Punishment, Torture, and Ordeal


It was once commonly believed that a witch’s power could be nullified by blooding or burning her blood. Convicted witches were “scored above the breath” (slashed over the nose and mouth) and allowed to bleed. Sometimes witches blooded this way bled to death.

The Boots

Also known as bootikens or as cashielaws in Scotland, the boots were cruel implements of torture. They consisted of

wedges that fitted the legs from ankles to knees. The torturer used a large, heavy hammer to pound the wedges, driving them closer together. At each strike, the inquisitor repeated the question. The wedges lacerated flesh and crushed bone, sometimes so thoroughly that marrow gushed out and the legs were rendered useless


In Scandinavia, it was once believed “that a witch can be saved from eternal damnation if she is buried alive, seed is sown over her, and the resulting crop harvested”

Clensing the Soul

“It was often believed, in Catholic countries, that the soul of a heretic or witch was corrupted, filthy, and bedevilled by all manner of foulness. To cleanse them before punishment, sometimes the victims were forced to consume heated or scalding consumables (scalding water, fire brands, coals, even soaps). The modern day ‘washing the mouth out with soap’ is a direct descendant.<!–(Frazer ???)–>”

The Collar

The torture of the collar was implemented in the Netherlands. The collar was furnished with spikes and was held fast by cords stretching to the four corners of the room.

The Dunking Stool  

The ducking stool or diving chair was a punishment which most often befell women prisoners. Grossly unpleasant, and often fatal, the woman would be strapped into a seat which hung from the end of a free-moving arm. The seat and the woman would be dunked into the local river or pond. The dunking could last for an entire day or just a few seconds. “It was up to the operators of the stool as to how long she remained under the water.” Many elderly women were killed by the shock of the cold water.

The ducking stool was used in America for witches, and in Britain for the punishment of minor offendors, prostitutes, and scolds

Ducking the Witch

One ‘foolproof’ way to establish whether a suspect was a witch was ducking. With right thumb bound to left toe, the accused was plunged into a convenient pond. If he or she floated it proved an association with the black arts, with the body rejecting the baptismal water. If the victim drowned they were innocent. Given the curious position of the prisoner, it was more likely they would float.

The Heretic’s Fork

With the four sharp points rammed deep into the flesh under the chin and into the bone of the sternum, the fork prevented all movement of the head and allowed the victim only to murmur, in a barely audible voice, “abiuro” (“I recant”, engraved on one side of the fork). If instead he still refused, and if the Inquisition was the Spanish one, he was held to be an “impenitent heretic” and, dressed in the characteristic costume, was led to the stake, but with the consolation of the sacrament if extreme unction; if instead it was the Roman one, he was hanged or burnt, without the benefit of the pretty costume but still with that of proper Christian rites (Torture Instruments).


This form of torture was specific to women. It involved tying a stick into a woman’s hair and twisting it tighter and tighter. When the Inquisitor no longer had the strength to twist, he would hold the victim’s head or fasten it in a holding device until burly men could take over the chore.

Not only would the hair be ripped out, but the scalp would often be torn open, exposing the skull-cap.

As expected, only women with thick or long hair were chosen for this torture. Reports exist of this torture being used in Germany against Gypsies (1740s-1750s) and in Russia as late as the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917-1918.

<!–(Frazer ???)

–>The Ladder Rack

This is a reconstruction of an inclined ladder. The victim was stretched out on the device until his shoulders dislocated. It was also common for the victim to be burned on the armpits and the flanks with a torch composed of seven wax tapers.


Some tortures were devised with women specifically in mind. Mastectomy was one of them. Although both men and women could have the skin torn off them with red- or white-hot pincers, mastectomy was a distinctly feminine device. One torture manual recommended particular attention be paid to female breasts as they are “extremely sensitive, on account of the refinement of the veins.”

Mastectomy first became popular in 1599 Bavaria. The most famous case is that of Anna Pappenheimer. After already being tortured with the strappado, a public demonstration was in order. Anna was stripped, her flesh torn off with red-hot pincers, and her breasts cut off. As if this was not enough,

the bloody breasts were forced into her mouth and then into the mouths of her two grown sons. . . . This fiendish punishment was thus used as a particular torment to women. But it was more than physical torture: by rubbing the severed breasts around her sons’ lips, the executioner made a hideous parody of her role as mother and nurse, imposing an extreme humiliation upon her.

Ordeal By Fire

Before an ordeal by fire began, all involved would take part in a religious rite. This rite lasted three days and the accused underwent blessings, exorcisms, prayers, fasting, and the taking of sacraments.

Then it was time to be exposed to the fire. Sometimes that meant carrying a lump of hot iron for a set distance, something in the order of three yards (three metres). For petty offences the lump of iron weighed about a pound (450 grams) but for more serious charges it could be as much as three pounds (1.5 kilos).

The other type of ordeal by fire was walking blindfolded across hot coals. After the ordeal, the burn wound was wrapped up. After three days, the injury was inspected to divine innocence or guilt. If there was an open sore, the defendant was guilty; if the wound was healed over, the defendant was innocent.

