Infernal Device: Machinery of Torture and Execution

Infernal Device: Machinery of Torture and Execution

by Erik Ruhling

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781609259051
Publisher: Red Wheel/Weiser
Publication date: 11/01/2007
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 96
File size: 11 MB
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About the Author

Erik Ruhling is a graphic designer and the curator of He holds degrees in anthropology and English and lives in Atlanta, Georgia, in a house without a dungeon (unfortunately). 

Read an Excerpt

infernal device

the machinery of torture and execution

By Erik Rühling

The Disinformation Company Ltd.

Copyright © 2007 Erik Rühling
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60925-905-1


Punishments Vile

"Let the punishment match the offense."


Barrel Pillory

The town ne'er-do-well would have been familiar with the embrace of this portable instrument of torture, known variously as the "barrel pillory," the "drunkard's cloak," or the "Spanish mantle." This pillory was often reserved for those disposed to excessive drinking, and what better object to use than the barrel which may have previously contained similar spirits which led to the accused's undoing. Imagine the town drunk, perhaps in the throes of a raging hangover, forced into the confines of a cumbersome oaken cask, fermenting with latter-day tipple and present-day bodily excretions. Not an enjoyable way to spend the day, to say the least.

Like the more recognizable stationary pillory or "stocks" (ubiquitous among re-creations of old-country and colonial villages), the purpose of the barrel pillory was to subject the unlucky occupants to torment by their peers. Along with verbal epithets, the tormentors also hurled solid objects, generally rotten, at the victim's head. Rotted vegetables were always popular, along with manure (animal and human), and small rocks.

The device was constructed like this—a large barrel fit over the entire body, with the unfortunate occupant's head poking out from the hole in the top like a "mantle," a sleeveless robe worn by the clergy. From there, the pillory could take alternate forms—an enclosed barrel forced the victim to stand in place for hours (most likely in the heat of the town square), while an open barrel with holes for the arms and an open bottom allowed the victim to roam about town. An example of the stationary barrel, specifically named "the Spanish mantle" sported an enclosure for the head made of small iron bars, much like a catcher's mitt. Presumably this was for the safety of the occupant, although it was just as likely a way to ensure he or she would not be knocked unconscious, a catastrophe which would have robbed the townspeople of their entertainment. A version in Berlin measured 1? 8? diameter at the top, 2? 11? diameter at the bottom, and 2? 11? tall, no doubt being an example of the ambulatory model (our ancestors being shorter, but not that much shorter).

If a town was in possession of an "official" barrel pillory, there may have been scenes painted on the side of the barrel depicting the transgressions of which the victim was accused. Public drunkenness, brawling, petty theft, and scandalous romancing were popular themes, all punishable offenses in those days, but just another typical evening at, say, Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

Bell Collar

A subtle yet insidious form of torture, the bell collar was valued for the fact that it allowed wardens to keep tabs on their prisoners while tormenting them with the ringing of a bell hung just above the head.

The suffering meted out by this instrument was not physical, but rather mental, as the victim experienced the distinctive chime of the bell triggered by any movement, however slight. Sleeping, already complicated by the collar (and most likely some sort of binding to keep hands away from the bell), was near impossible while the bell jangled mercilessly just out of reach in front of and above the prisoner's face.

The collar was also useful when multiple prisoners were being transported, the collars could be linked together by a chain, maintaining the proximity of the prisoners, while alerting a warden if one should happen to escape. What a sight to behold, a filthy mass of squalid prisoners being led from their pens, a single brass bell ringing out distinctly from above each head in a cacophony of sound and misery that would have left John Cage green with envy.

Ducking Stool

"Of members ye tonge is worst or best, An yll tonge oft doth breed unrest."

Loosely translated, this means, "If you don't have anything good to say, don't say it at all." Of course, this was coming from a time when the decision of what was good or ill was decided by the men in the community. It is no wonder then that many a "temperamental" woman found herself in the ducking stool as punishment for her scolding and/or general shrewish nature. With the Ralph Kramdens of the day, it would have not been as much, "Bang! Zoom! To the moon!," as "Bang! Zoom! To the stool with ye!"

Resembling a chair more than a stool, this device was fairly common throughout all of Europe; in fact, the Domesday Book of 1084 mentions a chair belonging to the village of Chester, used to immerse scolding women in water. Its use grew from the "cucking" stool or "night chair," which was a simple stationary chair in which the scold was forced to sit for a period of time while open to public ridicule. This gradually evolved into various designs of chairs hanging from a fulcrum and beam positioned over a body of water; rivers were popular, as were cesspools, and in some cases the community well was used, which doesn't say much for the villagers' ideas of cleanliness.

