Saturday, April 22, 2006

Our vulnerable feet

Feet are intrinsically human and without them, well where would we be ? In the past and sadly in the present foot abuse has become a key way to violently inflict uninvited humiliation and pain. China has acquired a reputation for torture through the ages. Whilst in reality most of this is ill founded tortures authorised by the Chinese authorities for purposes of inducing confession or forms of punishment, and execution, it is doubtful if they exceeded so called more civilised countries. Semedo (cited in Scott, 1995) wrote in the seventeenth century described Kia Quen which consisted of three pieces of wood connected by rope, the foot was placed between them then systematically squeezed until the heel compressed into the foot. Ankle torture was reserved for male culprits and finger torture (Tean Zu) was restricted to females. Bastinado (beating the sole of the foot) was preferred for both sexes and often inflicted with sufficient vigour as to case the victim to die. The origins of foot binding remain vague but most authorities believe it was part of Chinese custom since the 11th century. Some hold the opinion foot binding was in existence for a millennium before. The most popular belief was when the Empress Taki (11th century) was born with clubfeet, to avoid her humiliation, her father made an edict that all highborn women of China would have their feet bound. Another reason commonly cited was foot binding was a physical means of preventing married women from infidelity by physically restricting their movements. This would seem unlikely since there is no evidence to support restriction of the female gender in higher Chinese culture. Historic record would indicate the father of Empress Taki kept a troupe of erotic dancers with small feet. They used to dance on a floor of lotus leaves (a symbol of the vulva) for his sensual pleasure. This form of erotica became very popular but not all middle class men could afford the upkeep of a dance troupe. Foot binding of family members became established in the middle classes by way of paying respect to the Emperor. The habit plunged hundreds of millions of Chinese men, from highbrow mandarins to lowly peasants into ecstasies of sexual passion for nearly one thousand years. For genteel lovers the tiny foot provided endless amusement, with often the smell of the unwashed foot having charms for some, who referred to it as a fragrant bed aroma. Dr Chang Hui Shang considered that the alteration in walking due to the smaller foot caused changes in the female genitalia with sensitive folds developing in the labia. Further heightened sensuousness was experienced by the increased curvature of the sole of the foot, which was referred to as a second vagina. The big toe was proportionately large and tactile. A useful extension. Foot kissing and sucking was a common practice with the whole foot being placed in the mouth. Bound or lotus feet were considered the source of magical eroticism.
Middle Eastern torture involved falanga (or bastinado) which involved victims being bound with their feet raised and their soles beaten with sticks (later cables or metal implements). It is thought falanga had its origins in the Turkey. Sometimes blows were direct to bare feet or through shoes. In severe cases, casualties were forced to walk on glass; or jump, on the spot, carrying a heavy weight. The immediate effects are pains, with bleeding and tissue swelling but permanent damaged is dependent on posttraumatic oedema (or swelling). Torturers might limit this, as part of the ordeal, by cooling the feet or forcing the victim to put their shoes on after a beating. Smashing the heel and ball of the foot destroys the natural fatty-fibro padding, which assists shock absorption in normal walking. Depending on the severity of damage this would leave the victim unable to walk without pain. Skin wounds heal by second intention, leaving painful scars. Detachment of the skin at its deeper levels results in damage to proprioception adding considerable to pathological gait. Many victims report aponeuritis where the whole sole of the foot has become painful. Changes in pressure within muscle compartments necessitate a radical change in walking style. The feet are reported as hot and cold and there is an increase in the rate of perspiration. Stability and balance may also be adversely affected due to falanga. In many regions of the world falanga is still practiced as a form of corporal punishment in bringing up children. In the Middle Ages falanga was a punishment often used on traders who were dishonest. For some reason bakers were particularly singled and this sent shock waves across Europe. In England, bakers attempted to avoid such official scrutiny by making a good will gesture to their customers and supplying a thirteenth role with any dozen purchased. Hence the origins of the bakers dozen. A common misunderstanding was the thirteen, represented the twelve disciples plus Jesus.

Historically the Irish were not a nation known to use torture however a preferred punishment mooted out by many Irish terrorists was knee capping, i.e. shooting the victim through the knee. Because this was so commonplace, Belfast orthopaedic surgeons perfected new reconstructive techniques and combined with rehabilitation improved the victims chances of walking without a limp. Agents of terror soon changed their modis operandi and shot their victims through the foot instead.

The term toe cutter is Australian slang for a person who lives by torturing other criminals, then robbing them. As the name implies the torture usually involves painful removal of the digits or in some cases the complete foot. Few victims ever inform since their loss has been acquired illegally. The first toe cutter was "Jimmie the Pom" and his gang operated in the Sydney area during the seventies. They preyed on fellow criminals threatening bodily harm, till they disclosed the whereabouts of their ill begotten gains. Their modis operandi was to cut people's toes off, with bolt cutters. By day the leader of the extortionists ran a dress shop. He immigrated to Australia in 1967 and claimed to be a member of the notorious Kray Brothers Gang from East London where he picked up the idea. His technique seemed to work because over the years it is reputed the Toe Cutter Gang was able to amass considerable loot from their fiendish toe fetish. Less adept copycats used blowtorches applied to the soles of the feet to achieve the same end.

