Life after beheading

A delve into history’s mad science of working out if there truly is life after beheading

For as long as there has been beheadings there have been stories of decapitated heads showing life after they were separated from their bodies. From Anne Boleyn attempting to speak to Charles I and Mary Queen of Scots lips quivering, trying to speak as her life left her.

These morbid tales are scattered throughout history, but accounts of this most gruesome phenomena ramped up once the guillotine was introduced.

The guillotine (as we know it today; there were several similar types of instruments dating all the way back to the middle ages) was invented by Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a man who was ironically anti-execution. He created his machine as a way to convince the French government that if they had to execute people, then they should at least try and do it humanely.

The guillotine was designed to make beheading quicker, simpler and cleaner. Gone would be the days of an executioner taking several whacks before getting the job done, now with one pull of a lever a sharpened blade would pop that head straight off (is it just me or did that sound like a weird infomercial?) 

Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin and his guillotine
Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin and his guillotine.

Guillotin’s machine was put to the test in 1792 and with it’s first condemned man smoothly dispatched, it was soon adopted as France’s go to exception method.

With the French Revolutions Reign of Terror about to get into full swing, such a humane method of execution couldn’t have come soon enough! Hey, if you were one of the thousands of people unlucky enough to be condemned to death during The Reign of Terror, at least you got to go out quickly and pain free. Right?

Of course not! 

Yeah turns out beheading might not be as ‘humane’ as dear old Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin hoped.

In 1793,Charlotte Corday was guillotined for assassinating politician and leader, Jean-Paul Marat. She was sentenced to death after sneaking into Marat’s home and murdering him while he was soaking in the bath, with a knife she had hidden in her corset! Such a scandalous murder meant that Charlotte’s execution was Paris’s hot ticket.

So imagine the shock of the crowd when after the blade fell, Charlotte’s decapitated head appeared to express a look of ‘indignation’ at her fate, especially when the executioner slapped her (to be fair, I’d be pretty pissed at that too). Eye witnesses even said they saw Charlotte blink and her cheeks flush for several seconds after her death.

But it wasn’t just Charlotte, the guillotine’s introduction led to more accounts than ever before of heads living for up to a minute after being torn from their bodies

Now admittedly some of these tales were a little tall (like the one where two rival politicians were beheaded and upon examining the basket where their heads dropped, the executioner found one of the pairs severed head biting the others ear) but the idea of this potentially tortuous brief life after beheading caused major concern.

It became clear that urgent work was needed to conclude if these moments of life after death were: 

  • A) Simply muscle spasms that are natural occurrences following death. 

  • B) A horrifying period of time when a person was fully conscious. 

ENTER MEDICAL SCIENCE

science the shit out of this
Admittedly I have no evidence for this, but I’m pretty sure this was the battle cry for all 18th century scientists

Many doctors took up the mantle to discover the truth. One Dr Séguret eagerly exposed severed heads to sunlight, to see if there was a reaction. Reporting back that if the eyes were forcibly opened, then they would close of their own accord with:

‘an aliveness that was abrupt and startling. The entire face then assumed a face of intense suffering.’ 

Nightmare inducing? Yes. But correct? Well others begged to differ.

In 1803 it was reported that two students in Mainz, Germany, stood under a guillotine scaffold waiting for heads to fall (all in the name of science, natch). As soon as a head fell, they would hustle up to it and shout ‘Do you hear me!?’. They discovered no reaction or evident consciousness in the victims.

If you thought the Mainz experiment was weird, then hold you horses for one Dr Lelut.

In 1836 the good doctor made a deal with murderer, Pierre-Francois Lacenaire, that after his execution Lacenaire would leave one eye shut and one eye open. Despite avidly observing Lacenaire’s decapitated head after his death, Dr Lelut saw no eye movement from the deceased.

This (lets be real, kinda sketchy science) was further backed up by Georges Martin, a Parisian executioners assistant who’d seen over 100 beheadings. He could recall no occasion when the condemned’s head showed any sign of life.

All in all, despite doctors and scientists all over Europe looking for an answer, nobody could agree on if the victims lived for a few moments after their death. And yet, with beheading still common practice in many places, an answer was needed (ASAP preferably).

Studying a guillotined head, Mainz 1803
A depiction of the study of guillotined heads in Mainz, from 1803

Finally in 1879 we start to see the beginnings of experiments that were taken a lot more seriously by the scientific and medical community as a whole.

