Torture, properly, an infliction of severe pain upon an accused person to induce a confession of guilt, or upon a criminal to extort a revelation of his accomplices. The term is frequently used carelessly to designate severe and unusual punishment inflicted for crime, but improperly, as it is never spoken of by judicial writers as a punishment. By legal writers on the continent of Europe and the earlier English authors, the word question (Lat. quoestio, a seeking) is used as a synonyme of torture; the object being a search for the truth in regard to the criminality of the tortured person, or the names of his accomplices, by the compulsion of suffering. Torture was divided as to intensity into the " question ordinary," a comparatively mild application of the instruments used in torturing, and the " question extraordinary," where these means were used to the greatest extent compatible with the preservation of life. The threats of torture were divided into "verbal territion," when the executioner described the torture, and "real territion," when the victim was placed upon the rack but not tortured.
As to the time of its application, it was called the " question preparatory" when used for the purpose of compelling the accused to confess his own crime, and the "question prealable or preliminary " when applied to extort from a criminal the revelation of his accomplices. - Torture seems to have been early practised as a means of discovering guilt, both judicially and privately, but was not inflicted on freemen or citizens till the time of the Roman emperors, except in cases of suspected crime against the state itself. The Greeks inflicted it on their slaves, and after their subjugation by the Romans it was inflicted on those who had not a claim to the name of Roman citizen; the oath of the citizen was considered sufficient. Under the emperors this distinction was not long continued, and men and women even of patrician birth were subjected to torture to compel confession of crimes existing only in the imagination of tyrants. "Wherever the code of Justinian was adopted as the basis of the legal system of European nations during the middle ages, judicial torture formed a feature of the examination of persons accused of crime; in the Teutonic nations it gradually took the place of ordeals and the trial by battle.
In England it was probably never considered a part of the common law, though the peine forte et dure, which was used to compel a prisoner to plead to the indictment, had certainly some countenance from that law. (See Peine Forte et Dure.) But it was recognized as one of the prerogatives of the crown to order it, and was thus in occasional use up to 1640, when the last case occurred. Severe and cruel as were the punishments inflicted by the ecclesiastical law, there is no evidence of a resort to "the question" by the inquisition or any other ecclesiastical court before 1252, when Innocent IV. called upon the civil arm to use it to induce confessions and accusations by offenders. Not long after this period the necessity of secrecy in the proceedings of the inquisition led to its extensive adoption, and to refinements of cruelty in its use before unknown. Judicial torture continued in most of the European states till the latter part of the last century. In 1780 the " question preparatory " was discontinued by a decree of Louis XVI., and in 1789 torture in general was abolished throughout the French dominions.
In Russia it was abolished in 1801. In Austria, Prussia, and Saxony it was suspended soon after the middle of the last cen-turv, but in several of the smaller German states it continued on the statute books till the present century. Thomasius, Hommel, Voltaire, Beccaria, and Howard were instrumental in bringing about its discontinuance. In the United States torture has never been reckoned an adjunct of judicial examination, though there are traces of the belief in its necessity among the lower classes in some of the early colonial enactments. - Among the Romans, the scourge was the usual instrument of torture; the equuleus, a sort of upright rack, was an invention of the Romans used upon their slaves, to which pincers to tear the flesh, fire, etc, were added. The rack as used in the tower of London was of uncertain origin; it consisted of an open frame of oak under which the prisoner was laid on his back, and his wrists and ankles fastened by ropes to rollers at the end of the frame, which were tightened by means of a ratchet wheel till the whole body was brought to a level with the top of the rollers, and in the "question extraordinary" till the joints were dislocated.
The "boot "was the favorite French instrument of torture; in this rings of iron were passed around the legs, and wooden wedges driven between them and the flesh till the muscles were reduced to jelly. Among other instruments used to test the power of human endurance were the thumbscrew; iron gauntlets; the " little ease," a narrow cell in which the prisoner was confined for several days, and in which the, only position possible was one which soon cramped every muscle; the "scavenger's daughter" (a corruption of "Skevington's daughter "), an instrument invented by Sir William Skevington, which so compressed the body as to start the blood from the nostrils, and often also from the hands and feet; the torture by water; and numerous other inventions capable of producing intense suffering. - For those forms of punishment which aimed at making the penalties of crime terrible by the intensity of the physical suffering they inflicted, ingenuity seemingly exhausted its powers. Crucifixion, fastening to the cross with cords, and anointing the body with honey that insects might torment the helpless victim, hanging up in a cage, suspending the culprit by the arms while weights were tied to the feet, the fastening of limbs to trees which were forced into proximity to each other and then suffered to fly apart, pouring melted lead into the ears, immersing one or more limbs or the whole body in boiling oil, suspending over a slow fire, plucking out the hair in masses, slitting the nostrils and lips, putting out the eyes, cropping, cutting off the hands, branding, mutilation, crushing the body with heavy weights, starvation, deprivation of air, confinement in oubliettes or bottle-like prisons without ventilation, pulling out the nails, and breaking on the wheel, are a few of the many means by which punishment has been inflicted, often for offences of a secondary grade, within the past 200 years.
To the same writers who effected the discontinuance of torture, is due in a great degree also the abolition of these cruel punishments. - See Jardine, "On the Use of Torture in the Criminal Law of England" (Svo, London, 1839); Maclaurin, "Introduction to Criminal Trials;" Augustin Nicolas, Si la torture est un moyen sur a' verifier les crimes secrets (12mo, 1681); Reitemaier, Sur la question chez les Grecs et les Romains; and Mitter-maier, Das Deutsche Strafverfahren, vol. i.