9 Insane Torture Techniques

So you think your mother-in-law is torturous? Or your boss with the lame sense of humor? Get a load of the following nine insane torture techniques used in different parts of the world to kill, dismember, or otherwise cause inordinate amounts of pain. We promise: you'll never use the word torturous the same way again.

1. Chinese Bamboo Torture

As you probably know, bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants on earth. Although there's no real proof that it was used, Chinese Bamboo Torture took advantage of bamboo's propensity to grow quickly. How quickly? Well, some varieties in parts of China grow as much as three feet in a single day. In addition to ancient China, many believe that the Japanese used Chinese Bamboo Torture on POWs during WWII.

How it worked:

1. Tips of living bamboo were cut sharp to create a spear.
2. The victim was suspended horizontally above such a patch of bamboo.
3. The bamboo pierced through the victim's skin and continued to grow through his abdomen, ultimately causing one of the most painful deaths ever inflicted.

Watch the Mythbusters prove that Chinese Bamboo Torture is possible.

2. The Iron Maiden

Like bamboo torture, the Iron Maiden is sometimes thought to be fictional. But this torture technique, using an upright sarcophagus with spikes on the inner surfaces, definitely existed. Invented in the late 18th century, this is the device that the metal band Iron Maiden took their name from.

How it worked:

1. The victim was forced into the spiked sarcophagus and shut in.
2. The short spikes welded into the chamber weren't long enough to kill anyone, but did plenty of damage and inflicted enough pain that an interrogator on the outside was usually able to get a confession.
3. If not, nails and other sharp objects like knives, were inserted into the chamber, inflicting more pain.
4. Generally, between the spikes and the knives, victims would bleed to death after said confession, or sometimes before.
5. Some Iron Maidens also had spikes in place to puncture the eyes.

3. Scaphism (aka "The Boats")

The word scaphism comes from the Greek word skaphe, meaning scooped or hollowed. An ancient Persian method of torture, wherein the victim was eaten alive by bugs, scaphism was also known as "the boats" for reasons you'll understand momentarily.

How it worked:

1. A captive was stripped naked and chained to a pair of back-to-back narrow rowboats or hollowed out tree trunks.
2. The captive was then left to float on a stagnant pond.
3. He was then force fed copious amounts of milk and honey.
4. The victim would develop serious diarrhea, which would in turn attract insects.
5. The insects would then feed on the victim's exposed flesh.

4. The Choke Pear

The Choke Pear was popular during the Middle Ages. Crimes worthy of choke pear torture included blasphemy, lying, having a miscarriage, and homosexual intercourse. Depending on the crime, the torturer would insert the pear into a different part of the criminal's body. Women usually got it in the vagina, homosexuals in the anus, and liars and blasphemers in the mouth.

How it worked:

1. An instrument consisting of sharpened leaf-like segments was inserted into the victim's orifice.
2. The torturer turned a screw at the top, causing the leafs to open, slowly.
3. As the leafs separated, severe internal mutilation occurred.

5. The Brazen Bull

Designed in ancient Greece, the Brazen Bull was a hollowed brass bull statue designed and invented by Perillos of Athens, commissioned, if you will, by Phalaris, the tyrant of Acragas in Sicily.

How it worked:

1. Victims were locked into the hollowed brass bull.
2. A fire was lit under the bull.
3. The victim was roasted alive.
4. The design of the bull's head was such that the victim's screams were made to sound like the bull roaring.
5. The scorched remains were often made into bracelets and sold at market.

6. Rat Torture

One of the most widely recognized forms of bizarre torture, thanks in part to the movie 2 Fast 2 Furious, rat torture is thought to be an ancient Chinese technique. Below, however, we'll describe a particular form of rat torture developed by Diederik Sonoy, a leader during the Dutch revolt of the 16th century.

