Torture is unpleasant, as indeed is the intended purpose of the practice. The act of inflicting physical or psychological pain upon an individual, torture has served both a human as well as a judicial function since our earliest emergence into recorded history. Although today generally outlawed (at least in the Western world; regarded as a barbaric deed) torture was once regarded as a righteous and just treatment in response to a criminal outrage. Whilst some intended to kill, albeit resulting in slow, torturous deaths, others were intended to merely maim and hurt without fatal outcomes. As with all human endeavors, we gradually perfected the art of torture over the centuries, refining the necessary tools to inflict the greatest possible pain upon our unfortunate victims.
Here are 20 of the slowest and most painful historical torture methods you would not want to endure:
20. Bamboo torture, allegedly employed by the Japanese Empire during the Second World War, uses fast-growing bamboo shoots to inflict immense pain upon the human body.
A disputed historical method of inflicting immense pain upon a victim, bamboo torture is a form of punishment wherein bamboo shoots are employed to grow into, and subsequently through, the body of the subjected person. Allegedly originating in Ceylon, with the first recorded account of bamboo torture stemming from a “Madras civilian” traveling during the 1820s in India, similar depictions have survived from throughout the region. Appearing also in Malay history and culture, it has been contended the Siamese employed sprouts from the Nipah palm in an identical fashion to bamboo torture during the 1821 invasion of Kedah.
Most famously, bamboo torture was alleged to have been used during World War II by the Japanese Empire against Allied prisoners of war. Captured soldiers were supposedly tied above infant bamboo shoots, which, over the course of several days, would grow at a rapid pace and pierce the prisoners. Since the conflict, questions have habitually been raised concerning whether bamboo is actually capable of inflicting the injuries claimed by survivors. However, a 2008 Mythbusters investigation verified that bamboo shoots can penetrate several inches of ballistic gelatin (comparable in strength to the human skin) in less than three days.
19. Rat torture, a staple of modern film, television, and literature, was a historic method that forced trapped rats in a heated container to eat through adjacent human flesh.
Appearing repeatedly throughout modern popular film, television, and literature, rat torture is an especially cruel method of punishment. Using a heated vessel to contain the vermin close to the human, the rodent, growing increasingly desperate to escape its own suffering, is compelled to burrow into the flesh of the victim. The use of rats in this manner is believed to have originated in Europe, with two variants of the practice emerging concurrently. The former, stemming from Elizabethan England, is based on claims the Tower of London contained a “Rats Dungeon” wherein “a cell blow high-water mark” would “draw in rats from the River Thames” and victims would have “flesh…torn from the arms and legs”.
Similarly, and more in line with modern representations, occurred during the Dutch Revolt (1568-1648). Diederik Sonoy, an ally of the revolt’s leader, William of Orange, allegedly used pottery bowls filled with rats to enact the torture and elicit information. Heating the bowls with charcoal, the rats would “gnaw into the very bowels of the victim”. The method was reborn during the modern age across Latin America, with its use recorded under the military dictatorships of Brazil, Chile, and Argentina. The most recent confirmed case occurred in New Jersey in 2010, when David Wax threatened a kidnap victim with rat torture.
18. Both the “Heretic’s Fork” and “Neck Traps” were designed to place the victim in positions of sufficient discomfort and suffering to eventually induce a confession without the need to inflict direct bodily pain.
The Spanish Inquisition, lasting from 1478 until 1834, existed for a sufficiently long period of time to incrementally perfect the art of torture. Although women were excluded from these practices and doctors were required to be present, the Inquisition nevertheless enjoyed near limitless authority to inflict suffering upon those entrusted to their custody. Centuries before the United States of America would adopt the use of sleep deprivation and enforced standing to entice confessions and acquire intelligence, the Inquisition developed two ruthless mechanisms to achieve the same end: the “Heretic’s Fork” and “Neck Traps”.
The former, a bi-pronged fork attached to a belt around the victim’s neck, unflinchingly secured the angle of the head. Should the victim fall asleep or allow their head to droop, then the sharp prongs would begin to pierce their throat and neck. Similarly, “neck traps” prevented the victim from adjusting the angle of their neck to a more comfortable position. Individuals locked into the device would find themselves unable to eat, sleep, or even lie down. Both were commonly inscribed with the Latin phrase “abiruo” – “I recant”: an objective often achieved due to the eventual breaking of the subject’s will.
