Torture in the United States: A History

In October 2006, President George W. Bush said that the United States "doesn't torture, and isn't going to torture." Three and a half years earlier, in March 2003, the Bush administration had secretly tortured Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times in a single month.

But critics of the Bush administration who describe state-sponsored torture as unprecedented are also in the wrong. Torture is, sadly, an established part of U.S. history dating back to pre-Revolutionary times. The terms "tarring and feathering" and "run out of town on a rail," may sound like humorous metaphors today but both refer to actual torture methods that were practiced by Anglo-American colonists.


Witch Trial
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Although 19 people were executed by hanging during the Salem Witch Trials, one victim met a more torturous punishment: 81-year-old Giles Corey, who refused to enter a plea (as this would have placed his estate in the hands of the government rather than his wife and children). In an effort to force him to plea, local officials piled boulders on his chest for two days until he suffocated.


A countryman tarred and feathered, America, c1770s (c1880).
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First known example of tarring and feathering in the U.S. in Duchess County, New York, when a judge of the Court of Common Pleas was tarred and feathered for acting in contempt of the County Committee.

Tarring and feathering is an Anglo-American folk tradition dated at least as long ago as the 12th century in England; it involves stripping a person of their clothing, pouring hot tar of them, dumping feathers over them, and then parading them around town.


The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that defendants have the right to remain silent and may not be forced to testify against themselves, while the Eighth Amendment prohibits the use of cruel and unusual punishment. Neither of these amendments was applied to the states until the twentieth century, and their application at the federal level was, for most of their history, vague at best.


Enslaved people forced to harvest cotton
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The Narrative of William W. Brown calls national attention to the torture of enslaved people in the antebellum South. Among the more common methods used were whipping, prolonged restraint, and "smoking," the prolonged imprisonment of an enslaved person inside a sealed shed with an aromatic burning substance (usually tobacco).

Mid-19th to mid-20th Centuries

Lynching, the hanging and burning of mainly African Americans, occurred regularly in the United States: over 4,700 are known to have occurred between 1882 and 1868.


Theodore Roosevelt
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President Theodore Roosevelt defends U.S. military use of water torture against Filipino detainees, arguing that "nobody was seriously damaged."


The Wickersham Commission reveals widespread police use of the "third degree," extreme interrogation methods that were often tantamount to torture.


The CIA distributes the KUBARK Interrogation Manual, a 128-page guide to interrogation that includes multiple references to torture techniques. The manual was used internally by the CIA for decades and was used as part of the curriculum to train U.S.-supported Latin American militia at the School of the Americas between 1987 and 1991.


An internal investigation leads to the firing of Chicago police detective Jon Burge on torture charges. Burge has been accused of torturing over 200 inmates between 1972 and 1991 in order to generate confessions.


The Clinton Global Initiative Winter Meeting
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President Bill Clinton issues Presidential Decision Directive 39 (PDD-39), which authorizes the "extraordinary rendition," or transfer, of non-citizen prisoners to Egypt for interrogation and trial. Egypt is known to practice torture, and statements obtained by torture in Egypt have been put to use by U.S. intelligence agencies. Human rights activists have argued that this is often the whole point of extraordinary rendition—it allows U.S. intelligence agencies to have prisoners tortured without breaking U.S. anti-torture laws.


A CBS News 60 Minutes II report releases images and testimony pertaining to the abuse of prisoners by U.S. military personnel at Abu Ghraib Detention Facility in Baghdad, Iraq. The scandal, documented by graphic photographs, calls attention to the widespread problem of post-9/11 torture.


California State Prisons Face Overcrowding Issues
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A BBC Channel 4 documentary, Torture, Inc.: America's Brutal Prisons, reveals widespread torture in U.S. prisons.


President Bush Addresses The Nation
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Documents released by the Obama administration reveal that the Bush administration had ordered the use of torture against two al-Qaeda suspects an estimated 266 times during a short period in 2003. It is likely that this represents only a small fraction of authorized uses of torture in the post-9/11 era.


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Head, Tom. "Torture in the United States: A History." ThoughtCo, Feb. 22, 2021, Head, Tom. (2021, February 22). Torture in the United States: A History. Retrieved from Head, Tom. "Torture in the United States: A History." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 14, 2021).