How it worked:

1. A prisoner was chained down naked on a table.
2. Large, heavy bowls with disease-infected rats were placed open-side down on the prisoner.
3. Hot charcoal was piled on top of the bowls, agitating the rats.
4. In an attempt to escape from the hot bowls, the rats would gnaw their way through the victim's flesh.

7. Judas Cradle

The Spanish Inquisition was known for its many torture devices, and the Judas Cradle was one of the most painful. Also known as the Judas chair, victims usually died of infection, as the seat was never cleaned between uses.

How it worked:

1. The victim was placed on top of a pyramid-shaped seat, with both legs tied together.
2. The chair's point was usually inserted into the anus or vagina, stretching the orifice.
3. The victim was slowly lowered via ropes.
4. The torture might last a few hours or, sometimes, a few days.

8. Crushing by Elephant

For thousands of years, crushing by elephant was a commonly practiced form of torture in Southeast Asia and India. Given the animals' sheer weight, intelligence and susceptibility to training (as we know from the circus), elephants were an obvious choice.

How it worked:

1. Victims were tied down on the floor.
2. Elephants were led into the room to stomp on the victim's head.
3. Often they prolonged the agony by first dismembering victims.

9. The Rack

What short list of torture techniques would be complete without the infamous rack? Consisting of a long wooden board and a couple of rollers, the rack was first used on early Christian martyrs like Vincent of Saragossa, who was tortured to death around the year 300. And, as we've seen all too often in bad Hollywood films, as interrogation assistance, simply forcing a prisoner to watch someone else suffering on the rack was generally enough to get him talking. Anyone who survived the rack was generally unable to use his muscles for the remainder of his life. Good times!

How it worked:

1. The victim was chained to rollers at both ends of the device's wooden frame and then pulled in opposite directions.
2. By ratcheting up the tension on the rollers, the victim's limbs were ripped out of their sockets.

15 Historic Diseases that Competed with Bubonic Plague

Jan Josef Horemans, Interior with a surgeon and his apprentice attending to a patient (1722), Wellcome Collection // CC BY-NC 4.0
Jan Josef Horemans, Interior with a surgeon and his apprentice attending to a patient (1722), Wellcome Collection // CC BY-NC 4.0

In 1665, about a quarter of all Londoners died of the Great Plague—but bubonic plague was not the only deadly disease circulating in the city. A published register, called London’s Dreadful Visitation, or, A Collection of All the Bills of Mortality, recorded the causes of death and the number of victims in London between December 20, 1664 and December 19, 1665. The systematic, parish-by-parish tally reveals the rapid spread of plague throughout the capital: a total of one victim, recorded in the first week, increased to 7165 during the week of September 12-19, 1665.

But quite a few Londoners met their fates in other ways. Here’s a look into the antiquated diseases that managed to kill those that Yersinia pestis couldn’t catch.

1. Winde

Winde is listed throughout the Bills as a constant cause of death. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, winde referred to paroxysms of severe gastrointestinal pain, which could have been symptoms of numerous diseases.

2. Purples

Purples described purple blotches on the skin caused by broken blood vessels, indicative of an underlying illness, such as scurvy or a circulation disorder. It could also mean the most severe stage of smallpox.

3. Livergrown

People who died of livergrown suffered from an enlarged (or failing) liver. Doctors could diagnose it through the combination of other symptoms, like jaundice and abdominal pain. It was commonly a result of alcoholism, but could be caused by a number of disorders.

4. Chrisomes

Infant mortality was extremely high before the advent of modern medicine. The Bills distinguished abortive (miscarried), stillborn, infant, and chrisom deaths—the latter term specified infants who died within the first month of life, around the time they were baptized with special white cloths (which were called chrisomes).

5. Rising of the Lights

18th century illustration of lungs and heart
Jacques-Fabien Gautier d'Agoty, The Lungs and the Heart (1754), Wellcome Collection // CC BY-NC 4.0

Physicians and scholars have debated the origin of the term rising of the lights. According to the OED, the condition indicated any kind of illness characterized by a hoarse cough, difficulty breathing, or a choking sensation. Croup, asthma, pneumonia, and emphysema were all culprits.