Needless to say, an “innocent” declaration could be arranged, depending on the power of the bribe and “the corruption of the officiating clerics. For a fee the irons and the coals would be sufficiently cool to tolerate”

Ordeal By Water

In this type of ordeal, the water was symbolic of the flood of the Old Testament, washing sin from the face of the earth, allowing only the righteous minority to survive. As in the ordeal by fire, a three-day religious rite was held beforehand. “Afterwards, if the ordeal was carried out by the book, the accused faced plunging their hand into boiling water, to the depth of the wrist. More serious offences demanded that the arm was submerged up to the elbow.” Once again, the burn was bandaged for three days before the fateful examination.

There also existed an ordeal by cold water. In this, the accused was tied at feet and hands and was lowered into cold water by a rope. This rope was tied around the defendant’s waist and had a knot a particular distance from the torso. If both knot and accused dipped beneath the surface of the water, the accused was proven innocent. If the knot was dry, the defendant was guilty.

Since it was common knowledge that ordeal results could be fixed, Papal authorities banned them in 1215. “The ban was slowly enforced throughout Europe in the 13th century.”

The Oven at Neisse

The oven at Neisse, in Silesia, was a forerunner of the ovens used in Nazi concentration camps. The difference was that in the concentration camps, the victims were killed before they were roasted. In mid-17th-century Silesia, more than two thousand girls and women were cooked during a nine-year period. This tally includes two babies.

The Pear  

The pear had more than one implementation, with the most popular being the oral use. The pear was also used in the rectum and in the vagina.

The pear was “expanded by force of the screw to the maximum aperture of their segments. The inside of the cavity in question is irremediably mutilated, nearly always fatally so. The pointed prongs at the end of the seqments serve better to rip into the throat” or “the intestines.”

When applied vaginally, the spikes wreaked havok on the poor woman’s cervix. The vaginal use was devised for women who had been found guilty of sexual union with the Devil or his familiars. Ken Russell’s film The Devils shows a few implements similar to the vaginal pear in use.

The Rack

This was a very simple and popular means of extricating confession. The victim was tied across a board by his ankles and wrists. Rollers at either end of the board were turned, pulling the body in opposite directions until dislocation of every joint occurred.

The Rippers

Cold or red hot, the four claws ripped the breasts of countless women condemned for heresy, adultery and ‘libidinous acts’ such as self-abortion, white magic and other crimes.

The Saw

This horrible method of execution was used on French witches “pregnant by Satan.”

History abounds in martyrs–religious, lay and antireligious–who suffered this fate, one that may be worse even than being burnt at the stake with a slow, small fire, or being dipped into boiling oil. Owing to his inverted position, which assures ample oxygenation of the brain and impedes the general loss of blood, the victim does not lose consciousness until the saw reaches the navel–and even the breast, if one is to believe accounts of the early eighteen-hundreds

The Spider

The Spider is a deciver that resembles the Rippers and was used in mastectomies. It was heated until the iron was red and used to mutilate and tear a woman’s breasts off.


Squassation was a form of torture used in conjunction with the strappado. It was the process of hanging weights from the victim as they were being tortured with the strappado. Weights ranged from fifty to five hundred pounds. The greater the weight, the more bones would be dislocated.

“Four applications of squassation were regarded as equivalent to a sentence of death.”

The Strappado

The strappado, also known as the pendulum, was one of the easiest and, therefore, one of the most common torture techniques. All one needed to set up a strappado was a sturdy rafter and a rope. The victim’s wrists were bound behind her/his back, and the rope would be tossed over the beam. Then, the victim was repeatedly dropped from a height, so that her/his arms and shoulders would dislocate.

In some areas, it was customary to apply thumbscrews to the victim while she/he was on the strappado.


Thumbscrews were applied to prisoners as a means of obtaining confessions. In Austria, anyone accused of any misdeed who was unwilling to confess freely had to be put to the peinliche Fragen, or the painful/embarassing questions. This comprised of ” the extortion of confessions by means of a graduated series of torments that were described and illustrated with precision and scientific rationalism, down to the finest details, including the thicknesses of cords, the number of knots in a fetter, the lengths of nails and screws, the degrees of permanent mutilation permissible for various degrees of accusations.”

Tormentum Insomniae

In England, torture was not allowed against witches because witches were not believed to be conspirators. Tormentum insomniae is torture by sleeplessness, and was allowable perhaps because it did not seem to be a real torture. Nonetheless, Matthew Hopkins used it for his advantage in Essex. In one instance, John Lowe, 70-year-old vicar of Brandeston, was “swum in the moat,” kept awake for three days and nights, and then forced to walk without rest until his feet were blistered. Denied benefit of clergy, Lowe recited his own burial service on the way to the gallows.

