The Big Book of Pain: Torture & Punishment Through History

The Big Book of Pain: Torture & Punishment Through History

by Mark P. Donnelly, Daniel Diehl


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Explaining the mechanics of torture—even now a controversial topic—this history questions why so much effort has been put into causing pain to fellow human beings
Taking readers into the ancient Roman coliseum, the medieval dungeon, the Inquisitional interrogation, the auto-da-fe, the witch-trial, and the most horrid of prisons, this is an exploration of the systematic use throughout the ages of various means of punishment, torture, coercion, and torment. It is a shocking and compelling study of the shameful methods and motives of the torturer and the executioner, and of the heinous duty they have performed through the ages. Since the earliest times it is an acknowledged fact that anyone can be made to confess to anything under torture, making such confessions inadmissible. This history of pain questions why such practices have continued for so long.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780752459479
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 06/01/2011
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 591,606
Product dimensions: 6.70(w) x 9.70(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Mark P. Donnelly and Daniel Diehl have coauthored 12 books and more than 100 hours of documentary television. Their other titles include Eat Thy Neighbour: A History of Cannibalism; Haunted Houses: Guide to Spooky, Creepy and Strange Places Across the USA; and Medieval Celebrations.

Read an Excerpt

The Big Book of Pain

Torture and Punishment Through History

By Mark P. Donnelly, Daniel Diehl

The History Press

Copyright © 2012 Mark P. Donnelly & Daniel Diehl
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-8279-8


Section I


The word torture is used so often and so inappropriately that it seems necessary to define exactly what it means before entering into any serious investigation of its uses; or more specifically to extricate the term from the confused jumble of multiple definitions in order to determine precisely what we mean by 'torture'. Contrary to popular belief all forms of punishment, even when it involves physical abuse, do not qualify as torture. The thirteenth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica describes torture as follows: 'Torture (from Latin "torquere", to twist), the general name for innumerable modes of inflicting pain which have been from time to time devised by the perverted ingenuity of man, and especially for those employed in a legal aspect by the civilised nations of antiquity and modern Europe.' From this point of view, torture was always inflicted for one of two purposes:

(1) as a means of eliciting evidence from a witness or from an accused person either before or after condemnation;

(2) as a part of punishment.

The second was the earlier use, its functions as a means of evidence arising when rules were gradually formulated by the experience of legal experts. Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary describes it more briefly, but more succinctly, in this manner:

1. The infliction of intense pain (as from burning, crushing or wounding) to punish, coerce or afford sadistic pleasure.

2. An anguish of body or mind.

3. To punish or coerce by inflicting excruciating pain.

4. To cause intense suffering, to torment.

Using these basic premises as a starting point, we can immediately say that before physical brutality can qualify as torture it must be inflicted with very specific goals in mind. If a street gang attacks, beats and systematically abuses someone they are not, strictly speaking, torturing their victim. They are certainly assaulting them and may cause grievous bodily harm, but because they are not acting under any kind of governmental, military or judicial authority the assault is not technically torture. On the other hand, a gang of revolutionary guerrilla fighters who commit the same atrocities are, in fact, committing torture. The main difference then between a simple act of barbarism and full-blown torture is the influence of a higher, sanctioning authority. Inherent, but seldom stated, in this definition is the implication that when torture is carried out at the behest of governmental authority it is somehow justified. By bringing a legal sanction into the equation those involved in ordering or administering torture provide themselves with the advantage of removing the taint of personal guilt: 'I was only following orders'.

As we shall see time and time again, those governments that have sanctioned the use of torture tend to be either weak and fearful (as in the case of most early, primitive societies and modern, third world dictatorships), or paranoid. In the later case there is almost always the belief, either sincerely held or merely a cynical ploy to keep the masses in line, that there is some massive conspiracy at work which is bent on the destruction of the 'system' and that it must be stopped before society is overthrown. Such claims of imminent destruction are always a good way to keep the population in a constant state of fear and thereby make them easier to control. It also provides a convenient means to make the leader popular; first he institutes a climate of fear by describing this vague, often nameless threat, and then sets out to destroy that threat by arresting, torturing and executing as many of the 'conspirators' as possible. Naturally the threat can never truly be eliminated; either because it never existed in the first place or because if the 'enemy' ceased to exist the leader might lose his grip on power.