17. From the Middle Ages right up to the modern-day, boiling a person alive has been infrequently used as a brutal means of enacting a torturous execution around the world.
A torturous, if infrequent method of historical execution, death by boiling kills an individual by immersing them in a container of blistering liquid. Frequently using oil, tar, or tallow, various cultures and civilizations spanning Europe and Asia are known to have employed boiling as a means of inflicting great pain upon condemned persons. Recorded in England, beginning in 1531 during the reign of Henry VIII, being boiled alive became the legally prescribed method of capital punishment for those convicted of high treason or murder by poison. At least two individuals, Richard Roose and Margaret Davy, in 1531 and 1542 respectively, are known to have suffered this particular fate before abandonment under Edward VI in 1547.
Known also to have been used throughout Scotland on various occasions between 1200 and 1600, the Holy Roman Empire also employed boiling as the legal punishment for coin forgery. The practice is known to have occurred in extreme instances in Japan, where, during the 16th century, the bandit Ishikawa Goemon, along with his entire family, were boiled alive in a giant bathtub as punishment for the failed assassination of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Equally, in 1675 the Sikh martyr Bhai Dayala was subjected to boiling after refusing to convert to Islam; according to legend, as he burned Dayala calmly recited Sikh scripture.
16. The “Judas Cradle” was a pointed chair upon which victims were forced to squat until their leg muscles gave in and they were slowly impaled up the bottom
Another innovation attributed to the Spanish Inquisition, the “Judas Cradle”, also known as the “Judas Chair” or “Guided Cradle”, was a torture device dating from the 16th century. Utilizing a simple design, the victim would be strapped atop the chair and forced to support themselves solely with their legs for an indefinite period of time. Eventually, depending on the strength of the individual, the victim would be unable to maintain the required position any longer and the pyramidal tip of the “chair” would begin to impale their anus. After enduring an agonizing rupturing of their anal canal, the victim would die unless released.
As noted, the length of time before an individual would be impaled varied significantly. Accordingly, depending on the whims of the torturer, weights might be added to the legs of the victim to hasten their demise. Equally, their hands and feet might be tied together to make balancing even harder or oil poured over the chair. Several variations of the device existed, reflecting its use in a number of circumstances. Some designs, used for the purposes of gaining information, employed a pulley system, with the individual strapped into a harness and repeatedly lowered onto the tip of the chair to maximize the prolongation of suffering.
15. To be hanged, drawn, and quartered was not merely a legal prescription for execution but a carefully designed sequence of tortures with which to end a convicted person’s life.
Another historic method of execution which served as a form of torture in its own right, the punishment of being hung, drawn, and quartered originated in England during the Middle Ages. Instituted as the legal penalty for men convicted of high treason in 1352, although existing unofficially since the reign of Henry III, the condemned man would suffer a litany of successive violations, humiliations, and pains before his eventual death. Starting with the dragging of the individual, fastened to a hurdle drawn by horse, from the site of imprisonment to their place of execution, along the route he would be pelted with rotten food and excrement by the public.
Upon reaching the location, he would be hung almost to the moment of death. Revived, castrated, disemboweled, before being finally beheaded, his body would subsequently be chopped into four pieces and displayed at prominent locales. With the practice gradually watered down due to public opposition to its brutality, it was eventually abolished entirely in 1870. During the American Revolutionary War, both Loyalists and Patriots were recorded as inflicting the punishment upon their opponents. The passage of the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1791, prohibiting “cruel and unusual punishments”, was a direct response to this wartime practice and an attempt to prevent any further applications in the fledgling nation.
14. The “breaking wheel” was used during the Middle Ages against condemned violent criminals to break bones prior to displaying their tattered, but still breathing body before the general public as a deterrent.
