Applications of the Death Penalty: Decapitation

by JoHarrington

Examining the murky history and gruesome use of beheading as a method of execution. Not an article for the faint-hearted.

It is the mode of judicial execution which has named the whole penalty itself.

From the Latin capitis, we derive 'capital' meaning 'the head'. It is this which gives us 'capital city' (head city) and 'capital letter' (head letter).

It also added 'decapitation' (remove the head) to our lexicon, alongside 'capital punishment' (head punishment).

The two were very interlinked, particularly when beheading was seen in Western culture as the noble or honorable way to be executed. Thus heads of state have been killed under the axe, sword or guillotine.

The Beheading of John the Baptist by Caravaggio

Decapitation is most commonly used in the world today by criminal gangs or insurgents. For example, the drug cartels of Mexico or the Taliban of Afghanistan often execute victims/captives in this way.

But here we are only concerned with where this method of capital punishment is on the statute books. After being one of the most popular global modes of judicial killing in the past, only three countries now legally behead people.  They are Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

However, only Saudi Arabia regularly does so. Seventy-six people died under that nation's scimitar in 2011; so far another twenty-eight have been decapitated in 2012.

What is Decapitation?

It is severing the head from the body by whatever means are traditionally used.

Beheading has a long history.  It was a mode of execution favored by both the ancient Romans and Greeks for their own citizens. This was carried with the former in particular into all of their conquered nations.

Some already used it. I know from my own country's history that decapitation was certainly known amongst the early British Celts.  It remains in fragments from stories like the Mabinogion, where both Gawain and Bran faced the headman's axe. 

Yet for many in the West, this method of the death penalty will be forever associated with France. Until 1981, when capital punishment was abolished there, the guillotine (pictured left) was the primary (and latterly only) weapon of execution. That machine's infamy had already been well established during the French Revolution, when thousands were killed under its blade.

But by the turn of the 21st century, it was Saudi Arabia which took the lead. No fancy contraptions of death there. The victim merely kneels before an executioner and dies under the swing of a double-handed scimitar.

Throughout history there have many methods of beheading the victim. The toughness of the neck muscles rely upon some kind of sharp, and preferably heavy, blade; not to mention some force behind its use in severing the person's head.

Monarchs and military personnel tended to request a sword held by a muscular man. It was sharp and seemed more noble, like dying on a battlefield.  The alternative was an axe. 

Some countries, such as Finland and Sweden, devised one especially for decapitations. It had a blade which steeply inclined towards the point all the way from the handle. The executioner's axe was heavy enough to require even the strongest man to use both hands to wield it.

The cause of death is shock and anoxia. The sudden drop of blood pressure should instantly bring unconsciousness, though there have been many horror stories to the contrary.

An Alligator Shows How Decapitated Heads Still Move

Did some guillotine victims remain lucid and conscious up to 3 minutes after decapitation? France is full of reports that they did, just like this poor alligator.

Books About the Guillotine and its use in Death Penalty

Buy these histories and guides to discover how machinery turned judicial killing into a production line.

Consciousness After Decapitation

It sounds like a grisly psychological element from a 'torture porn' horror movie, but it's happened in reality after a beheading.

Any chicken farmer will tell you that, on slaughter day, the birds flap for a while without their heads. 'Running around like a headless chicken' comes from that very phenomenon.

There was even one who lived for eighteen months without his head. Mike the Headless Chicken became somewhat of a side-show exhibit in that condition.

But what about human beings? It's an unsettling notion that, as long as the brain stem is intact, we can live without our brains. Baby Nicholas Coke is just one infant who did just that. Born with anencephaly, he reached his second birthday at least.

Usually the point about beheading, as a method of applying the death penalty, is that there is no coming back. It's fast, apparently painless and the individual is killed in seconds. But what has haunted some observers is that all of this is not necessarily so.

It's a well-known reaction that eyes and mouth will move in a disembodied head for around six seconds afterwards. That's around the time when the metabolism runs out along with the oxygen laden blood.

As far as I can ascertain, there is no historical record of individuals staggering around afterwards, as is so common in chickens. Bodies have certainly been observed twitching, as they are pushed into the caskets, but nothing more.

