Torture Device

This is not an object for the faint of heart. Torture instruments are difficult to conceptualise in the twenty-first century. Most of us consider it to be something that belongs in museums or horror movies only. However, torture is unfortunately still used in certain countries and during certain political realities, even nowadays, in the Western world. The artefact we are looking at is a grim reminder that torture can be widely used to enforce law and order. 

3D model of the Torture Device

This object belongs to the following theme:



Place of Origin

Time Period of Use (ca.)
1600 – 1850 CE


Dimensions (cm)
Length: 2, Width: 1.5, Height: 10

3D Model

Canon EOS 4000D

Processing software
Agisoft Metashape Professional Edition

Claudia Fasano & Sarah Santoro

Crime and Punishment 


To make him confesse, hee was commanded to have a most strange torment, which was done in this manner following. His nailes upon all his fingers were riven and pulled o^ with an instrument called in Scottish a Turkas, which in England wee call a payre of pincers, and under everie nayle there was thrust in two needels over even up to the heads.

From Robert Pitcairn’s Criminal Trials, 1833 (Ryley, 1940, p. 92)

The thumbscrew, in all its variants, was one of the most common torture device because it was an easy way to get confessions quickly. This version was meant to hurt only the thumbs of the victim’s hand or foot. 

Image: Torture device, Centre Céramique

Three protruding metal bars simplify the usage of the device. The central bar contained screw threads, and the victim inserted their thumbs between the bars. Then the interrogators would turn the screw slowly while applying pressure to the suspect’s thumbs with a wooden or metal bar. The injures were not deadly but the fractures could permanent damage to the hand. Obviously those who designed torture instruments had a thorough understanding of human anatomy.

It appears that up until the end of the 17th century, the thumbscrews, or thumbkins, as they were known, were widely used in Scotland (Ryley, 1940). In the Constitutio Criminalis Theresiana, a penal code issued in 1768 by Maria Theresa, ruler of the Habsburg dominions, it’s described the German Daumenschraube. Throughout all of imperial China, women were subjected a similar kind of hand torture known as the zanzhi (Theobold, 2000).

Finger squeezer in Imperial China, (zanzhi 拶指)

Torture in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Europe

Throughout history, torture has been a prevalent method of punishment and interrogation used by various civilizations, including the ancient Greeks, Romans, and imperial China. In medieval and pre-modern Europe, between 13th and 18th century, there were very clear guidelines for how torture was to be carried out, what kinds of people may be tortured, according to which protocol and procedure, and what kinds of tools could be employed (Evans, 2012). Contrary to popular belief, these harsh measures were not taken at random, in the vain expectation that the defendant would eventually tell the truth. In fact, in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, many pseudoscientific theories about the fact that painful stimuli could be used to coax the mind into telling the truth were commonly disseminated and  applied. For example, pallor was one of the major indicator of guiltiness of the defendant. Furthermore, in the early modern period it was believed that the accused would have never provided the truth unless subjected to specific forms of physical pain (Silvermann, 2001). 

Prisons and torture in the Netherlands

During the Ancien Regime (about 1500–1789), prisoners in the Netherlands stayed in jail until the trial was through and they were either released or given a punishment. Keeping someone in jail was never considered a punishment in and of itself; rather, it was just a means to hold them over until trial or the actual punishment, which could be anything from a fine to a caning to a death sentence to exile. However, the so-called rasphuis, which aimed to re-educate criminals, occasionally used methods that were similar to incarceration. However, the Imprisonment as we know it today does not come into use until the French Revolution.

Torture was often used to extract confessions, and the worst punishment was death, carried out by an executioner. This was a profession passed down from father to son, but there were exceptions, such as Anna Catharina Snijder, a female executioner who lived and worked in the Netherlands in the 18th century.

Account preserved for a Dutch executioner’s work on December 17, 1746, Amsterdam City Archive

During the Ancien Regime in the Netherlands, the “high jurisdiction” (hoge jurisdictie)was in charge of criminal cases where capital punishment was applied. A specific authority (a person or group) held this legal authority in each city, included Maastricht, and usually this power was given to a sheriff or bailiff (schout).

In Maastricht, those who were arrested in the past might have been held in a city gate until their trial, but generally from the Middle Ages, the then so called Dinguhuis (where now the Visitor Centre is located), among various activities, hosted the prisons too, with underground interrogation rooms.

The Dinghuis building in 1700s, now the Visitor Centre in Kleine Staat

Even after several cells were installed in the new town hall on the Markt for use by the High Courts in 1664, the Dinghuis continued to serve as a prison. 

Crime and punishment. A question of power and politics

As previously noted, torture has been employed historically and persists in contemporary times as a mechanism for exerting and maintaining control and power.

Anonymous, The Maastricht Treason (1638), collection of Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht, The Netherlands

In Dutch history, very gruesome details can be found about the terrible tortures that have been inflicted to Father Vinck, a Franciscan priest, became notorious for his role in the Betrayal of Maastricht, in which he was found guilty of aiding the Spanish in 1638 in their attempt to regain control of the city. The head of Father Vinck was displayed on a stake with along with those of four other beheaded suspects.

The story of the De Witt brothers, who supported republican government and attempted to limit the influence of the powerful House of Orange in Dutch politics, is one of the most infamous in Dutch history. Both brothers were lynched in The Hague in 1672. According to the chronicles, they  “had been reduced to the status of slaughtered cattle, carcasses really, whose ears, noses, lips, fingers, and even genitals had been cut off and sold.”(Grijzenhout, 2015)

Jan de Baen, The Corpses of the De Witt Brothers, (1672-1675), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

However, the idea of punishment has changed a lot through the ages. Today, we perceive that more related to the idea of re-education, since as a modern society, we are more aware of the fact that there are many reasons why people commit criminal offenses, and a lot of the time the truth behind them is more complex than what it can seem. However, it was not always like this.

For centuries, the punishment was considered a deterrent for other people to commit the same crime. As a result, the criminal was executed or punished publicly, so as to discourage others from doing the same. In the western society of that time, the punishment was also related to religious meaning, since there was the belief that serving the sentence on earth, would have helped to go to heaven after death (Pifferi, 2022).

The criminal law was then a tool of social control, before a new idea of justice was built, not as an instrument of revenge, but as a possibility of reforming the person who committed the crime, so as to be reinserted into society as a new individual who can live freely without hurting anybody.

Written by Claudia Fasano & Sarah Santoro