“Torture and the Law of Proof: Europe and England in the Ancien Régime,” discusses the significance of the strappado: “The strappado was the great leveling torture: it stripped all victims, no matter how strong or how important, of their physical strength and their pride. It was a masterful innovation for extorting confessions or inducing witnesses to impeach friends. Like the rack, the strappado created wounds that left no lasting traces. But the internal injuries it produced could be agonizing. More importantly, it created an apprehension of death from the sky that other tortures did not.”Historian John H. Langbein, in his book
Let’s delve into the dark history of the stappado, uncovering 10 intriguing facts about this brutal instrument of torment.
The stappado, also known as the “strappado,” originated during the medieval era as a means of extracting confessions or information from prisoners. It comprised a pulley system where the victim’s hands were tied behind their back and then raised, causing immense pain as their entire body weight was suspended.
When the victim was hoisted off the ground, their shoulders would dislocate painfully, often causing lasting injuries. The agony experienced in the shoulders and arms was excruciating, leading many to confess even if they were innocent, simply to end the torment.
The severity of the stappado could vary, depending on how high the victim was raised. Some accounts describe victims being lifted only slightly off the ground, while others endured a full suspension, increasing the strain on their dislocated joints.
Beyond interrogation, the stappado had dual purposes. It could serve as both a physical punishment and a public spectacle to deter others from committing crimes or opposing authority.
The stappado was utilized during various periods and cultures, including medieval Europe, the Spanish Inquisition, and colonial America. It was often employed by religious and secular authorities to maintain control.
The fear of being subjected to the stappado alone could be enough to make prisoners comply with captors’ demands, showcasing the psychological terror inherent in such devices.
Many victims suffered severe injuries from the stappado, often leading to permanent disabilities or chronic pain. The dislocated joints could be irreparably damaged, leaving prisoners scarred physically and mentally.
The stappado could be combined with water torture, where victims were dipped into water and then hoisted abruptly. The water torture added a layer of suffocation and the threat of drowning to the excruciating pain of the stappado itself.
The use of torture devices like the stappado raises profound moral and ethical questions about the methods societies employ to extract information or control populations. Such practices have been criticized for their inhumanity and lack of reliability in obtaining accurate information.
The stappado stands as a symbol of the brutality of the past, a reminder of the lengths to which humans have gone to exert power over one another. Its legacy serves as a cautionary tale about the importance of upholding human rights and dignity even in the darkest of times.
“The strappado, first used during the Roman Inquisition in the sixteenth century, was so brutal that it was regarded as a form of execution. Yet it left no visible evidence, leading one contemporary to describe it as ‘the most severe and the most effective means of torture that exists.’ Strappado was intended to create an agonizing sense of dislocation and to induce an excruciating pain ‘that no one, however robust, can withstand.'”In the book “The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib,” edited by Karen J. Greenberg and Joshua L. Dratel, historian Alfred W. McCoy provides insight into the historical context of the strappado:
The stappado torture device is a chilling reminder of the depths of cruelty humanity has reached in history.
While it serves as a testament to the horrors of the past, it also underscores the progress made in recognizing the rights and welfare of all individuals, emphasizing the necessity of a more compassionate and just world.