A February 20 2021 Facebook image of a frightening device purportedly showed an elaborate machine “invented in the 15th century by Christian priests to break the hands and fingers of scientists, artists, painters, sculptors considered heretic”:
Machine inventée au 15ème siècle par des prêtres chrétiens pour briser les mains et les doigts des scientifiques, artistes, peintres, sculpteurs jugés hérétiques
Facebook automatically translated the post from French to English as seen in the embedded post above. Only an image was included, and the post lacked a source or citation for the claim it made.
A reverse image search returned a number of previous shares of the image, which appeared to be popular on Pinterest. Explanations of the instrument varied, though:
Church-sanctioned instruments of torture were often sprinkled with holy water and blessed before use.
One indicator of a possibly invented or rumor-based caption is myriad captions or explanations for the same reason, which we rapidly discovered was the case with the image above. It spread virally when it was supposedly invented by “Christian priests” to break the hands of artists and scientists — but an April 2020 version of the image described as a used by the Roman Catholic Church on thieves:
Torture device used by the Roman Catholic Church in the 15th century to punish thieves by crushing their hands.
Despite inconsistent descriptions of the device’s purpose, mention of “the 15th century” and priests or the Catholic Church was fairly consistent. When the image appeared on Reddit’s r/pics in April 2018, men of the cloth in the 15th century were using it to break “greedy hands”:
Across four variations on the image (the February 2021 Facebook post and three prior shares), four separate captions or explanations appeared:
- A machine “invented in the 15th century by Christian priests to break the hands and fingers of scientists, artists, painters, sculptors considered heretic”;
- “Church-sanctioned instruments of torture were often sprinkled with holy water and blessed before use”;
- “Torture device used by the Roman Catholic Church in the 15th century to punish thieves by crushing their hands,” and;
- “This diabolical hand crushing machine was used by the Catholic Church in the 15th century to punish those with ‘greedy hands.'”
Admittedly, the claims were thematically similar — 15th century agents of the Catholic Church punishing sin in wicked and sadistic ways — but the variety in the post suggested that social media users were perhaps inferring purposes for the frightening-looking device rather than citing a legitimate description.
The earliest version we located via reverse image search was an April 2012 image blog post (“Torture Instruments of Fernand Meysonnier”); this image was first in the set, but it offered no explanation for its purpose, just background:
All these torture instruments come from the private collection of Fernand Meysonnier, the last executioner of French Algeria. From 1947 to 1961 Fernand Meysonnier executed more than 200. In 1961, shortly before Algerian independence, Fernand Meyssonnier went to Tahiti where he met his future wife with whom he had a daughter, and founded several businesses.
Fernand Meysonnier, who died in 2008, was an executioner in the last years of French Algeria and apparently an enthusiast of the macabre; he was profiled by the BBC in 2002. It appeared the hand-crushing device was part of Meysonnier’s personal collection of artifacts from history, and that a planned 2012 auction of his pieces was canceled — at which point photographs of the instrument began circulating on the internet:
Fernand Meyssonnier faced death everyday throughout his career as one of France’s last executioners. But it turns out that his profession was also a hobby.
Torture objects dating back over 300 years, from a hand-crusher to inquisition torture chairs, are included in the sale, which [was scheduled to take] place [in March 2012] in Paris. Death-related objects such as a bathtub that was used to hold heads are also up for purchase.
Meysonnier carried out 198 executions in Algeria between 1957 and the country’s independence in 1962, according to AFP. Organisers of the auction however insist none of the objects date back to Meysonnier’s activities in Algeria.
A paywalled March 2012 article about the auction controversy included a color photograph of the same device from a different angle, but no caption or description was visible. A reverse image search of the color photograph led to a tweet making the “scientists and artists” claims, along with another identifying the image as part of Meysonnier’s collection:
(“An instrument invented in the 15th century by Christian priests to break the fingers and hands of scientists, painters, and sculptors accused of heresy.”
(“Wow….that photo is not even that old. That’s from the famous Fernand Meyssonnier collection, which was stopped at auction a few years ago. Most of the pieces in the exhibit are from the 18th century”)
A February 2021 Facebook post claimed a long-circulating image showed a machine “invented in the 15th century by Christian priests to break the hands and fingers of scientists, artists, painters, sculptors considered heretic,” but previous iterations described the same image differently. Most claimed that the image was used by the Catholic church in the 15th century (1401 to 1500), but early mentions of the image indicated it came from the private collection of executioner Fernand Meysonnier, dating back 300 years — marking the oldest items as 18th century (1701-1800). Although the image did show a possibly authentic torture device, assertions that it had been designed to be used on scientists and artists deemed “heretic” were speculative.