12 Jaw-Droppingly Evil Torture Devices Used Throughout History


Humans are incredibly creative when it comes to torture and humiliation, as surviving artifacts of ancient cruelty attest. One of the most illustrious and creative civilizations of all time, the Greeks, produced one of the most famous ancient torture devices, the brazen bull. The Egyptians were similarly adept at brutal ancient torture, and the Romans used pain during interrogation in extremely effective ways. 

During medieval times, a wide range of people, from common criminals to the mentally ill, from those accused of witchcraft to political adversaries, were tortured to death, in many cases unfairly. The bloody, shameful legacy of that dark period is revealed in the following list of surviving artifacts of cruelty displayed in various museums around the world. 

Photo: Wellcome Images / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 4.0

  • The Iron Chair

    The Iron Chair existed in many forms and went by various names, including the Chinese torture chair, the Judas Chair, and the fantastically generic chair of torture. Despite these variants, in pretty much all cases, the victim was seated on brass and placed over an open flame to slowly roast alive.

    A more brutal version (pictured) than the standard flesh-roaster had spikes on the seat, armrests, leg rest, and back. In The History of Torture, author Brian Innes quotes a source on the Roman practice of roasting Christians in such chairs, who wrote, "...their bodies were so scorched that all the people that stood by were savored by the frying."

  • The Head Crusher

    The head crusher was a big hit during the Middle Ages. It was employed as a political tool to strike fear into the hearts of subjects in order to engender compliance with a regime's dictums.

    It was also used to extract confessions from those accused of crimes. 

  • The Knee Splitter

    A favored torture device of the Spanish Inquisition, the knee splitter was built of two wooden blocks lined with large spikes. The blocks were attached by a pair of screws. The victim’s leg was inserted between the spiked blocks and the screws were turned, drawing the blocks together.

    The knee splitter crippled victims by rendering the knee useless.

  • The Breast Ripper

    The Breast Ripper
    Photo: Flominator / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    The torture of women reached sadistic heights in 16th century with the advent of the breast ripper, also known as the iron spider.

    The breast ripper was used as on women accused of blasphemy, witchcraft, or miscarrying on purpose.

  • The Judas Cradle

    The Judas Cradle was a gruesome medieval torture device - if you believe it was a real thing. Certainly, examples exist, though there's some dispute as to whether the device was ever used to torture people. According to sources such as A History of Torture: From Iron Maidens to Vlad's Impalin, the Judas Cradle was initially devised in ancient Rome as a way to deprive people of sleep. It's nastier uses were devised in later centuries. 

    The idea behind the device is relatively simple: The cradle is a stool topped with a pyramid rather than a flat surface. The condemned person was supposedly suspended from ropes above the device and slowly lowered on the tip of the pyramid. After that, the victim was slowly dropped so that their own body weight forced the pyramid into their body, ripping them open.

  • The Breaking Wheel

    The breaking wheel dates back to antiquity, when it was used for capital punishment. Also known as the Catherine Wheel, it was a popular torture device in medieval Europe, and numerous variations were developed, some consisting of a wooden cross rather than a wheel.

    The victim’s limbs were tied to the spokes of a large wooden wheel, which slowly revolved while a torturer smashed the limbs with an iron hammer, breaking them in many places. Torture on the breaking wheel might last days, resulting in a slow and painful demise.