Editors’ note: this story ran as a sidebar to the cover story “Tools of Torture,” on February 4, 2005

Jon Burge and detectives under his command have been accused of using three electrical devices to torture suspects at Area Two–a cattle prod, a hand-cranked device, and a mysterious third appliance that plugged into a wall outlet. This third instrument was described by at least six men tortured between 1973 and 1984. They said it had been placed either on or up their rectum or against their exposed genitals. Some described it as a metal rod or prong attached by a cord to a black box.

The device was dismissed as “nonexistent, unbelievable, unfunctional, unreal” by William Kunkle, who represented Burge at the 1992 Police Board hearings that ended in Burge’s dismissal. Kunkle argued that a device that plugged into the wall as the victims described would deliver 110 volts of alternating current at a frequency of 60 hertz. That charge might leave no marks, Kunkle said, but it might also kill the recipient.

I recently located two museum curators who specialize in electrical equipment (one wishes to remain anonymous) and read them descriptions of the devices provided by Andrew Wilson and Melvin Jones, two men who claimed to have been shocked in February 1982. The curators concluded separately that each man was describing a violet ray machine. It’s a device that plugs into a wall outlet and is sold today as a “violet wand” to those who engage in BDSM–bondage, domination, sadism, and masochism.

Marketed as a medical device for much of the last century, the machine used a Tesla coil to transform ordinary household current into a high-voltage, high-frequency, low-amperage output that can safely be applied to human skin. The old kits came with two types of electrodes–glass and metal. When sparks passed through the glass tube, the air inside glowed violet–hence the name of the device. Many of the devices were sold with multiple electrodes of different shapes (kits made for doctors might contain two dozen, some meant for insertion into bodily orifices). The metal electrodes could be adjusted to provide sharp shocks.

Jeff Behary, curator of the Turn of the Century Electrotherapy Museum, a Web site, said that the machines began as legitimate medical devices for treating skin problems and for relieving pain (they could provide heat under the skin without burning, and the ozone they gave off was supposed to kill bacteria). In time, manufacturers claimed that their instruments were effective against a wide range of ailments–asthma, catarrh, lumbago, nervous disorders, gonorrhea, prostate and vaginal problems, and “female hysteria” among them. According to Behary, between 1900 and 1939 more than three dozen companies, some offering a dozen models, produced hundreds of thousands of the devices. Many of the machines were housed in dark wooden boxes. Thus, it is entirely possible that Burge had two electrical instruments–a hand-cranked generator and a violet ray machine–that could each be called a black box.

In 1951, with the industry long past its prime, the FDA charged an Indiana firm with misbranding its violet ray machines as medical cures and confiscated the devices. According to Behary, a Chicago firm still markets the appliance for use in testing neon signs and other tubing for leaks.

As erotic toys, the devices have grown in popularity since at least the mid-1970s, when they could be purchased at flea markets, antique shops, and beauty supply stores (the machine had been used on bald men to stimulate circulation in the scalp). Eclectic Electric, a company that sells both new and antique devices on the Internet, advertises its violet wands as providing a range of sensations, “from lush tingles to sharp shocks to simulating the feelings of burning and cutting. . . . They pretty much feel like a jolt of static electricity.” The vintage wands “pack a more powerful punch,” and on the Web site’s intensity scale, the metal probe sits alone at the top. It “conducts the charge directly to your subject without diluting it.”

At a 1985 hearing, Leonard Hinton described being taken to the basement at Area Two two years earlier. He said his hands were handcuffed above his head, his pants and shorts were pulled down, his ankles were handcuffed to a pole so his legs were spread, and then “the officer with the mustache and with the glasses with the black hair, he came in with a rod, and one was carrying a box, a black box. . . . There was a cord to the long rod. . . . The handle on it was black and they plugged the wire into the box. . . . Then they put something in my mouth . . . it was cloth . . . and they tied it so I couldn’t holler. . . . Then they took the rod, long part, and they placed it under my genitals. . . . [It was] a pain out of this world. I couldn’t describe it. . . . They said, ‘Are you ready to talk yet?’ The other said, ‘I don’t think he’s ready to talk yet.’ He hit me with it again. . . . Then . . . he touched it in the crack of my rectum. . . . Then he took that [cloth] out of my mouth. I said, ‘I am ready to talk. Tell me what you want me to say, sir. Please stop.'”

John Conroy’s e-mail address is jconroy@chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bettman/Corbis.