Sometimes before being burned at the stake or dispatched on the wheel, the prisoner's flesh was torn with Red-hot Pincers. These Pincers were a set of large iron tongs, the ends of which were plunged into a smoking metal pan full of burning coals or charcoal. For men, the executioner would withdraw the Red-hot Pincers from the burning coals and rip several gaping wounds in the arms and torso. On women, the Red-hot Pincers were used to slice of her breasts (Paine 89). For added humiliation, the torn bloody breast was then forced into the victim's mouth (Seth 144).
Often executioners had a special tool for this early modern mastectomy called the spider. This was also kept red-hot along with the pincers in the burning coals. If, during of the stages of torture, a confession were gained, the torture technician would warn their victims saying, "If you intend to deny what you have confessed, tell me now and I will do better. If you deny before the court, you come back to my hands and you will find that I have only played with you thus far; I will treat you so that it would draw tears from a stone" (Sidky 140).
Clearly, the German methods of obtaining confession from those accused of witchcraft were violent and extreme. The brutality had a purpose; this attack of the flesh was an effort to save the soul. The most brutal physical cruelties routinely inflicted upon accused in Germany were quite common throughout continental Europe. England, on the other hand, managed to prosecute their witches without these brutal methods. Torture was by law illegal in England so, witch-finders had to use devices and techniques that left no marks on the victim, therefore, the witch-finder's tools and methods had to be much smaller and mobile.
A case would be thrown out of court if the victim could prove they had been tortured into giving an obvious false confession. Therefore, the witch-finders of England drew up a series of pricking tests. Furthermore, simple actions such as walking, sleep deprivation or starvation had to become extremely painful method of extracting the needed confession. These tests and techniques did however, meet the definition of torture, and the English witch-finders accrued an almost equal number of convictions as their counterparts in Germany.
While German torturers used isolation and sleep deprivation as a preliminary torture, taking place in the cell before entering the chamber for more painful agony, the English witch-finder took it one step further. This less overt torture was called "waking the witch" (Hole 62). It had the advantage of leaving no marks or traces of physical abuse on the victim. For that reason, the confession was all the more likely to be accepted by the jury deliberating the case.
One method of this torture involved fitting the suspect with an iron bridle, which was then attached to a wall by a chain so short that the prisoner was unable to lie down to rest. If the suspect showed any signs of falling asleep, the man guarding the prisoner would intervene to keep the man or woman awake. An alternative method of this torture involved placing the suspect tightly bound and cross-legged on a stool for up to 24 hours straight and frequently longer (Hole 63). This was especially painful and quickly effective in elderly suspects.
The weight of their body would stop circulation of their blood and throbbing from not eating or sleeping would cause them such delirium as to confess to anything that the witch-finder might accuse of them of. Another torture similar to waking the witch that left no traces of physical abuse on the victim was called "walking the witch" (Hole 63). While somewhat misnamed, this torture involved the accused witch being kept awake in a room and forced to run back and forth day and night until she were out of breath.
The victim would become so delirious and weary that again, she would confess to almost anything to stop the madness of her torture (Seth 103). The most persistent of all the English witch-finder tests was the swimming ordeal or "ducking the witch. " The accused witch was tied with ropes and hung over a pool or river in the belief that the water, considered sacred, would reject the witch and prove their guilt (Seth 99). If she floated, she was guilty. Another form of this torture did not involve hanging with ropes.
The accused witch was simply bound with one arm tied to the opposite leg and vice versa. The accused witch was then thrown in to pool with no means of retrieve in view (Hole 67). If the accused witch sank, they were considered innocent. This form of trial continued in most European countries for sometime after their inhabitants had converted to Christianity, and the association of holy water with baptism strengthened the original pagan conception. In England, it was considered a legal trial until the thirteenth century when Henry III abolished it.
It was governed by set rules that made swimming a person without jurisdiction illegal and punishable by a fine. The popular faith in its effectiveness, however, could not be eradicated and it was often practiced against the law, usually at the request of the accused (Hole 68). Another witch-finding technique used for drawing out a confession was called pressing. This was used until the late 1700's when it was finally abolished, most likely due to the number of deaths involved. The accused witch would be held to the ground and her arms would be tied to stakes in the shape of a cross.
Next, a stone the size of a fist would be placed under the accused witch's back. If the witch refused to confess, the first weight would be placed upon them. More stone weights were added until the accused witch confessed. Occasionally, the ribs broken by the weights would pierce the skin and internal organs and the stubborn victim would die of internal bleeding (Farrington 37-39). The abolition of torture in Europe occurred over several marked periods. Overall, it was part of a general revision of criminal law systems (Peters 89).
Europe, however, seemed to be waiting to see what legislative reform might produce before completely abolishing torture and the general review of criminal law. In Germany, even though the desire to condemn was still strong, the people were growing bankrupt. Because of this, rules were made and enforced, restricting the fees and costs of examinations and examiners. So as the battle funds vanished so did the fanaticism of the witch-hammers (Sidky 151). In England, the fall of the witch-finder began with criticisms of his methods and condemnations of decent suspects such as clergy (Seth 101).
Rapidly, powerful clerics and people of power began to protest, in writing, that there was little need for these witch-finders. Thus in the face of this growing opposition, the English witch-finders slowly faded away into retirement, living on their much amassed discovery fees (Seth 103). It will never be possible to know with certainty how many people in Europe were prosecuted for witchcraft, or how many suffered death or some lesser punishment after conviction. Records were kept but not everywhere and many of those that were have been lost or destroyed.
Some, I assume, have not yet been discovered or examined. No matter the differences in torture techniques, the methods used normally yielded the desired confession. When all is done one will lie if it means life and saves one from death.
Hole, Christina. Witchcraft in England. Great Britain: B. T. Batsford LTD. , 1945. Cardoza, Tom. Making of the Modern World Lecture. UCSD: Summer Session I, 2001. Paine, Lauran. Sex in Witchcraft. New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1972.