The Scots have never been backward when it comes to ingenuity and invention and were at the forefront of niche torture, inventing the boot (bootkins). The cunning device ensured maximum agony but without endangering life in anyway. There were several versions of the boot and all caused excruciating agony. The earlier boot consisted of a frame around the lower leg and foot, similar to those that support young saplings. In a systematic way increasing the tension to the tissues by driving wooden wedges into the framework caused compression of soft tissue and crushing to the legs and feet. Later the wooden frame was replaced with an iron boot. Wedges were driven downward between the boot and flesh causing pure agony. The Royals would frequently visit the torture sessions and considered them as entertainment. The boot was often reserved for suspected practitioners of the occult with many accused witches and warlocks forced to endure foot torture. Sometimes the boot was heated until red hot during interrogation a reference to this practice is found in Grimm's fairytales. The victims were often kept trussed up for weeks, usually naked and in extreme cold and damp conditions before confessions were secured. The caspicaws (or cashielawis meaning warm hose) was notorious as the Spanish Boot. The Spanish Boot was an iron casing for the leg and foot which had a screw attachment for compressing the calf of the leg. Sometimes the leggings were applied to the leg then heated or pre heated before application. The advantage of the former method was questions could be asked before applying heat, otherwise damages was so immediate by the latter , there was little advantage to the interrogator and the threat of application was the greatest and often the treat of last resort.

High boots made of spongy leather were placed on the legs of the victim and then placed in front of a burning fire. Boiling water was poured into the boots penetrating the leather, subsequent shrinkage tore at the flesh.

Brodequins described another type of torture where the victim was seated on a strong bench, and boards of suitable width and length were placed on the inside and outside of each leg, and tightly bound in position with strong rope, the two legs in their casing being fixed together. Wedges of wood or metal were driven with a mallet between the centre boards. Four wedges were used for ordinary torture and eight wedges in what was termed extraordinary torture. As the chords bit through the flesh it caused excruciating pain. In many case the bones were fractured. This type of boot was used exclusively in Scotland in the seventeenth century. The mark of a witch was keenly sought after as proof and could be found anywhere on the body. Prickers were skilled witch hunters who inspected the accused bodies carefully from head to the soles. When they came across blemishes they would prick them with special brass pins. If no pain was elicited this confirmed the person was a witch. Once this happened then a confession was required. Witches in Edinburgh were hung by the thumbs with lighted candles placed beneath the soles of their feet to gain a confession. Caspie-claws were iron frames to hold the leg, the frame was heated over a brazier.

An other modification on the boot was to encase the victim's legs in crude stockings, made from parchment. Applied wet, the victims were placed next to a fire with and when the fabrics shrunk the ensuing pain was agonising. The French version of the boot required victims to be forced into high boots made of thick spongy leather. Quantities of scalding hot water were poured into the watertight boots causing the flesh to cook. The Irish customised the boot and modified the French practice by pouring melted resin into the boots. Confessions were swift. The Spanish and Austria Hungarian Empire used both crusher boots with wedges as well as the iron boot. Later variations on the basic boot theme included shin crushers from Germany and bone crushing tongs from Spain and the iron slipper was used by the Lisbon Inquisition (1704). Often the implement of torture was applied red hot and placed on the naked foot. (Scott G R 1995) Boots and other instruments of torture were in constant use (seventeenth century) the boots were used in the persecution of witches. It was rare for anyone to survive the ordeal without permanent disfigurement. Torture of the boot was considered by contemporary observers to be most severe and cruel. The alarm caused by the idea of the torture was enough to upset those who witnessed and oversaw the persecution. Orders compelling the number of people required to stay were necessary. Used frequently from sixteenth century well documented. Women were not immune to the torture of the boot.

The Indians used an implement called the Kittee. It was made of wood and resembled a domestic lemon squeezer. Sensitive parts pf the body including the feet were squeezed between two plates until the victim could bare it no more. When applied to the foot, the executioner would stand on the upper board or heap heavy stones leaving the victim for hours at a stretch. Torture by the kittee usually left the victim crippled.

A bizarre torture practiced in Medievil France called for the victim to be tied to a bench and their feet bathed in salt water. A goat was brought to the poor unfortunate prisoner and allowed to lick their feet. The rough tongue to the sensitive soles of the feet, plus the fear of being bitten by the goat soon brought a confession.

In the days of the British Empire when the armies were stationed in the outposts living in tented camps, spiked tent pegs provided an elementary but effective form of punishment. The technique was called the Piquet or Picket. A long post was driven into the ground and the soldier left to stand on a stool beside it. His right hand was attached to a hook at the top of the post. A short length of timber was driven into the ground near the stool, its upper end rounded to a blunt point. The soldier had to rest one heel on the stake when the stool was removed. Suspended from one wrist with his weight pressing on the spike into his bare heel, the most unruly private learnt the error of his ways especially when, after fifteen minutes, the position would be reversed. This torture was almost exclusive to the military but there was one case reported in Trinidad (1801) where a young women had to undergo a modified form of picket where her big toe was balanced on a sharp spike in the ground as she was suspended from the wrists.

Abbott G 1997 Rack, rope and hot pincer: a history of tortuture and its instruments London: Brockhampton Press
Folklore myths and legends of Britain The Reader’s Digest Association Ltd London: The Readers Digest Association Ltd 1973
Read MB 1991 Chopper: from the inside NSW: Sly Ink
Scott GR 1995 A history of torture London: Senate

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