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A torture rack in the Tower of London

The rack is a torture device comprising of a rectangular, usually wooden frame, slightly raised from the ground, with a roller at one, or both, ends, having at one end a fixed bar to which the legs were fastened, and at the other a movable bar to which the hands were tied. The victim's feet are fastened to one roller, and the wrists are chained to the other.

As the interrogation progresses, a handle and ratchet attached to the top roller are used to very gradually stepwise increase the tension on the chains, inducing excruciating pain. By means of pulleys and levers this roller could be rotated on its own axis, thus straining the ropes until the sufferer's joints were dislocated and eventually separated.

Additionally, once muscle fibers have been stretched past a certain point they lose their ability to contract, thus victims who were released had ineffective muscles as well as problems arising from dislocation.

Because of its mechanically precise, graded operation, it was particularly suited for hard interrogation, as to extract a confession.

One gruesome aspect of being stretched too far on the rack is the loud popping noises made by snapping cartilage, ligaments or bones. Eventually, if the application of the rack is continued, the victim's limbs are completely separated from the body. One powerful method for putting pressure upon a prisoner was to merely force him to view someone else being subjected to the rack.


Early use

It was used since antiquity, being used on St. Vincent and mentioned by the Church Fathers Tertullian (on extraction of confessions from criminals and on persisting Christian 'sacrilegers' against the state cult) and St. Jerome (used on a woman according to his first letter).

Medieval Britain

Its first employment in Englandmarker is said to have been due to John Holland, 2nd Duke of Exeter, the constable of the Tower in 1447, whence it was popularly known as the Duke of Exeter's daughter. Being tortured on the rack was often referred to as being "put to the question".

In 1628 the whole question of its legality was raised by the attempt of the Privy Council to rack John Felton, the assassin of the Duke of Buckingham. This the judges resisted, unanimously declaring its use to be contrary to the laws of England.

Well known victims of the rack in England include Guy Fawkes, Edmund Campion and Anne Askew, venerable William Carter (1584), Elizabethan dramatist Thomas Kyd (1592), William Wallace and Jesuit lay-brother Saint Nicholas Owen (1606).


The Inquisition used the rack as one of its principal methods of torture.

Other punitive positioning devices

The term rack is also used, occasionally, for a number of simpler constructions that constitute no such mechanical torture device, but simply to position the victim over for some physical punishment, after which it may be named specifically, e.g., caning rack, as in a given jurisdiction it was often the custom to administer any given punishment in a specific position, for which the device (with or without fitting shackling and/or padding) would be chosen or specially made.

A similar device was the intestinal crank. This method of torture involved making an incision in the abdominal area, separating the duodenum from the pylorus, and attaching of the upper part of the intestine to a crank. The crank would then be rotated to extract the intestines from the gastrointestinal cavity of a conscious person (Monestier, 1994).


  1. The Letters of St. Jerome, Letter I, to Innocent, ¶ 3
  2. McCall, Andrew: "The Medieval Underworld". Hamish Hamilton, 1979. ISBN 0750937270
  3. Witch Trials Retrieved on October 15, 2007


  • Monestier, M. (1994) Peines de mort. Paris, France: Le Cherche Midi Éditeur.
  • Crocker, Harry W.; Triumph: The Power and Glory of the Catholic Church - A 2,000 Year History

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