6. Timpany

The condition of having serious swelling or bloating in the digestive tract, which produces a hollow sound when tapped, is still called tympany today. The sort that would have proven fatal to humans could have been caused by kidney disease, intestinal infections, or cancerous tumors.

7. Tissick

The term tissick, a corruption of phthisis, originated in ancient Greek and persisted through Latin, French, and English for thousands of years, only to end up an obsolete word referring to a “wasting disease of the lungs,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. In the 17th century, that could indicate the wheezing and coughing associated with asthma, bronchitis, or possibly tuberculosis.

8. Meagrome or Megrim

We recognize this obscurely spelled ailment as migraine. During the years of the Great Plague, any internal head trauma, from an aneurysm to a brain tumor, would be filed under megrim.

9. Imposthume

Imposthume was a swelling, cyst, or abscess, usually filled with pus or other putrescence. At the same time that it was being recorded as a cause of death, imposthume took on a metaphorical meaning and referred to an egotistical or corrupt person “swollen” with pride.

10. Head Mould Shot

In newborns, the bony plates of the skull are not fused together, which makes it easier to fit through the birth canal. Head mould shot described a condition where the cranial bones were so compressed by delivery that they overlapped (or overshot) each other and caused fatal pressure on the brain. Today, the condition, now known as craniosynostosis, is treatable with surgery.

11. Quinsie

18th century illustration of a woman getting her throat examined in a pharmacy

Quinsie, which evolved from a Latin word meaning “choke,” is still occasionally used in modern England. It describes a complication of tonsillitis in which an abscess grows between the tonsil and the throat. Unless the abscess was removed, a patient could suffocate from the blockage.

12. Surfeit

A surfeit means an excess of something. In the Bills of Mortality, it’s hard to identify the substance in question. Sometimes, as in the case of King Henry I and his lampreys, it can refer to overeating a food that becomes poisonous if taken in large enough quantities.

13. French Pox

When people across Europe came down with syphilis beginning in the 1490s, they blamed the French. (Perhaps they should have blamed Christopher Columbus and the Spanish, whom historians believe brought the bacterial infection back from the New World.) Rightly or wrongly, French pox is what the Bills of Mortality lists for deaths by advanced syphilis, whose symptoms included rash, blindness, organ failure, and tissue necrosis.

14. Bloody Flux

Dysentery, a.k.a. bloody flux, was common among densely crowded Londoners without clean drinking water. People contracted dysentery from food or water contaminated with one of several pathogens, and its main symptom was bloody diarrhea (the aforementioned flux) and severe dehydration.

15. Plannet

Plannet is likely a shorthand for “planet-struck.” Many medical practitioners believed the planets influenced health and sanity. A person who was planet-stricken had been suddenly maligned by the forces of particular planets. They would likely present symptoms also associated with aneurysms, strokes, and heart attacks.

The American Museum of Natural History Moves Its Great Canoe—for the First Time in 60 Years—to Its Revitalized Northwest Coast Hall

From left to right: Kaa-xoo-auxc (Garfield George), Jisgang (Nika Collison), Megan Humchitt, Haa’yuups (Ron Hamilton), and Chief Wigviłba Wákas (Harvey Humchitt) performing traditional ceremony before the move of the Great Canoe at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
From left to right: Kaa-xoo-auxc (Garfield George), Jisgang (Nika Collison), Megan Humchitt, Haa’yuups (Ron Hamilton), and Chief Wigviłba Wákas (Harvey Humchitt) performing traditional ceremony before the move of the Great Canoe at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
©AMNH/D. Finnin

The Great Canoe at New York City's American Museum of Natural History is one of the largest dugout canoes on Earth. Suspended from the ceiling of the Grand Gallery, it appeared weightless. Visitors entering from 77th Street may have assumed the canoe was built for the space, like the museum's massive blue whale model. But the real history of the vessel can be traced back 150 years to the Pacific Northwest. Now, as the artifact moves locations for the first time in 60 years, AMNH is working with First Nations advisors to strengthen the connections between the new exhibit and its past.

