Torture, Mutilation and Brutality (Comanche History)

Michael has a BA in History & American Studies and an MSc in American History from the University of Edinburgh. He comes from a proud military family and has spent most of his career as an educator in the Middle East and Asia. His passion is travel, and he seizes any opportunity to share his experiences in the most immersive way possible, whether at sea or on the land.

The following story is from the book, Comanches, The Destruction of a People, by T.R. Fehrenbach.

The protracted rape, humiliation, and murder of female captives began on the homeward journey, leaving a bloody trail behind the war party. This began when the warriors believed they had put enough distance behind them for security, and they could make a camp and light fires. There was no taboo against tormenting women, but this rarely went beyond sexual assault, though Amerindians were known to impale women on rough-cut stakes, or cut their heel tendons and leave them in the wilderness. Purely sexual sadism seems to have been almost unknown, because there was little sexual frustration to feed it. More often than not, the captive female brought back to camp had more to fear from the jealousy of the Nermernuh women, who heaped abuse and even physical punishment on them.

If there were male prisoners, the normal practice was to try to bring them back for the pleasure of the women. When this was impractical, they were killed on the trail. Since bravery was the supreme virtue among Amerindians, torture was the supreme test. The tormentors got the same psychic satisfaction from breaking a victim’s spirit while they destroyed his nerves and body as they derived from mutilating the dead. However, because valor was so respected in this war culture, the tortured captive who died bravely gained honor even in the eyes of enemies, a nicety most European minds failed to grasp. The victim who was defiant to the last even won a sort of triumph: he made bad magic for his killers. There is one documented case of a nameless white man on the plains who laughed in the faces of his Nermernuh captors with complete coolness as they graphically threatened his genitals with fire and steel. Abashed, a war chief ordered him released unharmed, as having a magic too powerful to challenge.

A Spanish-recorded description of the mass torture of a number of captured Tonkawas is enough to show why the subject of torture was always close to the minds of whites on the Amerindian frontier. In this case, the Nermernuh warriors staked out their victims, and began applying fire to each captive’s hands and feet until the nerves had been destroyed in each extremity. Then, they amputated the ruined extremities and began the fire torture again against the sensitive, bleeding flesh. All of the victims were scalped alive, so that they would know the full extent of their degradation. Finally, tiring of the business, the Nermernuh tore out the Tonkawas’ tongues to silence their cries, and heaped the writhing victims’ scrota and bellies with blazing coals. The Nermernuh then went to sleep around the torture fire.

Even worse fates could befall warriors brought back alive to Nermernuh encampments. Here, especially once the victim’s screams established that his medicine was broken, the work was left to the women. Most observers reported that the women were far more patient and vicious tormentors than the males. It may have been the exercise of vengeance against their lot in life, but at any rate, the females destroyed the captive by the most drawn-out and hideous means they could devise. They cut off his fingers and peeled his eyes; they stretched his tongue and charred his soles, and they invariably devoted fiendish attention to his penis and testicles. The torture went on for hours, even days, so long as the body survived.

Meanwhile, if the war party had come back with glory and with captives and booty-and without losses-the whole band erupted in frenzied celebration. Warriors recounted their deeds to the thump of drums and the admiring whoops of women. Great men honored others and themselves. Coups were claimed, and reputations established or destroyed. The returned warriors then danced themselves into exhaustion while their bloody trophies hung drying on the scalp poles.

If the war party came back reporting disaster or with any dead, the hysteria was reversed. Lamentation swelled through the night, and might go on for days. Bereaved families mourned for months; women cut their breasts and severed fingers in despair. Councils and puhakut sought medicine for revenge. And thus the cycle would go on, war and reprisal without end.

From the book, Los Comanches, The Horse People 1751-1845, by Stanley Noyes:

Comanches put the prisoner to work digging a hole, telling him they needed it for a religious ceremony. When the captive, using a knife and his hands, had completed digging a pit about five feet deep, they bound him with rope, placed him in it, filled the hole with dirt, packing it around his body and exposed head. They then scalped him and cut off his ears, nose, lips, and eyelids. Leaving him bleeding, they rode away, counting on the sun and insects to finish their work for them. Later, back at their encampment, they told the story as an excellent joke, one which gained them a certain celebrity throughout the tribe.

…Back in Spain, the Peninsular War, 1808-14, was partly a guerrilla campaign fought by the Spanish people against the troops of Napoleon. It is called the "War of Independence" there. Although a British and Portuguese army finally drove the French from Spain, the Spanish people in the interim fought courageously-and suffered. Francisco Jose de Goya y Lucientes created a vivid record of their suffering in his series of etchings, Los Desastres de la Guerra. Of these, number 39 offers the naked, mutilated bodies of three men bound to a tree. Their genitals have been cut off. The severed head of one is impaled on a branch, while his arms hang on another. This kind of sight would not have been unfamiliar to the Comanches. Clinton Smith told of seeing the Ietan women of his band occupied on a battlefield by cutting off the arms and legs of the naked enemy dead and hanging them from trees.

Another Goya etching, number 37, is entitled Esto es Peor, or "This is Worse." It depicts another corpse of a naked man, his arm lopped off by the shoulder, seated on a dead tree. On close observation, the viewer sees a sharpened branch entering between his buttocks and protruding from his back, a little below the neck. French soldiers in the background busy themselves with the dead or with killing others.

If this image of war as practiced by nineteenth-century Europeans had circulated during a council of Comanche chiefs and warriors around 1820, they would have recognized it as an instance of the kind of war they themselves could bring to their worst enemies. It was the kind of war they would bring, in a couple of decades, to the Anglo-Texans, after they had come to hate them as much as they presently did the Apaches and the Osages.

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