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torture, the intentional infliction of severe physical or mental pain or suffering in order to intimidate, coerce, obtain information or a confession, or punish. In international law, the term is usually further restricted to actions committed by persons acting in an official capacity.

The UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which came into force in 1987 and to which more than two thirds of the world's nations are parties, bans torture and other abusive treatment of any person, as well as forcibly transferring a person to a nation when there is reason to believe that the person will be tortured. Parties to the treaty must periodically report and answer questions on their compliance before the Committee against Torture in Geneva. The convention restates much of an earlier General Assembly declaration (1975), and the earlier Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966; in force, 1976) also banned torture. In addition, agreements sponsored by regional international organizations also forbid the practice, as do the Geneva Conventions. Despite these international agreements, Amnesty International indicated (2007) that there were reports of the use of torture or other forms of abuse by security or police forces in 102 nations in 2006.

The utility of torture in obtaining useful information from individuals is a matter of debate, and the arguments on both sides rely on anecdotal evidence. Torture is most often justified, even by those who oppose its use generally, in situations where interrogators seek to obtain information from a suspect who has knowledge of an imminent and devastating attack. Whether a terror suspect who had knowledge of a “ticking timebomb” would divulge any useful information under torture likely depends on the psychology of the suspect. That tortured individuals divulge false information is known to be true, and an instance of this was reported to have contributed to the Bush administration's belief that Iraq had helped train militant Islamic terrorists. Studies also have shown that extreme stress can detrimentally affect memory, suggesting that torture, especially if prolonged, might in fact impair recall.

The United States, which regularly denounces the use of torture and abuse internationally in the State Dept.'s well-regarded Human Rights Reports, found itself the object of international criticism when, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Justice Dept. and other administration legal officials construed international strictures against torture narrowly so as to expand the harsh “enhanced interrogation” techniques that could be used, especially by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), when questioning suspected terrorists. Defense Dept. officials asserted (2003) that, as commander in chief, the president was not bound by the international commitments the United States had made concerning the use of torture and could approve any technique that would protect national security. U.S. government officials also argued that harsh treatment was not torture if an interrogator did not intend to torture a prisoner. Some have contended that such arguments directly contributed to reported abuses of terror suspects held at the Guantánamo Bay naval base and to notorious abuses of Iraqis at the Abu Ghraib prison. The United States also has transferred lesser terror suspects for detention and interrogation to countries where those suspects were citizens even when those countries were listed in State Dept. reports as using torture, although U.S. officials ostensibly have obtained guarantees against the use of torture in such cases.

U.S. officials subsequently (2004) issued guidelines that called torture abhorrent and retreated on many points from earlier memorandums, but it remained unclear to what degree Bush administration considered the CIA to be bound by U.S. law and international agreements. Revelations concerning Bush administration memorandums and practices led Senator John McCain, who had himself been tortured while a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, to seek (2005) legislation banning cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of terror suspects in U.S. custody, no matter where they are held. It was reported in 2007 that in 2005 the Justice Dept. secretly approved the use of harsh interrogation tactics, including simulated drowning (“waterboarding”), by the CIA. In 2009 it was reported that that the treatment of at least one person held at Guantánamo Bay had met the legal definition of torture and that a secret 2007 International Committee of the Red Cross report had concluded that CIA treatment of some detainees constituted torture. In 2008 President Bush vetoed legislation that would have required the CIA to adhere to U.S. army interrogation standards, but in 2009 President Obama banned any methods that could be considered torture. A Senate Intelligence Committee report whose conclusions were publicly released in 2014 provided details on the use of torture by the CIA in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks, relying on the CIA's own documents, and asserted that the CIA's claims of the usefulness of brutal interrogation were contradicted by its own documents. The Senate report largely echoed a nonpartisan review of interrogation and detention practices after 2001 that was released in 2013.


See K. J. Greenberg and J. L. Dratel, ed., The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib (2005); D. Rejali, Torture and Democracy (2007); J. Jaffer and A. Singh, Administration of Torture: A Documentary Record from Washington to Abu Ghraib and Beyond (2007); A. M. Dershowitz, Is There a Right To Remain Silent?: Coercive Interrogation and the Fifth Amendment after 9/11 (2008); M. Cohn, ed., The United States and Torture (2011); R. M. Palitto, ed., Torture and State Violence in the United States (2011); M. Fallon, Unjustifiable Means (2017).

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Torture of a reputed witch, Herr Lirtzen, Burgomaster of Rheinbach, in 1631. Having endured continuous torture for twenty-four hours, Lirtzen refused to confess to witchcraft and was burnt on the order of Judge Buirmann two days later. Courtesy Fortean Picture Library.


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

The vast majority of the evidence obtained during the persecutions—evidence that purportedly showed witchcraft to be aligned with black magic and Satanism—was coerced from the accused through the use of torture. Doreen Valiente put it best when she said, "Were I to tell the full and detailed story of how the supposed followers of the Christian God of Love have smeared their blood-stained hands over the pages of human history, I would be accused of anti-Christian prejudice. Yet every detail of such an accusation could be supported by documentary evidence, in sickening abundance."

Torture was widely employed across continental Europe and also in Scotland. It was not permitted in England, although some witch hunters, including Matthew Hopkins, managed to skirt the regulations on most occasions.

