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. 


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

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