The British Medical Journal reported on three doctors, who had obtained the head of convicted murderer Theotime Prunier. A few minutes after the blade dropped on Prunier, the men began a series of experiments to determine if his was still conscious. They:

  • Shouted in his ear
  • Waved a candle in front of his eyes
  • pinched his cheeks 
  • stuck a needle in his eye 

Bar a look of shock (which TBH might just have been his face when he was executed) Prunier didn’t show signs of any cognitive movement or consciousness.

BUT this was far from a clear conclusion. After all, as any good science nerd knows, more investigation and experimentation is needed. It’s not just one and done, you need to have a whole bounty of evidence to form any scientific conclusion.

Step forward Dr. Dassy de Lignières

In 1890 a year after the first ‘official’ guillotine test, Dr. Dassy de Lignières was given access to the head of child rapist and murderer, Louis Menesclou. Three hours after the execution, de Lignières was given the head and hot footed it back to his lab where he conducted some truly Frankenstein-esque experiments.

He pumped the head with dogs blood (don’t worry, the dog was living and was fine after). The idea being to ascertain whether brain death occurred due to blood loss or the blade blow.

As the transfusion went through the dead man’s veins, de Lignières observed that the head not only regained colour, it’s lips trembled, features sharpened and for two seconds the man’s eyes opened in a look of shock.

This was enough in de Lignières mind to confirm that people did live for several seconds after decapitation and that death by beheading was nothing short of ‘torture’. He even advised executioners to vigorously shake the heads of the convicted immediately after death, in the hopes it would promote speedy blood loss and shave a few seconds off their suffering.

Finally in 1905 Dr Gabriel Beaurieux gave us the most frequently cited piece of evidence. He attended the execution of murderer Henri Languille, and after hanging around at the base of the guillotine, he was met with the severed head of Languille.

Immediately he carried out several tests to see if the deceased was conscious. Beaurieux recalled:

“The eyelids and lips of the guillotined man worked in irregularly rhythmic contractions for about five or six seconds. This phenomenon has been remarked by all those finding themselves in the same conditions as myself for observing what happens after the severing of the neck …

“I waited for several seconds. The spasmodic movements ceased. The face relaxed, the lids half closed on the eyeballs, leaving only the white of the conjunctiva visible, exactly as in the dying whom we have occasion to see every day in the exercise of our profession, or as in those just dead. It was then that I called in a strong, sharp voice: “Languille!” I saw the eyelids slowly lift up, without any spasmodic contractions –- I insist advisedly on this peculiarity –- but with an even movement, quite distinct and normal, such as happens in everyday life, with people awakened or torn from their thoughts.

“Next Languille’s eyes very definitely fixed themselves on mine and the pupils focused themselves. I was not, then, dealing with the sort of vague dull look without any expression, that can be observed any day in dying people to whom one speaks: I was dealing with undeniably living eyes which were looking at me. After several seconds, the eyelids closed again, slowly and evenly, and the head took on the same appearance as it had had before I called out.

“It was at that point that I called out again and, once more, without any spasm, slowly, the eyelids lifted and undeniably living eyes fixed themselves on mine with perhaps even more penetration than the first time. The there was a further closing of the eyelids, but now less complete. I attempted the effect of a third call; there was no further movement -– and the eyes took on the glazed look which they have in the dead.”

The whole thing lasted for 25-30 seconds. Beaurieux concluded that although he believed there was brain function in subjects of beheading after death, it could not be known for sure whether this was in the lower half of the brain alone (where your reflexes come from) or whether the brain as a whole was active, meaning victims could potentially think and feel fear.

shocked gif
Yup, thinking and feeling after losing your head isn’t it.

Ok, so if there was even a tiny chance that beheading a condemned person might result in even a minuscule amount of life after death, surely people stopped. After all, the death penalty itself is ridiculously unethical, so added torture on top is barbaric at best! Anyone can see that, right? Right?!?!

Well… no. It was cheap, efficient and there wasn’t concrete science to back up the idea of life after decapitation. So countries across the world merrily beheaded away for decades.

France continued using the guillotine right up to 1981 (when the death penalty was revoked). It was also used by The Nazi’s, The Stasi and at one point in the 1990’s the US even toyed with the idea of replacing the electric chair with the guillotine.

Eventually beheading fell out of favour and as many countries continue to drop the the death penalty entirely, it is rarely used in an official state capacity.

But that doesn’t answer the question, is there life after beheading? 

