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The thumbscrew was a notoriously effective torture device used in medieval times to get a prisoner to confess

David Goran

In Europe, from the medieval times, there were a set of tools which were approved for extracting confessions. One of them was the Thumbscrew, a simple device designed to crush prisoners’ thumbs or fingers.

It was a method primarily used to extract confessions as it was both painful and caused lasting damage.

Used for purposes of torture in medieval times. Photo Credit

Used for purposes of torture in medieval times. Photo Credit

 

Common method of inflicting intense pain on prisoners. Photo Credit

A common method of inflicting intense pain on prisoners. Photo Credit

 

Thumbscrew from the Prisongate in The Hague. 1926. Photo Credit

Thumbscrew from the Prisongate in The Hague. 1926. Photo Credit

Despite the size of the device, it was effective enough to crush the bones of the fingers. European thumbscrews used for torture were usually made of metal and accommodated two fingers or thumbs at the same time.

Thumb screw 17, Century. Photo Credit

Thumb screw 17, Century. Photo Credit

 

Scottish thumbscrew. Photo Credit

Scottish thumbscrew. Photo Credit

The devices were very useful to interrogators as they were a portable means of torture and not restricted to the confines of the torture chamber.

The thumbscrews were often used against the Africans involved in uprisings during the Atlantic slave trade from the 16th to 19th century. Photo Credit

The thumbscrews were often used against the Africans involved in uprisings during the Atlantic slave trade from the 16th to 19th century. Photo Credit

The device consisted of three upright metal bars, between which the thumbs were placed. A prisoner would place his thumbs between the two flat metal pieces, connected by one or more screws and slowly crushed as the torturer turned the handle on top, pressing the thumbs against the bottom.

The crushing bars were sometimes lined with sharp metal points to puncture the thumbs and inflict greater pain in the nail beds.

It was a small device that inflicted extreme pain without too much effort. Photo Credit

It was a small device that inflicted extreme pain without too much effort. Photo Credit

A screw pressed the wood bar downward, crushing the thumbs painfully. Photo Credit

A screw pressed the wood bar downward, crushing the thumbs painfully. Photo Credit

Another common application of the thumbscrew was to crush a victim’s toes. Variants of thumbscrews existed in many other shapes and purposes.

 

Thumbscrew at the Casa El Purgatorio museum in Guanajuato, Mexico. Photo Credit

Thumbscrew at the Casa El Purgatorio museum in Guanajuato, Mexico. Photo Credit

A larger variant of this torture was used to crush knees, arms and even heads. All of these variants were most commonly employed during different inquisition episodes in the medieval period.

17th century thumbscrew, Märkisches Museum, Berlin Märkisches Museum Berlin. Photo Credit

A 17th-century thumbscrew, Märkisches Museum, Berlin Märkisches Museum Berlin. Photo Credit

The thumbscrew had many other prevalent names in medieval Europe.

Another story on medieval torture devices: The Pear of Anguish: medieval torture device used against women accused of witchcraft.

It was called by the name of thumbkin and also thumbikin. The terms pillywinks and pilnie-winks were also used.