Punishment: Torture and Ordeal


Before the opinions of philanthropists held sway, torture was a necessary part of most trials. The witch hunt trials were no exception. The following punishments, tortures, and ordeals were meted out to many accused witches as part of secular or ecclesiastical court methods.

The following is a very incomplete catalog of such tortures, ordeals, and punishments:
Cleansing the Soul The Pear
The Ducking Stool Pressing
The Garrote The Rack
Impalement The Scold’s Bridle or the Brank
The Iron Maiden of Nuremberg Squassation
Knotting Strangulation
Mastectomy The Strappado
Ordeal By Fire Tormentum Insomniae
Ordeal By Water The Wheel
The Oven at Neisses

Cleansing the Soul

It was often believed, in Catholic countries, that the soul of a heretic or witch was corrupted, filthy, and bedeviled by all manner of foulness. To cleanse them before punishment, sometimes the victims were forced to consume heated or scalding consumables (scalding water, fire brands, coals, even soaps). The modern day 'washing the mouth out with soap' is a direct descendant.

The Ducking Stool

The ducking stool was a punishment which most often befell women prisoners. Grossly unpleasant, and often fatal, the woman would be strapped into a seat which hung from the end of a free-moving arm. The seat and the woman would be dunked into the local river or pond. It was up to the operators of the stool as to how long she remained under the water. Many elderly women were killed by the shock of the cold water.

The ducking stool was used in America for witches, and in Britain for the punishment of minor offenders, prostitutes, and scolds.

The Garrote

Typically, when a person was burned at the stake, they were first mercifully dispatched with the garrote. Either the executioner would use a rope, or he would use another instrument.

At first, the garrote was simply hanging by another name. However, during Medieval times, executioners began to refine the use of rope until it became as feared and as vile as any punishment of that dark era. European executioners first used the garrote to end the suffering of men broken on the wheel, but by the turn of the 18th century the seed of an idea involving slow strangulation was planted in the minds of Europe's law-makers.

At first, garrotes were nothing more than an upright post with a hole bored through. The victim would stand or sit on a seat in front of the post, and a rope was looped around his or her neck. The ends of the cords were fed through the hole in the post. The executioner would pull on both ends of the cord, slowly strangling the victim.

The modified design we see here drove a spike into the back of the victim's neck, parting the vertebrae as it strangled. Sometimes a knife was used instead of the spike.


This was one of the most revolting punishments ever devised by the human imagination and even in those days was hardly ever used. The penal code of Charles V did not make provision for it. In the manual Punishments of Life and Limb, we find the following: 'In barbaric regions, particularly in Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, and Salee, where inveterate pirates dwell, if a man is thought guilty of treason, he is impaled. This is done by inserting a sharply pointed stake into his posterior, which then is forced through his body, emerging through the head, sometimes through the throat. This stake is then inverted and planted in the ground, so that the wretched victims, as we may well imagine, live on in agony for some days before expiring. It is said that nowadays not so much trouble is taken with impalement as once the case, but such criminals simply have a short spit thrust into their anus and are left to crawl thus upon the earth until they die.' We may well imagine that such a barbaric punishment was calculated to arouse sympathy for the tormented victim among the spectators of an execution. This was no doubt the reason it was not generally employed.

The Iron Maiden of Nuremberg

"The maiden was a tomb-sized container with folding doors. Upon the inside of the door were vicious spikes. As the prisoner was shut inside he would be pierced along the length of his body. The talons were not designed to kill outright, however, and the pinioned prisoner was left to slowly perish in the utmost pain."

The following is a description of an iron maiden from Andrei Codrescu's novel, The Blood Countess:
Sharing the room with the rack wheel at the Thurzo was an iron maiden, a metal statue of a woman. This was a great example of this sort of object, a unique construction from one of Germany's greatest clock makers. She had breasts, arms, legs, and two faces, one in front and one in back. The front face was round, with oval eyes that peered down with a look that could be alternately filled with pity and enigmatically amused. The small mouth was finely etched with hair-thin wrinkles. The eyes in the back face were closed, but the mouth was slightly open, as if she was about to whisper something. Long fine blond hair covered her head and came down in two braids over her ears, past her waist. She was dressed in a ballooning dress of worn velvet folded thousands of times, spilling over her feet. Her bare breasts were round and shiny from the generations of furtive schoolchildren who had rubbed them on visits to the museum. Two strands of pearls and a gold necklace with a black stone on the end were draped about her curved swan's neck. She opened from the front along a seam between her breasts that was invisible when she was closed. The trigger that caused her to open was hidden in the black stone at the end of the gold chain. When the stone was pressed, her hands moved to embrace the person who had set off the hidden mechanism. When she opened, she revealed a hollow interior with sharp iron spikes. Her arms pulled in her victim, and then she closed up, piercing her prey.


