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.

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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

Sex, Power & the French Revolution: The scandalous life of Madame Du Barry

A cheap whore that got lucky; that’s the general historic consensus on Jeanne Bécu, more commonly known as Madame Du Barry. The rival of Marie Antoinette, scandalous mistress of Louis XV and joke of the French Revolution.

But I’d argue that there is WAY more to this lady than history has warranted her. 

The tale of Madame Du Barry verges on unbelievable. This is a story jam packed with love, sex and an EXTRODINARY  leading lady – oh, and at the end the entire cast is beheaded…

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Go on….

Jeanne Bécu was quite literally born into scandal. The illegitimate daughter of a seamstress, she was the result of a remoured (a quickly covered up) love affair with a local friar.

Yet despite her salacious start in life, Jeanne had a priveledged upbringing.

Her mother worked for an incredibly wealthy and powerful man, who just happened to be her former lover. This worked in favour of the precocious young Jeanne and she became an unofficial part of the household. Doted on by the staff, her  mother’s boss and even his mistress.

But this lush life came to a sudden end when Jeannes Mum married. The days of being showered with attention and gifts were over. And the family moved away from the household that had so adored Jeanne.

Soon money became more of an issue and Jeanne was shipped off to a convent.

Unsurprisngly this was not an environment that suited the fun loving and feisty Jeanne.

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Convents, not the natural home for teenage sass…

So as soon as she could Jeanne left the convent. And at just 15, Jeanne was making a living on the streets of Paris.

She worked selling low grade trinkets in the cities dingy side streets. In addition to a string of other short lived jobs and even shorter lived affairs…

Just surviving day to day was a struggle, but Jeanne still remembered her small taste of oppulance. She was determined to get that life back and was more than happy to work her arse off to get it.

Her endless jobs, hard work and good looks, caught peoples attention. Soon the back streets of Paris were abuzz about the beautiful and charismatic Jeanne.

A young Jeanne by François-Hubert Drouais
A young Jeanne by François-Hubert Drouais

Jean-Baptiste du Barry, had heard all about Jeannes beauty and he decided he wanted her on his books.

A ‘procurer’ of high class mistresses (read, Pimp) Du Barry thought Jeanne would be his crowning jewel and was desperate for her to join his merry band of mistresses.

Jeanne was totally down with this!

Becoming a mistress to the Parisian elite would allow Jeanne to get out of the gutter, maintain much of her independence, AND earn more money than she could dream of.

Finally Jeannes’ ship had come in… even if it was driven by Captain Creep.

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An accurate representation of Jean-Baptiste du Barry

Despite Captain Creep being at the wheel, Jeanne took Paris by storm. Becoming the mistress to political power players and influential courtiers.

She was the IT girl and everyone wanted a piece of her…including The King of France.

Jeanne had caught the Kings eye during a quick trip to Versailles (to see one of her many lovers) and upon meeting her King Louis XV was immediately entranced.

The king announced he wanted Jeanne as his main mistress. 

King Louis XV.jpg
The King in question, Louis XV

Slight snag; only titled, married, noble women could become the Kings mistress and Jeanne was a girl from the back streets of Paris with no ounce of noble blood…

But no matter! This was love!!

And so in a very real Cinderella story, the Kings men searched all the brothels of Paris, for the creep that could make their dreams come true.

And they found him!

Jeanne was married to her former pimp, Jean-Baptiste du Barry’s brother. He was then promptly paid to fuck off, making Jeanne just technically married.

The King then invented a fictional noble lineage for Jeanne, before transforming her old clothes into a fabulous gown and lavishing her with one of the most ornate wigs French court had ever seen.

Jeanne was now Madame Du Barry, and she was ready for her official debut as royal mistress extraordinaire.

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I’m shocked Disney has not made this yet!!!

Sadly the French Court didn’t get the whole ‘Cinderella story’ memo.

To them Jeanne was a ‘whore’. Sure she’d been cleaned up, but she was nothing more than a cheap guttersnipe who got lucky.

Women literally had to be bribed to become friends with Jeanne.

Those that didn’t ‘befriend’ Jeanne, remained irate that this strumpet had been chosen as mistress over noble born ladies. And so, in true OTT mean girls spirit, they started spreading rumour and gossip filled pamphlets about Jeanne across court.

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Who knew Mean Girls was inspired by Versailles?!

Almost as soon as she arrived at court, Jeanne had everyone around her actively pushing for her failure.

But she didn’t buckle. Instead Jeanne did what she always did. Worked.

Taking up classes in manners and etiquette, to help own her new role.

Not only that but just to prove that she was more than the cheap gold digger she was painted as, Jeannes first favour from the King wasn’t a request for money, political power or jewels…it was for mercy.

Infact, Jeanne became known for saving people from execution; falling to her knees and refusing to get up until the King agreed to spare lives.

She notably saved a debt ridden couple from beheading and a young women who was due to be hung after not reporting her still born child as dead.

Things were looking up for Jeanne,as she started cementing her place in court.

And then Marie Antionette turned up.


In 1770 Marie Antionette married the Kings grandson (and heir).  joining the French Court.

Upon seeing Jeanne, Marie asked what she did and was told that Jeanne gave the King ‘pleasure.’

To which Marie Antionette said:

‘Oh, then I shall be her rival, because I too wish to give pleasure to the King.”

Yeah… Marie Antionette was very green.

But sadly if Jeanne thought that sweet (and VERY naive) Marie was going to be her first real friend at Court, she was all kinds of wrong.

She had in fact just met her very own Regina George (in sheeps clothing)

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This bitch..

When Marie Antoinette discovered what Jeannes job actually was, she was disgusted. Feeling that Jeannes mere presence was degrading.