Where the village did not have a fixed ducking stool, the populace made do with the portable model, looking quite like the siege weapon known as the trebuchet. Using this "treebucket," as it was sometimes called, allowed the shrew to be paraded through the town on her way to her dunking. From time to time, this humiliation would be deemed punishment enough, and the victim would be given a reprieve, undoubtedly with a warning to change her wicked ways.

The "ducking" would unfold much as anyone would imagine—the scold forced into the chair, the chair hung over the water, and the chair levered into the water. Three dunkings seems to have been the prescribed punishment for most victims, although the elderly may have often escaped the entire dosage, as they were the ones who were in the most danger of perishing during the ritual.

Like the barrel pillory, the ducking stool would often be ornamented with scenes, a trendy one being of the scold on her way to hell in the arms of a devil. Also featured were pithy quotes, like the one above, which itself takes quite a scolding tone. The villagers' sense of irony seems not to have been well-developed.

Lest you think this a quaint contraption used in the old world hundreds of years ago, it should be noted that the last recorded ducking was in 1818 in the United States, and that the punishment was still on the books in Jersey City until 1889.

the gibbet

Travel through Europe during the Middle Ages and the gibbet, or "hanging cages" would have been an omnipresent sight, frequently displayed on the approaches to a town or near the site of a crime. Crow-picked corpses swayed in the wind, staring down upon the passersby until reduced by the elements to bits of cloth and bone. Not an "official" punishment until 1752, the justice system had at times ruled that execution was not a significant deterrent for some crimes, and reasoned that the mortification of the perpetrator's corpse would discourage all but the most hardened and ruthless criminals. After execution, the judge could decide to donate your corpse to anatomists (who had quite a difficult time obtaining bodies for dissection, but who were often obliged by resurrectionists, i.e. body snatchers, but that is another, albeit interesting, story), or to hang you from a gibbet as a warning to others. The occasional slathering in tar ensured that this curiosity would have a significant "lifetime."

The body was either hung "in chains," meaning a tight wrapping in iron bonds; or it was deposited in a slatted cage made of wood or iron. Either way, the resulting object was hung in a conspicuous location as a warning to all. The effectiveness was debatable, as one judge noted the practice was useless as a way to deter crime but an excellent way to frighten children. To be sure, the sights did frighten quite a few people in some way or another; the poet William Wordsworth was said to have fled at the sight of a gibbet. The gibbet apparently was empty, but he ran nonetheless.

In some cases, mostly having to do with piracy, the criminal was gibbeted while still alive. Vivum excoriari, "alive in chains," was a slow, painful death in which the lawbreaker lingered for days, starving and dehydrated. On the bright side, the executioner would not have to move the body once the victim had perished. He or she was already installed in their final resting place.

Finally, there was another unrelated device which took the name of "gibbet"—the Halifax Gibbet was an early version of the guillotine, which was less effective at cleanly separating the head from the body, but enjoyed the same infamy as its descendant, with many beggars supposedly steering clear of Halifax for fear of being gibbeted.

noisemaker's fife

Squaring nicely with Cicero's edict that the punishment should fit the crime, the noisemaker's fife and similar objects were prescribed as a tool of penance for those who had committed crimes such as disturbing the peace, foul language, "cursing in the first degree" (taking the Lord's name in vain), "revelry and din" in front of a church during services, and litigiousness.

There were quite a few varieties of this device, the overarching theme being one of a musical instrument—trumpets, recorders, oboes, and fiddles were all stylish shapes. The contraption was shackled on one side around the neck, while further down the "instrument" the hands or fingers were secured by either a pillory-type lock which enclosed the wrists and held them fixed before the subject, or an adjustable clamp which closed over the fingers like thumbscrews. If there was a choice, it would be wise to choose the locking pinion over the clamp—the bar was easily tightened or loosened on the whim of whoever was in charge of securing the prisoner. Wood, brass, or iron were used in construction, and a great deal of craftsmanship went into some, as evidenced by the ornate woodworking in some of the German "Halsgeiges" or "neck violins."

As with many punitive measures, the fifes and fiddles accompanied British colonists to the Americas. Here, however, they were adapted to an all-iron construction and were used primarily for transportation and discipline of slaves, favoring the confining function over the musical instrument form.


"Chester presents Walton with a bridle To curb women's tongues that talk too idle"

—Inscription on a brank, 1633, Walton-on-the-Thames

Branks were yet another way to punish the scolds of the time, and could have been seen as an escalation in the "war against the shrews." The old ducking stools and pillories, after all, allowed the prisoner to verbally harass the prosecutors between dunks and while on display. The branks not only served the stools' similar purpose of humiliating the accused, but many models also featured a way to silence the overbearing "hussy" so that there would be no chance of any back talk.