However, apparent lucidity has been noted in the heads. Is it possible that people can be aware that they have been decapitated?  Are they capable of feeling pain?

There are plenty of reports from the French Revolution (when between 16,000 and 40,000 were beheaded within a short time) that suggested consciousness after the guillotine. Two of the most famous stories reflect the stature of the scientist at their center.

Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier, the Father of Chemistry, attended the execution of his servant, then rushed to pick up his head. He asked the man to blink if he understood and the victim duly blinked.

Later the chemist himself was executed on the same guillotine (and exonerated of all crimes the following year). He reportedly told an assistant that he would blink for as long as consciousness remained.  Reportedly, he was able to do so for up to twenty seconds after decapitation.

More recently, scientists conducted experiments on rats at Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen, in the Netherlands. Their findings were published under the heading Decapitation in Rats: Latency to Unconsciousness and the ‘Wave of Death’. It added credence to earlier observations about lucidity after decapitation.

EEG readings continued in the 13–100 Hz frequency band for around four seconds after beheading had taken place. This is the electrical brain energy associated with cognitive thought. In short, the rats had a short window in which they could have been self-aware following decapitation.

Books about the Guillotine in France

Paris in 1789-94: Farewell Letters of Victims of the Guillotine

This is a reproduction of a book published before 1923. This book may have occasional imperfections such as missing or blurred pages, poor pictures, errant marks, etc. that were...

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Guillotine & The Cross

The persistent myths of the French Revolution—that the destruction of the old order brought unrivaled freedom and happiness for Europe—are shattered in this rousing study of the...

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The Executioner Always Chops Twice: Ghastly Blunders on the Scaffold

A morbidly fascinating mixture of bungled executions ,strange last requests, and classic final one-liners from medieval times to the present day.Sometimes it's hard to be an exe...

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The Beaurieux Experiment on Lucidity After Beheading

One French doctor wanted to put this to the test. As a physician witnessing an execution, he had his opportunity.

On June 28th 1905, the murderer Henri Languille was decapitated in Place Bel Air, Orléans, France. As with all victims of capital punishment in that country, at that time, the guillotine was used to sever his head from his body.

What makes this different to all of the others is the experiment, which was carried out immediately afterwards.

Dr. Gabriel Beaurieux was present and he was interested in the debate about whether lucidity continued after decapitation. Once Henri had been beheaded, the doctor rushed over to the guillotine.

His subsequent report was published in Archives d’Anthropologie Criminelle (1905) and stated that he did not have to position Languille's head.  It had fallen naturally against the stem of his neck.

Dr Beaurieux waited for six seconds, while the usual reflex contractions were exhibited in the movement of the victim's eyelids and lips. As soon as they ceased, the doctor firmly spoke up, "Languille!" 

Henri's eyes opened and he looked straight at the doctor.  His pupils focused. Beaurieux wrote, 'I was dealing with undeniably living eyes which were looking at me.' He took great care to distinguish that from the vague expression common in those dying of natural causes.

After a few seconds, Henri's eye-lids slowly closed. The doctor once again called his name and the process repeated. Beaurieux stated that, this second time, the gaze appeared even more penetrating.

But once Henri's eyelids had once again partially shut, he could not be brought to awareness with further calls.  He was finally dead.  Beaurieux estimated that lucidity had remained, in this case, for between 25 and 30 seconds after decapitation.

Do You Think that People Remain Lucid After Decapitation?

With vocal chords cut and no other way of communicating but blinking, there is no definitive answer.

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No, because...
frugalrvers on 07/05/2012

I believe consciousness survives, but not the physical definitions that modern science limits us by. Though near death experience has been prevalent throughout history, due to resuscitation abilities in modern times, millions of all ages, cultures, religions and sexes report, even in the most horrific of deaths, that consciousness immediately separates from the physical body. Through these growing number of documented experiences over half a century, we are learning our current tools for measuring "death" such as brain activity are by no means cut and dried - many people without brain activity are resuscitated and report consciousness and awareness of events (with no pain) after medical professionals declare them "dead" or that they will be a "vegetable." Aside from executions, it is putting quite an ethical burden on the idea of organ donation as well.