Short answer, Possibly

Unlike those 18th and 19th century doctors, today we have an incredibly in depth understanding of how the human body works, but we also can’t know for sure. After all, if we’ve learned anything today it’s that we can’t ask a decapitated person to tell whats going on.

So here’s what modern science tells us might happen. When a head is cut from the body, it’s also cut off from the heart and any oxygen supply, meaning that the brain immediately goes into a coma and starts to die. Note the word, starts.

A 2011 study suggests that consciousness fades within four to seventeen seconds. However, as your brain function in that time isn’t even close to normal, it’s unlikely you’d be aware of what was happening. The lights might be on, but nobody would be home.

So next time your in the pub and someone mentions the myth of Anne Boleyn speaking after her beheading (unlikely, but you never know) you can spend the next 45 minutes boring everyone with the mad science behind one of execution histories most gruesome legends. You’re welcome.

the more you know

More like this

The Trial and Execution of Mary Queen of Scots

By 1586 Mary Queen of Scots had been imprisoned by her cousin, Elizabeth I for almost two decades.

She’d lost her throne in 1657, having been forced to abdicate in favour of her baby. Then after fleeing Scotland for safety in England she’d been (at least in her mind) royally screwed over. Instead of helping Mary regain the Scottish throne, Elizabeth had her locked up.

Mary was a serious threat to Elizabeth’s rule. Viewed by Catholics as the true catholic ruler of England, there was many a plot to bump off Elizabeth and put Mary on the throne.

Thus, Mary was imprisoned. Spending year after year being dragged around England to be locked up in its various castles.

So you can see why, approaching her 20th year of imprisonment, Mary eagerly took part in plot to assassinate Elizabeth.

Enter, The Babington Plot. Put together by young nobleman, Anthony Babington and priest, John Ballard (along with other conspirators) the plot was an incredibly convoluted scheme to:

  • Start a Spanish invasion
  • Kill Elizabeth I
  • Put Mary on the throne
  • Return England to Catholicism

Whilst locked away, Mary advised the plotters, both in terms of strategy and how to ensure she’d win the English throne. And naturally as the ‘rightful’ ruler of England Mary would be the one to sign off on the plot starting. Which she did, in July 1586.

Unfortunately for Mary, the plot had been infiltrated and Elizabeth I’s own spy master, Sir Francis Walsingham had been using the letters to entrap Mary and get her to call for Elizabeth’s murder. Which by signing off for the plot to go ahead, she’d done.

Everyone involved with The Babington Plot, including Mary, was duly arrested.

The Babington Plot postscript and its secret cypher

In September 1586 the first of the conspirators were executed, including ringleaders John Ballard and Anthony Babington. Onlookers said that by the time he arrived at the execution site, John Ballards limbs were barely in their sockets, as a result of the torture he’d undergone.

One at a time, the men were hung drawn and quartered. Forced to watch their fellows dismemberment before their own death. The executions were so brutal that a public outcry meant the other conspirators were just ‘hung until they were quite dead’ before being dismembered.

With that bloodbath over, the attention turned to Mary. What could be done with the traitorous Queen?

The idea of executing a Queen was very possible. After all, Elizabeth’s own mother, Anne Boleyn had been beheaded. But this wasn’t a outcome that Mary entertained.

In her mind she had been anointed by god to reign. That was something holy and untouchable. There was no law in the land that could hold jurisdiction over her, the only judgement she was accountable to was God’s.

However it quickly became apparent that it wasn’t God’s holy anointed Mary going on trial for treason, but (as the royal warrant for the trial put it) Mary, a mere woman who was:

‘Pretending title to this crown of this realm of England’

Mary’s trial hearing started on 14 October 1586. Though it operated as less of a trial and more of a really long argument between Mary and those convicting her.

To say Mary would have made an excellent lawyer would be an understatement. She rallied hard, with a stream of well thought out and articulated arguments. Always ready with something to fight the prosecutions threats and refusals to acknowledge her words.

Mary’s arguments included:

  • That she wasn’t an English subject and therefore couldn’t be held as an English traitor
  • She’d been denied legal counsel or the right to view evidence being bought against her
  • Did she mention, she was a Queen. Anointed by God. It would literally be a sin to kill her.

After Mary’s hearing was finished, the trial was adjourned to The Star Chamber, leaving Mary at Forgeringay Castle. Then on 25 October, the trial was completed…without anyone telling Mary.

The trials commissioners found Mary guilty of treason. And together with Parliament they urged Elizabeth to execute Mary as quickly as humanly possible.

