The Thumbscrew

An interesting old iron museum copy of a thumbscrew torture instrument, with serrated jaws, width 4¾”, GC (some surface rust) with old hand written museum label.
An interesting old iron museum copy of a thumbscrew torture instrument, with serrated jaws, width 4¾”, GC (some surface rust) with old hand written museum label. – The Sale Room

Historical Tool of Torture

Throughout history, humanity has grappled with its own capacity for cruelty, as evidenced by the creation and use of various torture devices designed to inflict pain, suffering, and terror upon victims. Among these, the thumbscrew, also known as the thumb crusher, stands as a haunting relic of a bygone era, where the quest for power and dominance manifested in unimaginable suffering.

Iron Thumbkin - Historical Tool of Torture
Iron Thumbkin – Historical Tool of Torture

A Glimpse into the Past

The thumbscrew’s origins can be traced back to the medieval and early modern periods, when Europe was fraught with political upheaval, religious fanaticism, and societal unrest. Often referred to as “the thumb crusher” or the “thumbkin”, it emerged as a tool for extracting confessions and exerting control.

The thumbscrew’s introduction as a means of extracting confessions marked a significant shift in the methods of torture employed by authorities. Its gruesome efficacy led to its proliferation across Europe, where it became a symbol of state power and an instrument of terror.

While pinpointing the exact moment of the thumbscrew’s invention is challenging, historical records provide insight into its early use. On of the first recorded instances of the thumb crusher being employed as a torture device dates back to the late 16th century in Scotland. The execution of a man named Patrick Gillespie in 1597 is the earliest documented case. Gillespie, accused of treason and involvement in an alleged plot to murder King James VI of Scotland, endured the agonizing torment of the thumbscrew.

Thumb Crusher
Thumbkin – Historical Tool of Torture

Patrick Gillespie, a schoolmaster in Ayr, Scotland, found himself accused of conspiring against the king, an accusation that carried dire consequences during this tumultuous period. Captured and subjected to brutal interrogation, Gillespie was subjected to the horrors of the thumbscrew in an attempt to extract a confession. The device crushed his thumbs, inducing intense pain, and ultimately, he yielded and confessed.

The case of Patrick Gillespie remains a haunting reminder of the lengths to which individuals and institutions would go to maintain control.

Design and Mechanics

A deceptively simple device, the thumb crusher consisted of three primary components: a frame, a screw mechanism, and a protective plate or collar. Crafted from wood or metal, the frame housed two parallel bars hinged at one end. A threaded screw passed through these bars, controllable via a handle or crank, increasing the pressure between them. The protective plate acted as a thin barrier between the screw and the victim’s flesh, preventing complete severance.

Man with Collection of Historical Tools of Torture test the Thumbkin on himself – Source: Daily Mail
  • Frame: Crafted from wood or metal, the frame consisted of two parallel bars, usually around six to eight inches in length. These bars were hinged at one end, allowing them to pivot and open at the other.
  • Screw Mechanism: Positioned at one end of the frame was a threaded screw that passed through a hole in one bar and threaded into the other. This screw could be turned using a handle or crank, causing the bars to move closer together, creating intense pressure on the fingers placed between them.
  • Protective Plate or Collar: To avoid severing the victim’s finger completely, a protective plate or collar was often incorporated into the design. This plate acted as a barrier between the screw and the flesh, controlling the amount of pressure applied.

Torment Unleashed

The true horror of the thumbscrew lay in its application. Victims, often accused of serious crimes, would have their fingers—typically starting with the thumbs—entrapped within the device. Slowly, torturers would turn the screw, escalating the pressure with each agonizing rotation. The resulting broken bones, mangled flesh, and unending pain were amplified by the methodical, deliberate nature of the torture.

Thumbscrew, steel, probably French, 1601-1850. Three quarter front view, black background.
Thumbscrew, steel, probably French, 1601-1850. Three quarter front view, black background.
Science Museum Group Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

The thumbscrew operated as a torturous tool by clamping the victim’s finger, usually the thumb, between the two bars. The torturer would then turn the screw, gradually increasing the pressure on the confined digit. This excruciating process would lead to the crushing of bones, mutilation of flesh, and intense pain. The victim’s agony was compounded by the slow, deliberate nature of the procedure, as well as the torturer’s ability to control the level of torment inflicted.

Psychological Impact

Beyond its physical brutality, the thumbscrew’s psychological impact cannot be overstated. The fear of impending pain, coupled with the sight of the device, often coerced victims into revealing information, confessing to crimes (even if falsely), or complying with the torturer’s demands. Additionally, the public display of these instruments served as a warning to potential dissenters, fostering an atmosphere of fear and submission.

Thumb Crusher
Thumb Crusher – History’s shadow is often cast by the darkest aspects of human ingenuity. The thumbscrew, a testament to the cruelty of the past, serves as a chilling reminder of the lengths to which humans can go in their quest for control.


The thumbscrew, with its origins steeped in a turbulent period of history, remains a haunting testament to humanity’s darker inclinations. The evolution of this device, from its first recorded use in the torment of Patrick Gillespie to its widespread application, underscores the grim ingenuity that has often accompanied moments of political and social turmoil.

Thumb Crushers - Photo taken at the National Museum of Scotland
Thumb Crushers – Photo taken at the National Museum of Scotland – Wikipedia

By confronting the horrors of our past, we pave the way for a more compassionate and just future—one where the shadows of such instruments never darken our world again.

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