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BMJ. Aug 11, 2001; 323(7308): 346.
PMCID: PMC1120948

Torture: European Instruments of Torture and Capital Punishment from the Middle Ages to Present

Gavin Yamey, deputy editor, wjm—Western Journal of Medicine


Herbst International Exhibition Hall, The Presidio, San Francisco

Until 14 October 2001

One of the most unsettling things about living in the San Francisco bay area is the proximity to death row. California has 601 inmates condemned to die by lethal injection or gas, and the killings take place at San Quentin jail, just a short ferry ride from the city. It is hard to reconcile the area's enlightened politics—on race, sex, and sexuality—with its inhumane treatment of prisoners.

Aldo Migliorini, the curator of “Torture,” a historical exhibition of devices used to inflict suffering and death, wants to remind the people of San Francisco that torture and execution are happening right on their doorstep. The exhibition has the backing of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other activist groups that are campaigning to outlaw the death penalty.

Short descriptions or historical drawings accompany the mostly medieval instruments on display, showing how they were used. There are iron thumbscrews, head squeezers, stretching racks, and interrogation chairs with spikes, many of which were used during the Spanish Inquisition. With piped choral music in the background, and fresh flowers next to some of the most disturbing exhibits, the event feels like a funeral.

There is no guiding chronological or thematic order to the exhibition. This has a disorienting effect, which heightens the difficulty we already face in making sense of the inhumanity on display.

Misogyny and homophobia dominate the history of torture as shown here. Breast rippers, for example, dating from 1300-1700, were used to tear the breasts of women condemned for adultery, pregnancy out of wedlock, self induced abortion, and “erotic white magic.” The vaginal pear was forced into women's vaginas before being screwed open, and was used against women found guilty of “sexual union with Satan.” The rectal pear was used on gay men.

Another theme is the way in which torture is often glorified, sanitised, or even sexualised, by its perpetrators. Many of the woodcuts and prints show torture as a theatrical spectacle. A 19th century print of a nun being flogged shows her breasts exposed, and she has the faint hint of a smile. As the exhibition notes say, the drawing has “an air of sweetness, safety, bloodlessness.”

Artistic representations might attempt to erase the brutality and abuse, but they can never be wholly successful, because we have the power of imagination. We can imagine what it must be like, for example, to experience a torture called the “goat's tongue.” The victims' legs were tied to a tree, and the soles of their feet were moistened with salt water. A tethered, thirsty goat would then lick their feet until the flesh was worn away. We can also imagine the horror of being forced to ride Jock's Mare, a sharp torture instrument that caused gangrene of the scrotum and rectum.

As you wander from one exhibit to the next, you become increasingly numb and withdrawn. Victims of torture often fall into a deep silence after the torture is over, and perhaps our numbness is a form of empathy. You also console yourself with the knowledge that these are historical artefacts from a bygone era.

And this is where the exhibition fails. In displaying these instruments as relics or curiosities, and focusing on the past and not the present, it buys into a comforting sense that nothing as unspeakable could possibly occur today. Even the publicity for the exhibition plays up a ghoulish fascination with medieval atrocities. But torture is still used to intimidate, punish, or interrogate people in more than half of all countries in the world. While there is, at the end of the exhibition, a small display of modern artists' works about execution, this feels like a token.

You won't find the killings at San Quentin mentioned in “Torture.” For that, try a different “exhibition”—the website of the California Department of Corrections (www.cdc.state.ca.us). It shows photographs of the 10 men who have been executed at the jail since 1978, a year after the state restored the death penalty. It names all those living on death row, over half of whom are African American and Hispanic. This injustice is as frightening as anything from medieval times.

The maiden: when closed the screams of its pierced victim were inaudible
The pear was forced into the vagina or rectum before being screwed open

Articles from BMJ : British Medical Journal are provided here courtesy of BMJ Group
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