BUT Marie’s hatred of Jeanne wasn’t just down to properiety.

Marie Antoinette was just weeks into her marriage, but she was still struggling to have sex with her new husband. Infact the pair hadn’t even consummated the damn thing!

Now this openly sexual woman was being thrust in her face constantly.

That’s not the basis for a lasting living friendship.

And so, egged on by the court, Marie Antoinette did what any young woman does when faced with someone they hate….

she froze the bitch out.

Marie Antoinette and her entourage indulged in long bitch sessions about Jeanne and developed a fun habit of throwing lavish parties…where Marie just accidentally always forgot to invite the Kings Mistress.

Not only that but Marie Antoinette refused to acknowledge Jeanne in public.

Now this wasn’t like the parties and snide comments. This was a HUGE deal. For Marie to not acknowledge the Kings mistress broke all kinds of court etiquette and appeared to send a message that she was questioning the Kings decision making.

It’s the historic equivalent of you striding across the office, punching your bosses PA in the face, flipping their desk and calling them a bitch.

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Big no no!

But it wasn’t just Marie going after Jeanne. Shots had been fired by both sides in this battle.

Jeanne orchestrated the removal of one of Marie Antoinette favourite courtiers. She also loved nothing more than openly and loudly talking about Marie Antoinettes bedroom issues with her new husband.

BUT Marie Antoinette icing out Jeanne had taken things to far… it had gone from a mutual dislike to an actual threat to Austrian French relation. This fued had to end!

So on New Years Day 1772, Marie Antoinette ended the fight in style.

She cooly walked over to Jeanne in one of Versailles packer corridors. Waiting until she had everyone’s attention, Marie stared Jeanne down and said

“There are a lot of people today at Versailles”  

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The weirdly polite shade of it all!

With the feud between Marie Antoinette and Jeanne now at an end, you’d be forgiven for thinking things would chill out for Jeanne.


In April 1774 King Louis XV caught Smallpox.

By May he was dead.

Marie Antoinette and her husband were now ruling France…and with Jeannes’ rival now Queen, that could only mean one thing.

Jeanne was out on her arse. 

Madame Du Barry 2
Madame Du Barry, by Elisabeth Vigée LeBrun

Just like that, Jeanne was once more sent to a convent.

But she didn’t stay there for long. Jeannes’ mistress-ing work had paid off and she could afford to buy herself an amazing house out in the country. Out of the way of Marie Antionette but still the lap of luxury, it was perfect.

So there Jeanne lived. Hosting salons for Frances best artists, doing charity work in her local area and taking as many lovers as she wanted,

But we all know that this story can’t end in pastoral bliss. Why?


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‘Do you hear the people sing, singing this won’t end well’

By the 1790s, the revolution was in full swing. Many of the courtiers that Jeanne knew, had already met with the Guillotine and so she was doing her best to keep a low profile out in the country.

But then in 1791, Jeanne had her jewels stolen in the night.

Desperate to get them back she launched an investigation. Traveling between France and London to look for them.

King Louis XVs mistress running around Europe on a hunt for her missing jewels soon caught attention…and not the right kind.

It turns out the French Revolution is not the climate in which to become a bougie Carmen Sandiego. The people were calling out for Jeannes blood.

In 1793 she was arrested and on the 7th Dec that year, Jeanne was sentenced to death. Madame du barry.jpg

Jeanne was an emotional wreck (to be fair, wouldn’t you be!?!) she was to die the next day and had no clue how to get out of it.

But then she had an idea!

In the morning, when guards arrived to cut off Jeannes hair -in preparation for her execution-she calmly told them that she wanted just a few hours grace, so she could tell the Revolutionaries where a load of her valuable jewels were.

Surely these stupidly expensive jewels would result in her freedom.

So Jeanne spent hours informing the guards of where all her hidden gems were.

After she finished the guards left….and the hairdresser came back to chop off Jeannes hair in preparation for the Guillotine.

This was the Revolution; they weren’t going to play fair. 

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Yeah…not known as the most friendly time in history

When Jeanne boarded the wagon that was to take her and the other doomed nobles to the Guillotine, she was a damn wreck.

The French elite prided themselves on remaining stone faced as they traveled to their deaths. They wouldn’t show a flicker of emotion about their imminent demise.

Jeanne wasn’t playing this game.

Whilst the others in the cart stayed haughtily neutral. Jeanne screamed, wept and begged onlookers to help her.

This unnerved the gathering crowds. Jeanne was the first person they had ever seen show any kind of fear about the whole ‘about to get my head chopped off’ thing. Suddenly this wasn’t such a fun day out…

When the cart arrived at the Guillotine, Jeanne was too scared to get out, having to be bundled onto the scaffold ‘like an animal’.

She continued weeping, wailing to the crowd

‘You are going to hurt me! Why?’

Then she saw the executioner and broke down even more.

Rather than enjoying themselves, as usual, the crowd was clearly deeply unnerved by what was about to happen. This caused the executioner to work faster than usual.

He thrust Jeanne onto the Guillotine. She turned to him crying:

‘one moment more, please monsieur, do not hurt me’

As Jeanne cried for mercy, the blade came down. Madame Du Barry 4

And so ends the tale of Jeanne, more commonly known as, Madame Du Barry. A woman who pulled herself out of poverty and into power. Who lived openly as a sexual being and in doing so felt the wrath of those around her.

Who overcame time after time, only to die at the hands of those she had grown up with.

This was interesting, where do I find out more? It’s weirdly hard to get hold of decent books on Madame Du Barry. A lot seem to have gone out of print/don’t exist in most  book shops/online outlets.

So first, check out your local library and if that leaves you empty handed, I fully suggest checking out the below:

Madame Du Barry, The Wages of Beauty by Joan Haslip 

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