In its earliest form, however, torture – in some greater or lesser form, as befits the crime – was usually practiced as a means of punishing actual wrongdoers. In a primitive world, where all life was short, brutish and cruel, we could hardly expect legal or penal punishment to be any different. When a criminal, or transgressor against the prevailing moral code, was publicly whipped, crucified, or otherwise horribly killed or maimed, it provided a graphic example that the law was being upheld, society was being kept safe and that good, law abiding people could sleep safe in their beds. Such graphic examples of the law taking its due course always pleased the mob, giving them a nice comforting sense as to the 'rightness' of things. It also provided a form of cheap entertainment and, unless the leader was unusually stupid, offered a convenient way of doing away with political enemies in a way that sent out a clear message to anyone else who might decide to voice opposition to the powers that be.

Over the millennia, thousands of civilisations have risen and fallen, but the use of torture and the reasoning behind it, remain pretty much constant. The earliest use of torture, that of punishment, tended to be psychologically unsophisticated. The party in question, or the conquered group, was adjudged guilty and then taken out and punished. But as time went on, and as the motive behind torture evolved from simple punishment to the need to extract information, the approach to the process of torture evolved. Victims were first taken to the torture chamber and shown the tools of their forthcoming anguish. To get the victim's attention, the entire process was described in lurid detail. Then they were sent back to their cell and given some time to think things over. Unless the poor wretch had no more imagination than a cow, the mere contemplation of what was about to happen to them was often enough to make them spill everything they knew and a whole lot they didn't know. Sometimes, however, the victim was unusually strong-willed or it had already been decided that they were going to be tortured no matter what they said.

In 1307 King Phillip IV of France (with the whole-hearted support of the Pope) ordered the mass arrest of the Knights Templar on charges of heresy. Did he really believe them to be heretics? Probably not. Did he owe them huge sums of money that he had no intention of repaying? Absolutely, but it would not have looked good if he had been honest about his motives. Instead, Phillip had thousands of Templars rounded up, thrown into prison, put to the rack, roped, starved and beaten to within an inch of their lives. Eventually they confessed to the most absurd charges imaginable. Once in possession of their confessions, Phillip was free to convict, sentence and burn them at the stake. Then he confiscated their land and property. The fact that nearly all of the Templars later refuted their forced confessions made no difference. This single example of confessions forced through pain is only one of hundreds we will examine in this book but it serves as a workable, introductory illustration to both the advantages and drawbacks of torture. Torture can always be used to extract a confession or other information – almost anyone will confess to nearly anything if they think it is going to make the pain stop. Conversely, torture cannot be used to establish innocence – possibly because it would be a sorry sort of torture master who mutilated his victims while repeatedly asking 'Have you been a good boy?'

The point we are making is that torture has only one conceivable end – to extract the information, or punishment, demanded by the system. In the case of obtaining information, the torture will continue until the victim has provided whatever information they are instructed to provide or dies. It does not take a genius to realise that this is an ultimately flawed process. Indeed, if what the inquisitors are really looking for is the truth, then torture is demonstrably counter-productive. The sad truth of this fact has been realised and admitted to by law-givers, philosophers and clerics since time immemorial and still, by and large, they approved of, and used, torture to extract confessions as well as inflict punishment. Why? Because the true object of torture is not to discover the truth but to secure a conviction; and therein lies its greatest limitation. A person under torture will, sooner or later, confess but this is no assurance that a) they actually committed the crime and b) if they did not, and an actual crime has been committed, then the real culprit is still at large. Occasionally, someone being subjected to torture has been able to overcome their terror and pain long enough to throw this fact back in the face of their persecutor.

