Torture of witches  

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The torture of witches is the various acts of torture and persecution used against the accused during the witch-trials in Early Modern Europe. Varied from non-physical, to extremely painful and even death, these tortures were used primarily to coerce confessions from the accused and perhaps cause them to name their co-conspirators. The torture of witches quickly began to grow after 1468 when the Pope declared witchcraft to be crimen exeptum and thereby removed all legal limits on the application of torture in cases where evidence was difficult to find. With the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum in 1487 the accusations and torture of witches again began to increase, leading to the deaths of thousands.

Non-Physical Torture

In Early Modern Europe, in Italy, it was found particularly effective to deprive an accused witch of sleep for periods of up to forty hours. The induced insomnia would eventually cause the prisoner's mind to cloud, eventually leading to the breaking of their will. Without damaging the body, countless confessions were given to the authorities so the young woman could finally be allowed to get some sleep. This technique was also used in England, but without a limitation on time.

Accused witches were also forced to watch the trials and tortures of their fellow accused. Upon witnessing the horrible treatment of their peers, some would confess in order to spare themselves of equal treatment.

Types of Torture Used

Scold's Bridle

A punishment used primarily for witches in early modern Britain, in this form of torture, the head of the accused was locked in an iron cage causing spikes to be driven partially into or completely through the tongue. This method was implemented in an effort to hinder her from interacting with the devil, muttering curses or attempting to spread her unholy beliefs.

Dunking Stool As the name suggests, this was a stool that was placed in a cesspool or stagnant pond. The accused were forced to sit on the stool and it was lowered into the water, the fear of drowning often brought forth confession; however, at times the subject would refuse to confess and as such would eventually drown in the water. It was believed that if the accused were guilty then they would float upon the surface of the water, their body trying to reject God's holy water. If the accused were innocent then they would sink and drown.

Pricking and Piercing

One of the most widely used forms of torture was using a red-hot pincher to sear the flesh and mutilate the accused. It was said that witches had a spot of insensitive skin on their body where the devil had touched them, known as "The Devil's Mark". In Britain and France there were even professional "Prickers" that specialized in finding the devil's mark on the body of the accused. A famous witch pricker named Kincaid used to strip his victims, bind them hand and foot, and then thrust his pins into every part of their bodies until, exhausted and rendered speechless, they failed to scream, then he would proclaim that he had found the devil's mark. Another example of mutilation through Piercing was that of Anna Pappenheimer in Bavaria in 1600. As if the pain of the red-hot pincers was not horrible enough, the pincers seared off Anna's breasts, and as the torture continued, her breasts were forced into her mouth and later the mouths of her two children. The breasts were often targeted because of their importance to the female gender and the large amounts of nerve endings led to extreme amounts of pain.

Sexual Humiliation

In one such torture, the chevalet, the accused was to sit on a pointed metal horse and have weights strung from their feet causing the victim to feel increased pressure on their genitalia, perineum, or anus.

Another sexual humiliation torture was the sitting on red-hot stools in order to ensure the accused would never perform sexual acts with the devil ever again. In one documented case on April 29, 1592 at Chamonix, a woman known as Perronette was forced to sit on a red-hot stool for three minutes before being burned at the stake.

Mutilation The famous "witch's-chair", contained hundreds of spikes and needles that would pierce the skin of the accused everywhere their skin touched the chair. While being interrogated, the accused was strapped into the chair and if her responses were not deemed satisfactory, the straps would tighten, causing deeper penetration of the skin. It was not; however, limited to witchcraft torture, and despite its name, was a commonly used torture device from the Middle Ages.

There were the gresillons known as pennywinkis in Scotland, which crushed the tips of fingers and toes in a vice-like device.

The Spanish Boot, or "leg-screw", used mostly in Germany and Scotland, was a steel boot that was placed over the leg of the accused and was tightened. The pressure from the squeezing of the boot would break the shin bone in pieces. An anonymous Scotsman called it "The most severe and cruel pain in the world".

The echelle more commonly known as the "ladder" or "rack" was a long table that the accused would lie upon and be stretched violently. The torture was used so intensely that on many occasions the victim's limbs would be pulled out of socket and at times the limbs would be completely torn from the body. On some special occasions a tortillon was used in conjunction with the ladder which would squeeze the genitals at the same time as the stretching was occurring.

Similar to the ladder was the "lift". It too stretched the limbs of the accused, this time however the victim's feet were strapped to the ground and their arms were tied behind their back before a rope was tied to their hands and lifted upwards. This caused the arms to break before the horrific portion of the stretching began.


Witches were even tortured in their deaths, not afforded a quick and sanitary demise, the majority of witches were burnt at the stake, though a great many were strangled or garroted before burning. This torturous death, in Britain, was used only for women who committed one of the two most unforgivable acts, treason or witchcraft.

In his Salem Witchcraft, W. F. Poole estimates the death toll of witches in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is about 200,000. The witch hunts were so rampant, Montague Summers reports in his Geography of Witchcraft, "In the year 1586 the diocese of Trier was so scoured and purged of sorcerers and witches that in two villages only two women were left alive".

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Torture of witches" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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