Yes, because...
del on 08/23/2012

I was asked once during jury dutty if i believed in Captial punishment. I said, " yes, i do. I believe that everybody in the Capital should be punished."

Lucas on 06/01/2012

As long as the brain's still functional, why not?

JoHarrington on 05/31/2012

Languille certainly seemed to be responding to his name being called.

Kari on 05/31/2012

I think they are due to there being a lot of evidence indicating so.

Crimes Which Could Result in Decapitation in 2012

Only three countries have beheading on their law books. These are the felonies for which that sentence may be given.

The trouble with compiling this list is the sheer number of actions, which are considered to be felonies in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. 

All three could possibly behead someone for murder, but there is much more besides.  Some of them may be surprising to the unwitting tourist.  Ignorance is no excuse under any of their penal codes.

In Iran, drinking alcohol, theft, homosexuality, taking/trafficking drugs, adultery, opposing the government and cursing the prophet Mohammed may result in decapitation.  Those 'crimes' are alongside incest, rape, armed robbery and white collar crime such as fraud.

Saudi Arabia will behead people for all of the above, adding in other capital crimes such as terrorism, home invasion, sorcery and witchcraft too.

I've not been able to find an exhaustive list of capital offenses in Yemen at all. This is a nation which is very secretive about its penal code.  The majority of executions have been for murder, though adultery, apostasy and drug offenses can also carry the death penalty.

Woman Decapitated for Witchcraft in Saudi Arabia 2011

At the time of writing, another woman is currently facing death for the same thing in the same country.

Beheadings in Iran and Yemen

Saudi Arabia will be covered separately, as that is where the majority of decapitations are legally carried out in 2012.

Yemen has executed 152 people between 2007 and 2011, according to Amnesty International. There is a lot that can be said about that, including reference to juveniles and those with mental illness being amongst their number.  But we are focusing here on the death penalty through decapitation.

Despite being on the statute books, no-one has actually been beheaded in Yemen recently.  The victims of capital punishment tend to be shot in the heart instead. Similarly, Iran is more likely to hang its judicial prisoners.

As far as I've been able to ascertain, no-one has ever been decapitated through legal court proceedings in Yemen. It exists as a potentiality only.

In Iran, on May 13th 2003, a man was beheaded in the Sistan Baluchestan province. He'd been found guilty of triple murder and rape, as part of a gang. The other seven members were hanged instead. It's unclear why this individual was singled out for an alternative, and very rarely used, method of applying the death penalty in this country.

How Are People Decapitated in Saudi Arabia?

It is all done very fast in a public place, using a scimitar for the beheading.

In Saudi Arabia, the victim usually does not know that they are about to be executed until immediately before it occurs. Often, they may not even realize that they have been sentenced to death.

In March 2004, Victor Corea, Ranjith de Silva, Sanath Pushpakumara and Sangeeth Kumara were arrested for armed robbery.  The four Sri Lankan nationals were found guilty in October of the same year.

The men believed that they had been given a prison sentence; and the Sri Lankan embassy was given no reason to assume otherwise. Saudi Arabia does not publicize such information, even in diplomatic circles, to thwart international backlash from the like of Amnesty International.

On February 12th 2007, Human Rights Watch spoke with Ranjith de Silva. He appeared confident that the Saudi government were about to apply clemency and pardon the four men. It was reported that they each believed they would be out of prison imminently.

The interest of the activist group was in the fact that the men had been badly beaten while awaiting trial; and they had not been given access to lawyers.  They didn't have the chance to pursue the case.

Seven days later, the four Sri Lankan men were given tranquilizers. This, and what followed, is what occurs in all decapitations in Saudi Arabia.

They were taken from their prison cells and driven to a car-park, adjacent to a busy market square. In their case it was in the capital city of Riyadh, but people are executed in similar locations all over the country.

These are always public spectacles and always take place immediately after noon prayers.

