Three Cases to Consider

13 February, 2008

In the 1340s, Yersinia pestis came to Europe.  Bubonic Plague was known as the Black Death, the Great Mortality, and the Great Pestilence.  As it spread through Italy heading toward France and Switzerland, the small Jewish communities quickly came under suspicion.  Anti-Semitism was nothing new to medieval Europe.  The plague, however, brought a brand-new form: The Jews were poisoning the wells of Europe.  And the medieval investigators had proof.

In the Swiss town of Chillon, confessions were obtained from local Jews.  The confessions told of a mysterious, sinister mastermind by the name of Rabbi Jacob.  He was from Toledo, Spain and had a network of minions to spread the nut-sized (or egg-sized, or the size of a fist, or the size of two fists) poison carried in a leather pouch (or a linen cloth, or a rag) and made from lizards (or frogs, or spiders, or communion wafers).  The descriptions of his henchmen were quite exact:

 There was the bullying Provenzal, the kindhearted merchant Agimetus, the maternal Belieta, the compliant barber-surgeon Balvgny, and a clever youngster known simply as “the Jewish Boy.” (P. 139, The Great Mortality by John Kelly)

So why did the Jews of Chillon admit to participating in the poisoning of their Christian neighbors?  In a word, torture.  Questioning in the Middle Ages was concerned strictly with obtaining a confession, not the truth. 

 Special “Jewish” tortures were available to interrogators.  One technique was to place a crown of thorns on a prisoner’s head, then smash it into the skull with a mailed fist or a blunt instrument.  Another was to place a rope of thorns between a Jewish prisoner’s legs and then yank it up into the crotch and scrotum. (P. 140, The Great Mortality by John Kelly)

Hundreds, even thousands, of Jews were “briefly put to the question,” in the ever so quaint formulation of the time.  As the plague spread, rumors of Rabbi Jacob’s cohorts spread even more quickly.  Leaders of the Jewish communities were “briefly put to the question” and, even though when the questioning started, they felt a little like Alice in Wonderland (though she was, to be fair, not tortured, just confused).  A note on the transcript of the questioning of one Jewish surgeon states  that he was questioned on the fifteenth of September 1348, and 

the surgeon confessed freely and fulsomely to complicity in the well poisoning, and that at a subsequent interrogation on the nineteenth . . . disclosed the names of his conspirators without being “put to the question” at all. (P. 233, The Great Mortality by John Kelly)

It is unknown how many Jews (and other “outsiders”) died during the plague.  It is also unknown how many were murdered based upon these “confessions.”

In July, 1628, Johannes Junius, a burgomaster in the German city of Bamberg was arrested on a charge of witchcraft.  He was questioned, confessed, and went to the stake.  His questioning was, well, brutal. 

First, he was given a chance to confess to witchcraft: “You are a witch; will you confess voluntarily?  If not, we will bring in witnesses and the executioner for you.”

“I am no witch, I have a pure conscience on the matter.”

His hands were bound behind him.  He was, eight times, lifted and dropped.  Finally, he made a confession.  The last words in his journal stated: “And so I made my confession, as follows; but it was all a lie.”

He was asked to name others.  He named the Chancellor.  He was forced to name people on every street near where he lived.  He did this with the full knowledge that the tortures he had endured and broken under would be inflicted upon those he named.  Oddly, he did not hold animus toward those who had named him.

Dear Child [he wrote in a letter], six have confessed against me at once; the Chancellor, his son, Neudecker, Zaner, Hoffmaisters Ursel, and Hoppfen Els – all false, through compulsion, as they have all told me, and begged me forgiveness in God’s name before they were executed.  They know nothing but good of me.  They were forced to say it, just as I myself was.  (Pp. 128-130, Servants of Satan, The Age of the Witch Hunts by Joseph Klaits)


In February, 1840, a Capuchin monk and his servant disappeared in the Syrian city of Damascus.  The French, by treaty, had the right to protect Catholics in the Ottoman Empire.  The French consul headed the investigation but, when he did not get the answers he wanted, he asked Sherif Pasha to take over the quetioning.  Quickly, through the questioning of a barber, Solomon al-Hallaq, one of the leaders of the Jewish community, David Harari, had been implicated.  Soon, the men of the leading merchant and Rabbinical families were either under arrest or in hiding.

When al-Hallaq was questioned, he was subjected to the bastinado.  This consisted of one hundred, two hundred, even three hundred lashes on the soles of the feet, the back of the thigh, and the buttocks with a kurbash, a whip made of multiple strips of hide.  The best ones were made of hippopotamus hides. 

More and more Jews were pulled into the ‘investigation.’  They were whipped on the soles of their feet until the flesh fell off and the bones showed.  They confessed their own complicity, and implicated others.  If not, they were plunged into pools of ice water until almost drowned.  Their children were taken prisoner and kept in cold cells with no food.

Through the intercession of the French consul, the old theory of ‘blood libel’ was raised.  And the Rabbis and businessmen confessed to those stories, too.  Not all, but most.

On March 1, a Sunday, the pasha had Rabbi Antabi arrested and brought from the Jewish quarter to the serail on a donkey. . . . When Sherif Pasha ordered the rabbi to produce the bottle containing Father Thomas’s blood, the rabbi said that he could not do so.  At the pasha’s orders, soldiers with drawn swords and the pasha’s cook armed with a butcher’s knife surrounded the rabbi and prepared to decapitate him.

