The stomach pump, continued

The “so-called stomach pump” that O’Neill referred to, was not the familiar process (also know as gastric lavage) used on people who ingest poison or overdose. Rather, it was a form of torture known more frequently as the water cure.

Police at the turn of the century actually used several techniques that were known as the water cure: Sometimes, officers dumped a bucket of cold water on a suspect or prisoner. A matron at the Deplaines Avenue police station was charged with doing this to two people in custody in June 1903. First, she poured six buckets of cold water on an elderly woman, then, when another, male prisoner protested, she poured another bucket full of water on his. The matron was brought before the police board on charges of misconduct; it is unclear whether she was actually punished (Chicago Tribune, June 21, 1903, p. 8). Other times, officers turned a hose on their victim, as the police in Evanston did in 1904 (Chicago Tribune, April 29, 1904, p. 14).

Pumping was something else entirely. It involved pouring water, using a hose, funnel, tube, or water faucet, down a person’s throat (through either the mouth or nostrils) at a steady rate. The procedure distended the person’s stomach, usually causing such severe cramps and pain that the person agreed to confess (Peters, Torture, p. 167). Taken too far, it could lead to water intoxication or death.

The practice had been used during the Spanish Inquisition (Rejali, Torture and Democracy, 279-280). It was revived during the Philippine-American War at the turn of the twentieth century, when it was used by the United States Army against insurgents (McCoy, Policing America’s Empire, p. 89). In his study of modern torture, Darius Rejali speculated that U. S. troops learned about the water cure from Filipinos, who had learned it during Spanish colonial rule (Rejali, Torture and Democracy, 279-280).

Other evidence suggests the lessons could have been learned closer to home. During the hearing at the court martial for Major Edwin Glenn, who was later found guilty of using the water cure on Filipinos and suspended for a month as punishment, defense lawyers argued that the water cure was not that bad. As proof, they noted that police departments in the United States used it on suspects (Chicago Tribune, June 8, 1902, pg. 16). Glenn’s lawyers were, however, prevented from offering evidence that the New York City police department used the water cure on suspects in the 1890s (New York Times, June 11, 1902, p. 1).

If New York was using the water cure in the 1890s, the Chicago police department may have been using it earlier and continued to use it longer. One paper reported that at least one of the suspects arrested in Chicago’s Trunk Murder case in the 1880s was subjected to a “steady pumping” by police to try to get him to confess (Chicago Herald, May 10, 1885, p. 9). In 1907, during a debate in the Illinois General Assembly over a bill intended to set limits on police interrogation techniques, Representative B.M. Chiperfield said that he had heard complaints that police in Illinois major cities, which obviously included Chicago, inserted hoses into prisoner’s mouths and then turned on the water pressure to force people to confess (Chicago Tribune, February 27, 1907, pg. 6). Notwithstanding Chipperfield’s concern, the bill did not pass.

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Writer. Formerly civil rights attorney. Currently professor. Working on new book about mental disability and criminal law in the 20th century.

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