Updated: Apr 9
Growing up in 21st century America, I sometimes take my life and comfort for granted. If I’d been born just a few hundred years ago or a few thousand miles away, my chances of being subject to legally sanctioned torture would be much higher. Torture has been used throughout the world for most of history. Some of these methods are intended to kill the victim; others don’t even cause permanent damage. Some are relics of the past; others are still used today.
I initially intended to do 10 of these, but apparently I can’t count, so my lucky viewers get a bonus addition to the list. Here are 11 torture methods from around the world.
1. cold cell torture
At first, this doesn’t sound so bad. Just being put in the cold? No problem. But I’m from Mississippi, and any time the temperature dips below 60, I’m miserable. And the reality of cold cell torture is much worse.
A ‘cold cell’ is a holding cell with special venting that catches and blows frigid cold air from an air conditioner, usually between 40 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Cold cells are mostly used by government agencies like the FBI and CIA and reserved for misbehaving prisoners. These prisoners are normally placed in cells for an hour or two, but can sometimes be left there for weeks. Cold cells aren't intended to kill or even cause permanent damage, but some prisoners placed there have died of hypothermia.
The origins of cold cells can be traced back to the 1920’s, when Chicago police would use freezing water baths in an attempt to extract confessions. The first recorded case of actual ‘cold cell torture’ was in 1961 right here in Mississippi. Yikes.
The CIA officially authorized "harsh interrogation techniques” back in 2002 and seemingly continue to use cold cell torture to this day. However, there does seem to be a lot of outrage over these techniques, so maybe one day they’ll be reformed or even done away with completely.
2. buried alive
Even though being accidentally buried alive is rare today, it’s always been one of my biggest fears. I’m reallyclaustrophobic, so the thought of being locked in such a small space somewhere, most likely in a place where nobody can hear me crying for help, doesn’t sit well with me. In fact, let it go on record now that when I die, I want to be buried with my cell phone so, if I wasburied alive, I can call for help.
But premature burial isn’t always an accident — it was used as a form of capital punishment for centuries. One of the most famous cases was vestal virgins in ancient Rome. These six priestesses represented daughters of the royal house and were charged with tending the sacred fire of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth. They were usually chosen for this service by a chief priest between the ages of 6 and 10 and served for 30 years, during which time they obviously had to remain virgins. But if they broke this vow, they were buried alive in a small cave as punishment. This particular punishment was chosen because the blood of a vestal virgin couldn’t be spilled.
But vestal virgins weren’t the only people in ancient Rome who endured this fate. Premature burial was also used as capital punishment for people who raped virgins. (I’ve also read in some places that rapists of non virgins were beheaded as punishment, but can’t confirm this 100 %. )
This punishment also extended to other parts of the world. In medieval times it was used in Germany for women who committed infanticide and in Italy for murderers — who were usually buried headfirst in the dirt with their feet above the ground, which freaks me out even more. Female thieves in 13th century Denmark were also buried alive, but male thieves were beheaded. Premature burial was also used in feudal Russia for women who killed their husbands.
Today, premature burial seems to be an unpopular method of capital punishment, and is typically used by drug lords. However, there was one case from Bolivia in 2013 where a woman was raped and murdered. When the prime suspect in this crime attended her funeral, a mob of more than 200 people seized him, tied him up and buried him alive in the woman’s grave.
3. rat torture
When I first got interested in dark things like torture devices, most people had never heard of rat torture. It’s become more well known in recent years, but I’ll get to that in a second.
This particular method of torture was sometimes used to extract confessions, but you’d have to stop it pretty quickly to prevent the victim from dying. An executioner would put rats in a bucket and place the bucket on the victim’s stomach. Then a fire would be lit under the bucket and, with nowhere else to go, the rats would claw their way through the victim’s stomach.
Fortunately, there aren’t many instances of rat torture being used in real life, but there are quite a few in fiction. Rat torture was famously used in George Orwell’s classic novel 1984 as well as in James Joyce's Finnegan’s Wake. It was also featured on one of my favorite shows, Bones.
But perhaps the most famous fictional case of rat torture — and the one that seemed to make it more well known to the public — was its inclusion on another one of my favorite shows, Game of Thrones. I’m just glad Arya, Gendry and Hot Pie were able to escape Harrenhal before enduring this gruesome fate.
