Chinese water torture

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"This murderer gets Tortured with Poisonous Water-dripping on his naked head" - Translated from Swedish, dated 1674.
A victim of Chinese water torture at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York
A reproduction of a Chinese water torture apparatus at Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial

Chinese water torture or a "dripping machine"[1] is a mentally painful process in which cold water is slowly dripped onto the scalp, forehead or face for a prolonged period of time.[1] The process causes fear and mental deterioration in the subject. The pattern of the drops is often irregular, and the cold sensation jarring, which causes anxiety as a person tries to anticipate the next drip.[2] This form of torture was first described by Hippolytus De Marsiliis in Italy in the 15th or 16th century.[1][3]


The term "Chinese water torture" may have arisen[1] from the predicament escape Chinese Water Torture Cell (a feat of escapology introduced in Berlin at Circus Busch on September 13, 1910). The escape entailed Harry Houdini being bound and suspended upside-down in a locked glass and steel cabinet full to overflowing with water, from which he escaped, together with the Fu Manchu stories of Sax Rohmer that were popular in the 1930s (in which Fu Manchu subjected his victims to various ingenious tortures, such as the wired jacket).

Hippolytus de Marsiliis is credited with the invention of a form of water torture. Having observed how drops of water falling one by one on a stone gradually created a hollow, he applied the method to the human body. Other suggestions say that the term "Chinese water torture" was invented merely to grant the method a sense of ominous mystery. The victim would be stripped of their clothes, shown to the public, then tortured. They would be driven insane while bystanders watched, mocked, and laughed at them.[1][3]

The term "Spanish water torture" is also used in Europe, although this term often refers to a type of torture used during the Spanish Inquisition.[1] Victims would be strapped down so that they could not move, and cold or warm water would then be dripped slowly onto a small area of their body—usually the forehead. The forehead was found to be the most suitable point for this form of torture because of its sensitivity, and because of its ominous proximity to the brain and facial features.

The victims could see each drop coming and, after a long duration of time, were gradually driven frantic to the point of insanity, usually because they were led to believe that a hollow or severe ulcer would develop there, or as a (sometimes combined) result of prolonged restraint under irritating conditions, isolation, or the humiliation of being tortured publicly.[citation needed]


There is very little evidence pertaining to the effectiveness of torture for interrogation purposes. The method itself causes lasting mental damage in victims proportional to the intensity of exposure. The television series MythBusters investigated the effectiveness of Chinese water torture, and while it was found quite effective, they noted that the restraining equipment was providing most of the effect by itself, and when testing the dripping water alone on a relaxed, unrestrained subject, it was found almost negligible.[4] Nevertheless, in the Episode 3, Season 2 of the web television series Mind Field the MythBusters host Adam Savage said the following: "The creepiest thing that happened after we did this episode was that I got an email from someone from a throw away account. He said, 'We found that randomizing when the drops occurred was incredibly effective. That anything that happens on a regular periodicity can become a type of meditation, and you can then tune it out. If you couldn't predict it, he said, 'We found, we were able to induce a psychotic break within 20 hours.'"[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Dripping Machine de Young, Mary (2015). Encyclopedia of Asylum Therapeutics, 1750-1950s. ISBN 9780786468973.
  2. ^ Samuel, Eugenie. "Water torture". New Scientist. Retrieved 2021-04-08.
  3. ^ a b Paraskovich, Jack (2016). The Wrong View of History. ISBN 978-1-4771-2395-9.
  4. ^ Mythbusters, "Water Torture". Episode 25, Season 2. (2005)
  5. ^ Mind Field, "Interrogation - Mind Field S2 (Ep 3)". Episode 3, Season 2. (2017)