A broad plastic covering is placed on the ground and the condemned person is forced to kneel upon it. Their hands and feet are tied behind their backs. They will always have been blind-folded and often are dressed in a white robe.  Sometimes a concession is given in allowing the victim to wear his or her own clothes. They will always be bare-foot.

Prayers continue through loudspeakers, as the crowds gather to watch.  The victim kneels facing Mecca.

After a few minutes have passed, an Interior Ministry officer steps onto a small platform and reads out the charges.

Meanwhile, a police officer will hand a scimitar to the executioner.  It is 3.6ft - 3.7ft (1100mm - 1200mm) long and kept solely for this purpose.  The headsman has a few practice swipes in the air to gauge the weight (and to warm up his arm muscles), then touches the tip of the blade against the victim's back.

This is their cue to sit up straight.  Within the next instant, the scimitar sweeps down and, if done correctly, beheads the victim in one go.

Abdallah Al-Bishi, Saudi Executioner, Tells His Story

Books about Capital Punishment in Saudi Arabia

Discover more about the complex judicial system which can lead to decapitation in public car-parks.

Botched Beheadings

Not every execution goes according to plan...

Granted there are not as many failures with the guillotine as with other methods, but it does still occasionally go wrong. Decapitation with axe and sword can certainly be botched.

This is just a small selection from several centuries of botched beheadings around the world.

  • May 27th 1541: Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury (London, England). The old lady was visibly terrified, as she climbed the steps to the executioner's platform. Her nerves were not made any better when the headsman totally missed her neck and embedded his axe into her shoulder. Margaret panicked. It took ten or eleven attempts to sever Margaret's head from her neck. During this time, the executioner was forced to chase her with his axe, as she fought against him. She eventually fled the platform, but he caught up with her. Each of those attempts had sliced more of her without killing her, until the very last one.
  • July 15th 1685: James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth (London, England). The first blow with the axe merely grazed the back of James's head, missing his neck entirely. He had refused a blindfold and turned around now to stare at Jack Ketch the executioner. This was unnerving, but the axe still came down a second time. This was hardly any more effective, only partially cutting into James's neck. Jack panicked and threw down his axe, asking someone from the crowd to kill the Duke instead. He was threatened with death himself, if he didn't get on with it. It took another five or six blows with the axe to finally end James's suffering. Even then his neck wasn't severed. A knife had to be used to cut the last skin and sinews.
  • August 7th 1890: Anna Månsdotter (Kristianstad, Sweden).  Whether the headsman misjudged his swing or Anna moved, the axe's blade did not pass cleanly through her neck. Instead it hit diagonally, slicing from her brain stem to her mouth. Anna's lower jaw was left connected to her neck, as her body dropped.
  • June 17th 1939: Eugen Weidmann (Versailles, France). An inexperienced executioner hadn't properly assembled the guillotine. When Eugen was tipped on the bascule (moveable board upon which the victim lay), it would not slot into position. This meant that his head wasn't forward enough to fit into the lunette (hole through which his neck was held into place).  An assistant quickly grabbed him by the hair and yanked him forward. The top edge of the bascule was forced upwards against his throat, threatening to garotte him even as the blade was falling. As soon as Eugen's head was severed, there was nothing stopping the bascule tilting back upwards. The executioner swiftly pushed Eugen's body into the casket to stop it being propelled onto the ground. Meanwhile the crowd stormed past the police guard and dipped their handkerchiefs into Eugen's blood. This became the last public execution in France for that reason.
  • December 5th 1950: Werner Gladow (Frankfurt, Germany). The guillotine blade got jammed as it entered Werner's neck. He was left screaming in agony, but very much not dead, as engineers fought to free it. The blade also stuck on the second attempt. Werner was finally put out of his misery the third time the guillotine was used on him.
Image: Unknown man being executed in Viet Nam (1885).
Image: Unknown man being executed in Viet Nam (1885).

Do you support the use of decapitation in executions?

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More Articles in this Series

Examining the murky history and gruesome use of death by needle as a method of execution. Not an article for the faint-hearted.
Examining the murky history and gruesome use of electrocution as a method of execution. Not an article for the faint-hearted.
Examining the murky history and gruesome use of hanging as a method of execution. Not an article for the faint-hearted.
Examining the religiously motivated and gruesome use of stoning as a method of execution. Not an article for the faint-hearted.

