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Steve Santini: A Collector of Things from the Dark Side

by Michelle Staley (05/23/13).

Steve Santini a collector, extreme escape artist and finder of that which cannot be found, starred in the SyFi Channel’s “Deals From the Dark Side.”

Steve Santini. Does the name ring a bell?

From the moment I first saw him on TV, I had me a married-woman, middle-aged crush.

He has that tough-guy-with-an-edge look. He is a collector. He is passionate about the history behind the items he acquires. He is an extreme escape artist. And, he has actually handled items from the RMS Titanic.

A man of mystery and intrigue and definitely someone you want to know more about.

I am not a big “reality TV” fan, unless the show in question has to do with antiques. Another criterion for me watching such shows is that I have to learn something about the items presented. The SyFi Channel had such a show in “Deals From the Dark Side” a show about the items that Steve collects and acquires for museums, exhibits and other collectors. Each show also showed him performing one of his extreme escapes.

I had the distinct pleasure of visiting with Steve Santini and had to start the conversation with what he collects. I can tell you that it is not Lladró figurines.

Santini grew-up in Toronto, and at the age of about 12, while on a family trip to St. Petersburg, Fla., he visited a “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” museum. He told me that he spent hours examining the exhibits, in particular those having to do with restraints and the darker side of history. This family vacation fostered a lifelong interest in the history of ancient torture, judicial punishment, devices of execution and articles of restraint.

Through his tireless research on the history of these items and his ability to locate items thought to be no longer in existence, Santini has become the go-to guy for museums, movie production teams and collectors. He has played a huge role in gathering authentic relics from the Titanic for permanent Titanic exhibits around North America and he also assisted with the production of the now famous “Titanic” movie produced by James Cameron.

The ancient, medieval world was not a place to commit a crime—or even to be accused of a crime. One was not simply handcuffed and thrown in to a jail cell to do their time. People were tortured until confessions were literally ripped out of them, and many died in the process. It was not a period for the faint of heart.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Many of the extreme punishment and torture devices were used in European countries, but some did find their way across the pond with the colonization of America. Makes you wonder what, exactly, came over on the Mayflower.

A set of finger screws, such as this one, was designed to elicit confessions from accused wrong-doers.

A spiked collar. Most of the time, torture devices like these are thought of as of European design and use, but many of these contraptions were used in the American Colony.

Depending upon the crime one was accused of committing—and probably the mood of the punisher—the devices varied, from simple thumb screws to metal shoes with spikes in them (credit those 17th-century Germans). Devices such as these were not intended to kill a person; they were used as a form of punishment, to extract a confession and to set an example for future wrong-doers. It is rumored that thumbscrews were used on Elizabeth I to elongate her fingers and make them more elegant.

The Breaking Wheel, typically a large, heavy wooden wagon wheel, was widely used throughout Europe and America as a means of torture and death. The last known recorded use of the breaking wheel was in 1841. The sentence handed down from the court would indicate the number of blows from the wheel, as well as the location of the blows. This is also called the “Catherine Wheel” because it is said that St. Catherine of Alexandria was to be executed by the wheel, but when she touched it, it fell apart, so she was beheaded instead.

Santini’s friends refer to the first floor of his home as the “Midnight Museum.” Along with his restraint and torture devices, he has quite a collection of execution swords, dating from the 16th to 18th centuries, and is always looking to add to this collection.

I asked Santini what was the one item in his collection that he would never part with (as we all have at least one of these items) and he told me that he recently acquired an item he had been pursuing for quite some time: a 1620s “Witch’s Gown.” It hails from Europe and is one of two known to exist. The European witch hunt resulted in the death of some 200,000 people, primarily women. When the accused were arrested and jailed, they were given a dingy, rough gown to wear. it was removed when they were taken in and tortured in the hope of extracting a confession. Whether a confession was ever given or not, the accused were beheaded or burned at the stake. 

Another “handy” device to squeeze out a confession is this finger vise.

The one item Santini would not part with is this 1620s “Witch’s Gown.” It hails from Europe and is one of two known to exist.

How does something this old survive the years? Steve said that most likely, when the accused met their final demise, the gown was removed for reuse and someone in the crowd picked it up as a souvenir. This would not be an unusual occurrence, as executions were social events and, according to Santini, the taking of a piece of a hanging rope or other execution items was very common.

SOMETHING I LEARNED FROM STEVE: Chastity belts likely were not used during the medieval period but were a later creation, used either as a very temporary barrier to prevent rape or, in later models, as Victorian “curiosities.”

I realize that some might find this type of collection gruesome and morbid, but we need to remember that the items that Santini collects and procures for exhibits are all bits and pieces of our world’s history and, as George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Notes of Interest

• Through his experience as an extreme escape artist and an early apprenticeship with a locksmith, Santini created and patented several handcuff modifications that are widely used by law enforcement. I mean, really, who better to create in inescapable device than an escape artist? He is also a published author.

• Some devices of torture are often overlooked as being tools or kitchen gadgets.

• He is still interested in buying execution swords from 1500-1700.

• Santini would love to open a museum in North America. If you have or know of someone who has a location suitable for such, at a very reasonable cost, please e-mail Santini at info@santinicentral.com.


Michelle Staley, who insists that collectors are the happiest people, is an antique collector and dealer. Her shop, My Granny’s Attic Antiques, Collectibles and Memorabilia, is in Lenexa, Kansas.

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