During the height of the Spanish Inquisition in the sixteenth century, a Portuguese woman named Maria de Coceicao was arrested on charges of heresy and sent to the torture chamber where she was racked. To avoid having her arms and legs ripped from their sockets, Senora Coceicao immediately confessed but as soon as she was released from the rack she refuted her confession. A second turn on the rack brought an identical response. It was a familiar pattern: Confess anything to make the pain stop and then recant when released. In her case, Coceicao was both clever enough, and brave enough, to tell her tormentors: 'As soon as I am released from the rack I shall deny whatever was extorted from me by pain.' Maria de Coceicao was far more lucky than tens of thousands of other victims of the Spanish Inquisition. She was publicly flogged and sentenced to ten years in exile but the courage of her convictions had saved her from being burned at the stake. So, had she brought some revelation to the local inquisitor? Probably not. We can readily assume he already knew that torture did not discover the truth. So why did he and hundreds of others employ it over thousands of years of history? Because it was part of a workable system that kept the established powers securely in their place and the peasants safely in theirs.

Curiously, since the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, England has considered the use of torture for the purpose of extracting information or a confession to be illegal. We say 'curiously' because throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, England was as guilty of torturing its subjects as any other country in Europe – they simply never admitted this small fact to themselves. In 1583, Sir Thomas Smith, then serving as Secretary of State under Queen Elizabeth I, wrote:

Torment or question, which is used by the order of the civil law and custom of other countries, to put a malefactor to excessive pain, to make him confess of himself, or of his fellows or accomplices, is not used in England ... [as] the nature of our country is free ... and beatings, servitude, servile torment and punishment it will not abide.

Sir Thomas wrote this – undoubtedly in all honesty – despite the fact that at no time, nor in any place, in history has torture been more commonly in use than in sixteenth-century England. So how did it come to pass that a long string of English monarchs, and their governments, tortured their subjects while steadfastly denying that they did so? Simple. Torture was only allowed when the reigning monarch approved of it and since monarchs were technically above the law, their word superseded any and all written laws. An interesting example of how one man tried to overcome this technical 'glitch' in English law, and at the same time foil his torturer, took place during the reign of King Charles I (1625–49).

In April, 1628, John Felton stabbed the Duke of Buckingham to death, was arrested and, as the English politely put it, 'put to the question'. There was no doubt of Felton's guilt; he committed the act in full view of a large crowd which subdued him after the murder and held him until he could be formally arrested. The question facing the court was whether or not Felton had acted alone or as part of a larger conspiracy. As was usual in such cases, the court assumed that while Felton had acted alone in carrying out the deed, he must have had help in the planning. During his initial questioning by the Earl of Dorset, Felton was threatened with the rack unless he named his accomplices. Felton then told the Earl: 'I do not believe, my Lord, that it is the King's wish for he is a just and gracious prince and will not have his subjects to be tortured against the law.' Then, with more courage than most people could have mustered in his tenuous situation, he added: 'Yet this I must tell you, by the way, that if I be put upon the rack, I will accuse you, my Lord Dorset, and none but yourself as my accomplice.' Obviously Dorset was faced with a terrifying dilemma; confessions under torture were accepted as absolute truth and he had no desire to join Felton in his meeting with the executioner. Still, he approached King Charles who immediately grasped the situation and ordered Felton to be 'tortured to the furthest extent allowed by law'. Since His Majesty had not specifically approved of torture, the matter was referred to a panel of twelve jurists who ruled: 'Felton ought not by the law to be tortured on the rack, for no such punishment is known or allowed by our law'. Felton had pointed out one of the great fallacies of life in Merry Old England and saved himself from a horrible torture but it did not save his life. On 28 November 1628 he was hanged for his crime.

