Brutal Capital Punishment: Medieval and Today
I’m not sure what it was that intrigued me about torture and torture chambers. Maybe it was the R.L. Stine book Tower of Terror. Or maybe it’s because my dad described his trip to a medieval torture chamber to me, and I looked at him amazed by his descriptions of gazing upon all of the various excruciating methods of murder. All I know is that I always wanted to visit a torture chamber, and just recently, I did.
I was visiting Europe this past June, and one of my goals was to visit a torture chamber. I was in London for several days, and got so caught up with eyeing Buckingham Palace and every other iconic structure that I never went into their torture chamber. But the feeling of being bummed didn’t last long. I went to Amsterdam after that. I was in the tourist area where I bought my Amsterdam travel card, and lo and behold, there were advertisements for a torture chamber. So of course, I specifically made time to visit this amazing place.
Well, technically it was a “torture museum.” Various torture devices were on display, with notes that described what each item was and why their victims would endure such turmoil. But regardless, it was pretty mind-blowing to look at these devices that brought criminals such agony, and often their death.
This inspired me to do countless research on the topic. But rather than being the typical pseudo-sadist relieving myself of boredom, I looked for a deeper understanding of it. And that was trying to fully understand capital punishment.
Now let’s go back in time, way back to ancient Greece and following with Rome, to understand what torture is and why it was used. It was originally only used for interrogation, but it was used specifically on slaves. Public executions were held for these slaves who endured said interrogation, but also for prisoners of war and those who committed army desertion. These forms of capital punishment developed throughout history, and became way more brutal – especially in the medieval period.
The term “torture” comes from the Latin word “torquere,” meaning “to twist.” Most torture during the medieval period was done on those who committed high treason and heresy. During these torture practices, there was no bloodshed, so twisting, bondage, burning, and crushing (by stone or weight) was used. Like the Greeks and Romans, these methods were used for interrogation, and the prisoner was already sentenced to the death penalty. But rather than being used exclusively for slaves, these torturous methods were open to all citizens. You would be subjected to certain forms depending on your crime, age, gender and status in society – but that only means torture became more creative and humans became more sadistic.
Of course, there are famous torture devices and execution methods that we all know. You have the Brazen Bull, where the prisoner is locked in a brass structure shaped as a bull and a fire is lit underneath it so the prisoner is roasted alive. There’s the Iron Maiden, with the casket-like structure lined with spikes meant both to interrogate (prisoner locked in, but with enough room where they can’t move without being penetrated by the spikes) and execute (prisoner is locked in so the spikes penetrates them from both ends, and often not resorting to immediate death). It is also said Countess Elisabeth Bathory used one for her female students in order to murder them and extract their blood, so it’s also called the “Iron Virgin.” There’s the Judas Cradle that was used during the Spanish Inquisition. It was a pyramid-shaped device where a prisoner would be suspended over it and bound, slowly being forced down upon it to enter the vagina, anus or scrotum. This torturous method would take anywhere from hours to days, and the prisoner would often die from infection. The Rack is another brutal one, a wooden board-like structure with one wheel attached to the top and another attached to the bottom. The prisoner’s wrists and ankles would be bound to each wheel, so he/she was spread eagle. The wheels were rotated, until the prisoner was torn apart. Drawing and Quartering was similar to this, and saved for some of the worst crimes one could commit. One of the most famous public execution stories occurred in France in 1757; the prisoner was Robert-François Damiens. He attempted to assassinate King Louis XV, and was subjected to the burning of the hand which wielded the knife; molten wax, boiling oil and lead poured then over his wounds; being drawn and quartered with each limb tied and attached to a corresponding horse (which didn’t work, so they cut his limbs and the horses were able to continue to quartering); and finally, his torso, which was reportedly still living, was burned.
Damiens was the last person to be executed in France, and “cruel and unusual punishment” was abolished in the United Nations (UN) in 1948.
So, is that the end of torture? Will we ever have a need for the rack or burning flesh for confession? Well, maybe our ways aren’t as creative, but they’re still pretty medieval.
In 2002, what was called the “torture memos” was released. This is a set of U.S. government legal documents that were leaked, which disclosed information about torturous interrogation methods used on Afghan soldiers. In 2005, another investigatory report was leaked that proved several Afghan soldiers were murdered by being tortured to death in the Bagram Theater Internment Facility. And as you can read in the investigation published by the New York Times, this is one of many examples of modern day torture.
So why torture? Is it effective? Well, many studies show it isn’t. What has been found is that torture is more likely to illicit a false confession because the prisoners just want the pain and torture to stop. And even with this evidence, the torture still continues. The death penalty is also argued to be a flawed form of punishment.
What it boils down to is sadism, and hatred for others; whether we’re at war with them or they are those in our country who broke the law. And we can’t help it. We’re so consumed by what we’re taught is right and wrong, that when others go against it we immediately want the worst for them.
When you realize this, you can’t help but think about who’s actually at fault. Robert-Francois Damiens tried to kill King Louis XV, but he was publicly murdered in an obscene manner. The Afghan prisoners were just as guilty as the United States soldiers and interrogators, and allegedly there were those who were falsely imprisoned and died as a consequence of being in the Bagram Prison.
While violence and crime continues, violence will be perpetrated on those who commit it. Is either party right? Is either party wrong? Or is this just human nature?