Punish the Non-Believers: 6 Cruel Torture Methods of the Spanish Inquisition

Punish the Non-Believers: 6 Cruel Torture Methods of the Spanish Inquisition

Donna Patricia Ward - April 8, 2017

Ferdinand and Isabella, the Spanish Catholic monarchs, established the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition in 1478. Commonly referred to as the Spanish Inquisition, all of Spain and its colonies in Europe and the Americas fell under its authority. Initially, it was created to ensure orthodoxy from those Christians that had converted from Judaism and Islam. Royal decrees issued in 1492 and 1502 demanded that all Jews and Muslims convert to Christianity or leave Spain. At the same time of these decrees, Spain had claimed much of the New World for itself and began a process of spreading Christianity over thousands of miles.

Charges of heresy were serious offenses. When a person violated the important teachings of Christianity, the Inquisition Tribunal would charge them as a heretic. If they confessed, their punishment was not too harsh. If they refused to confess, they were tortured until officials heard a confession. The Inquisition in Spain looked different from the Inquisition in New Spain, Peru, New Granada, or Rio de la Plata. The Inquisition began in the fifteenth century and was brutally harsh. When it finally ended in the nineteenth century, its authoritative power had greatly subsided. Below are several torture methods used during the Spanish Inquisition in the New World.

Punish the Non-Believers: 6 Cruel Torture Methods of the Spanish Inquisition
The Strappado by Jacques Callot. Public Domain


The use of the strappado or Corda had three variations. The accused would have their hands tied behind their back, similar in nature to modern-day handcuffing. A rope would be tied to the wrists and passed over a pulley, beam, or hook, depending upon the place where the torture took place. As the accused was pulled off of the ground, they were hanging from their arms.

Variations on the strappado included using weights to cause more resistance and pain. The inverted and extended shoulders would separate from their sockets. At times, jerking the hanging victim would cause the shoulders to break. An especially torturous variation on the strappado was tying the wrists of the accused in front along with the ankles, then adding weights before pulling the victim off of the ground to hang.

Even in its less-invasive state, the strappado would separate the shoulders and cause agonizing pain to the accused. Physical damage to the accused would be obvious to any onlookers as shoulders separated from their sockets. If the ankles were also tied, hips and legs would also suffer damage.

The length of time for the strappado was relatively short. Reports of its use during the Inquisition had the entire process completed in 60 minutes or less. Of course, a person’s individual threshold for pain would have ultimately determined the strappado’s success of eliciting a confession or information sought by the tribunal. While death did not happen with this torture method, permanent nerve, ligament, and tendon damage was likely to occur in the victim.

Punish the Non-Believers: 6 Cruel Torture Methods of the Spanish Inquisition
Water torture. Public Domain

Water Torture: Interrogatorio mejorado del agua or toca

Theatrical images of someone having their head held under water to encourage a confession pay homage to toca. In modern times, this would be referred to as waterboarding. During the Spanish Inquisition it was also called interrogatorio mejorado del agua. The idea behind it was to make the accused feel as if they were drowning. The techniques used for toca were different from place to place. Because the Spanish Inquisition, and the accompanying Mexican Inquisition in the New World, traversed so much territory, it also had to adapt to local cultures. What worked in Madrid, for example, may not have worked on people in the Andes.

The accused would lay on his or her back and be strapped to a board. Securing the ankles, wrists, arms, and legs was essential to prevent the accused from thrashing around. Once secured, a rag or some type of cloth would be inserted into the mouth. Officials of the tribunal would then pour water over the rag, mimicking the sensation of drowning.

This technique would be repeated, sometimes for days, until confessions came forth. Breathing would become increasingly difficult as the torture increased in frequency. At first, the accused would be given enough time to catch their breath after the toca. If no confession came, the length of water pouring would increase while the breaks for breath would decrease. Death was a distinct possibility.

Reports from those that witnessed toca would describe the horrors of watching a person lose consciousness from the lungs filling with water. Just hearing about toca would be enough for some to willingly confess to sins or surrender information without ever being charged with any crimes. Spanish officials willingly and repeatedly used eye-witness accounts of toca to prevent the spread of heretics.

Punish the Non-Believers: 6 Cruel Torture Methods of the Spanish Inquisition
A torture rack, photographed in the Tower of London by David Bjorgen. Public Domain

The Rack

The sounds of someone cracking their knuckles in a quiet space can be very annoying. The popping and cracking sounds can send shivers up someone’s spine. This simple act of self-soothing comfort in the modern world used to be an essential component to the most famous of Inquisition torture methods: the Rack.

The use of the rack dated back to ancient times and its purpose was to stretch out a human being. A person would be secured to a board at the wrists and the ankles with some type of cuff, then chains would be attached to the cuffs. The chains would be attached to a wheel and a crank would turn the wheel. As the chains were tightened, the body would stretch and joints, ligaments, and tendons would snap, crack, and pop.

Sounds produced by a body stretching may be one reason why this torture method had such a long life in human history. During the Inquisition, those accused of heresy were often required to witness torture. When the tendons and ligaments of a person on the rack began making noise, bystanders routinely offered up confessions. For the accused stretched out too much, their muscles would lose the ability to contract. Without elasticity of muscles, a person could no longer move on their own. For a person that survived long sessions of forced stretching, they could lose control of their bowels and other bodily functions and be permanently unable to move on their own.

