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The term boot refers to a family of instruments of torture and interrogation variously designed to cause crushing injuries to the foot and/or leg. The boot has taken many forms in various places and times. Common varieties include the Spanish boot and the Malay boot. One type was made of four pieces of narrow wooden board nailed together. The boards were measured to fit the victim's leg. Once the leg was enclosed, wedges would be hammered between the boards, creating pressure. The pressure would be increased until the victim confessed or lost consciousness. Newer variants have included iron vises—sometimes armed with spikes—that squeezed feet and metal frames employed red-hot.
The Spanish boot was an iron casing for the leg and foot. Wood or iron wedges were hammered in between the casing and the victim's flesh. A similar device, commonly referred to as a shin crusher, squeezed the calf between two curved iron plates, studded with spikes, teeth, and knobs, to fracture the tibia and fibula.
Primitive forerunners of the archetype can be found dating back as far as a thousand years. The first Scottish effort—also referred to as a buskin—made use of a vaguely boot-shaped rawhide garment that was soaked with water, drawn over the foot and lower leg, and bound in place with cords. The contraption was slowly heated over a gentle fire, drastically contracting the rawhide and squeezing the foot until the bones were dislocated, though there would not have been sufficient pressure actually to crush the bones of the foot. A more progressive variant, found in both the British Isles and France, consisted of a trio of upright wooden boards that splinted around and between the feet and were tied in place by cords. Wedges were hammered between the boards and the feet to dislocate and crush the bones. A prototype hailing from Autun, France, consisted of high boots of spongy, porous leather that were drawn over the feet and legs. Boiling water was poured over the boots, eventually soaking through the leather and eating the flesh away from the entrapped limbs. Lastly, oversized boots of iron or copper (often soldered in place on the floor) received the prisoner's bare feet as he lay helplessly bound and gagged in a chair. The boots were slowly filled with boiling water or oil, or even molten lead, to consume the feet and legs. One variant—applied in Ireland to the martyr Dermot O'Hurley—consisted of lightweight metal boots that were filled with cool water and heated with the feet inside over a fire until the water boiled aggressively.
A similar implement, the foot press or foot screw, consisted of a pair of horizontal iron plates tightened around the foot by means of a crank mechanism to lacerate the flesh and crush the bones of the foot. Although it was quite standard to line the lower plate with ribs to prevent the bare foot from popping out of the grip of the instrument as it became sweatier, a crueler variant of this device—typically encountered in Nuremberg, Germany—lined the upper plate with hundreds of sharp spikes. A version from Venice even connected the crank mechanism to a drill, so that a hole was drilled in the center of the instep while the instrument was tightened.
Medieval boots were built according to a wide array of architectures. One commonly encountered boot consisted fundamentally of a pair of parallel boards that splinted the bare foot from heel to toes and were connected by a screw mechanism. Turning the screw drives the boards together and inflicts untold lateral pressure on the metatarsal heads, causing agony. This is the type of boot commonly associated with the torture of Esmeralda in Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame. The cruelty of the torture could be increased by spacing the toes apart with stiff wooden pegs. Various extensions of the instrument were designed to crush the ankle, calf, and/or knee in addition to its primary target, the instep.
A more technologically sophisticated boot is demonstrated in "The Big Book of Pain" by Donnelly and Diehl. The boot resembles an iron clog, filled with spikes, that envelops the prisoner's toes. An iron plate behind the heel, secured by a powerful screw, holds the bare foot in place. Turning the screw slowly advances the foot deeper into the boot, grinding the toes against the spiked iron enclosure until their bones were ground to powder.
References in literature and the cinema
- In Victor Hugo's novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the character of Esmeralda is tortured using the boot. Through Hugo's sketchy description, we learn only the following: that the boot is "a heavy block of oak and ironwork" that completely encloses the naked foot; that the device is tightened by a screw; that the torture is so cruel that a single turn of the screw elicits bloodcurdling screams from the prisoner; and that foot-squeezing is such an effective torture that it is the first choice to force a murder confession. In the 1939 movie version starring Charles Laughton with Maureen O'Hara as Esmeralda, the boot resembles dissociated planks with spikes scattered here and there; we do not see the device actually fitted over Esmeralda's foot. In the 1956 movie version starring Anthony Quinn and Gina Lollobrigida as Esmeralda, the boot is an ornate boot-shaped device of metal into which the front of Esmeralda's foot is inserted (probably the lateral design that grinds the toes together).
- In Benjamin Christensen's 1922 Swedish film Häxan (lit., The Witch), a boot-like torture is suggested by the juxtaposition of a generalized crusher—a rough stone that can be screwed down toward a metal base plate—to a woman's naked foot. In actuality, the device shown is a shin-crusher, not at all a torture device for the feet.
- The Malay boot features in a scene from the 1935 film China Seas where it is applied to Clark Gable to force him to disclose the location of the ship's cargo of gold bullion.
- In Mikhail Bulgakov's 1966 novel, The Master and Margarita, Signora Tofana, a guest at Satan's Ball, arrives wearing a Spanish boot on her left leg.
- Ken Russell's The Devils shows the priest Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) being tortured with a form of the boot, in which large wedges are driven into his legs with a sledgehammer.
- The Spanish boot is used to extract confessions from those accused of witchcraft in the 1970 Czechoslovakian film Witches' Hunt (Kladivo na čarodějnice).
- In the 1987 Stephen King novel The Eyes of the Dragon, the castle's torture chamber is said to contain "racks and manacles and squeezing boots."
- Robert E. Howard's 1935/1936 Conan story, The Hour of the Dragon, refers to "racks, boots, hooks and all the implements that the human mind devises to tear flesh, break bones and rend and rupture veins and ligaments."
- In the first episode of the History Channel's program Surviving History, the Scarefactory design team builds and tests a recreation of the boot, this one a classic, spike-lined Spanish boot or Beinschrauben that is tightened around the leg by means of screws.
- McCall, Andrew: The Medieval Underworld. Hamish Hamilton, 1979. ISBN 978-0-7509-3727-6
- This family of torture devices is not widely recorded but is described in Richard Sair's The Book of Torture and Executions (Toronto: Golden Books, 1944), cataloged under the editor's name (Arnold Hirsch, M.D.) in the Library of Congress database (catalog number HV8593), and deriving largely from the Earl of Shrewsbury's traveling exhibit of torture devices from Nuremberg Castle.