Denailing—the forcible extraction of the nails from the fingers and/or toes—was a favorite method of medieval torture that remains tremendously popular with modern Third-World governments. Denailing is both highly efficient and extremely effective as a form of physical torture and, in modern use, causes limited physical injury: while brute-force tearing out can and does damage the cuticles, surgical extraction via scalpel and forceps without anesthesia does not.
In its simplest form, the torture is conducted by spread-eagling the prisoner to a tabletop—securing the hands by chains around the wrists and the bare feet by chains around the ankles—and using a metal forceps or pliers—often heated red-hot—to individually grasp each nail in turn and slowly pry it from the nail bed before tearing it off the finger or toe. A crueler variant used in medieval Spain was performed by introducing a sharp wedge of wood or metal between the flesh and each nail and slowly hammering the wedge under the nail until it was torn free.
Another cruel variant involved using rough skewers of wood or bone dipped in boiling sulfur. A number of such skewers were slowly driven into the flesh under the prisoner's toenails. Alternately, the skewer was dipped in boiling oil, which served a dual purpose of both burning the incredibly sensitive flesh and lubricating the needle so that the torturer could freely explore a wide surface area beneath the toenail. When enough skewers had been driven home to pry each nail loose from its bed, the nail was torn out at the root with a pair of pliers. It is also recorded that, in more recent times—particularly, during the Armenian genocide of the 1910s—phonograph needles were driven under fingernails to torture the prisoner before his nails were torn out with pliers.
A wide variety of medieval tortures were intended specifically for the toes, transcending simple tearing out of toenails. A variety of iron pincers were made with rough grips to securely grasp the toe—typically incorporating a screw wheel to precisely control the bone-crushing procedure—before removing it from the foot. Alternative pincers were made of heavy cast iron and were brought to red-heat before seizing the toe, burning it to a crisp, and tearing it free. Thumbscrew variants, creatively shaped to inter-operate with bare feet, typically squeezed the toes between toothed iron bars that punctured the nails, inflicting untold agony, before the crushing process began. Shattering the toe bones with an iron mallet was a popular diversion to occupy the duller moments of slower interrogative tortures such as foot roasting. The tablillas offered an ingenious refinement of cruelty, outfitting each naked foot with a wooden pillory that first immobilized the toes for torture. The torturer positioned a sharpened wedge of wood or metal head-on over the tip of each of the tortured person's toes, one by one; expert administration of powerful, carefully controlled blows of the iron mallet served to pulverize the tiny bones of the toe, joint by joint. Such savage tortures were applied with great enthusiasm toward the discovery of witchcraft.
The Iranian SAVAK—the shah's secret police—developed a crude denailing machine. The device fundamentally resembles an iron straightedge with an extremely sharp, slightly angled, prong. Starting at the base of the finger or toe, the device is forcibly propelled forward in one swift motion that cuts through the nail near the cuticle—thereby digging into the incredibly sensitive nail bed and so gripping the nail—and then tears the nail free. The dragging of the prong along the entire length of the nail bed is indescribably painful but does not last very long, somewhat defeating the purpose of the torture.
M. Donnelly and D. Diehl, The Big Book of Pain (Scroud, Gloucestershire, U.K.: The History Press, 2011).
Fingernail Torture Device, Ten Most Terrifying Torture Devices of the 20th Century, http://www.environmentalgraffiti.com/news-10-most-terrifying-torture-devices-20th-century?image=1
- A. Hirsch, ed., The Book of Torture and Executions (Toronto: Golden Books, 1944).
- G. R. Scott, A History of Torture (London: Merchant, 1996).
- "Iranian denailing torture device". Retrieved 26 August 2012.