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Updated: on 03/15/2014, JoHarrington
 
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JoHarrington on 08/23/2012

Congrats! That's the first time anyone's made me laugh over this issue. <3

del on 08/23/2012

Decapitatation is too dangerous. Someone can get hurt.

BrendaReeves on 07/20/2012

Doesn't it make you wonder what this life and world are all about?

JoHarrington on 07/05/2012

Thank you for adding your voice to this important issue, Frugalrvers.

You've hit the nail on the head there, to my mind. Until we have a perfect judicial system, how can we sentence people to death? And yes, I too believe that consciousness survives, at least for a short while. The horror of that is unbearable to me.

'An eye for a eye makes the whole world blind'. I've never been able to see why killing some instances is fine and in others is worth killing, which in that instance is fine, because some killed so they deserve to die at the hands of something for whom killing is fine... and so on into weary infinity.

frugalrvers on 07/05/2012

Your series, including this article, are great Jo - you've done such a wonderful job gathering all of the history on the various execution methods. I'm not a fan of executions for a few reasons:

first, in our country, guilt or innocence seems to stem on how much money you have to hire the most aggressive of lawyers...some guilty go free due to their checkbooks, and some innocent go to jail because they cannot afford to hire "the best."

second, I think research is showing that consciousness survives past bodily death - so executions are playing in an area that isn't understood (death). It isn't just brain waves, etc...

third, I don't think we are to impose death on others. When we believe someone murders someone, it is "eye for an eye." But our current world kills people daily in other ways, through greed, harmful products that are known to cause illness, etc...so where do we draw the line? Only the obvious people who end lives get executed while others run free?

Great topic...could chat about it forever (as is evident by my long post...sorry!) Thumbs up!!

JoHarrington on 06/01/2012

{{{hugs}}}} I get where you mean.

Apparently there was a politician in America suggesting the guillotine, as an alternative for lethal injection last week. I'm not sure how much of that was headline grabbing.

Fred on 06/01/2012

In Europe....Countries east of Italy...a few years ago.

You can't be sorry as much as I am, that I'm pretty sure. Was gruesome to say the least.

JoHarrington on 06/01/2012

My jaw is on the floor here. Where on Earth did you see people executed by having their heads cut off with knives? :o

That aside, thank you for your information here. It does make this even more horrifically real than before.

I'm sorry that you have had to witness such things. :(

I guess that I'm doing gunshots and firing squads next then?

Fred on 06/01/2012

I have seen a few beheading (not for my pleasure) but never the guillotine. Some were done with axe, others with large hunting knives, some beheading were resulting of shrapnel wounds. Depending the person, and I guess his/her nervous system, some appears to die immediately (I assume nervous shock, brain shut down -I was told some people committing suicide by jumping from high building died even before touching the ground from heart failure-) but others had body movements (hands, harms, legs) for a few seconds (less than 5 seconds I guess). Never saw anything on the face but I was not really looking for that matter.
The people killed by knives/machete presents extreme pain on their face and most of the time you could hear the blood in their throat, nothing very fancy I can assure you.
I guess the guillotine was better as the cut was faster than let say an axe. There's a lot of documented stories about failure with axe and swords, especially during the middle age. So in that sense, sure it would have been better.
From what I know about the subject, the only fast, and painless as possible, way seems to be a bullet in the brain. People just drop.

JoHarrington on 06/01/2012

Nope, that's an entirely different one.

Breaking at the wheel (aka Catherine Wheel) was used until the 19th century in Prussia. The victim was tied to the spokes of a huge wagon wheel, then hit with a hammer hard enough to break limbs.

Have you ever heard of the saying coups de grâce? That's in the lexicon now, but it came from breaking at the wheel. It translates as blows of grace or blows of mercy, I believe. If that was ordered, then the executioners first hammer hit the victim's chest or neck, thus killing them.

If not, then it was starting at the shins and slowly breaking every bone in their body until they died. It sometimes took days.

Hence the guillotine being seen as the humane option.




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