BUT Elizabeth didn’t want to execute Mary.

Though there’d been a lot of bad blood between the pair of Queens, there had also been a kind of respect. They were so similar in so many ways. Cousins thrust into positions of power considered above their gender. No matter how begrudging, there was a bond there.

After Mary’s second husband, Lord Darnley died in an incredibly suspicious explosion, Elizabeth wrote to Mary, urging her to distance herself from the scandalous tragedy, as:

‘I treat you as my daughter, and assure you that if I had one, I could wish for her nothing better than I desire for you.”

But even more than the bond Elizabeth shared with Mary, she didn’t want to execute her because it set a deadly precedent. To lawfully kill a sovereign.

Elizabeth had hoped she’d be able to pardon her cousin. That Mary would beg for forgiveness. But none of that happened.

As pressure mounted from her councillors and parliament, Elizabeth had no choices left. On 1 February 1587 she signed Mary’s death warrant.

Elizabeth’s signature of Mary’s death warrant

With the warrant signed, Elizabeth’s councillors decided to carry out the execution immediately – without telling Elizabeth.

On the evening of 7 February, Mary was visited at her prison of Fotheringhay Castle and told she was to die the next morning.

Her last hours were spent both in prayer and sorting out her affairs. Sleeping would be near impossible, thanks to the incessant loud hammering as the execution scaffold was hastily erected.

Early on the morning of 8 February, Mary serenely entered the castles great hall to face the scaffold. And after that everything turned into a shit show.

Mary bids her servants farewell in a 19th century re-imagining (which explains the sheer drama here)

To kick things off, Mary was curtly informed that she was to go to her death alone. This was a shock.

Traditionally women of Mary’s status were allowed their ladies around them on the scaffold. They not only gave one last herald of the condemneds status. But, perhaps more importantly, the women provided comfort before the ax fell and then shielded the broken body. Offering dignity in death by not subjecting the woman to being stripped by men for burial.

To be rejected this right at the last minute was a huge blow.

Though she maintained a calm exterior, Mary begged to be allowed her ladies. She was rejected, but refused to give up. Pleading for this, her final right.

Eventually the councillors gave in. On condition that Mary’s ladies didn’t loudly weep, wail, or generally erupt into female hysteria.

And so Mary climbed the stairs of the scaffold, her ladies in tow.

As Mary waited for the death sentence to be read out, a man burst forth from the crowd. Dr Fletcher, The Protestant Dean of Peterborough proclaimed that it wasn’t too late for Mary to save her soul and convert from Catholicism to the Protestant faith.

Mary ignored his loud protestations and prayers, until eventually breaking and saying:

‘Mr. Dean, trouble not yourself any more, for I am settled and resolved in this my religion, and am purposed therein to die.’

In response, the Dean fell to his knees on the scaffolds stairs and started loudly praying at her. Mary politely turned away and began her own prayers.

Despite the Deans complete inability to read a room, Mary finished her prayers. With this over she stood, readying herself for this final act of ceremony.

She paid the executioner, forgiving him in advance for what he was about to do. Then Mary’s ladies helped her remove her black gown. Revealing a red petticoat with deep crimson sleeves.

This colour wasn’t a a random choice, but the red of catholic martyrdom. Mary was making a clear statement – she was anointed by God, to kill her was a sin and in death she would become a holy martyr.

The execution of Mary Queen of Scots, artist unknown

The wordless statement from Mary’s blood red petticoat rang throughout the great hall. Even as Mary was blindfolded, laid her head on the block and stretched her arms wide to signal the executioners axe.

The first blow hit the back of her head.

Accounts vary on if Mary cried out from the pain or remained silent. However as this was a chop wound (a mix of sharp force and blunt force trauma) its most likely that Mary felt excruciating pain for a few seconds, before losing consciousness.

The axes second blow hit her neck, severing it almost entirely. With one third chop needed to separate Mary’s head from her body.

The executioner then picked Mary’s head up by the hair, held it forth to the crowd and proclaimed

‘God save the Queen’

At which point, he lost grip on the head as Mary’s wig fell off, revealing her greying hair (something people were shocked about, despite the fact she was 44 and they’d just witnessed her bloody execution)

And with that macabre farce, the story of Mary Queen of Scots came to an end.

A 1791 deception of Mary Queen of Scots burial

This was interesting! Where can I find out more? Choosing just one book on Mary Queen of Scots is impossible, so here are some of my favourites:

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