The branks appeared in Scotland in the early 1500s and their use spread quickly throughout the kingdom and subsequently all of Britain, becoming so common that some private houses in England featured an iron hook built into the side of the fireplace to accommodate the brank's chain. The man of the house, when overly nagged, simply had to send for the gaoler and he would embark on a sort-of "torture house-call," taking the brank to the homestead, locking the scold into the apparatus, and chaining it to the hook for a time period judged sufficient by the gaoler.

Branking quickly became a popular way to not only discipline scolds and shrewish women, but also as a way to punish "suspected witches," "fornicators," and "blasphemers." These latter categories opened the ranks of men to a chastisement that was formerly reserved for women, literally demonstrating that "what's good for the goose is good for the gander." Witches entered the fold because there was a belief that they could cast spells while on trial—the brank took care of any utterance. Fornicators were those who had fathered or borne bastard children, and the blasphemers were those who had said something critical of the clergy or church. These suffered a literal superfecta of punitive measures—"brankit, stockit, dukit and banisit."

The mechanism resembled an iron framework helmet with a lockable collar. Within the frame an iron shaft extended into the captive's mouth. This shaft acted as a gag, pressing against the tongue and making any kind of intelligible speech impossible. To further dissuade the wearer from speaking, the gagging device could be studded with short spikes or "rowelled like a spur." Any attempt at talking would lacerate the tongue and interior of the mouth, so most unfortunate captives would stand in silence.

To add insult to injury many branks were fitted with a chain for leading the offender to the town square for a good dose of public ridicule. Oftentimes a bell was fitted to the top to alert the townspeople of the approaching miscreant, resulting in most likely a stampede of citizens eager to humiliate the prisoner.

Anyone believing that torture devices were not built with a great deal of craftsmanship and ingenuity would have been disavowed of that belief after examining the many configurations of the branks. The designs range from the purely utilitarian to the fanciful, with the representation of asses and pigs dominating the latter. A village took great pride in the appearance of their brank and accordingly hired skilled blacksmiths for their construction.

piety belt

Instantly recognizable from a recent popular film as a smaller, concealable device, the piety or "self-mortification" belt was originally designed to be worn by those in the self-flagellation ranks of religious zealots. The idea was to take asceticism one step further and to actively seek out pain and discomfort, which would in theory allow the participant to experience a spiritual awakening.

The belt was constructed of interlocking metal loops which turned inwards like fishhooks or barbed wire, over two hundred in all. The intent was not to penetrate the flesh, but to irritate and cause great discomfort, like the hairshirts worn by penitents. However, there are claims that the belt was also used on unwilling participants as a means of torture.

An unsourced story tells of a Spanish bandit who kidnaped a French woman and locked her within a particularly sharp mortification belt. Although a bandit, he apparently drew the line at rape, hypothesizing that the pain of the belt coupled with confinement would cause her to give herself willingly to him. The anecdote does not relate why he thought that she would feel very amorous after being perforated with the tines of the belt.

In modern times, Opus Dei (a personal prelature of the Catholic Church) does in fact allow some members to wear smaller belts which are fitted around the upper thigh. They are prescribed to be worn about 2 hours per day, except on feast days. They are absolutely not meant to break the skin, but to cause irritation.

Chain scourge

When the punishment absolutely, positively has to leave a mark, nothing beats one of the myriad whips, flails, and scourges that have been used throughout time and throughout the world.

Whipping or flogging has long been a punishment both easy to presribe and easy to inflict, designated for such various crimes as thievery, illegitimate births (both for fathers and mothers), drunkenness, and blasphemy. In the military it was the long-standing cure-all for just about every infraction, and in just about every case, both military and civil, it was a public spectacle, with dedicated "whipping posts" where the punishment was fulfilled.

This particular example was in use in the castle of Nuremburg. It consisted of a sturdy wooden handle carved with indentations for a better grip and three chains of seven links each. The links were forged with flat, sharp edges in order to more quickly remove the flesh from the back, a feat which even a leather or rope whip could easily accomplish.


Excerpted from infernal device by Erik Rühling. Copyright © 2007 Erik Rühling. Excerpted by permission of The Disinformation Company Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents





I. Punishments Vile an assortment of cruel and Unusual tortures,

Barrel Pillory,

Bell Collar,

Ducking Stool,
the gibbet,
noisemaker's fife,

piety belt,

Chain scourge,

II. Crushing Embrace a collection of compression device,
head crusher,

Skull Splitter,

Scavenger's Daughter,
knee splitter,
foot press,

Spanish Boot,

III. fearful penetration a gallery of incisions and penetrations,

Interrogation Chair,

Iron Maiden,
heretic's fork,

St. Elmo's Belt,

IV. The unkindest cut a number of wounding devices,
ear chopper,

Mutilation shears,

Mouth opener & tongue tearer,

V. sheer Brutality a mass of vile inventions,
the wheel,
brazen bull,
the rack,
judas cradle,

Spanish Donkey,

pear of anguish,

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