More popularly known as the Chair of Torture, this variant is just like any other chair — with spikes attached all around. The victim is tied to the chair to prevent movement. The spikes are sharp enough to bore through the skin, but aren’t long enough to hit any vital organs. The victim is tortured very slowly, and if death does come, it comes at a snail’s pace. Bleeding to death is often the way victims die. However, as a torture method, it is extremely effective precisely because of the fact that you that can die, but you’ll die very slowly. As you see your blood seeping down the chair’s legs or forming in a pool under you, the psychological effects are great; you’ll be compelled to confess to stop the blood loss. Your bleeding is also hampered by the spikes which tend to close the wounds that they create.

2. Iron Maiden

Iron Maiden
The very painful Iron Maiden
One of the most well-known torture methods, the Iron Maiden gained prominence in Nuremberg. It consisted of an iron cast large enough to contain adult males with spikes inside. The victim is asked to remain standing inside the contraption and any leaning on any side would mean a wound borne out of contact with a spike. Most victims ended up dying as a result of the torture as a liberal amount of blood often gushed out of their bodies after some time. However, this technique was not used primarily for executions. It is entirely possible that a subject would call out after having spent some time within the Iron Maiden for relief. The fact that this torture device combines physical pain and psychological trauma (all alone in a small space with sharp spikes threatening to kill you from every side) and the fact that it is one of the more bloodthirsty torture devices ever invented lets it skyrocket all the way number two.

1. The Rack

The Rack
If only by virtue of popularity, the rack takes number one. However, in brutality, the rack also trumps others. The logic used by this torture device is still the stretching principle. Dislocation of bones and joints, accidental tearing of limbs, perhaps even blood loss when the skin breaks were all pretty common immediate effects of being subjected to the rack. The rack allows for variation, too. Torturers would often take a little break from all that forced stretching by employing other methods of inflicting pain on the victim, such as hot irons. The spread eagle, nearly naked condition of the victims leaves them completely vulnerable to the other machinations the torturer may be up to. There is a reason why the rack has become the symbol or torture and barbaric human tendencies through the years. Those reasons are the same as to why it tops this list.

Times may have changed, but the spirit of torture still lives on. As said before, sanitized or not, torture in its most safe form is still brutal. Some of you may be surprised at the omissions this list has made. "Where’s the rat torture?" or perhaps some of you may be looking for flaying alive on the list. The list was made with the idea that death will not be the natural result of the torture. There are different torture devices that have been employed through the years, but if you take a look at the colloquial understanding of what torture is, you’ll gather that some methods don’t necessarily fall under this definition. Ask anyone on the street and they’ll tell you that torture is all about extracting information from "terrorists" or extracting confessions from heretics. Given that, torture devices that are meant to be simply punitive in nature rather than focusing on the colloquial understandings of torture were not included in this list. The Catherine Wheel might be one of the most cruel torture devices, but it was meant to kill and punish in an extremely brutal manner; it was not meant to coerce individuals. That’s just about the only criterion this list had, besides excluding torture methods that used electricity.

If the gloom and doom brought by torture isn’t enough to sufficiently darken your skies, maybe our list of Top Ten Most Horrifying and Gruesome Murders or the MostTragic Accidents in History will satisfy all your morbid cravings.

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  1. Franz Bonaparta said,

    on 2008-10-29 at 16:37:34

    This is one of the best lists to have when you have a host of enemies and just a little bit of ingenuity. So let the killing begin!

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