10 Horrifying Stories Of Torture From The Spanish Inquisition

When most people think of the Spanish Inquisition, they typically think of torture (or Monty Python), and for good reason. Between 1478 and 1834, Catholic monarchs in Spain and Spanish territories used the tribunal to combat heretics, torturing and executing thousands. While modern historians say the Spanish Inquisition's reputation as a torture-fest is a bit exaggerated, the facts are clear: Some pretty gnarly stuff definitely went down.

Amazingly well-kept records from the time reveal primitive waterboarding, torture via rack-stretching, brutal flogging, and much, much worse. Read on to learn about some of the most brutal practices of the Spanish Inquisition.

Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia / Public Domain

  • 'Tormenta De Toca' Was Like Proto-Waterboarding

    'Tormenta De Toca' Was Like Proto-Waterboarding
    Photo: J. Damhoudère / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    A torture technique known as tormenta de toca was used during the Spanish Inquisition to simulate drowning, much like modern waterboarding.

    Here's how it works: After being painfully strapped onto a trestle with sharp, flesh-stripping cords called cordeles, a thin piece of cloth (the toca) was thrust down the victim's throat. Jars of water - sometimes as much as 8 quarts - were then trickled through the cloth, saturating the toca, causing the victim to gasp and suffocate. An iron prong known as a bostezo was used to keep the victim's mouth open. Some victims vomited "profusely," according to records from the time.

  • The 'Strappado' Was Slow, Painful Torture

    The 'Strappado' Was Slow, Painful Torture
    Photo: Diebold Schilling der Jüngere / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    A torture method known as strappado or garrucha put victims in "terrible distress and agonizing pain," according to James Maxwell Anderson's Daily Life During the Spanish Inquisition, often dislocating their shoulders or maiming victims permanently.

    It worked like this: The victim's hands were tied behind their back and a long cord was wrapped around their wrists.That cord was then used to slowly hoist the victim into the air via a pulley. (An account from 1620 says the "elevating movement should be slow, for if it is rapid the pain is not lasting.") Weights were sometimes attached to the victim's feet to increase the suffering. If necessary, the victim was sometimes let loose to fall to the ground, causing the cord to "cut the flesh to the bone."

  • The Rack, Or 'Potro,' Was Very Popular

    The Rack, Or 'Potro,' Was Very Popular
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Perhaps the most widely used torture method during the Spanish Inquisition was the trusty rack (potro), a horrible, ladder-like device used to literally pull your bones apart.

    Descriptions of the device vary, but the basic idea was to fasten the victim's wrists and ankles to two movable bars at the end of the wooden frame. Levers moved the bars in opposite directions, thus stretching the victim out until their bones separated, meaning many of these poor souls never walked again. The ropes also tore away at the victim's flesh. One account says the rope was sometimes tied around the victim's forehead, but that practice was abandoned because "it was apt to start the eyes from their sockets."

  • Flogging Was A Common Punishment

    Flogging Was A Common Punishment
    Photo: Víctor Manzano y Mejorada / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Prisoners of the inquisitorial system faced cruel flogging "for the slightest breaches of the regulations," according to George Ryley Scott, author of The History of Torture. They were stripped naked and restrained by several men, while a few other men would use "cords stiffened by being dipped in melted pitch" to beat them.

    While not technically torture, flogging was almost as bad as the popular torture methods of the time. According to one account, the flogging "brings away flesh at every stroke until the back is one large ulcer."

  • Men Had Their Beards Burned Off

    Men Had Their Beards Burned Off
    Photo: H.D. Linton / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

    If prisoners refused to convert and chose to die as Protestants or members of another heretical cult, they were roasted alive in a public auto da fé ("act of faith").

    Before being burned alive, bearded men had to suffer the indignity and pain of having their beards singed off. Cuttings from a highly flammable shrub called a furze were set on fire at the end of a long pole, which was then thrust into the beards. "This barbarity is repeated till their faces are burnt, and is accompanied with loud acclamations," according to a "horrified spectator" known as Dr. Geddes.

  • Heretics Were Burned Alive In A 'Dry Pan'

    Heretics Were Burned Alive In A 'Dry Pan'
    Photo: Samuel de Champlain / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    One woman spared the tortures of the Spanish Inquisition and instead kidnapped to become a mistress/slave for one of the principal inquisitors was given a "tour" of one of the torture chambers. She later described the "dry pan" used to roast heretics as a "large brass pan... with a cover of the same, and a lock to it." She went on to detail how it was used:

    [Heretics] are put into the pan, first being stripped naked; and the cover being locked down the executioner begins to put a small fire into the oven, and by degrees he augments it, till the body is reduced to ashes.