Torture in 18th Century France: An Irishman’s View

Before the guillotine was proposed by Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin and used on Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, an Irish gentleman visited Paris, France, in 1787. While there, he wrote a number of letters to a friend in Ireland. He noted in the letters that Frenchmen used various methods of torture in 18th century France. This torture was applied to criminals and what he claimed was an “idea of the administration call[ed] la justice Françoise.” Among the letters the gentleman wrote was one dated July 25th, which described various types of punishment meted to French criminals.

Joseph Ignace Guillotin, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Joseph Ignace Guillotin. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Here is that letter verbatim:

It is astonishing that France which boasts itself to be the most civilized and polite of all the nations in the world, should be almost the only place, where the custom of putting criminals to the torture is as yet retained … Is there any thing in the world more cruelly unjust and shameful, than to force a man by torture, to confess himself guilty, and inform against others, before he is found guilty himself? Though they do not at present put a man to the torture on suspicion alone, yet they frequently put their criminals to the rack after condemnation, to force them to allow the justice of their sentence and inform against others: and the unhappy wretches seldom hesitate to own and declare, every thing proposed to them, hoping the sooner to be relieved by a kind death from their sufferings. I am told, that it is not an uncommon thing to see criminals carried to execution here, incapable of either walking or fitting up, having all their limbs dislocated by the torture.

Tortue of Famous Parisian Bandit, Cartouche, At His Execution in 1721

Famous Parisian bandit, Cartouche, being executed in 1721. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

When a criminal is on the rack, he is now and then questioned in the intermissions and accesses of his agonies by three counsellors, two of whom are called evangelists. Some criminals are found to suffer a confession to be extorted from them, only in the very excess of pain and torment, while other who baffle all their skill in the first trial, will confess through fear of another.

What appears to me the most odious in this matter, is the variety of methods used in France for giving the torture: for in almost every town they have a different manner of putting their criminals to the rack: as if they delighted in making experiments of every kind of torment it were possible to inflict on their fellow creatures.

At Autun and Bonne in Burgundy, the question is given, by putting the legs of the criminal into a kind of iron boots, and pouring in scalding oil between the flesh and the iron continually or with intermissions, according to the fancy of the evangelists.

At Strasbourg in Alsace, they tie the prisoner naked upon a table, and by means of a pipe, let fall from a considerable height cold water on the crown of the head, or on the stomach of the unhappy sufferer. One may at first suppose this to be a gentle punishment; but I am informed, that there cannot be any torture superior to it: for the continual dropping of the cold water after some time, occasions the most exquisite agony.

In some other places in France, they bind the legs and thighs of the criminal between two beams of oak with strong cords, and then with mallets drive wedges of wood between the knees; by which operation the large extremities of the bones at the knees are violently pressed, and the nerves being there collected and very large, and having no muscular flesh to defend them, suffer very great violence and afford most horrible pain.

Engraving by Jacques Callot (1592-1635) showing a person being broken on the wheel. Courtesy of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

In other parts of France they fasten the criminal in an iron chair, and making a fire all round him, roast him alive. They extreme heat generally makes him fall into a dozing lethargy: but the ingenious French have contrived a kind of iron forks, which they fasten to the prisoner’s breast in such a manner, that when he begins to dose and node his head, he feels himself spurred and pricked by them under the chin, which make him suddenly draw back his head, and recall his drowsy spirits to feel his torments in a more effectual manner.

At Dijon in Burgundy, when they give the question, they tie together the prisoner’s wrists behind his body. To the wrists they fasten a rope, which they pass through a pulley at the ceiling, and then bringing down the other extremity, fasten it to a windlass. When the evangelists turn the windlass, the prisoner perceives his hands to be drawn up to the back part of his head. On turning the windlass somewhat more, he finds himself absolutely elevated from the ground, the whole weight of his body depending upon his wrists tied together. They then roll a small piece of linen round his great toe, and fasten it with thread; this is necessary to prevent the rope which they afterwards tie to it from slipping. They then hang by a rope to his great toe one hundred and fifty pounds weight for the ordinary question, and two hundred pounds weight for the extraordinary question. The windlass is then turned, until the miserable creature absolutely bears up the weight from the ground. His shoulder-blades appear almost separated from his body, and the bones at the articulations of the wrists, elbows, knee, and ankle, are dragged from one another, so as remarkably to increase the length of the body. They then unturn the windlass and let him fall down with a jirk: at the very instant, his bones at the joints are drawn back by the elastic spring of the muscles and tendons, and slap together with loud and violent shocks, which dart through the whole frame the most inexpressible agony. They then draw him up higher and higher, letting him fall down each time with sudden velocity; until finding him persevere, they draw him up with the weight suspended to his great toe to the very pulley at the ceiling; but he is then generally so overcome by the torments, that he is seized with a violent fever, which renders him stupidly insensible, or sets him to sleep.

… And these are the people who call Britons the savages of Europe.


  • Saint John, James, Letter from France to a Gentleman in the South of Ireland, 1788, Volume 2.

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