This form of torture was specific to women. It involved tying a stick into a woman's hair and twisting it tighter and tighter. When the Inquisitor no longer had the strength to twist, he would hold the victim's head or fasten it in a holding device until burly men could take over the chore.

Not only would the hair be ripped out, but the scalp would often be torn open, exposing the skull-cap.

As expected, only women with thick or long hair were chosen for this torture. Reports exist of this torture being used in Germany against Gypsies (1740s-1750s) and in Russia as late as the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917-1918.


Some tortures were devised with women specifically in mind. Mastectomy was one of them. Although both men and women could have the skin torn off them with red- or white-hot pincers, mastectomy was a distinctly feminine device. One torture manual recommended particular attention be paid to female breasts as they are extremely sensitive, on account of the refinement of the veins.

Mastectomy first became popular in 1599 Bavaria. The most famous case is that of Anna Pappenheimer. After already being tortured with the strappado, a public demonstration was in order. Anna was stripped, her flesh torn off with red-hot pincers, and her breasts cut off. As if this was not enough, the bloody breasts were forced into her mouth and then into the mouths of her two grown sons. This fiendish punishment was thus used as a particular torment to women. But it was more than physical torture: by rubbing the severed breasts around her sons' lips, the executioner made a hideous parody of her role as mother and nurse, imposing an extreme humiliation upon her.

Ordeal by Fire

Before an ordeal by fire began, all involved would take part in a religious rite. This rite lasted three days and the accused underwent blessings, exorcisms, prayers, fasting, and the taking of sacraments.

Then it was time to be exposed to the fire. Sometimes that meant carrying a lump of hot iron for a set distance, something in the order of three yards (three meters). For petty offenses the lump of iron weighed about a pound (450 grams) but for more serious charges it could be as much as three pounds (1.5 kilos).

The other type of ordeal by fire was walking blindfolded across hot coals. After the ordeal, the burn wound was wrapped up. After three days, the injury was inspected to divine innocence or guilt. If there was an open sore, the defendant was guilty; if the wound was healed over, the defendant was innocent.

Needless to say, an "innocent" declaration could be arranged, depending on the power of the bribe and "the corruption of the officiating clerics. For a fee the irons and the coals would be sufficiently cool to tolerate."

Ordeal by Water

In this type of ordeal, the water was symbolic of the flood of the Old Testament, washing sin from the face of the earth, allowing only the righteous minority to survive. As in the ordeal by fire, a three-day religious rite was held beforehand. Afterwords, if the ordeal was carried out by the book, the accused faced plunging their hand into boiling water, to the depth of the wrist. More serious offenses demanded that the arm was submerged up to the elbow. Once again, the burn was bandaged for three days before the fateful examination.

There also existed an ordeal by cold water. In this, the accused was tied at feet and hands and was lowered into cold water by a rope. This rope was tied around the defendant's waist and had a knot a particular distance from the torso. If both knot and accused dipped beneath the surface of the water, the accused was proven innocent. If the knot was dry, the defendant was guilty.

Since it was common knowledge that ordeal results could be fixed, Papal authorities banned them in 1215. The ban was slowly enforced throughout Europe in the 13th century.

The Oven at Neisse

The oven at Neisse, in Silesia, was a forerunner of the ovens used in Nazi concentration camps. The difference was that in the concentration camps, the victims were killed before they were roasted. In mid-17th-century Silesia, more than two thousand girls and women were cooked during a nine-year period. This tally includes two babies.

The Pear

The pear had more than one implementation, with the most popular being the oral use. The pear was also used in the rectum and in the vagina.

The pear was expanded by force of the screw to the maximum aperture of their segments. The inside of the cavity in question is irremediably mutilated, nearly always fatally so. The pointed prongs at the end of the segments serve better to rip into the throat or the intestines.

When applied vaginally, the spikes wreaked havoc on the poor woman's cervix. The vaginal use was devised for women who had been found guilty of sexual union with the Devil or his familiars. Ken Russell's film The Devils shows a few implements similar to the vaginal pear in use.


Pressing, also known as peine forte et dure, was both a death sentence and a means of drawing out confessions. Adopted as a judicial measure during the 14th century, pressing reached its peak during the reign of Henry IV. In Britain, pressing was not abolished until 1772.

Margaret the martyr was one unfortunate victim of pressing. She was a devout Catholic in a time when being a Catholic was as dangerous as being accused of being a witch.