The “breaking wheel”, also known as the “Catherine wheel”, was a method of torture that featured as part of public executions in Europe between the start of the Middle Ages until the Early Modern Period. Those convicted, commonly murderers and robbers, would be “broken by the wheel” for their sins, whereupon they were staked out and endured having their limbs broken. Thereafter, the pulped remains of the still-living criminal were strapped to the wheel itself and erected on a pole, akin to a crucifixion, until death. In some instances, “mercy” might be granted allowing for a swifter death, with the wheelset on fire or the condemned beheaded.
Hypothesized to originate from the Kingdom of the Franks, by the time of the Holy Roman Empire it formed a staple of the legal system. Under the Habsburgs, the number of strikes inflicted was used as a measure of the severity of criminal conduct by the condemned. Exported by Europeans during the Age of Exploration, this method of torture is documented as occurring as far away as French-controlled Louisiana and in British-controlled India during the 18th century. Gradually declining, by 1813 the practice started to be outlawed, with the last known execution by the wheel known to have occurred taking place in Prussia in 1841.
13. Targeting women suspected of adultery or abortion during the Middle Ages, the “Breast Ripper” would tear the breasts off to mark the guilty for life (if they survived the torture).
The “Breast Ripper”, also known as the “Iron Spider”, was an instrument of torture during the latter years of the Middle Ages. Reserved, unlike many of the items appearing on this list, exclusively for women, the device was predominantly employed against those persons accused of adultery or abortion. As a result, the mechanism was specifically designed to mutilate and destroy the most visible feminine attribute in retribution for the alleged unwomanly crimes: the breasts. In so doing, the individual, should they survive punishment, would be marked for life, unable to breastfeed any future children and thus prevented from fulfilling the chief role of women in Medieval society.
Made from iron and heated to ensure an easier tear, the spikes of the “ripper” would be attached to a convicted woman’s breast. As the device was manipulated, it would slowly but surely shred the breast apart rendering it useless. In many recorded instances, the breast would be ripped clean off, along with a substantial portion of the upper torso, resulting in near-instant death. A similar variant of the implement, the “Iron Spider”, was a less portable alternative. Attached to a spiked wall, the unfortunate woman would be attached to the mechanism and pulled along by her breasts until they were torn from her.
12. Requiring nothing more than a piece of rope, strappado is capable of inflicting severe lifelong injuries, or even death, within just an hour of torture.
The “strappado”, also known as “corda”, is a longstanding, simple, but nonetheless effective method of torture involving tying a victim’s hands behind their back. Suspending the individual by a rope attached to the wrists, with weights added, if necessary, to increase the pain. The strappado is so damaging that it cannot last for more than an hour without reprieve or risk of killing the subject. Commonly resulting in the dislocation of the arms and shoulders, the longer-term effects of the method are less visible, causing lifelong nerve, ligament, and tendon damage leading to potential paralysis.
Originally used by the Spanish Inquisition and other Holy Orders of the Middle Ages as part of interrogations, including against legendary Italian author Niccolò Machiavelli in 1513, the practice endured well into the Modern Age. Spreading far beyond the borders of Europe, the strappado was employed during the Salem Witch Trials in 1692. The United States has continued to use the method as recently as 2003, when, under interrogation by the CIA, Manadel al-Jamadi was killed after just 30 minutes at Abu Ghraib Prison. Conversely, the U.S. has also been victims of the practice, with the late Senator John McCain famously subjected to the technique during the Vietnam War.
11. A hollowed-out giant bronze sculpture of a bull, the brazen bull would entomb an unfortunate individual and be heated until the prisoner roasted alive.
The “brazen bull”, also known as the Sicilian Bull, was a disputed torture device allegedly stemming from Ancient Greece, specifically the city-state of Akragas. Designed during the reign of the tyrant Phalaris (r. 570-554 BCE) by Perillos of Athens, the bull, as recorded by Diodorus Siculus, was supposedly made from bronze but hollowed out and with a door on one side. Once the victim was contained within, a fire would be lit beneath, heating the metal until either death or release. Using an intricate system of tubes and piping, the screams of the roasting prisoner were transmuted into sounds reminiscent of a raging bull.