You may have heard the phrase “death by a thousand cuts” which usually refers to a person or group of people who are doing something destructive that they don’t realize is harmful but will slowly kill them. Lingchi is a Chinese method of capital punishment that is often called by this phrase, but the effects are much more noticeable much more quickly.
You can probably guess what lingchi is like from that phrase. The victim was tied to a post and pieces of their skin, sometimes even entire limbs, were slowly removed. The process could last for days before the victim was finally decapitated, their heads often publicly displayed afterwards.
Lingchi was usually reserved for people found guilty of treason. Its origins can be traced back to the Tang Dynasty, which lasted roughly from 618 to 906 AD. The practice we know as lingchi today was officially made law in the 13th or 14th century, and continued until it was banned in 1905.
5. flying carpet
At first, this name might sound like something out of Aladdin, but it’s actually much darker. And, unlike lingchi or some other methods on this list, it’s probably still being used today.
This “flying carpet” is actually a board that prisoners are tied to by their hands and legs. Some sources say they’re place on the board on their backs, some on their stomachs. Regardless, their bodies are purposefully contorted in to a ‘V’ shape, often leading to serious, sometimes permanent spinal injuries. Prisoners can be left on the board for hours and are often beaten or electrocuted while there.
Unlike other torture methods, the flying carpet isn’t used on criminals, but prisoners of ISIS. This well known extremist group adopted the flying carpet and other torture methods from the regime of Bashar al-Assad, who has served as president of Syria since 2000. ISIS lost its last foothold in Syria earlier this year, and it’s nowhere near as prominent today as it used to be, but attacks still continue.
6. the pendulum
The pendulum is another torture method that was often used to extract confessions, but it seems like it would have been pretty easy to kill someone with this — and it often was used for capital punishment. The victim was tied to a table, right underneath a pendulum attached to the roof. The pendulum would then start swinging from the roof, but gradually lower closer and closer to the victim’s body. The victim would have no choice but to watch helplessly as the pendulum gradually reached their body, then slowly continued to sink and slice the victim’s skin and internal organs until they finally died.
However, many historians believe the pendulum wasn’t a real thing. They credit its invention to Edgar Allan Poe’s famous short story The Pit and the Pendulum. The story follows a prisoner in the Spanish Inquisition who has been sentenced to death and scheduled to die by the pendulum. We follow him through this terror until — spoiler alert — he’s saved at the last minute. A similar trap was also used in the fifth Saw movie, aptly named Saw V.
7. the head crusher
Have you ever had a headache? Like, one of those really bad headaches where you feel like your head is literally about to explode? This is worse. Much worse.
The head crusher is pretty much what it sounds like. The victim’s chin was placed on the bottom of the device and their head inside a bowl at the top. Screws on top would be used to lower the bowl, resulting in the breaking of facial bones, teeth being crushed and eyes being squeezed out of their sockets. The head crusher was used in the Spanish Inquisition, often to extract confessions and sometimes as capital punishment. But death could take hours, and those who survived could still have permanent damage to their face and skull as well as brain damage.
As I was researching for this post, impalement was probably the method that grossed me out the most. It’s been used since ancient times and is thought to have continued all the way up through the 15th century.
This is another method that’s pretty much what it sounds like. Victims were…well, impaled on a sharp stick or pole that was sometimes greased with oil. Occasionally the pole was simply stabbed through the victim’s chest, but it was normally slid in through, erm, lower orifices. In the latter case, the victim was then lifted up onto the pole, leaving the stick to pierce through some other part of their body. (I have seen pictures and read stories where the pole was strategically moved through the victim’s body until it purposefully came out their mouth, but I’m not sure how common this was.) Once lifted onto the pole, the victim was left to bleed out. Women usually died pretty quickly due to blood loss, while men could sometimes last days before succumbing to their injuries. Impalement is so sexist, isn’t it?
Impalement was used in ancient times in the Mediterranean, Egypt and the Middle East. It was normally reserved for suspected witches, child molesters, and women who committed abortion or infanticide. It was also used as a method of public execution in the Middle Ages.
