Before the Saw franchise, torture was considered a legitimate way to punish, extract confessions and (eventually) execute a human being. Some methods of torture were considerably crueler than others, with certain confessions not considered genuine when so-called “light torture” methods were used.
Different types of torture were used depending on the victim’s crime, gender, and social status. In no particular order, Wicked Horror takes a look at twenty of the most terrifying torture devices ever recorded.
Neck torture was not made to execute but instead envisioned for victims of small crimes. Humiliating and painful, the victim would be placed into a neck device, usually made of metal, which prevented him from adjusting into a comfortable position. The punishment was to be unable to lie down, eat, or lower one’s head for days.
THE BRAZEN BULL
Also known as the Sicilian bull or bronze bull, the brazen bull was a hollow brass statue crafted to resemble a real bull, which was designed in ancient Greece. The victims were placed inside and a fire would be set underneath. He would then be slowly roasted to death, all the while screaming in agonizing pain. The bull was purposely designed to amplify these screams and make them sound like the bellowing of a bull. This effect created additional amusement for the audience, and served the added benefit of distancing them from the brutality of the torture, since they couldn’t directly see the victim.
THE BREAST RIPPER
Specifically designed for women, the breast ripper, also known as the spider, is a claw-like device made from iron with spikes “or claws” on the end. Used to cause major blood loss, the claws, often heated, would be placed on the exposed breasts as the spikes penetrated beneath the skin. It would then be pulled or jerked around, causing shredding and large chunks of flesh to come off with it. It was mainly used on women accused of adultery, abortion or other perceived crimes.
One of the most known forms of executions, the guillotine was originally developed as a more humane method of execution and best known for its usage throughout France, in particular during the French Revolution. The device consists of a tall, upright frame in which a weighted and angled blade is raised to the top and suspended. The condemned person is secured with stocks at the bottom of the frame, positioning the neck directly below the blade. The blade is then released, to fall swiftly and forcefully, decapitating the victim with a single pass so that the head falls neatly into a basket below.
THE SPANISH DONKEY
The Spanish donkey, similar to the Judas cradle and closely related to impalement, was a particularly gruesome punishment. The victim is put astride a donkey-like apparatus, which is actually a vertical wooden board with a sharp V-wedge on top. Weights would often be added to the victim’s feet until finally the wedge sliced through the victim’s body. To add to the overall humiliation, the victim was usually naked and the device was rarely washed, so if the torture did not miraculously kill, the infection contracted by it would.
THE IRON MAIDEN
The Iron Maiden is one device whose usage we are still unsure of, particularly considering it wasn’t even invented until the 19th century. The Maiden is an upright sarcophagus with spikes on the inner surfaces. The victim would be forced inside and the door would shut, driving the spikes into the body. The spikes were supposedly short so the victim would be unable to move without being spiked. They were also positioned so that the victim wouldn’t die quickly, but would bleed out over time. To add to the abject horror of it all, two spikes were positioned specifically to penetrate the eyes.
THE LEAD SPRINKLER
Looking like an innocent sprinkler, the lead sprinkler was usually filled with molten lead, tar, boiling water or boiling oil. It was primarily used to torture victims by dripping the contents onto their stomach and other body parts. A common way to execute a victim was by pouring molten silver on his eyes. This caused a great deal of pain and eventually led to death.
THE HERETICS FORK
The heretics fork consisted of a length of metal with two opposed “forks” on either end along with an attached strap. The device was placed between the breast bone and throat just under the chin and secured with the strap around the neck. The victim would be somehow suspended so that they could not sleep. If their head dropped, the prongs would pierce the throat and chest. This very simple instrument created long periods of sleep deprivation. People were awake for days, which made confessions more likely.
Though there are many variations of this torture device, the thumbscrew or “pilliwinks” all function the same. Its primary intention was to extract confessions from victims. It was first used in medieval times. The device would slowly crush not only the fingers and toes, but larger devices were also used to crush knees and elbows. There is also the head crusher, which could do the same for, well, heads.
The most favored method of execution by Vlad the Impaler in 15th century Romania. The victim would be forced to sit on a sharp and thick pole. The pole was raised upright and the victim was left to slide down it with their own weight. It could take the victim up to three days to die using this method and it has been said the Vlad did this to 20,000 people all while enjoying a meal.