The Turcas

A device called the turcas was used to tear out fingernails. In 1590-1591 John Fian was subjected to this and other tortures in Scotland. After his nails were ripped out, needles were driven into the quicks

The Wheel

In France and Germany the wheel was a popular form of capital punishment, not least because it was pure agony for the victim. In concept it was similar to a crucifixion. The prisoner was brought to the scaffold where his cloak was ripped off, to reveal nothing but a pair of brief linen pants.The prisoner was then tied to the side of the wheel lying on the scaffold, stretched across its spokes and hub. Now the executioner advanced wielding an iron bar. His brief was to shatter the limbs one by one with the hefty weapon. Each arm and leg was broken in several places before the job was done. A skilled executioner would smash the bones of his victim without piercing the skin. The wheel was then propped upright so onlookers could appreciate the dying gasps of the victim.

At first the severity of the injuries was thought to be sufficient to bring about death. Later the exectutioner ended the torture by one or two blows to the chest. The wheel could be refined, too, to include other torturous aspects. A suspended wheel might be turned over a fire or a bed of nails. In any event it meant unbearable suffering for the victim.

The Witch’s Cradle

 One method of torturing accused witches was to tie them up in a sack, string the sack over a tree limb and set it swinging. The rocking motion of this witch’s cradle…caused profound disorientation and helped induce confessions. Most subjected to this also suffered profound hallucinations, which surely added color to their confessions

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17 comments on “Punishment, Torture, and Ordeal

  1. phyreblade says:

    It’s always amazed me how many of the “foolproof” witch/heretic tests also happened to be rather fatal ones if you were innocent… You have to wonder if any of the inquisitors were ever conflicted about killing off innocents…

  2. ladyofspiders says:

    One does have to wonder, but I do not think one that is capable of inventing such methods of torture and then acting them out against women, weather the woman is “guilty” or not, could be capable of having any real conflicts at all.

    But hey, would it not be entertaining if we could have bleacher seats to watch thier entrance into hell, just to see the look on thier faces sense they were so convinved they were doing to work of God?

  3. phyreblade says:

    Yeah, good point. If they were twisted enough to come up with some of these kinds of tortures, chances are, they really didn’t care whether the subject was innocent or guilty, they just got a thrill out of torturing people.
    But yes, it might be quite interesting to see how they would behave once they realized they were headed for eternal damnation for their “Holy Work”… LOL

  4. kitty litter says:

    these torture methods suure are nifty!

  5. umm..nifty…not the word I would use…I find this very excuse my language F’d up I mean all of these practically are for women and most of them involve breasts -.- me being a women I find that offensive considering how there were also male witches aka warlocks and havn’t they heard of good magic hello! (sorry I like Charmed..) Things sure have changed…some of those are interesting though it would be weird to write about..that one though with the sons being forced to have there moms breasts was just..cruel not right by any means no matter what she did.

  6. ladyofspiders says:

    Acutally historically there were not really male witches, the idea of the male witch is a rather modern one. Historically witchcraft was associated with women. Warlocks are not actually male witches, that is just something made by hollywood, but a real warlock is not a male witch.

  7. davina clark says:

    How horrible……

  8. ARCANE says:

    It’s actually spelled WORLOCK

  9. ladyofspiders says:

    Umm actually no it is not spelled worlock, you should try consulting with a dictionary before attempting to correct someone’s spelling.

  10. Carly says:

    oh god that is so horrible. especially “the saw”!! i cant even begin to imagine the pain women must have gone through!! and they probably had to watch their babies fall out their stomachs if it reached their breasts!! gosh im so glad we have evolved from that. in most places i dont think anyone really cares if a girl is “pregnant from satan”. i think that probably means the girl wasn’t married when she was pregnant. gosh

  11. Sammie says:

    Wow, Gosh this and Oh my God that… how about the tortures your american soldiers inflicted on prisoners in Iraq and Guantanamo? How many women were raped in those prisons and gave birth to the rapists children? Ever thought about that? Oh yes, those are americans, they bring freedom, I forgot….

  12. ladyofspiders says:

    This is not a blog for the discussion of modern politics. There are other venues for that.

  13. Robyn Spears says:

    Warlock or Worlock or any other way you’d like to spell it means “Oath Breaker” and is considered an insult to all witches. Witches – male or female – are referred to simply as witches — never warlocks.

  14. LEAnne says:

    WOWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW thts horrible………this is 10x worse than titanic

  15. Geoff says:

    These torturers were simply obeying the Bible – Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. It was considered better for her soul to torture her until she recanted, thereby saving her from Hell. Religion is so screwed up.

  16. Donna Reiser says:

    The word translated “witch” in the Bible really means “poisoner.” That was the type of witch St. Patrick encountered. He suspected something was up and he refused to drink the wine offered to him. Then the king was going to drink it and the “witch” tackled the king to try to stop him, essentially admitting that poisoning was his intention.

  17. I have greatly enjoyed reading your essay, and would like to be able to use it (or parts of it, if only that much is possible) in an upcoming book I am writing regarding this very subject. Please contact me at deliathecrone at yahoo dot com. Thank you.

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