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The rack is probably one of the most infamous torture devices since it was in use for a very long time. This device was more of an actual machine than anything. No torture chamber would be complete without the rack, known throughout the world by different names: to the Romans it was “equuleus” (young horse); the French named it “Banc de Torture”, to the Spanish it was “escalera” (ladder), Germany knew it as “Streckbank” (stretching frame) or “Schlimme Liesel” (fearful Eliza), Italians named it “La Veglia” and the British nickname was “the Duke of Exeter’s Daughter”. Whatever the name, it was a fearsome device that broke countless prisoners. Indeed, a person stretched on the rack presented the ultimate spectacle of the body in pain. A victim would often be placed on the rack naked or nearly so, and their taut skin would run with the sweat of their agonies.

Probably the most widely used instrument of torture, the rack is to date back to the ancient Greeks. The basic idea of the rack may have originated in the Greek legend of the giant bandit Procrustes. It was rumored that he possessed a bed made of iron that was the right size for any guest. After luring unwary travelers to sleep on the iron bed, he would stretch them to fit – tall travelers had their legs or head lopped off and fed to a giant tortoise. The rack was used since antiquity, being used on St. Vincent and mentioned by the Church Fathers Tertullian (on extraction of confessions from criminals and on persisting Christian “sacrilegers” against the state religion) and St. Jerome (used on a woman according to his first letter).

There are few records of its use before the Middle Ages but during the Spanish Inquisition from the middle of the 13th century onwards there was an increase in its use. The Medieval period of the Middle Ages was violent, and blood thirsty. In these barbarous times the cruel and pitiless torturers were induced to inflict the horrors of tortures, including the Rack, on prisoners by Stretching and Dislocation. Torture methods, devices and instruments were used to inflict the deliberate, systematic, cruel and wanton infliction of physical and mental suffering. There were no laws or rules to protect the treatment of prisoners who faced torture, such as the Rack by Stretching and Dislocation. Torture was seen as a totally legitimate means for justice to extract confessions, obtain the names of accomplices, obtain testimonies or confessions.

At the Tower of London the rack was sometimes claimed as the invention of the Duke of Exeter, a 15th-century Constable of the Tower and so in the 16th-century it was nicknamed The Duke of Exeter’s Daughter although other sources called it “the brake”. During the religious ferment that gripped England in the 16th-century, the rack was used freely not only by the Catholic Queen Mary, but by those monarchs who had broken with Rome – Henry VIII, Edward VI and Elizabeth I.

Click here to see full gallery with inquisition by the rack >

A famous victim of the rack was Anne Askew who was one of the women stretched on the Rack due to her religious beliefs. Anne Askew ((1521-1546) was an English writer and Protestant who was persecuted as a heretic. Anne Askew distributed books about the Protestant faith which had been banned by the authorities. Anne Askew was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London. It was believed that Katherine Parr, the sixth wife of King Henry VIII, was a heretic who shared the Protestant views of Anne Askew. Torture was ordered as a way to obtain names of other heretics and to get Anne Askew to implicate the Queen. Sir William Kingston was the Constable of the Tower of London. He was a man hardened by the sights he had witnessed in the Tower but even he refused to see women stretched on the rack. Thomas Wriothesley and Richard Rich took over the role of chief torturers and Anne Askew had to face the ordeal of the rack again. Anne Askew refused to implicate anyone else and was sentence to death by being Burned at the Stake. Brave Anne Askew was carried to execution in a chair because she could not walk after her torture of being stretched on the rack. A chair was tied to the stake and she was burnt alive at the tender age of just 25 years old. Anne Askwe will always be remembered as one of the women stretched on the rack.

Click here to see full gallery with Medieval interrogation by the rack >

Under Queen Elizabeth I, one of the chief interrogators was Thomas Norton. On 27 March 1582 he wrote to the man credited with creating the English secret service, Sir Francis Walsingham: “None was put to the rack that was not at first by some manifest evidence known to the Council to be guilty of treason, so that it was well assured beforehand that there was no innocent tormented. Also none was tormented to know whether he was guilty or not, but for the Queen’s safety to know the manner of the treason and the accomplices.”

