third degree, the

The third degree, thanks to old Hollywood cops and robbers movies, is now synonymous with police interrogation with bright lights and rubber hoses and without the benefits of counsel. But where did this phrase come from? And what are the first two degrees?

The phrase comes from freemasonry, where a Third-Degree or Master Mason is the highest rank. From William Preston’s 1772 Illustrations of Masonry:

A charge, to be delivered at Initiation in the Third Degree.

To obtain the Third Degree of Freemasonry one must submit to ritual questioning. Some sources say the questioning is long and intense, others that it is a mere formality (not being a Mason I don’t know), but whichever is true, the idea that the Masons’ testing was an ordeal became fixed in the public mind. From Jeremiah How’s 1865 Freemason’s Manual:

The Fellow-Craft who is duly qualified by time, on presenting himself as candidate for the third Degree, has to submit himself to an examination of his qualifications as a Craftsman.

Around the turn of the 20th century, the term third degree began to be applied to extralegal police interrogations. From Everybody’s Magazine of November 1900:

From time to time a prisoner...claims to have had the Third Degree administered to him.

The idea of a brutal interrogation being called the third degree was no doubt helped along by association with third-degree burn.

So, there really are no first or second degrees of police brutality.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

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