The Spanish Inquisition – what was it really like?

What was it like to be a prisoner of the notorious Spanish Inquisition? Well, I got a unique insight in 2019 when I visited what had been a Spanish Inquisition prison in the Sicilian capital of Palermo.

You might ask – what was the Spanish Inquisition doing in the Sicilian capital, Palermo? Isn’t that part of Italy?

And the answer is that Sicily was ruled by Spain from the 15th to the 18th century. With Spanish rule came the Spanish Inquisition and that meant imprisonment, torture and burning at the stake for those who didn’t accept the authority of the Roman Catholic church.

Spanish Inquisition gets to work in Sicily

In Palermo, people suspected of being ‘heretics’ – in opposition to Catholic teaching – were arrested and taken to a very severe looking building. They were crammed into dark cells from which they only emerged to be beaten and cruelly tortured.

But what is astonishing is that during their dreadful captivity, the prisoners used a mixture of dirt from the floor and their urine to paint religious art on the walls.

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This art was lost for centuries and only fully rediscovered in the last twenty years. Some of it seems to be a plea for mercy while other drawings are clearly intended to tell the Inquisition to sling its hook. There’s even one depiction of an inquisitor riding a donkey which is defecating.

I was genuinely affected by my visit to this Spanish Inquisition prison. It still holds the ability to terrify, though you have to use a bit of imagination to visualise it at the height of its operation. But frankly, anybody with a modicum of historical knowledge should be able to do that.

A visit is definitely recommended and – yes – you could take youngsters too. I suspect they’ll love it!

Prisoners infect judges with typhus – jail fever!

Eighteenth century courtrooms were a dangerous place. For the convict there was a good chance you’d dangle from a rope. But even for the judge – the risk was high. The prisoners were so filthy and disease ridden that you might catch jail fever. Or what we call typhus these days.

Judges catch jail fever from typhus ridden accused

The year was 1750 in London at England’s top criminal court – the Old Bailey. Three judges were trying a group of prisoners and the death sentence was anticipated.

Capital punishment applied to a whole range of crimes at this time – not just murder but also theft and violent attack.

Unfortunately for the judges, the grubby criminals were seated right in front of the dock. And not only did they stink to high heaven but there had been an outbreak of jail fever within Newgate prison. The place was rife with typhus.

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Typhus, by the way, was also referred to as hospital fever, camp fever and ship fever. It was and is caused by poor hygiene, normally when lots of people are grouped together in insanitary conditions. For example, military camps, ships and….prisons.

The agent of transmission is the humble louse, which gets infected by a sick person and then shares the disease with anybody nearby. So, the judges were infected because of their proximity to the accused. And it’s not a disease that spares the rich and privileged.

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One of the judges was Sir Samuel Pennant (pictured with a louse) – who was also the Lord Mayor of London. The other two judges were Sir Thomas Abney and Baron Clarke. And they all died – infected by the very prisoners they had been sentencing to hang.

Another little fact about Sir Samuel – apart from being Lord Mayor and dying of typhus – was that he was a prolific slave owner. The 18th century was the height of British activity in the trade and he was actually born in Jamaica on his father’s plantation. I’m shedding less tears about his fate now.

Today, the Old Bailey – or Central Criminal Court – is still standing, though a more recent building. There’s no prison nearby. It was demolished at the turn of the 20th century when Londoners decided they’d rather not have large prisons in the middle of town.

But in 1750, Newgate prison was located right next door to the courthouse.

Jail fever brings typhus straight from prison to courtroom

Prisoners were therefore brought a relatively short distance from the squalid and overcrowded conditions at Newgate, straight into the courtroom of the Old Bailey. And along came the lice and fleas with them.

Therefore, if typhus was raging through Newgate, it was brought direct into the courtroom. Not that anybody fully understood the risk. And certainly not the esteemed judges who were carried off to meet their maker.

Russia and fake news – a long history!

Russia and fake news go together like a horse and carriage it would seem. Troll factories in St Petersburg and elsewhere pump out messaging intended to undermine confidence in democracy and western values. And with some success.

The mundanely titled Internet Research Agency in St Petersburg is a global centre of disinformation. But this kind of manufacturing of misinformation on an industrial scale isn’t knew for Russia. They have been dealing in fake news since the Soviet era.

