How prevalent was torture by the regular police force and the army in 19th and early 20th century in the US and Western Europe? When it was practiced, are there documented instances of it being effective?

  • 4
    You need to precisely define "Torture" for it to be answerable. What some people today call "torture" would be called "light hazing" 100 years ago. OTOH, I'm sure making a person from 1880 listen to 24 hours of Schnitke would make them confess to anything.
    – DVK
    Jan 12 '12 at 2:23
  • Apart from me, no one is up or down voting. How .... odd. Jan 13 '12 at 7:40

You didn't define "torture" so it's very hard to answer.

One example would be Wickersham Commission report in 1931. While its main focus was avoidance of Prohibition and the latter effect on society, it also produced an infamous critique of the use of violent interrogation.

A lot of examples from early 1900's are listed in "Above the Law: Police and the Excessive Use of Force" by Jerome H. Skolnick, James J. Fyfe.


Torture is best and most effective in getting immediately verifiable information and as a tool in the fear arsenal of an organisation. The SS and Gestapo used it to great effects during the Nazi regime. Those are well documented in any history books. Note that Russia and the Soviet Union used torture as well as part of its repression and control methodology but arguably is not in "Western Europe". The East German Stasi used torture on a similar model to the Soviet.

What torture is not effective at is to give you long term intelligence on an organisation that the victim belongs too. Too much bias enter the questioning making it useless. However, fear of torture (or rendition) may prompt the suspect to be more cooperative.

Note on terminology: I have seen "showing female breasts to a prisoner" defined as torture. Many interrogation techniques used by Police forces could be described as coercion or torture depending on your agenda. Some things, everyone will agree are torture: electric shocks for example.

  • 1
    After seeing the Reid technique described as "torture", as well as your example above, I became skeptical of ANYONE in modern world decrying "torture". Especially since I'm very familiar with "Malleus Maleficarum" and specifics of what both Nazis and Soviets did.
    – DVK
    Jan 12 '12 at 16:33
  • 1
    Tortures could be different. It is quite known that in the USSR were used beatings, although torture was legally outlawed. But beating is not a "torture" as such. Nazi Germany, for example, had specialists on torture techniques such as introducing melted lead into nose, putting red-warmed iron on the skin, removing nails and administering nails into needles, putting prisoners into cold water or jetting cold water on them at strong frost, using electric discharges, killing relatives as the victim's site and other methods. Most of tortured were killed after the torture.
    – Anixx
    Jan 14 '12 at 3:50

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