Q: What is "torture"?

Joel S. Berson Berson at ATT.NET
Tue Apr 27 17:48:09 UTC 2010

An unnamed essayist in the Penguin Enhanced eBook edition of "The
Scarlet Letter" (2008) has written:

"The preferred means of torture in the Massachusetts Bay Colony seems
to have been the pillory and the stocks ...".

"Whipping also was more often reserved for the lower classes or for
outsiders (the Quakers, for example), as was physical torture (like
maiming or branding)."

"Hawthorne ... in his story 'Endicott and the Red Cross' describes in
even more depth such tortures as the cropping of ears, the wearing of
letters, branding, whipping, and the use of cleft sticks on the
tongue to hush quarrelsome women."

"The other goodwives, disappointed that the magistrates have gone
soft on Hester, suggest more torture for her---a branding with a hot
iron on her forehead or even death."

None of these seem to me to qualify as "torture"; rather they were
punishments.  And I think the writer has confused the two.

Surely the pillory, the stocks, the wearing of letters, and cleft
sticks are not torture.

Even maiming, branding, cropping of ears, whipping, and execution do
not seem to fit the OED's (and my) sense 2, "Severe or excruciating
pain or suffering (of body or mind); anguish, agony, torment; the
infliction of such."  They must have involved severe pain, but they
were acts of a limited duration, and not repeated so as to cause
"anguish, agony, torment".

Today we might call these "cruel and unusual punishments," and even
perhaps call those that might result in continued mental anguish
"torture."  But to refer to those acts of the 17th century as
"torture" seems a presentist point of view.  For the Puritans they
were punishments, not torture.  And the Puritans distinguished them
from torture---torture was not permitted to coerce a confession.  (It
was permitted to coerce a plea, as in the pressing of Giles Corey in 1692.)

Or am I off-base?


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