Russia spreading fake news about AIDS in the 1980s

The disinformation and twisting of facts has a longer pedigree in Russia than you might think. The tricks were actually developed in the pre-digital Soviet Union and have simply transferred across to the internet. One story from the 1980s shows how this kind of disinformation has been around for a while.

When AIDS first emerged at the beginning of the 80s, the Soviets decided to implicate the US as the main culprit. The KGB, the Soviet secret police, set about planting stories that would blame American interests for the spread of the HIV/AIDS virus.

‘Active measures’ – the Soviet forerunner of fake news from Russia

This kind of disinformation was referred to as “active measures” by the CIA. It was believed the Soviets spent about three billion dollars a year on disinformation initiatives.

In the pre-digital 1980s and before, the Soviets used TV, radio, newspapers, embassies and supposed experts to carry the false lines. To be successful, active measures had to include a germ of truth – that was exaggerated and distorted.

The stories also had to tap into widespread public anxieties and suspicions. So with AIDS, why not exploit fears about secret labs developing germ warfare experiments and people being secretly and unknowingly tested with deadly viruses?

On 17 July, 1983, a letter appeared in a small circulation Indian newspaper called The Patriot alleging that the AIDS virus was a result of Pentagon backed tests to develop new biological weapons.

Just to make sure the Indian readership of this newspaper sat up and took notice, the letter added that these tests were being moved to Pakistan, secretly of course. And there would be a danger of this toxic virus spreading across the border to India.

This was all laced with true facts about AIDS and the US biological weapons program. And the Soviets always made sure to pepper falsifications with lots of verifiable data – that would convince the end user it must be true.

False media titles spread fake news for Russia

How did this letter get published so easily? Well, the KGB had set up The Patriot in 1967 for the purpose of circulating pro-Soviet stories in India. Why did the Soviets circulate such an immoral story? Because they were coming under attack for their own biological weapons research!

Soviet news sources now began to circulate the story quoting the letter from a mysterious American scientist in….The Patriot. Now all that was required was an unwitting agent within the scientific community to endorse the allegation. And the KGB couldn’t believe its luck when a retired East German biophysicist Professor Jakob Segal became an enthusiastic proponent of the lie.

Actually, luck had nothing to do with it – the Soviets got their opposite numbers in the East German secret police, the Stasi, to reach out to Segal and brief him in a friendly and informal manner. He was not to feel used and manipulated. Instead, he would buy into the story himself – of his own volition.

A useful idiot to spread fake news for mother Russia

Segal was a committed communist. That said, it’s unlikely he believed that he was simply a tool of the Kremlin. All the evidence points to an intelligent man who became completely convinced that the United States had indeed unleashed the AIDS virus from one of its laboratories. In a pamphlet called AIDS – its nature and origin, Segal rejected the idea that AIDS had started in Africa and pointed the finger of blame firmly at the US.

How did the virus spread to the LGBT community? Segal claimed that US scientists had experimented on gay prisoners. They had then spread it through unprotected sex with partners on the scene in New York and San Francisco.

By placing the origin of AIDS in the US, Segal’s views were enthusiastically taken up by sections of the African media. Yet there were clearly African victims – so how had they been infected? A notorious variant on the Soviet lie was developed in a Nigerian newspaper in 1988 that the Americans had tested dodgy polio vaccines on poor Africans in the 1960s.

The Soviets pushed their line through every offline medium: newspapers, radio, TV, handbills, rumours, etc. By 1987, it had popped up in over 200 publications in 25 languages. Segal was given virtually uncritical coverage in British newspapers.

North Korea chipped in with a scare campaign that US soldiers in South Korea were spreading AIDS while broadcasts in Turkish from within the USSR said US bases in Turkey were a health risk.

Russia has second thoughts about its own fake news!

But…the USSR began to have second thoughts. Cases of HIV/AIDS were appearing within the Soviet Union and scientists there openly argued against the Segal view.

Gradually, the Kremlin realised that any political capital to be made out of this disinformation campaign was heavily outweighed by the growing public health problem within their own society. The Soviets needed to be sharing information with scientists in the west to combat the virus instead of trashing them with this AIDS fabrication.

So on this occasion, the story was allowed to quietly die.