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Machines of Malice (aka Death Machines) was a 2008 TV series investigating the design, technology and effectiveness of various torture and execution devices. The three-part series aired on the Discovery Channel, and was presented by actress and qualified neuroscientist Michele Boyd, assisted by various experts.

Show format[]

Each episode looked at a certain historical period, investigating the devices developed and used during that time. Having looked at the history of each device, a replica would be created by the show's experts. This would then be tested on inanimate subjects to see if the device was really as effective as claimed, and what the effects on a live victim would be. In the final part of each episode, the show's experts, assisted by an unidentified magician, would build a replica of the historical period's most infamous device. This would then be used for a "live" test in which show presenter Michele Boyd would take the place of the inanimate test subjects, allowing her to give a first-hand report on what the victim of the device would feel when it was used on them.


Episode 1 - Ancient Machines[]

This first episode in the series explored how people in ancient times used technological advances to inflict pain and to execute people in horrifying ways.

Devices explored in this episode included the Brazen Bull from 570 BC, a large hollow brass model of a bull into which a victim would be inserted. A fire would be lit below the bull, heating it up and cooking the victim alive. It also examined the famous Celtic tradition of the Wicker Man, where victims would be placed inside a large wicker model of a man, which would then be set alight.

Also examined was the Roman Wheel, where a victim would be strapped to the outside of a heavy wooden cylinder, which would then be rolled down a steep hill, causing massive fatal injuries to the victim. Another Roman favorite to be examined in the episode was crucifixion, and it also looked at the various machines used in the Coliseum to introduce wild animals to the arena.

At the end of the episode, the "live test" examined the Apega of Nabis, developed by the Spartans in 200 BC. Designed to look like a statue of a woman, this featured spring-loaded arms covered with disguised spikes. When the victim stood in front of the statue, the arms would be released, allowing the spikes to impale the victim. With the replica constructed and tested on inert objects, the time arrived for the "live" test on presenter Michele Boyd. With her stood in front of the device, the arms are released, clearly impaling her on the spikes. Having been released from the device, Michele closes the episode by describing what it felt like as the spikes impaled her, and how she thought that is was quite an inefficient, but very painful, method of execution.

Episode 2 - Going Medieval[]

This episode explored such legendary torture devices such as The Rack, The Skull Crusher, The Iron Maiden and the infamous Pendulum.

The episode begins by examining the Rack, looking at how effective it was as an instrument of torture, and the lasting effects it would have on the victim even after the torture had ended. This was then followed by looking at another famous torture device, the Thumb Screws, and the less than effective Pear of Anguish.

Far more effective was the Skull Crusher, which used a screw thread to exert pressure onto the head of a victim. As pressure increased, the skull would eventually collapse under the pressure, killing them. Another effective device examined in this episode was the Iron Maiden, where spikes would be used to slowly impale a victim as a means of torture. The episode also examined the use and effectiveness of the Ducking Stool, which was usually used to extract confessions of witchcraft from its victims.

The "live test" closing this episode looked at the use and effectiveness of the infamous Pendulum, as made famous by writer Edgar Allan Poe. With test subject Michele Boyd firmly strapped to a large wooden table, the suspended blade was set into motion above her. As it swung, it slowly descended until it began to cut through Michele's waist, with each swing slowly deepening the cut until the blade finally reached the table, having cut Michele completely in half. Having been released from the apparatus, Michele describes how intimidating it was to see the blade slowly descending towards her, which would have made it a very effective torture device. She also adds that, if the designer's intention was to create a slow and painful method of execution, then the pendulum certainly fitted the bill, as feeling the blade cut through her waist was very painful.

Episode 3 - Modern Devices[]

The final episode on the series explored the history and effectiveness of the various methods of execution developed from the 18th to the 20th centuries.

The episode begins with a look at the favored Spanish method of execution, the Garrote. In this, the victim was strapped to a chair attached to a tall wooden post. A metal collar was then attached around their neck, and a bar with a screw thread was then turned, driving the end of the bar into the back of the victim's neck. The pressure from this bar would both strangle the victim, and also usually break their neck.

The examination of the Garrote was then followed by a look at probably the most common modern means of execution, long-drop hanging. In contrast to the earlier short-drop method, where the victim was usually slowly strangled, the long-drop method used a much longer drop to break the victim's neck, ensuring a rapid death. This was followed by an examination of the use of the firing squad, concluding that this was one of the least reliable, and certainly one of the messiest, of all the modern methods of execution.

The use of technology as a means of execution was then examined via how the discovery of electricity was used to create a new method of execution, the Electric Chair. The tests conducted in this section of the episode showed that this is both an extremely painful, and very slow, means of execution.

The closing segment of this episode looked at the most famous of the modern methods of execution, the Guillotine. Having examined the history of how the Guillotine was invented, the episode closed with the "live test" of an actual Guillotine, which had been built using the actual plans for the standard device as used for the final French execution in 1977. Having tested the device out on a pig's leg, test subject Michele Boyd was strapped into the device and lowered into place below the blade. The blade was then released, clearly beheading Michele, with her severed head tumbling into the waiting basket. Describing the experience afterwards, Michele stated that, not only was it a very speedy and efficient method of execution, but it was also very scary too, staring down into the basket, waiting for the blade to be released. She added that the blade falls so quickly that she didn't feel the sensation of it cutting through her neck until her head was well into its fall into the basket.