by Andrew Sullivan
Waterboarding was sometimes used in the Deep South to torture African-Americans and to extract false confessions to alleged crimes. And when it emerged in an appeal as long ago as 1926, even the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled it categorically “a specie of torture well known to the bench and bar of the country,” and “barbarous.” They over-turned a guilty verdict for murder by an African-American man against a white man because such methods invalidated any notion of a reliable confession:
In a case called Fisher v. State, 110 So. 361, 362 (Miss. 1926), Mississippi’s highest court ordered the retrial of a convicted murderer because his confession was secured by a local sheriff’s use of the water cure.
Here’s the court: “The state offered … testimony of confessions made by the appellant, Fisher … [who], after the state had rested, introduced the sheriff, who testified that, he was sent for one night to come and receive a confession of the appellant in the jail; that he went there for that purpose; that when he reached the jail he found a number of parties in the jail; that they had the appellant down upon the floor, tied, and were administering the water cure, a specie of torture well known to the bench and bar of the country.”
Fisher relied on a case called White v. State, 182, 91 So. 903, 904 (Miss. 1922), in which the court took – as I understand history in those parts – the unusual step of reversing the murder conviction of a young African-American male, charged with killing a white man (it appears), because his confession was secured by the cure. The court said:
“[T]he hands of appellant were tied behind him, he was laid upon the floor upon his back, and, while some of the men stood upon his feet, Gilbert, a very heavy man, stood with one foot entirely upon appellant’s breast, and the other foot entirely upon his neck. While in that position what is described as the ‘water cure’ was administered to him in an effort to extort a confession as to where the money was hidden which was supposed to have been taken from the dead man. The ‘water cure’ appears to have consisted of pouring water from a dipper into the nose of appellant, so as to strangle him, thus causing pain and horror, for the purpose of forcing a confession. Under these barbarous circumstances the appellant readily confessed.”
Andrew Sullivan, former editor of The New Republic and now a senior editor of The Atlantic, was one of the first mainstream journalists to begin blogging. His blog, The Daily Dish, appears daily on The Atlantic Online.