10 Most Terrifying Torture Devices of the 20th Century

Torture is something some might think went the way of The Inquisition in the Middle Ages, but it hasn’t disappeared. Far from it. In fact, there was still a lot of torture taking place at the hand of secret police agencies in South America as well as in other countries in the 20th century. It was – and is – also used as part of the system of judicial punishments in some nations, and recent events in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay show that the hands of western democracies aren’t clean either. Here we look at ten of the most terrifying torture devices and methods used in the modern era.

10. Fingernail Torture Device

The SAVAK were Iran’s US-backed secret police (one of their members is pictured above). They used fingernail torture regularly as punishment or in interrogations. This cruel method of torture involves the extraction of the victim’s nail, often by forcing pliers, forceps or a tool built for the purpose (as in the image) under the nail. To make it more painful, the torturer sometimes heats the instrument until it is red hot.

9. Waterboard

Waterboarding is a vile torture technique that has been in use since pre-colonial times but unfortunately continues to be practiced to this day. It consists of tying a prisoner down on a board or a table made for the purpose. Water is then poured over the victim’s face and nasal passages to recreate the sensation of drowning. By all accounts it is a terrifying experience, and the direct physical effects are as severe as the psychological ones. According to Wikipedia: “Waterboarding can cause extreme pain, dry drowning, damage to lungs, brain damage from oxygen deprivation, other physical injuries including broken bones due to struggling against restraints, lasting psychological damage and, if uninterrupted, death. Adverse physical consequences can manifest themselves months after the event, while psychological effects can last for years.” It was considered such a serious form of torture that the Americans hanged Japanese prisoners who had practiced waterboarding on World War II POWs. It was also used during the Vietnam War by the Khmer Rouge and has been practiced by the CIA on a top al-Qaida figure.


8. Tucker Telephone

The Tucker telephone was a torture device invented by a physician at the Tucker State Prison Farm in Arkansas in the 1960s. It incorporated an old-fashioned crank telephone wired to battery cells. A ground wire was wrapped around the big toe of a prisoner and the hot wire was wrapped around the genitals. The crank was then turned, inflicting a horrible electric shock on the victim. This could – and did – lead to cases of organ damage and insanity. Its use was confirmed up until 1968, and there are also reports from Vietnam veterans that it was used on Vietcong prisoners using manipulated field telephones.

Image: Rama


7. Taser

The taser is an electroshock weapon – as are many modern torture devices – designed to stop the voluntary control of the victim’s muscles. Used by police departments around the world, it has two models: one with a cartridge the effects of which were just mentioned, and a drive stun model that is placed directly on the body and is used solely to cause “pain compliance”. Nice phrasing for what is, according to the UN, an instrument of torture – as victims are often in custody, or effectively in custody. Amnesty International has described their use as, in some cases, “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment which is absolutely prohibited under international law.” Needless to say, the capacity for abuse of this weapon by countries or individuals that do not bind themselves to the rule of law is great.

6. Cat O’ Nine Tails

The infamous cat o’ nine tails is still used in countries today as judicial punishment, and not all such instruments of torture are simple nine-tailed floggers. Some have barbed wire attached to the tails to inflict further pain and damage. Floggings with ‘the cat’ have even resulted in death. Among the countries that use it today are Antigua, Barbuda, and Barbados – all of which reinstated its use in the early nineties – and Trinidad and Tobago, which never outlawed its use. In fact, the latter country has not only been accused of torture and cruel treatment of prisoners, but in 2005 was ordered by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to pay US $50,000 for “moral damages” and psychiatric and physical care to a prisoner who had received 15 strokes. It is an effective and barbaric way to mete out punishment, all too often used, even with international law against it.


5. Pillory

The pillory has been in use for hundreds of years, and was traditionally placed in a public square for public humiliation. It was generally used for more serious crimes than the stocks, and more dangerous crimes too, as criminals were pelted with everything from rotten food to stones that could cause death. The above image from New Castle County Jail in Delaware shows how this device was also used as a whipping post, a combination of pillory and post, if you will. The pillory continued to be in use at least until 1907 in Delaware, the year in which the photograph above was taken.

4. Picana

The picana was invented in the 1930s and consists of a wand or prod that gives a high voltage, low current electric shock to a victim. The parents of the photographer who took the shot above were both tortured in Chile’s notorious Villa Grimaldi complex on beds like those pictured. Because of the low electrical current, the picana can be used for extended periods of time. The victims of this form of torture have often had water thrown on them to make the skin more sensitive to the shocks. This device is manufactured specifically for torture, and those selling it thus keep details about it quiet.


Image: Galagom


3. Branding Iron

Special instruments for branding are not needed, even though torture specialists might have them. Branding has been a punishment for hundreds of years, and has been used not just against men but against women, too, for crimes such as prostitution. And, make no mistake, its use still continues to this day, as a 2011 news MSNBC report reveals: in Malaysia, opposition leader Teresa Kok spoke out about the treatment of 30 foreign prostitutes, saying: “The police branded the detained women as though they are cattle… It is sickening that the police would employ such dehumanizing tactics as a show of power and moral superiority over their detainees.”

Image: unknown

2. Cattle Prod

The cattle prod is another modern torture device – despite the torture of humans clearly not being its intended use. Before other electroshock weapons like tasers were widely in use, the cattle prod began to be used on people during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Recently, a video surfaced showing the crown prince of Abu Dhabi’s brother inserting one into the anus of an Afghani businessman with whom he had had a disagreement.


1. Strappado Equipment

This method of torture is incredibly painful. The victim’s arms are tied behind their back and then a rope is tied to their wrists and they are suspended in the air. This torture has been used in some form or other throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, often incorporating electric shocks (as this image shows) to add extra pain. Such shocks aside, suspending someone this way can and often does dislocate their shoulders. The North Vietnamese Army and Khmer Rouge both used this torture technique, and in more modern times, Turkey and the USA have done, too. According to Human Rights Watch, Turkey has added other ‘enhancements’ to strappado, including high pressure water, electric shock, beating and sexual harassment. In 1996, the European Court of Human Rights found Turkey guilty of torture for using strappado, or reverse hanging. A form of strappado was also used in Abu Ghraib, where victims were tied to a table and kept in this position for up to two days in what was called “stress positioning”.

As we have seen, torture is not just a social fact from the Middle Ages that might be excused on the grounds that people did not known any better back then. It was still practiced during the 20th century and its effects were intensified with the invention of electricity. What’s more, it continues today in more painful forms than ever before.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10