Archive for Saturday, September 8, 2001

San Francisco exhibit displays history’s tools of torture

September 8, 2001


— A guillotine, a "knee splitter" and a spiked chair from the Spanish Inquisition are among more than 100 instruments of torture displayed in the first U.S. exhibit of gruesome tools used by authorities since the 1500s to subjugate their people.

Not all the instruments on view in the Herbst International Exhibition Hall at the Presidio of San Francisco are relics of our medieval past. Some have been used in recent years.

Human rights groups hope visitors will take away not only the reality that many of the exhibit's instruments are the originals used to humiliate, torture and kill, but that other often undetectable forms of torture are still used today. Beating, electric shock, water submersion and rape are several common contemporary methods.

"Torture still exists and is being used in 150 countries around the world," said Cosette Thompson, western regional director of Amnesty International USA. "Half of these use it in fairly systematic manners. This is not isolated."

While there are no numbers estimating how many people are tortured each year, deaths have occurred recently as a result of such treatment in more than 80 countries, Amnesty International says.

"I think it's atrocious," said visitor Jeanine Gore, covering her mouth as she peered into a glass case enclosing two medieval iron chastity belts one lined with sharp teeth designed to "protect" women from sexual encounters. "It seems like there was a great hatred against women."

Gore, who brought her 10-year-old brother along from Half Moon Bay, said the exhibition forced her to think about worldwide cruelty as she wandered through the dungeon-like atmosphere with monks chanting in somber tones. The one instrument she just couldn't stomach was a tool still commonly found in American sheds and garages the two-handed crosscut saw.

As shown in engravings and paintings, the saw was used to torture homosexuals. It also was widely used to kill people for crimes ranging from witchcraft to military disobedience.

"There were some sick people back then, and from what you hear, everybody got a kick out of it," said Joe Duffy of Hollywood, Fla. "Who engineered this stuff?"

Duffy and his 13-year-old son, Michael Harding, were particularly taken by the nails and needles once poked through the tongues of those who uttered curse words or blasphemous statements.

Medieval authorities put a lot of thought and work into devising the torture devices, many of which were designed specifically to torture women, said exhibit curator Aldo Migliorini, from the Criminal Medieval Museum of San Gimignano near Siena, Italy. Notaries documented the punishment, and doctors were often present to assess the pain and the condition of the accused.

Some were meant for public humiliation as well as physical and psychological torture.

For example, with the "goat's tongue," victims were placed in stocks in the middle of town with their feet covered in salt. A thirsty goat was tied nearby, and it would then lick the feet to the bone.

"While Michelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel, we were doing such things," Migliorini said. "This exhibit is in order so that this will not be repeated."

But the display does include torture devices from recent years.

The garrote, a device with a sharp metal tip that screws into the back of the neck, was the official instrument of capital punishment in Spain until 1975, when the last person to be executed was a young student later found to be innocent. The country eventually abolished the death penalty, partly based on that mistake.

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