Inquisition neck collar with spikes
Neck collar with spikes

Wandering the old town of Cartagena in Colombia we couldn’t resist visiting the Palacio de Inquisicion, translation from the Spanish unnecessary. On one level it was just curiosity, about the same fascination that compels us to rubberneck when we see a bad accident by the side of the road. But it went beyond curiosity; knowing the history of this infamous institution, I felt an urge to go in and re-learn the lessons of history and to bear witness.


The evolution of an institutional mission, or “mission creep”.

The “original intent” of the Spanish Inquisition was to expose and root out “crypto-Jews”, those who converted under duress but continued to surreptitiously maintain their Jewish traditions and religion. Other people, Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, all felt that the Inquisition was preoccupied with Jews so they are safe from its reach. Of course, the beast needed more red meat, and soon enough even good Catholics fell prey.

When religious “rivals” and heretics where becoming scarce, the Inquisition mined a rich vein: the witches! Here are a few choice questions that the inquisitors asked an accused witch:

1. Since when have you been a witch? (a la “when did you start beating your wife”?)

2. Why did you become a witch?

3. How did you become a witch and what happened on that occasion?

4. Whom did you choose as a partner?

5 What is his/her name?

6. what is the name of your master amongst the evil spirits?

7. Which is the oath that you had to render to him? (note “to him”-after all, the boss has to be a “he”)

8. How and under what terms have you done it?

There are about 20 more questions on the list, some of them hilarious, like ” what animals have you killed or put under a curse?” (can you see today’s PETA interrogating along the same line?).

For those of us old enough to remember the inquisitorial interrogations of the House Un-American Activities Committee, this is chillingly familiar. But my bet is that the vast majority of people never heard or totally forgot what HUAC was.

Back to the museum. Interestingly, the Church had no problem admitting that it used torture. One method was stuffing cloth in the accused mouth and pouring water on it, giving the person a sensation of drowning. Sounds familiar? Yes, this is waterboarding that today some people have trouble calling torture, yet even the Church prohibited its use more than twice on the same person.


The “Science” of identifying a Witch

Scale to weigh witches (in Inquisition Museum, Cartagena, Columbia)

How do you tell a witch? By her weight, of course. Just think about it for a minute. Could a Rubenesque woman fly? of course not; even if she managed to hop, she would crash and twist an ankle, let alone fly riding a broom. Only a Satan-worshipping witch would keep her weight down, so she could mount her personal broom and take off. Case closed; burn that skinny witch on the stake.

The famous rack

The rack was designed to stretch the heretic who wouldn’t confess. I am not talking about a Yoga stretch or a stretch for low back pain. This one is not for sissies; you get stretched until your extremities get torn off your body.

The “cat’s claws” used to shred skin and muscle of the accused

This agricultural implement-looking thing has nothing to do with food production, and everything to do with extracting a confession. They gave it the cute name of the Cat’s Claws, but it is much more deadly than a cat scratch -it’s designed to quite literally skin the sinner alive.

Neck collar with spikes

This collar was placed around the neck of the sinner and progressively tightened until a carotid is punctured or the spine severed, whichever comes first.

Can it happen today?

Not in our country, you might say; we are too enlightened for Inquisition-style torture. Well, think again; the Milgram experiment with enlightened Yale students proved otherwise. And the Stanford prison experiment, with budding whiz kids, corroborated Milgram’s conclusions that everything is possible in the U.S., including unthinkable torture. And “modern” waterboarding? it came straight out of the 15th century Inquisition playbook, without any modification.

On a lighter note, I am writing this rather grim piece after a most amazing New Year’s fiesta

It is now 1 a.m. and we are back from the streets of Cartagena’s old town. Restaurants, hotels, bars and just plain homes set white-clothed tables in the streets and served dinner and drinks to thousands of people. Next to us were people from Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, as well as the local Cartageneros and Bolivians. The whole scene was brimming with joy, good will, lots of “saluds” over whiskey, wine, champaign with everybody, and I mean everybody, around. People were dancing in the spaces between tables to the rousing Colombian rhythms; there were no walls between people-they all came tumbling down before the waves of friendship washing over this mass of humanity. How can anybody have negative thoughts on such an occasion? Yet, with all the cheer, the good feelings, the joy, I felt this note of sadness, of stubborn skepticism that all is well. Take my advice: don’t go to Museums of Inquisitions or holocausts, or other gruesome subjects, on New Year’s Eve.

Remember Rodney King? He was a black man brutalized by police, who plaintively and eloquently asked: “why can’t we all get along?” Indeed, why?

So when we think about our wishes for the New Year, let’s not forget the lessons of the past and try to become a bit more human and humane to each other.

Feliz Ano nuevo!

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.


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