Decapitation for the purpose of execution goes back a long way in history. It was a method used in the Greek and Roman empires. The method was popular in Britain up to 1747. Beheadings were typically carried out using swords and axes, until the guillotine was invented in 1792 in France.

Decapitation by means of a sword usually involved the prisoner being made to kneel down as low as they could, and a long sword (about 0.9 -1.2 m long) weighing about 2 kg would be used to sever the head. Using an axe would usually require implementing a wooden block, often cut at an angle which would allow an easier job for the executioner, where the prisoner would place their neck. Ideally, the head would be severed off with a single swing of the axe. However, in some cases, the angle of the axe to the neck would make it difficult to sever the head with a single blow, thus requiring several attempts, causing pain to the prisoner. For example, during the beheading of Mary, the Queen of Scots in 1587, it took 3 blows to completely remove the head from the body.

Dr Guillotin believed that execution via decapitation was a humane and relatively painless method, if carried out by means of a machine. The guillotine was thus constructed in 1792, after being experimentally tested on several corpses. It allowed public executions via decapitation to no longer only be a privilege of the nobles.

It is argued that loss of consciousness following a beheading would be instantaneous due to the sudden drop in blood pressure in the brain and/or the heavy impact of the blade. Nevertheless, in reality the pain is likely significant and could last for up to 7 seconds, i.e. the time it takes for the brain to use up all oxygen in the blood remaining in the severed head. Moreover, reflexive twitching of the prisoner's face often occurs after death via decapitation. The twitching is believed to not be deliberate, although several reports claimed that seemingly purposeful changes of facial expressions of the severed head were seen on certain prisoners, often expressing pain and confusion. Moreover, it is believed that some even responded to their name being called out, by opening their eyes, for up to 30 seconds following the beheading. For those reasons, executions by means of decapitation have been discontinued in many parts of the world today.


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