Whilst historians have questioned whether or not the brazen bull truly existed or was merely an early form of propaganda against an unpopular ruler, it enjoys a prolonged legacy nonetheless. After Perillos created his device, Phalaris allegedly ordered the engineer demonstrate its effectiveness with his own flesh. Eventually, it is claimed that the tyrant was himself murdered with the very instrument of his cruelty by Telemachus. Centuries later, the Roman Emperor Hadrian reputedly used such a device to torture and kill Christians. The Bishop of Pergamon, killed during the reign of Domitian, the first martyr of Asia Minor, was burned to death in 287.
10. Immurement, not to be confused with being buried alive, involves the entombing of an individual inside of a wall or confined space.
Immurement, derived from the later “im” – in – and “murus” – wall, literally comprises the entombing of an individual inside a wall or enclosed space without means of exit. Often, but not always used as a method of execution, the prisoner is left for an indefinite period of time to suffer from starvation and dehydration whilst trapped in isolation and darkness. Appearing in civilizations around the world, two primary purposes recur as the motivations behind the practice: human sacrifice and criminal punishment. Regarding the latter, it has been claimed the Vestal Virgins of Rome faced immurement should they break their vows of chastity as a trial by ordeal to prove devotion.
More commonly appearing as a form of human sacrifice, however, many civilizations employed immurement as part of funerary rituals. Living persons, either willingly or forced as part of entombed chattel, were frequently buried alongside deceased people of status. Known to have occurred as early as 2500 BCE, with archaeological evidence in the Sumerian city of Ur depicting the practice, it was also a prominent feature of early imperial China. Transmitted to the funerary rites of the Mongol Khans during the 13th and 14th centuries, these great conquerors were reportedly buried along with more than a dozen slaves.
9. Scaphism requires the victim to be trapped within boats, coated in milk and honey, and gradually eaten alive by parasites and vermin over the course of weeks.
Scaphism, also known as “the boats”, is a disputed method of Persian torture and execution. Trapping a condemned prisoner, the individual would be force-fed milk and honey as well as coated in the foodstuffs. Attracting bugs and vermin, whilst also inducing diarrhea to lure additional parasites, the victim would be gradually consumed by the animals as they fed upon them. Originally described in Plutarch’s “Life of Artaxerxes II”, the first recorded, if challenged, use of scaphism was against a Persian soldier named Mithridates in 401 BCE. Decreeing that Mithridates “should be put to death in boats”, two were framed “exactly to fit” his body to prevent escape.
Thereafter, his head, hands, and feet, were left outside the boats, whilst the remainder of his person was contained within the floating prison. Forced to eat under pain of physical torture, Mithridates was drenched “with a mixture of milk and honey”. Gradually, his body was consumed after seventeen days of being eaten from both within and without. Although disputed for historical veracity, Plutarch’s account has nonetheless proved influential. Shakespeare referenced the practice in The Winter’s Tale, whilst the legendary fictitious hunter Allan Quartermain experiences a vision of the brutal technique.
8. The Roman Candle, from which the popular firework allegedly derives its name, was originally a torture mechanism whereby Christians were set ablaze for the amusement of the Emperor Nero.
In the year 64 of the Common Era, the Great Fire of Rome devastated large parts of the imperial city. Facing blame for both causing the blaze and providing inadequate response to the inferno, which caused widespread damage to 10 of Rome’s 14 districts, Emperor Nero blamed the fiery outbreak on religious minorities including early Christians. Among the alleged cruelties bestowed upon these religious minorities was the so-called “Roman Candle”. Using humans are the base substance akin to the wax foundations of a candle, these victims were tied to stakes in the imperial garden for the amusement of the deranged Emperor.
There, the prisoners suffered being coated in pitch, oil and other flammable substances, before being set alight. The ultimately fatal fires were started from the feet, in order to prolong the suffering for those so condemned. It has been suggested, without corroboration, that these candles were used as decorations during formal parties held by Nero. Nevertheless, the ancient Roman Candles signify the first organized persecutions of Christians under the Romans. Today, the term Roman Candle refers to a type of Chinese firework that became popular in Western Europe during the Italian Renaissance.
7. Keelhauling involved dragging a sailor under the bottom of a ship, often repeatedly, as they struggled to hold their breath or survive the wounds inflicted.