Perhaps the most famous name associated with this punishment was a 15th century Romanian ruler appropriately nicknamed Vlad the Impaler. Vlad was known for his brutality and implemented all sorts of torture methods for his political opponents, but impalement was his favorite. He killed hundreds of thousands of people in this manner, and was said to enjoy eating dinner while watching his victims die and even to dunk his bread in his victims’ blood. We have a local Italian restaurant that gives you olive oil to dunk your bread in…maybe Vlad should have tried that instead? Seems a lot more appetizing.
Crucifixion dates all the way back to the 4th century BC and is a method of execution designed to cause as much pain for the victim as possible. The process begins early, with the victim being forced to carry a crossbeam to the place where they’d meet their final fate. In Roman times, they were often beaten beforehand with whips that had sharp objects interweaved into the threads. Once they reach the crucifixion site, which already had a pole in the ground, they were stripped naked and their arms were either tied or nailed to the crossbeam before the crossbeam was attached to the pole, 9 to 12 feet above the ground. Then their feet were nailed to the pole, and a notice with their name and crime was placed over their body. Death could take up to a week and was usually thought to be caused by things like heart failure, shock or asphyxiation. Victims’ legs were sometimes broken with iron clubs to hasten their death.
Crucifixion was usually reserved for perpetrators of political or religious rebellion, or for slaves or others who had no civil rights. The most famous victim of crucifixion was, of course, Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified in Jerusalem around 30 AD after being accused of treason and blasphemy. However, crucifixion is hardly a thing of the past. It’s still used in the Middle East — one 2014 report details ISIS members crucifying people and tweeting out the pictures. (WARNING: This source includes graphic images.)
10. punishment of the sack
I used to have a cat when I was younger, and anyone with cats knows that they tend to scratch. A lot. Now imagine being trapped in a confined space with a cat and several other animals — and then being thrown into the river. That’s what happens in our next torture method.
Also called ‘poena cullei,’ victims of the punishment of the sack were sewn into a sack with several animals, usually a dog, money, snake and rooster (though a cat was sometimes substituted for monkeys since monkeys were expensive). The bag was then tossed into a body of water,leaving the victim to die either by drowning or mauling by the animals.
Punishment of the sack was normally used for criminals who’d murdered a parent or other close relative, though it was sometimes used as punishment for treason or insulting a monarch. It was most famously used in ancient Rome, but also implemented throughout the Middle Ages in the Netherlands, France, Spain, Italy and German speaking countries. The last recorded instance I could find was in 18th century Germany.
11. the brazen bull
Like a few others on this list, there’s debate as to whether this method of execution actually existed. But if it is made up, you have to give the storytellers major points for creativity.
The brazen bull was a hollow brass bull with a trap door at the top, on what would be the bull’s back, and tubes in what would be the bull’s throat. Victims were locked inside and a fire was lit underneath. As the bull heated up, the victim would naturally start to panic, and tended to grab the tubes inside the bull for air and relief. The tubes led all the way outside to the bull’s mouth, converting the victim’s screams into morbid musical notes. It would only take about ten minutes for the victims’ nerves to be burnt to the point where they no longer felt pain. But in that period, the agony would be extreme.
The brazen bull was thought to be invented by Perillos of Athens in the 500’s BC. As the story goes, Perillos showed the bull to Phalaris, the tyrant ruler of Acragas in modern day Sicily. Phalaris asked Perillos to climb inside the bull to show him how it worked. But he trapped him inside and Perillos became the bull’s first victim. (Frankly, I think Perillos should have seen that one coming.)
Phalaris used the bull throughout his reign until he was overthrown and killed around 554 BC. After this, accounts vary pretty wildly. One story says Phalaris was burned to death in his own brazen bull. Another story says the bull was tossed into the ocean after Phalaris’s death. Other accounts say it was taken by the Carthaginians when they took Acragas in 406 BC and later taken back to Sicily when Carthage was invaded by Roman general Scipio Africanus Minor.
Whether truth or fiction, references to the brazen bull pop up occasionally today. It was briefly used in the 2011 movie Immortals. There’s also a brazen bull shield you can build in Call of Duty: Black Ops 4. This shield apparently helps you fight zombies, so I’m guessing it's in some sort of expansion pack. I’m not too familiar with Call of Duty, having never played it before, so if you are and you know what this is referring to, let me know.
These are just a few of the many torture methods used around the world and throughout history. Do you know of any others worth mentioning? Let me know in the comments.
open grave photo: Oxyman via geograph.org.uk
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