The thumbscrew was a torture device that would cripple you, potentially maim you, but leave you alive so you could tell your comrades all about the enemy's power.
Throughout history, monarchs, armies, and religious organizations employed any means necessary to maintain power. Often, this included torturing suspects to extract confessions with a variety of cruel and unusual devices. Many of these devices, such as the breaking wheel, seem barbaric by modern standards. Others were much more complex, like the Persian torture method of scaphism.
But torturers eventually learned that, sometimes, the most straightforward tortures were the most effective. Enter, the thumbscrew, a simple vise introduced in Europe during the Middle Ages.
This torture instrument was fairly rudimentary in its design — but that didn’t mean it couldn’t get the job done. Often, as the name would suggest, the instrument was so small as to only fit a single thumb or big toe, at which point it would be placed around the appendage and slowly tightened, so as to crush the aforementioned body part beneath a crushing iron bar.
There were variations, of course. Sometimes, a thumbscrew could fit all five fingers at once, or all 10 toes. Other times, the metal bars were lined with sharp points that stabbed into the body. In every circumstance, though, one thing was certain: it was incredibly painful.
Where Did The Thumbscrew Originate?
Also known as the “thumbkin” or the “pilniewink,” one of the most prominent descriptions of the thumbscrew comes from historians James Cochrane and John McCrone, who, in an 1833 analysis of the writings of Sir Walter Scott, wrote:
“Thus we read, that in 1596, the son and daughter of Aleson Balfour, who was accused of witchcraft, were tortured before her to make her confess her crime in the manner following: Her son was put in the buits where he suffered fifty seven strokes; and her daughter about seven years old, was put in the pilniewinks. In the same case, mention was made, besides pilniewinks, pinniewinks or pilliwinks, of caspitanos or caspicaws, and of tosots, as instruments of torture.”
Cochrane and McCrone suggested that the thumbscrew had made its way to Britain sometime during the 16th century, likely when the Spanish Armada invaded. However, other historians have posited other theories regarding the thumbscrew’s origins.
For example, some scholars have argued that the thumbscrew originated in Russia, where it was used on personnel of the Russian Army as a punishment for misbehaving.
In either case, the thumbscrew eventually made its way to mainland Europe, where it was implemented as a torture device used to illicit confessions from those presumed to be guilty of various crimes — including the artist, Artemisia Gentileschi, who was tortured in court after her father accused his colleague, Agostino Tassi, of raping her.
Tassi’s defense was that Artemisia Gentileschi was “an insatiable whore,” and after enough torture by thumbscrew, Gentileshi acquiesced, telling the court, “It is true, it is true, it is true, it is true.”
How Do Thumbscrews Work?
As George Everett Hussey Macdonald explains in his 1894 treatise Thumbscrew and Rack, three upright metal bars. The middle bar contained threads for the screw. In between the metal bars, the victim’s thumbs were placed. Interrogators would then slowly turn the screw, which pushed a wooden or metal bar onto the thumbs and squeezed them.
Naturally, the pain was agonizing. It was slow at first, but then intensified the more the torturer turned the screw. Someone could tighten the screw quickly or slowly. An interrogator might squeeze someone’s thumbs tightly, wait for several minutes, then make slow turns after that.
In between screams and whimpers, a confession might be given.
Eventually, the thumbscrew would break one or both bones in the thumbs, and the absolute agony made the thumbscrew one of the most effective torture devices in history.
The apparatus inflicted unbelievable pain without killing someone. All the thumbscrew did was crush someone’s thumb. Updated models used short, sharp spikes to cause bleeding. Prisons also used thumbscrews on a frequent basis, but it’s important to note that these devices were portable — they could be used anytime, anywhere.
Slave masters in the Atlantic slave trade made frequent use of thumbscrews to subdue leaders of slave revolts who tried to take over ships making the crossing from Africa to America.
This practice remained in place until the 19th century.
The Lasting Effects Of Thumbscrew Torture
The thumbscrew did more than just inflict pain in the moment; it had lingering effects that altered the course of a person’s life.
For example, the average person still needed opposable thumbs to grip things, such as bows, arrows, swords, and the reins of horses.
It was theoretically possible function without thumbs, but if a person’s thumbs were damaged, it made it much more difficult to handle ordinary implements — even things as simple as using a hoe or opening a door needed to be approached in a completely new way.
Deformed thumbs also made it easier for inquisitors to recognize people they tortured in the past, provided they got out of prison. Tortured people would report back to their fellows that their enemies or captors meant business.
But these devices weren’t solely used on thumbs. Often, torturers would use thumbscrews on other parts of the body, including big toes. Big toes are, notably, crucial for maintaining balance, bearing a significant portion of the weight when someone walks — 40 percent of the weight among all of one’s toes, in fact. It also connects to the heel through a ligament in the foot.
Causing significant damage to a person’s big toe could forever affect their gait, and make it more difficult for prisoners to escape on foot. To make matters worse, big toes are loaded with nerves — which just made the crushing torture even more painful.
The same design was also adapted to be used on larger parts of the body, including arms, legs, and even the head.
In any case, it was painful, slow, and agonizing torture. Victims probably didn’t sleep very much, which made them susceptible to letting the truth slip out during a confession.
Of course, it’s also likely that some confessors lied to try and avoid torture altogether.
So, the next time someone says “You’re screwed,” think about the thumbscrew. Then, hide your thumbs.