Keelhauling, taking its name from the Dutch “Kielhalen meaning “to drag along the keel”, was a torturous punishment inflicted upon sailors whilst at sea. The sailor would be tied to a rope that encircled the underside of the ship, whereupon, being thrown overboard, they would be dragged underneath the ship and along the keel to emerge on the other side. Due to the physical harm suffered as a result of keelhauling, with the hull of a ship covered in barnacles, the victim would suffer immense lacerations resulting in major infections and cuts likely leading to their eventual death.
It is unclear whether keelhauling was a common practice during the ancient world. References to a similar punishment for piracy existed in the Rhodian Maritime Code dating from 700 CE, but it was not until the Early Modern Period that keelhauling entered into prominence. Several English writers during the 17th century recorded keelhauling on naval ships; however, there remains no formal note of these actions in the ship’s logs. Keelhauling was an official punishment in the Dutch Navy, although only rarely enforced due to its harsh nature. It should be noted, nevertheless, that the Dutch did not intend the practice to be fatal and allowed for respites in the torture to recover.
6. Flaying excruciatingly removed the skin of the victim, exposing the tender nerves and blood vessels beneath to the outside world, leading to immense pain and probable death by infection.
Flaying, also known as skinning, is a method of torture (and often execution) whereby the skin of the victim is gradually removed from the body in a precise fashion. Whilst flaying after death has been historically recorded, typically as a means of debasing the enemy’s honor and reserved for instances such as criminality, the predominant occurrences took place during life. Whilst small-scale flaying, although painful, is endurable, large-scale skinning inevitably leads to death. If the individual survives the initial shock and avoids critical loss of blood during the torture, then they will likely die days later due to infection.
The practice of flaying was popularized under the Neo-Assyrian Empire during the 9th century BCE, with carvings dating to the reign of Ashurnasirpal II (r. 883-859 BCE) depicting the gruesome details. Royal edicts dating from the time of Ashurnasirpal II glorify the deed, proclaiming “I have clad the pillar in the flayed skins. I let the leaders of the conquered cities be flayed, and clad the city walls with their skins”. Continuing in usage throughout Medieval Europe, most commonly as part of the execution of traitors, flaying became so popular in Imperial China that the Hongwu Emperor ordered the mass flaying of 5,000 women in 1396.
5. Premature burial forces an unfortunate individual to endure their last moments trapped beneath the earth, starved for oxygen whilst experiencing never-ending panic attacks.
Premature or live burial, as the name suggests, refers to the practice of burying an individual whilst they are still alive. Differing from immurement by both method and intent, those subjected to premature burial are interred with the purpose of execution, and, in contrast to the entombing of persons within walls, the victims die far quicker when buried. Unlike immurement, where the victims suffer for days or possibly weeks, those buried alive most commonly die long before dehydration takes effect. Instead, asphyxiation is the most common cause of death in live burials, with the individual, unless carefully buried, unable to breathe.
The earliest recorded instances of intentional live burials date from 212 BCE in China, where, during the persecution of “subversives” by the first Emperor Qin Shi Huang, approximately 460 Confucian scholars were buried alive. Centuries later, Tacitus noted Germanic tribes practicing a ritual form of capital punishment, whereby those convicted of cowardice and other shameful vices were buried face down in mud. By the reign of Queen Margaret I of Denmark (r. 1387-1412 CE), female adultery was punished with premature burial (whilst men merely got off with a quick beheading), and until 1689 Russia employed the torturous experience as punishment for the murder of a husband.
4. Crucifixion, in contrast to the common depiction of nails and blood loss, instead historically resorts to deliberately drawing out a slow and torturous death over the course of several days.
Crucifixion, an ancient method of capital punishment, is perhaps the most famous means of torture in history due to its association with the Christian narrative of Jesus. Designed to deter witnesses from repeated the offense of the condemned, crucifixions were deliberately orchestrated events. The victim was forced to carry their crossbeam to the place of public execution, weighing an estimated 100 lbs, where they would be displayed. Death often came slowly to those subjected to the practice, typically succumbing after several days to exhaustion or heart failure, whereafter their body would be left to rot as an example.