 At the last minute, the pasha granted the rabbi a reprieve.  The rabbi was then thrown into a tank of freezing water. When he came up for air, soldiers his him with heavy sticks until he submerged himself to avoid the beating.  Before long, the rabbi was suffering from hypothermia and exhaustion.  He tried to end his agony by staying at the bottom of the tank.  Word was sent to the pasha, who came running and ordered the rabbi pulled out of the water.  The rabbi was then beaten unconscious.  When he woke up he was beaten unconscious again. (P. 85, The Blood Libel – the Damascus Affair of 1840, by Ronald Florence)

The tortures got worse.  Soldiers tied a rope around his head and tightened it until the rope broke – the tourniquet torture.  They tied a rope to his penis and dragged him through the palace courtyard.  They crushed his genitals.  He was dropped repeatedly onto the pavement.   He never confessed.

Rabbi Abulafia was also arrested and suffered the same tortures.  He confessed and, when brought to his house to produce the bottle of blood,

the rabbi broke down.  He said there was no blood, that he had only told the interrogators that the blood was in his house so he would have a chance to see his wife and child.  He said that he could no longer bear the pain of the tortures and so he had lied “so I sould be killed; so they would take my blood; so they could say ‘Here is the blood of Father Thomas’ . . . even death would be better than these tortures. (p. 87,   The Blood Libel – the Damascus Affair of 1840, by Ronald Florence)

Days later, he confessed again, saying that the blood was used for passover bread.


One of the torture victims  from Damascus, one of the Harari brothers, recanted his testimony and said: “The truth is that we know of no murder; but if you will torture us again, we shall make our former deposition.”  (P. 67,  The Blood Libel – the Damascus Affair of 1840, by Ronald Florence)

Herr Junius, accused of witchcraft, wrote, “whoever comes into the witch prison must be a witch or be tortured until he invents something out of his head.”  (P. 130, Servants of Satan, The Age of the Witch Hunts by Joseph Klaits)

Here we have, from three completely different milieus, victims of torture inventing crimes and incriminating others under torture.  Does anyone really think that Herr Junius was a witch?  Did he fly through the air to attend covens with the other witches of Bamberg?  Did the rabbis of Damascus kill Father Thomas so that his blood could be used in Passover matzos?  Does any but the most rabid anti-Semite believe the ‘blood libel’ really exist?  Did a mysterious ‘rabbi Jacob’ create a poison out of frogs, spiders and communion wafers and, through a Europe-wide conspiracy, spread plague through poisoned wells?

So why should we, as Americans, as human beings, accept torture when the answer gotten through ‘enhanced interrogation techniques (torture (and yes, waterboarding is torture, and has been considered such by the US Army  and the CIA for decades)) is the one the interrogator wants, whether it is true or not?



  1. Very sobering post. The USA has tainted its legacy, probably forever, by resorting to torture. We have now earned our place in the rogues’ gallery, alongside of the Inquisitors, Crusaders, Witch Hunters, etc. But, according to King Dubya, it’s all for a good cause: democracy and freedom, the American way. I think I’m going to puke.

    No end ever justifies inhuman and inhumane means.

  2. Chappie: I was reading the book Blood Libel, and started thinking about other history books in which torture plays an important part. I was surprised how easily, without even delving deeply into my personal library, I found these case histories. Dubya is adding more, though.

  3. Great post, tPA.

    Another good argument against torture I’ve heard has to do with criminal prosecution. People in America are more likely to be harmed by domestic criminals. Why is it OK to torture people for suspicion of terrorism, but not for suspicion of being a mass murderer, or a child molester, or a rapist? Our whole legal system is based on having to prove guilt, and not through torture.

  4. Good post ().

    But consider that those people did believe witches flew through the air, etcetera etcetera etcetera. And that George Bush and his crew of psychotics really do believe in their delusions. Human beings are the stupidest, most deranged people on the face of the earth.

  5. Ric: Much of the research over the last thrity or so years points to an interesting duality of belief in early modern Germany. Some scholars (I’ll have to look for the sources — something I read years ago) have seen a definate belief in witches (flying through the air, making beer go bad, making butter go rancid, etc). These were the same people, though, who had no power to charge, try or convict witches. Those who had the money to support said processes were also the ones with the most education. If you look at who was arrested, tried and convicted, very few were the poor, landless or powerless. Those convicted of witchcraft were burgomaster, chancellors, those with power. And take a wild guess who got the property of those convicted.

    Witchcraft trials tended the same direction as the Spanish Inquisition: the more money one had, the more likely a conviction. Even in America, the Massachusetts colony (this is from a book called Devil In The Shape of a Woman, author to be looked up when I can find my copy) witchcraft trials tended (except for the Salem outbreak which broke quite a few of the established rules) to convict women with money or women with power over men.

    In other words, yes, there were delusions. But the convictions tended to benefit their political, social or economic rivals. As with most of history, follow the money.

  6. But weren’t all classes subject to the same delusions? They were acculturated from the same book(s), either by reading or by priests and high mucky mucks preaching the current truth. Just because I accuse the Mayor of messing up my batch of beer so I can get his house doesn’t mean I’m not deluded about witches, warlocks, and elves.

    Okay, elves are real, but the other stuff isn’t.

  7. As to whether the prosecutors really believed in witchcraft is a good question. My personal (and very, very cynical) view is that the prosecutors (and the prosecutorial enablers) believed in the existence of witches. However (and heres where they cynicism crops up) I think that the decisions regarding whom to prosecute was based on the economic and power structure of the locality. Prosecuting some poor slob would have kept the peons happy. Prosecuting the powerful would be a political decision, most likely designed to help out the people paying for the prosecutions. In short, I think they all suffered the same delusions, but I doubt that the prosecutors really believed the rich and powerful who fell into their clutches were witches.

    Elves are real? Real what?

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