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.
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.
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.