In some trials the judge falsely pronounced that confession was obtained without the aid of torture. In his book Cautio Criminales (1631), Friedrich von Spee said, "I wondered at this and made inquiry and learned that in reality they were tortured, but only in an iron vice with sharp-edged bars over the shins, in which they are pressed like a cake, bringing blood and causing intolerable pain, and this is technically called without torture, deceiving those who do not understand the phrases of the inquisition." Doreen Valiente further commented, "The prisoner was stripped and made ready. Women prisoners were supposed to be stripped by respectable matrons; but in practice they were roughly handled and sometimes raped by the torturer's assistants. Then some preliminary taste of torture was inflicted on them, such as whipping, or an application of the thumb-screws. This preparatory examination was not officially reckoned as torture; so those who confessed anything under it were stated in the court records to have confessed voluntarily, without torture."

Heinrich Kramer and Jakob Sprenger's infamous Malleus Maleficarum of 1486 emphasized the appropriateness of torture, stating that only confessions obtained under such extremes might be considered genuine and valid. The two monks said, "Some are so soft-hearted and feeble-minded that at the least torture they will confess anything, whether it be true or not [author's italics]. Others are so stubborn that, however much they are tortured, the truth is not to be had from them. There are others who, having been tortured before, are the better able to endure it a second time, since their arms have become accomodated to the stretchings and twistings involved; whereas the effect on others is to make them weaker, so that they can the less easily endure torture."

Malleus Maleficarum prescribed first-degree tortures and second-degree, or "Final," tortures. Those of the first degree included being stripped and flogged, being placed on the rack, and being subjected to the "Spanish Boots," named from their use during the Spanish Inquisition. There were two types of boot: one was adjustable, like a vise, to crush the feet and legs; the other was a large metal device into which boiling water or oil could be poured. The second-degree tortures included the strappado, thumbscrews, squassation, and breaking on the wheel. In the city of Offenburg, Germany, the accused were strapped into an iron chair with a seat studded with iron spikes and a fire lit beneath it.

Accusors considered confession by the witch herself to be the best way to prove witchcraft and especially the Pact with the Devil. They believed that torture was necessary to obtain that confession. Many of the tortures applied are illustrated in contemporary engravings. One such illustration shows thirty people imprisoned in a small room, chained together in pairs. Deprived of food, they eventually became delirious through hunger and began tearing each other to pieces. Other illustrations show people stripped naked and dragged along a tightly-drawn rope which, acting like a saw, would cut the body in two. Some were tied to stakes with fires lit a short distance away, so that they would burn very slowly. Other methods included disemboweling, eye-gouging, flogging, burning, stretching on a rack, and pouring water into the stomach until it swelled and burst, as well as squassation and the use of ovens and red-hot pincers. One ingenious torture involved trapping dormice on the victim's stomach, with a bowl over them. A fire was then kindled on top of the bowl, prompting the dormice to burrow into the stomach in an attempt to escape the heat. This particular cruelty was committed in the Gueux, Holland (pictured in Theatrum Crudelitatum nostri Temporis, Antwerp, 1587).

A common torture was the strappado, from the Latin strappare, "to pull," which involved pulling the victim's limbs from the sockets. His or her hands were tied behind the back and then a rope passed over a pulley in the ceiling. Hauling on the rope, the torturers lifted the victim off the floor, then tied weights to the feet until the arms separated from their sockets. Additionally, the person was often raised to near the ceiling, then allowed to fall but stopped just short of the ground. Pregnant women were allowed to land on their belly.

Other extreme tortures included the cutting off of hands and ears, immersion in scalding baths laced with lime, and the searing of the flesh with red-hot pincers. If an accused witch later recanted his or her confession, he or she was immediately returned to the torture chamber. In 1630, in Bamberg, Germany, Barbara Schwartz was tortured eight times.

Age was no barrier to torture. The elderly and the very young were all subjected to the same atrocities. In Bamberg, in 1614, a woman of seventy-four died under torture, while in Catton, in Suffolk, England, an eighty-year-old woman was repeatedly forced to sit on a chair studded with the points of knives. In 1617, at Castletown on the Isle of Man, Margaretine Quane and her ten-year-old son were both burned alive at the stake. At Rintel, in 1689, a nine-year-old girl was flogged while watching her grandmother burn at the stake, and at Würzburg, Germany, in 1628, two eleven-year-old girls were burned.

Over the years authorites changed and with them, so did the methods of torture. In Alsace, France, in 1573, a woman was accused by the Protestants and found not guilty. Four years later she was again accused, this time by the Catholics. They tortured her seven times before obtaining a "confession," then found her guilty and burned her at the stake. Sir John Fortescue (In Praise of the Laws of England, 1468) commented on the French laws: "They choose rather to put the accused themselves to the rack till they confess their guilt. . . . Some are extended on the rack till their very sinews crack, and the veins gush out in streams of blood: others have weights hung to their feet till their limbs are almost torn asunder and the whole body distorted: some have their mouths gagged to such a wideness for such a long time, whereat such quantities of water are poured in that their bellies swell to a prodigious degree, and then being pierced by a faucet, spigot, or other instrument for the purpose, the water spouts out in great abundance, like the whale. . . . To describe the inhumanity of such exquisite tortures affects me with too real a concern, and the varieties of them are not to be recounted in a large volume."

The Witch Book: The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Wicca, and Neo-paganism © 2002 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.


flute player who challenges Apollo, loses, and is flayed alive for his presumption. [Gk. Myth.: Brewer Dictionary, 588]
St. Bartholomew
martyr flayed alive before being crucified. [Hagiog.: Collier’s, III, 77]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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