Lingchi, also known as slow-slicing or “death by a thousand cuts” is a slow process and a form or torture and execution used in China around the 10th Century until it was banned in 1905. Reserved for the most severe of crimes, slices of flesh were systematically removed from the body of the condemned. The executioner’s task was to make as many cuts as possible without killing the victim.
THE BREAKING WHEEL
Also known as the Catherine wheel, this torture device was used to torture and kill prisoners for public executions. The victim’s limbs were tied to the spokes of a large wooden wheel, which would then be slowly revolved as the torturer simultaneously smashed the victim’s limbs with an iron hammer to break them in numerous places. As the bones were broken, the victim would be left on the wheel to die or could be place on top of a tall pole so the birds could feed on their flesh while still alive.
Known as “death by sawing”, saw torture was a method of execution reportedly used in several different parts of the world. This method sees the victim hung upside down, so blood rushes to their head and keeps them conscious during the long, tortuous process. The torturer would then saw through the victims’ bodies until they were completely cut in half. Most were cut up only in their abdomen to prolong their agony.
The rack is a torture device consisting of a rectangular, usually wooden frame, slightly raised from the ground, with a roller at one or both ends. The victim’s ankles are fastened to one roller and their wrists to the other. Designed to dislocate every joint of the victim’s body, it was believed to be the most painful form of medieval torture (quite a feat). Once the victim was bound, the torturer would proceed to turn the handle. Eventually, the victim would be stretched till his limbs where dislocated. The torturers, however, would usually continue to turn the wheel until the limbs where completely torn off the victim’s body.
THE COFFIN TORTURE
Coffin Torture was a preferred torture method throughout the Middle Ages. The victim was placed inside a metal cage roughly the size of a human body, hence the name, in order to make him more uncomfortable. Very serious crimes, such as blasphemy, were punished by death inside the coffin where the victim was to be kept inside under the sun until crows began to feed on them.
Similar to “the tub” but known as The Boats, or “Scaphism,” from the Greek skaphe, “hollowed out” is a means of slow, agonizing execution, devised by the Persians. The victim would be smeared on their skin with a large quantity of milk and honey, with some accounts suggesting that it would especially be applied around the genitals, anus, eyes, nose and mouth. They would then be securely sandwiched between two boats, or hollowed out trees, with their head and legs protruding. The entire contraption would then be left in the sun or floated on a stagnant pond, attracting insects which would eat and breed within the victim’s exposed flesh, which—pursuant to interruption of the blood supply by burrowing insects—became increasingly gangrenous. Death, when it eventually occurred, was probably due to a combination of dehydration, starvation, and septic shock. Delirium would typically set in after a few days.
THE PEAR OF ANGUISH
The pear of anguish, also known as the choke pear, was used as a way to torture women who had a miscarriage, along with liars, blasphemers and homosexuals. The device featured four metal leaves that slowly separated from each other as the torturer turned the screw at the top. The torturer could use it to tear the skin, or expand it to its maximal size to mutilate the victim. It rarely caused death, but was often followed by other torture methods. There is no contemporary first-hand account of these devices or their use and they have been disputed as implausible.
Featured within a variety of movies and TV shows, rat torture was popular in medieval torture and throughout ancient China. A pot of hungry rats would be strapped to the victim’s belly and heated. As the rats grew distressed, in order to escape they would burrow through the victim’s body with fatal results.
HANGED, DRAWN AND QUARTERED
The penalty for high treason in England during medieval times was to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Convicts were fastened to a wooden panel, and drawn by horse to the place of execution. They would then be hanged almost to the point of death (hanged), followed by disembowelment and castration where the entrails and genitalia are burned in front of the victim (drawn). The victim would then be chopped into four separate parts and beheaded (quartered).
THE IRON CHAIR
The Iron Chair, also known as the Chinese torture chair or just simply the torture chair, was a device with several different variations depending on its origin and use throughout history. An intimidating torture device that was made of iron and layered with 500 up to 1,500 spikes on every surface with tight straps to restrain its victim, it often also contained spaces for heating elements beneath the seat. It was frequently used to scare people into giving confessions by forcing the victim to watch someone else be tortured with this instrument. The time of death greatly varied ranging from a few hours to a day or more. No spike penetrated any vital organ and the wound was closed by the spike itself which delayed blood loss greatly.