Although many variations of the rack have been used throughout the centuries, the basic principle has always been the same – to stretch the victim’s body. The rack stood about one metre from the ground. It was a machine consisting of a rectangular wooden frame. The wooden frame had a roller at each end. The victim’s feet were manacled to one roller, and the wrists were manacled to the other. A handle and ratchet were attached to the top roller and were turned very gradually stepwise to increase the tension on the chains. The victim was tied across a board by his ankles and wrists. The rollers at either end of the board were turned, pulling the body in opposite directions. The victims body was initially stretched. Limbs would be dislocated and prolonged use would end with limbs being torn from their sockets inducing excruciating pain. This caused terrible pain for the victim as well as increasing physical damage as the torture continued. Tendons were ripped, joints separated and bones fractured. The sounds of muscles and tendons tearing and snapping provided audible signs of the damage being done. A victim of the rack was often left with permanent physical disability. For example, because of injuries suffered after being racked three times the Jesuit priest Edmund Campion was unable to raise his hand to swear at his trial. Dislocated joints were the most common problem, but the most serious one was the breaking apart of the spine or spinal vertebrae.

When the victim was securely fastened on the rack, the questions to which answers were desired were put to him. Failure to reply satisfactorily was the signal for the two executioners to commence operating the levers. The result was the stretching of the victim’s limbs and body. If persisted in, this was bound to cause dislocation of the joints or to drag off the members. In some cases the limbs were stretched in much the same manner as on the rack but by means of ropes and pulleys attached to rings or staples in the walls. Occasionally the tortures of the rack were varied or increased by the use of cords in addition to the stretching mechanism. The arms and legs were bound to the sides of the rack with thin but strong cords. These cords were wound around each limb three times, and a stick was inserted in each. When all was ready for the torture to commence, the executioners twisted these sticks, thus gradually tightening the cords and causing them to cut into the flesh until the bones were reached, inflicting terrible wounds.

Sometime this method was limited to dislocating a few bones, but the torturer often went too far and rendered the legs or arms (sometimes both) useless. In the late Middle Ages, some new variants of this device appeared. They often had spikes that penetrated the victim’s back – as the limbs were pulled apart, so was his spinal cord increasing not only the physical pain, but the psychological one of being handicapped at best, too.

The spread-eagled posture left no part of the body invulnerable from the application of other devices like hot irons or pincers, (luckily by that point, the hot irons would be a cake walk) or immune from the attention of those gathered to observe the torture.

In theory there were rules about the use of torture. For example, people were not meant to be tortured to death or tortured repeatedly. People who were physically weak were not mean to be tortured because they might not survive the process. Attempts were made to start with “milder” tortures before moving on to the rack if all else failed.

This method was mostly used to extract confessions, as not confessing meant that the torturer could stretch more. Sometimes, torturers forced their victim to watch other people be tortured with this device to implant psychological fear. It was standard procedure to show the prisoner the rack first, and then to repeat the questions: only if the prisoner remained obstinate should the rack actually be used. Some people did stay silent and were then tortured.


Inquisition World – Medieval torture of witches!


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5 Responses to The Rack – Torture Device

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  • Master Wryter says:

    Well interesting site. Will say that to me the ” wooden pony is beyond a doubt the best device ever devised for female torment. Its perfect

  • MstrAlex says:

    There is an excellent rack at APEX in Phoenix. It is the same rack that was in Larrys Bar in Hollywood in the 50ies and 60ies. We believe it was originally built by Paramont Studios for use in a movie during the 30ies or 40ies. (This is according to the publisher of The Leather Journal) I have pictures of this rack if there is interest

    MstrAlex

1 of 11

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