Crime and punishment have been a necessary part of human society since we first began living in groups, and as long as laws have been in effect, there have been punishments to match. Whether torture was used as a form of punishment for crimes, real or imagined, or in an attempt to extract information, it’s truly frightening to see the creative cruelty spawned by the human mind. Here’s an exploration of 16 of the most cringe-worthy torture techniques and devices to ever come out of the haunted halls of human history.
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In turns humiliating and painful, neck torture is an endurance test. While hooked into a neck device you’re unable to adjust into a comfortable position, while the very visible punishment announces your shame to the world. The cruelty of neck torture lies almost entirely within its side effects: Being unable to lie down, or lean back, or even lower your head without pain, prevents you from sleeping, or even eating, comfortably. This is a punishment that takes all your focus, and doesn’t let you forget for a moment what you did to get into this position.
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The Iron Maiden has an embrace anyone would want to avoid. Once inside the Iron Maiden’s conical frame, you’re unable to move because of dozens of steel points stabbing from every direction. An interrogator screams questions at you through a small hole, while poking you with jagged edges, or just leaving you for hours to stew in your thoughts. Just imagine the agony of standing stock still, with legs cramping and the heat of such an enclosed space drenching you in sweat. The sweet release of leaning back to take pressure off your aching legs wouldn’t be sweet for long.
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Chastity belts were used as a preventative measure, to protect a Lord’s assets from being “tampered” with while he was out of town. It’s pretty clear that any attempt at infidelity would be a painful and futile exercise. Chastity belts are not a sign of great trust, and the silver lining of wearing this uncomfortable and embarrassing apparatus? Avoiding a worse punishment because of an imagined infidelity.
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Crucifixion is one of the most widely known forms of torture – a visible execution that was incredibly painful, and slow. One was nailed to a post, typically with limbs spread wide, and left in the elements to die. While being in a cage was not as immediately physically painful, the other effects were just as difficult. The nights would be cold, the days scorching hot, and chances are you wouldn’t be receiving any food or water. Cramped and huddled, you’d have to deal with the jeers of an uncaring populace every hour of every day.
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Don’t let the decorative design of the “agonizing pear” fool you – it was incredibly painful. This device was inserted into uncomfortable places on the human body and slowly expanded to a terrible degree. An opposite tact was pursued by other punishments, which would target a victim’s sense of shame and social embarrassment rather than destroy their will by pain alone. A heavy iron mask would do just the trick, as it would be both uncomfortable and unseemly, but also impossible to hide. The masks were crafted to look goofy and invite mockery, letting the perceptions of others do all the work for the torturer.
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Ropes are easy to make, easy to find, and easy to use to inflict terrible retribution on others. A victim could be tied to a tree and left at the mercy of the populace, hanged at the gallows as a form of entertainment, or dealt with in an even more horrifying fashion… some victims would have a rope attached tightly to each limb, with the other ends attached to horses. When those four horses were spurred to a gallop in different directions, the victim would be torn instantly asunder.
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This is arguably the most creative of the tortures in this list, and it involves an animal that many consider torture enough in its own right: rats. A cage with one open side was strapped against a victim’s body, and filled with large rodents. A heating element would be set against one side of the cage and rodent instincts would kick into action. In an attempt to escape the intense heat, the rodents would burrow into the victim, with fatal results.
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Saws were common farming tools and could easily be put to use as an implement of torture. When something designed to slice through a thick tree is used against fragile human skin and bone, there’s no contest. Death would come quickly, but it would be about as unpleasant as possible. This is not the way you’d want to go.
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The stocks are a favored prop in theme parks and historical areas, but they were not a treat for people placed in them. Stocks can constrain you by your head, hands, and legs, or something as simple as your thumbs. The physical uncomfortableness was definitely a factor, but being left at the mercy of the population was the true punishment. In a land without television, throwing stones and rotten fruit at people stuck in the stocks was one of the most popular forms of entertainment.
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The rack was typically an interrogation tool, and anyone would spill their guts to escape its pull. Both hands and feet would be tied to opposite ends, and the rack would slowly be spun to pull you in different directions. The addition of spikes on the rollers could be an added threat, but all in all, the stretching would be painful enough on its own.
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Thumbscrews are elegant in their simplicity, and incredibly effective. Screws would be tightened around a steel apparatus, squeezing one’s thumbs with increasing, and unbearable, pressure. The torturer doesn’t have the guilt of blood on their hands, but the victim will attest that thumbscrews are no walk in the park – especially if spikes are added to the mix.
Skull and limb crushers are thumbscrews kicked up several notches. Basically vices with spikes, they would be shaped to conform to the targeted limb. Rows of sharp points would be ratcheted to higher and higher pressure, until something had to give… and bone breaks before steel.
Torture chairs are a decoratively intimidating addition to any dungeon. The chairs were layered with spikes on every surface, and had tight straps for restraint. Most chairs were made of iron and would contain spaces for heating elements beneath the seat. These chairs were an effective beginning to an all night torture session.