Rack (torture)  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The rack is a term for certain physical punishment devices.

The rack consists of an oblong rectangular, usually wooden frame, slightly raised from the ground, with a roller at one, or both, ends, having at one end a fixed bar to which the legs were fastened, and at the other a movable bar to which the hands were tied. The victim's feet are fastened to one roller, and the wrists are chained to the other.

As the interrogation progresses, a handle and ratchet attached to the top roller are used to very gradually stepwise increase the tension on the chains, which induces excruciating pain as the victim's joints slowly dislocate. By means of pulleys and levers this latter could be rolled on its own axis, thus straining the ropes till the sufferers joints were dislocated.

Because of its mechanically precise, graded operation, it was particularly suited for hard interrogation, as to extract a confession.

One gruesome aspect of being stretched too far on the rack is the loud popping noises made by snapping cartilage, ligaments or bones. Eventually, if the application of the rack is continued, the victim's limbs are ripped right off. One powerful method for putting pressure upon a prisoner was to merely force him to view someone else being subjected to the rack.

Indeed, a person stretched on the rack presented the ultimate spectacle of the body in pain. A victim would often be placed on the rack naked or nearly so, and their taut skin would run with the sweat of their agonies. Wrists and ankles would be swollen and bloodied from the bite of ropes or manacles. The spread-eagled posture left no part of the body invulnerable from the application of other devices like hot irons or pincers, or immune from the attention of those gathered to observe the torture.


Early use

It was used since Antiquity, being used on St. Vincent and mentioned by the Church Fathers Tertullian (on extraction of confessions from criminals and on persisting Christian 'sacrilegers' against the state cult) and St. Jerome (used on a woman according to his first letter).

Use in medieval Britain

Its first employment in England is said to have been due to John Holland, 2nd Duke of Exeter, the constable of the Tower in 1447, whence it was popularly known as the Duke of Exeter's daughter. Being tortured on the rack was often referred to as being "put to the question."

In 1628 the whole question of its legality was raised by the attempt of the privy council to rack John Felton, the assassin of the duke of Buckingham. This the judges resisted, unanimously declaring its use to be contrary to the laws of England.

Well known victims of the rack in England include Guy Fawkes, Edmund Campion and Anne Askew, venerable William Carter (1584), the famous Elizabethan dramatist, Thomas Kyd (1592) and Jesuit lay-brother Saint Nicholas Owen (1606).

Use in medieval central Europe

Other well known victim is Saint John Sarkander (1620).

Use by the Inquisition

The Inquisition used the rack as one of their principal methods of torture. (McCall, 1979)

Other punitive positioning contraptions

The term rack is also used, occasionally, for a number of simpler constructions that constitute no such mechanical torture device, but simply to position the victim over for some physical punishment, after which it may be named specifically, e.g. caning rack, since in a given jurisdiction it was often custom or even prescribed to administer any given punishment in a specific position, for which the device (with or without fitting shackling and/or padding) would be chosen or specially made.

A similar device was the intestinal crank. This method of torture involved abdominal incision, separation of the duodenum from the pylorus, and attachment of the upper part of the intestine to the intestinal crank. The crank then could be rotated to extract the intestines from the gastrointestinal cavity of a conscious person, for the purposes of torture (Monestier, 1994).

A similar device appears during a dream sequence in the 2000 movie The Cell.

In popular culture


  • A currently popular method of treating herniated vertebral discs is acheived by using a computerized machine that has the same basic principles of the torture rack. However, this machine does not pull you hard enough to dislocate sockets or tear tissue; instead it is intended to suck disc bulges back into the normal confines of the disc by creating negative pressure inside the disc. An example of one of these machines is the DRX-9000 from Axiom Worldwide.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Rack (torture)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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