Tickling was a form of torture used in ancient China on nobility because it left no mark and recovery was quick.
Heinz Heger, a man persecuted in the Flossenbürg concentration camp during World War II, witnessed Nazi prison guards perform tickle torture on a fellow inmate, followed by various other tortures which resulted in his death. He describes this incident in his book The Men With The Pink Triangle: “The first game that the SS sergeant and his men played was to tickle their victim with goose feathers, on the soles of his feet, between his legs, in the armpits, and on other parts of his naked body. At first the prisoner forced himself to keep silent, while his eyes twitched in fear and torment from one SS man to the other. Then he could not restrain himself and finally he broke out in a high-pitched laughter that very soon turned into a cry of pain, while the tears ran down his face, and his body twisted against his chains. After this tickling torture, they let the lad hang there for a little, while a flood of tears ran down his cheeks and he cried and sobbed uncontrollably.”
An article in the British Medical Journal about European tortures describes a method of tickle torture in which a goat was compelled to lick the victim’s feet because they had been dipped in salt water. Once the goat had licked the salt off, the victim’s feet would be dipped in the salt water again and the process would repeat itself. In ancient Japan, those in positions of authority could administer punishments to those convicted of crimes that were beyond the criminal code. This was called shikei, which translates as ‘private punishment.’ One such torture was kusuguri-zeme: “merciless tickling.”
In his book Sibling Abuse, Vernon Wiehe published his research findings regarding 150 adults who were abused by their siblings during childhood. Several reported tickling as a type of physical abuse they experienced, and based on these reports it was revealed that abusive tickling is capable of provoking extreme physiological reactions in the victim, such as vomiting and losing consciousness.
There are a small number of documented instances of tickle torture in the New York Times. They happened in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and in these instances restrained victims were tickled upon the bare soles of their feet, apparently against their will and for the pleasure of their tormentors.
There is currently no evidence that tickle torture was ever widespread or was practiced by governments. The very small amount of related documentation discovered thus far originates from England and the United States.
A 1903 article described an immobilized suicidal patient at the Hudson River State Hospital who was tied to a bed for his own safety. While he lay helpless, the patient’s toes were tickled by one of the hospital attendants, Frank A. Sanders. “Sanders is said to have confessed that while intoxicated he amused himself by tickling the feet and ribs of Hayes and pulling his nose.” Sanders also gave his restrained victim a black eye. Another hospital employee came upon Sanders while he was entertaining himself at his patient’s expense, and the criminal was brought before a grand jury.
An 1887 article entitled “England in Old Times” states “Gone, too, are the parish stocks, in which offenders against public morality formerly sat imprisoned, with their legs held fast beneath a heavy wooden yoke, while sundry small but fiendish boys improved the occasion by deliberately pulling off their shoes and tickling the soles of their defenseless feet.”
In 1872, the beating of a man’s bare feet was described in an article entitled “Terrible Punishments: The Russian Knout and Turkish Bastinado: How the Punishments are Inflicted”. The author, while explaining the intense pain caused by whipping, writes “I have heard men cry out in agony…but I never heard such heart-rending sounds as those from the poor bastinadoed wretch before me. Such is the bastinado. And of the intensiveness of the agony which its infliction produces, one has only to think of the congeries or plexus of delicate nerves which have their terminus in the feet. Even tickling the soles of the feet has often produced death; what then must be the excruciating pain when cruel violence is done to those most sensitive members?