On 25 March 1586 Margaret, wearing a flimsy gown, was taken to die at the Tollbooth, six yards outside the prison. She and the womenfolk accompanying her begged that she should die in the white gown she had bought into prison for the purpose. The request was turned down. She laid down on the ground, covered her face with a handkerchief, her privacy only protected by the gown laid across her. Both hands were tied to posts to make her body the shape of a cross. A stone the size of a fist was put under her back.

She once again refused to change her views and the first weight was laid on her. By nine o'clock that morning, about eight hundred-weight (0.4 tonnes) was in place. The stones crushed her ribs which pierced the skin. Within 15 minutes she was dead.

The Rack

This was a very simple and popular means of extricating confession. The victim was tied across a board by his ankles and wrists. Rollers at either end of the board were turned, pulling the body in opposite directions until dislocation of every joint occurred.

The Scold's Bridle or the Brank

First used in late medieval Scotland, the scold's bridle, witch's bridle, or brank, as it was sometimes called, had many different appearances. Fundamentally, it was the same: a metal cage for the head with a built-in gag. Some branks were very cruel pieces of work, with spikes which pierced the tongue. Some simply had a bell built in, a device which would further humiliate the "scold" who wore it through the streets.

In the streets, the scold would be subjected to the taunting and jeering of the crowds which gathered to witness the spectacle. In Ipswich the scold was drawn around the town on a cart in the 'gagging' chair or 'tewe,' as it was known.

A scold was defined as: "A troublesome and angry woman who by brawling and wrangling amongst her neighbors breaks the public peace, increases discord and becomes a public nuisance to the neighborhood." It remains unclear why men should not be pulled up on a similar charge. It was up to the judges to pronounce on whether a woman was indeed a scold. Frequently, it was a disgruntled husband bringing his wife to court.

Town jailers kept the brank and were on call to apply it. In 1858 William Andrews gave a talk before the Architectural, Archaeological and Historic Society of Chester which gave further clues to its use.

In the old-fashioned, half-timbered houses in the borough, there was generally fixed on one side of the large open fireplaces a hook so that when a man's wife indulged her scolding propensities, the husband sent for the town gaoler to bring the bridle and had her bridled and chained to the hook until she promised to behave herself better for the future. This was presumably carried out as a favor to the husband, to spare him the trouble of appearing in court.

Branks were first seen in Edinburgh in 1567, and in Glasgow in 1574. They appeared as far south as Surrey by 1632. The Surrey bridle was inscribed: "Chester presents Walton with a bridle, To curb women's tongues that talk too idle."


Squassation was a form of torture used in conjunction with the strappado. It was the process of hanging weights from the victim as they were being tortured with the strappado. Weights ranged from fifty to five hundred pounds. The greater the weight, the more bones would be dislocated.

The Strappado

The strappado was one of the easiest and, therefore, one of the most common torture techniques. All one needed to set up a strappado was a sturdy rafter and a rope. The victim's wrists were bound behind her/his back, and the rope would be tossed over the beam. Then, the victim was repeatedly dropped from a height, so that her/his arms and shoulders would dislocate.


Strangulation was used either on its own or as the merciful partner to burning at the stake. Because being burnt alive evoked sympathy from the crowds, victims were generally dispatched of before being consigned to the flames.

Tormentum Insomniae

In England, torture was not allowed against witches because witches were not believed to be conspirators. Tormentum insomniae is torture by sleeplessness, and was allowable perhaps because it did not seem to be a real torture. Nonetheless, Matthew Hopkins used it for his advantage in Essex. In one instance, John Lowe, 70-year-old vicar of Brandeston, was "swum in the moat," kept awake for three days and nights, and then forced to walk without rest until his feet were blistered. Denied benefit of clergy, Lowe recited his own burial service on the way to the gallows.

The Wheel

In France and Germany the wheel was a popular form of capital punishment, not least because it was pure agony for the victim. In concept it was similar to a crucifixion. The prisoner was brought to the scaffold where his cloak was ripped off, to reveal nothing but a pair of brief linen pants.

The prisoner was then tied to the side of the wheel lying on the scaffold, stretched across its spokes and hub. Now the executioner advanced wielding an iron bar. His brief was to shatter the limbs one by one with the hefty weapon. Each arm and leg was broken in several places before the job was done. A skilled executioner would smash the bones of his victim without piercing the skin. The wheel was then propped upright so onlookers could appreciate the dying gasps of the victim.

At first the severity of the injuries was thought to be sufficient to bring about death. Later the executioner ended the torture by one or two blows to the chest. The wheel could be refined, too, to include other torturous aspects. A suspended wheel might be turned over a fire or a bed of nails. In any event it meant unbearable suffering for the victim.

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