In contrast to common depiction, most crucifixions did not involve the nailing of the victim’s hands or feet to the cross. Instead, they were more frequently attached by rope in order to prolong the torture. Known to have been used as a punishment prior to the Roman civilization, appearing in ancient Persia, Macedon, and Carthage, Alexander the Great famously order the crucifixions of 2,000 survivors of the siege of Tyre in 332 BCE. As a form of punishment, crucifixion exists still today, notably in Saudi Arabia and Iran, where the most recent known occurrences of crucifixion occurred as recently as the early 2000s.
3. Lingchi – the lingering death – used hundreds of carefully placed tiny cuts to ensure the victim would survive for as long as possible until they eventually were either released or received a coup de grâce.
Lingchi, known colloquially in the West as “death by a thousand cuts”, was a ritualistic form of torture prevalent in Imperial China. Reserved for crimes of an especially heinous nature, notably treason, mass murder, or the killing of close family members, lingchi was designed as a cruel method of causing incrementally unbearable agony for its victims. Tied to a wooden frame in a public place, small pieces of flesh would be slowly cut from the body. This practice, in addition to causing immense suffering, was supposed to represent the spiritual defilement of the individual, with their eternal soul unable to reside in one piece in future lives.
Known to have existed since the earliest days of the Qin dynasty, it became a popular practice during the reign of Emperor Tianzuo of the Liao dynasty and more so under the Song. During the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) 100 cuts were traditional, after which the condemned was dispatched with a strike to the heart; by the time of the Ming, records indicate as many as 3,000 cuts were made over as long as three days. Eventually, under pressure from Western nations undergoing their own liberalizations of violent punishments, in 1905, as part of widespread revisions of the Chinese penal code, lingchi was formally abolished as a criminal sentence.
2. The torture of choice for the original “Dracula”, impalement suspends a tortured individual upon a pole, avoiding vital organs, where they must hang indefinitely.
As a method of both torture and execution, impalement consists of the aggressive penetration of victims by a pole. Used most commonly as a punishment for “crimes against the state”, appearing in civilizations and cultures around the world as among the harshest means of capital punishment, contrary to immediate assumptions impalement did not render a swift death. In fact, impalement, if done properly, permits the individual to survive for several days, with the longest known victim suffering for more than eight days. Multiple methods exist to accomplish the violent feat, including transversal or longitudinal impalement and bears striking similarities to bamboo torture.
The origins of the torture date to as early as ancient Babylon, with the Code of Hammurabi (c. 1772 BCE) detailing the punishment of impalement for women convicted of murdering her husband. A millennium later, the Neo-Assyrian King Sennacherib (r. 705-681 BCE) is recorded as impaling surviving Judeans after the Siege of Lachish. Ironically, in a reversal of fortunes for the Babylonians, Darius I of Persia would later impale 3,000 of their own in vengeance. Entering Europe and becoming a popular punishment for collaboration during the Thirty Years’ War, Vlad III of Wallachia’s impalement of more than 20,000 individuals earned him his immortality as “Dracula”.
1. The blood eagle – a ritualized method of torture and execution allegedly practiced by the Norse Vikings – opened up the ribs of the victim to craft their lungs into wings.
A ritualized method of torture and execution, the Viking practice of the “blood eagle” stands among the most brutal and controversial of historical tortures. Appearing just twice in Norse literature, although popularized subsequently in European mythology, it remains a matter of historic debate whether the blood eagle was a literal procedure or rather a product of allegorical exaggeration not uncommon to the Sagas. Involving the severing of the ribs from the spin using a sharp implement, the victim’s lungs are subsequently pulled through the space created and draped over their shoulders to create the illusion of wings.
Both named victims of the blood eagle – Halfdan Long-Leg and Ælla of Northumbria – were of royal blood, lending credence to speculation the ritual was reserved for persons of special importance. The latter depicted in the popular television series Vikings, is recorded in the “Tale of Ragnar’s Sons”, describing the English king’s torture at the hands of Ivar the Boneless. After Ælla’s capture at York in 867, “they caused the bloody eagle to be carved on the back of Ælla, and they cut away all of the ribs from the spine, and then they ripped out his lungs”. As both accounts were written many years after the events detailed, their veracity cannot be fully ascertained.
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