Despite the fact that it was useless in discovering the truth, torture nearly always loosened people's tongues. The side effect this process may have had on a person accused of committing a criminal act, or even a perfectly innocent bystander who might have information concerning some crime, was completely irrelevant. It is results that count. What the ancient and medieval torture masters may have been unaware of is how the psychology behind the process of torture actually works. As we have already seen, one of the first steps in convincing a prospective victim to talk is to show them the instruments with which they will be tormented. This, along with the actual process of torture, and the fact that the presiding authority – be it a civil judge or a clergyman of the Inquisition – always remains one step removed from the application of torture, have become recognised as integral parts of what has become known as the 'Stockholm Syndrome'. Named for a hostage situation which took place in Stockholm, Sweden in 1973, when two bank robbers held four people hostage for a period of six days, the Stockholm Syndrome has identified the process by which an individual's will is broken down to the point whereby the victims come to cooperate with their captors. This process involves two distinct steps, the first of which rearranges the normal mind-set of the prisoner as follows:

The captive comes to believe that escape is impossible and they are made to believe – rightly or wrongly – that their survival depends on the whims of their captors.

The captor gains the confidence of their captive by showing them small, often irrelevant acts of kindness.

The prisoner is kept isolated from all contact with the outside world.

Once the victim has been sufficiently disoriented and realises that their life depends on the good graces of their tormentor, they are subjected to the next level of the interrogation process; the one intended to make them confess or provide whatever information their captors desire.

The victim is subjected to physical (or sometimes sexual) abuse, thus making them feel still more vulnerable.

The captive is deprived of a proper sense of time and place; usually by keeping them in a dark dungeon or cell.

The victim is deprived of privacy. Their guards can walk in on them at any moment for whatever reason.

The prisoner is only fed and given water when, and if, their captor feels like it.

Thus having lost all sense of control over their own life, the prisoner is kept in these conditions and tortured at unpredictable intervals. Always standing off to one side, ready to listen to their 'confession' is the person who controls both the prisoner and the torture masters. This individual is not only the source of all pain, but also the only means through which the pain can be made to stop. As soon as the victim is willing to answer the inquisitor's questions, the torture master will be told to stop inflicting pain.

By slowly building on this process, from capture through imprisonment and being shown the process by which a person's body will be slowly crushed, burned, boiled or torn to shreds, it is often unnecessary to actually subject the victim to torture. Their fear does what it might, theoretically, be impossible for the torture master to do. A personal account of how this process works comes to us from the journal of Fr. John Gerard, a Jesuit priest who was arrested as a subversive in 1605 in connection with Guy Fawkes' failed gunpowder plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament and kill the entire government of England and the royal family of King James I. It was not Gerard's first brush with the law; in 1597 he had been arrested on similar charges during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, so he was already familiar with the official interrogation process. His description of how suspects were first encouraged to tell what they knew is one of the best surviving first-hand accounts of the torture chamber in the Tower of London during that era.


Excerpted from The Big Book of Pain by Mark P. Donnelly, Daniel Diehl. Copyright © 2012 Mark P. Donnelly & Daniel Diehl. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements vi

Authors' Introduction vii

Section I Torture: Motives, Methods and Madness 1

Section II A History of Torture 25

1 Torture in the Ancient and Classical World 27

2 Torture in the Medieval World 47

3 Torture in the Age of Reason 95

4 Reforms of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries 125

5 Torture Around the World 141

Section III An Encyclopedia of Torture 167

1 Torture by Burning and Branding 169

2 Torture by Crushing, Smashing or Breaking 175

3 Torture by Cutting, Piercing, Tearing and Impaling 181

4 Torture by Restraint 191

5 Torture by Public Display, Shame and Humiliation 195

6 Torture by Stretching & Suspension 203

7 Torture by Water 209

8 Torture by Whipping 213

Section IV Conclusion: What Does it All Mean? 223

Bibliography 237

Index 241

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