On January 28, 2020, the Great Canoe was rolled in a custom cradle from the Grand Gallery to the neighboring Northwest Coast Hall. Design elements of the Great Canoe indicate it came from the Heiltsuk and Haida nations on Canada's Pacific coast, but the identities of its builders and many other details of its construction remain a mystery. A group of representatives from First Nation communities in British Columbia kicked off the event with traditional song and prayer. They concluded the ceremony by circling the boat and blowing tufts of eagle down over it. The Indigenous representatives then explained the significance of canoes to all First Nations in the region.

"Canoes are absolutely central to the cultures of all the people who are represented here today," Nuu-chah-nulth artist and cultural historian Haa'yuups, or Ron Hamilton, who's co-curating the renovation of the Northwest Coast Hall, said. "All of our people made their livings not long ago in and out of the sea [...] From birth until death, our people lived in and out of canoes."

Moving the Great Canoe at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
©AMNH/M. Shanley

Even to cultures built around sea travel, the canoe at AMNH is exceptional. It measures 63 feet long and was dug out of a single Western red cedar tree. The body was carved in the 1870s, and it's possible that the orca and raven illustrations and the seawolf figurehead were added after its initial construction. AMNH trustee Heber Bishop acquired the piece for the museum in the late 19th century, and following a journey that included travel on a ship, train, and horse-drawn carriage, it arrived in New York in 1883. The Great Canoe was displayed in the Northwest Coast Hall from 1899 to 1960, when it was moved to the Grand Gallery where it resided most recently. January's move marks the boat's return to the hall after a six-decade absence.

The relocation is part of the museum's two-and-a-half-year revitalization of the Northwest Coast Hall. The exhibit includes hundreds of objects and nearly a dozen totem poles, all of which originate from the same general region of the world as the canoe. Like the canoe, the stories of many of these artifacts have been lost or misinterpreted over the years—largely because none of their original owners were involved in getting them onto the museum floor.

AMNH is determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past with this new project. By seeking the counsel of 10 First Nation advisors, each coming from a different nation represented in the hall, the museum hopes to reflect their cultures in a rich, accurate light. "[Collaboration] is something we definitely try to encourage, specifically in relation to conservation," museum curator of North American ethnology Peter Whitely tells Mental Floss. "We really want it to be a participatory collaboration, because long-term, it's our responsibility to these communities to continue a pattern of mutual engagement."

Jisgang (Nika Collison), Haa’yuups (Ron Hamilton), Kaa-xoo-auxc (Garfield George), Chief Wigviłba Wákas (Harvey Humchitt), and Judith Levenson in the Objects Conservation Laboratory at the American Museum of Natural History.
From left to right: Jisgang (Nika Collison), Haa’yuups (Ron Hamilton), Kaa-xoo-auxc (Garfield George), Chief Wigviłba Wákas (Harvey Humchitt), and Judith Levenson in the Objects Conservation Laboratory at the American Museum of Natural History.
©AMNH/D. Finnin

Jisang, or Nika Collison, of the Ts'aah clan of the Haida Nation, spoke of her role as advisor following the canoe move ceremony. The museum sends her digital images of the artifacts being restored—that way, when she's home, she can consult with other members of her community and dig up context for each piece. "We get these great big files with these digital photos so you can go home and work with the carvers or the weavers that know things," she said. One photo she received showed a wolf mask missing its ears: "My brother was going through it, and he said, 'I think I found the ears,' because they were labeled as a separate piece."

The Northwest Coast Hall is currently closed for the revitalization effort, and in 2021, it will reopen with the Great Canoe in its new position suspended from the ceiling. In the meantime, advisors will continue working with the museum to update the collection. "We’re putting our treasures back together," Collison said, "because that’s the history of museums, that a lot of things came in without our knowledge to go along with it."

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