Sometimes included with the rack were ancillary torture methods. For example, part of a person may be on a bed of nails or some other sharp objects. When the rack began to stretch them, the nails would slowly pierce the skin. The accused would feel the pain of being stretched as well as objects scraping against their skin.

In Spanish viceroyalties in the New World, sometimes the rack would take the form similar to that of the strappado, where a person would be stretched while hanging by their wrists from a tall tree or pole. As a person hung from their wrists their ankles would be stretched to the ground. The snap, crackle, and pop of joints and ligaments could be deafening and the pain indescribable. There was at least one account of a person who survived the rack who proclaimed he required longer pants for they had been stretched out so much.

Punish the Non-Believers: 6 Cruel Torture Methods of the Spanish Inquisition
Breaking Wheel in Action. Public Domain

The Wheel

The Catherine Wheel, or the Breaking Wheel, was a form of capital punishment adapted from the Rack. For the Spanish Inquisition, torture methods had to provide variety and surprise. The more forms of torture the greater the chance that accused infidels would confess to their crimes and embrace the Church.

An adaptation of the Rack, the Wheel dates back to antiquity. Intended as capital punishment, it sometimes was used as a form of torture. Generally, a wagon wheel was used and the accused or convicted would be stretched over the wheel. Then they would be beaten. The spaces between the spokes would allow bones to break upon contact with a club or other device. If the device was used as torture, the accused would be removed from the wheel before death.

When the Wheel was used as a form of capital punishment, the convicted would be bludgeoned to death. Repeated hits from clubs, thick tree branches, or other implements would break bones. The mangled body of the convicted would be placed on display until death. In some instances, the dying convict would be kept alive as long as possible to drag out the painful process of awaiting death from broken bones.

Convicts on the wheel would be placed on public display. It was the hope of local authorities that keeping the tortured or convicted on display would deter others from committing heinous crimes. How effective this process was is unclear, particularly considering that the wheel remained in use through the nineteenth century.

Punish the Non-Believers: 6 Cruel Torture Methods of the Spanish Inquisition
Hairshirt, google images. Public Domain

The Hairshirt

The hairshirt was a garment made out of animal hair. Generally, it would have a neck opening and rest upon the shoulders with the sides tied under the arms. There were numerous variations. Sometimes it was called a cilice or sackcloth. The idea was to wear something against the skin that would irritate it. For Catholics in the early days of Christianity, hairshirts were used as a method of repentance during the season of Lent, the 40 days before Easter. To intensify the irritation of the skin other items were added such as twigs, rocks, or metal.

During the Spanish Inquisition, the hairshirt was used after a voluntary or post-torture confession. If a person was suspected of heresy, they could either confess their sin or wait for the Inquisition Tribunal to charge them. The use of the hairshirt happened mainly in the New World viceroyalties.

The hairshirt represented the outward acceptance of the teachings of the Church. For people that faced the Tribunal, it was required that they publicly proclaim their devotion to God, Jesus, and the Church. It was an outward symbol that they had confessed their acts of heresy and would never be a heretic again. The Tribunal would sentence a person to wear a hairshirt for several hours in a public space such as a market or square.

Climates in the New World varied, but the heat and humidity seemed constant. The hairshirt was heavy by design. Wearers who were publicly embracing the Church would go without food and water for the duration of their sentence. Some people were sentenced to wear a hairshirt for seven days while others were sentenced to wear it for several hours while sitting in the hot sun of a public square.

Punish the Non-Believers: 6 Cruel Torture Methods of the Spanish Inquisition
Torture Chamber. Public Domain

Torture Chamber

Torture chambers were windowless rooms that held the modes of torture. These rooms existed in places where society was settled. They made sense in regions with a larger population where the Tribunal would be required to hear charges of heresy for several people. Since members of the Tribunal had to witness the torture so that they could hear a confession, these chamber rooms made sense.

The Spanish Inquisition in the New World was a somewhat different story. Conquistadors made initial contact with native populations. They read a proclamation that stated all the people, plants, and animals on the land were now subjects of the Spanish Crown. Clerics would then read the Rites of Baptism, which meant that all native populations were now members of the Church and expected to follow Church doctrine. It did not matter to the Tribunal if the native people understood what had happened to them or not.

The viceroyalties of the New World included New Spain, Peru, Rio de la Plata, and New Granada. This land was almost the entire North and South American continent. It was impossible for accused heretics to travel from the high elevations of the Andes down to Buenos Aries to a torture chamber. Not that the trip was impossible, it would require the removal of several guards and representatives of the Tribunal to leave areas that required their vigilance to deter heresy.

In the New World, the torture happened in public spaces instead of in dark, windowless rooms beneath a prison. This was an attempt by the Tribunal and Spanish officials to ensure that the native population that had involuntarily become Christian adhered to Church doctrine. Public torture put fear into all that witnessed it. The agonizing screams of the tortured and the sounds their bodies made would keep the community heretic free.


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