Decapitation (from Latin, caput, capitis, meaning head) is the complete separation of the head from the body. Such an injury is typically fatal to humans and many other animals, since it deprives all other organs of the involuntary functions that are needed for the body to function, while the brain is deprived of oxygenated blood.
- Historical significance
- Physiology of death by decapitation
- German Fallbeil
- Bosnia and Herzegovina
- Classical antiquity
- Nordic countries
- United States
- Saudi Arabia
The term beheading refers to the act of deliberately decapitating a person, either as a means of murder or execution; it may be accomplished, for example, with an axe, sword, knife, or by other more sophisticated means such as a guillotine. An executioner who carries out executions by beheading is called a headsman. Accidental decapitation can be the result of an explosion, car or industrial accident, improperly administered execution by hanging or other violent injury. Suicide by decapitation is rare but not unknown. The national laws of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Qatar permit beheading, but in practice, Saudi Arabia is the only country that continues to behead its offenders regularly as a punishment for crime.
Less commonly, decapitation can also refer to the removal of the head from a body that is already dead. This might be done to take the head as a trophy, for public display, to make the deceased more difficult to identify, for cryonics, or for other, more esoteric reasons.
Execution by beheading has been used as a form of capital punishment for millennia. The terms "capital offence", "capital crime", "capital punishment," derive from the Latin caput, "head", referring to the punishment for serious offences involving the forfeiture of the head; i.e., death by beheading. In some cultures, such as ancient Rome and Greece, decapitation was regarded as the most honorable form of death. The extension of the "privilege" of beheading to criminals of ordinary birth was among the symbolic changes brought about by the French Revolution. In other cases, such as the use of beheading by Japanese troops during World War II, its use was considered a form of contempt. In recent times, it has become associated with terrorism.
If the headsman's axe or sword was sharp and his aim was precise, decapitation was quick and was presumed to be a relatively painless form of death. If the instrument was blunt or the executioner clumsy, however, multiple strokes might be required to sever the head resulting in a prolonged and more painful death. The person to be executed was therefore advised to give a gold coin to the headsman to ensure that he did his job with care. Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, and Mary, Queen of Scots, required three strikes at their respective executions. Margaret Pole, 8th Countess of Salisbury, is said to have required up to ten strokes before decapitation was achieved. This particular story may, however, be apocryphal since highly divergent accounts exist. Historian and philosopher David Hume, for example, relates the following about her death:
She refused to lay her head on the block, or submit to a sentence where she had received no trial. She told the executioner, that if he would have her head, he must win it the best way he could: and thus, shaking her venerable grey locks, she ran about the scaffold; and the executioner followed her with his ax, aiming many fruitless blows at her neck before he was able to give the fatal stroke.
To ensure that the blow would be fatal, executioners' swords usually were blade-heavy two-handed swords. Likewise, if an axe was used, it almost invariably would be wielded with both hands. In England a bearded axe was used for beheadings, with the blade's edge extending downwards from the tip of the shaft.
Finland's official beheading axe resides today at the Museum of Crime in Vantaa. It is a broad-bladed two-handed axe. It was last used when murderer Tahvo Putkonen was executed in 1825, the last execution in peacetime in Finland.
Physiology of death by decapitation
Decapitation is quickly fatal to humans and most other animals. Unconsciousness occurs within 10 seconds without circulating oxygenated blood (brain ischemia). Cell death and irreversible brain damage occurs after 3–6 minutes with no oxygen due to excitotoxicity. Some anecdotes suggest more extended persistence of human consciousness after decapitation:
I consider it essential for you to know that Languille displayed an extraordinary sang-froid and even courage from the moment when he was told, that his last hour had come, until the moment when he walked firmly to the scaffold. It may well be, in fact, that the conditions for observation, and consequently the phenomena, differ greatly according to whether the condemned persons retain all their sang-froid and are fully in control of themselves, or whether they are in such state of physical and mental prostration that they have to be carried to the place of execution, and are already half-dead, and as though paralysed by the appalling anguish of the fatal instant.
The head fell on the severed surface of the neck and I did not therefore have to take it up in my hands, as all the newspapers have vied with each other in repeating; I was not obliged even to touch it in order to set it upright. Chance served me well for the observation, which I wished to make.
Here, then, is what I was able to note immediately after the decapitation: 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. Then 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.
But most doctors consider this unlikely and consider such accounts to be misapprehensions of reflexive twitching rather than deliberate movement, since deprivation of oxygen must cause nearly immediate coma and death ("[Consciousness is] probably lost within 2–3 seconds, due to a rapid fall of intracranial perfusion of blood.").
Some animals (such as cockroaches) can survive decapitation, and die not because of the loss of the head directly, but rather because of starvation. Although head transplantation by the reattachment of blood vessels has been successful with other animals, a fully functional reattachment of a severed human head (including repair of the spinal cord, muscles, and other critically important tissues) has not yet been achieved.
Decapitation by guillotine was a common mechanically-assisted form of execution, invented shortly before the French Revolution (although an earlier version of the guillotine, the Halifax Gibbet, was used in Halifax, England, from 1286 until the 17th century, and a version called the "Maiden" was used in Edinburgh during the 16th-18th centuries). The aim was to create a painless and quick form of execution that did not require great skill on the part of the operator to carry out. The executioner, after chopping off the head, would hold it up to the crowd. There is dubious evidence that the head could remain conscious for up to ten seconds. The account of Dr. Beaurieux who observed the decapitation of a convict named Languille in 1905, may imply that the head could still see as he recounts "Next Languille's eyes very definitely fixed themselves on mine and the pupils focussed themselves" (A history of the guillotine, Alister Kershaw), though there are reasons to doubt the accuracy of Beaurieux's account. The French had a strict code of etiquette surrounding such executions; a man named Legros, one of the assistants at the execution of Charlotte Corday, was imprisoned for three months and dismissed for slapping the face of the victim after the blade had fallen in order to see whether any flicker of life remained. The guillotine was used in France during the French Revolution and remained the normal judicial method in both peacetime and wartime into the 1970s, although the firing squad was used in certain cases. France abolished the death penalty in 1981. The guillotine was also used in Algeria before the French relinquished control of it, as shown in Gillo Pontecorvo's film The Battle of Algiers. Another guillotine existed in Vatican City until recent years. It had been brought in by Napoleon's forces during the early 19th century; and, in 1870, the Pope still claimed the authority to use it. In recent times however, the Vatican has abolished capital punishment in its own jurisdiction, and recent Popes have condemned capital punishment wherever it is still practised.
Many German states had used a guillotine-like device known as a Fallbeil ("falling axe") since the 17th and 18th centuries, and decapitation by guillotine was the usual means of execution in Germany until the abolition of the death penalty in West Germany in 1949. In Nazi Germany, the guillotine was reserved for criminal convicts and political crimes including treason. A famous example of the guillotine being used was on the members of the White Rose resistance movement, a group of students in Munich that included siblings Sophie and Hans Scholl. Contrary to popular myth, executions were generally not conducted face-up, and chief executioner Johann Reichhart was insistent on maintaining "professional" protocol throughout the era, having administered the death penalty during the earlier Weimar era. Nonetheless, the Nazis' use of the Fallbeil was chillingly routine. It is estimated that some 16,500 persons were guillotined in Germany and Austria between 1933 and 1945. This number includes resistance fighters both in Nazi Germany itself and in those countries that were occupied by them. As these resistance fighters were not part of any regular army they were considered common criminals and were in many cases taken to Germany and decapitated. Decapitation was considered a "dishonorable" death, in contrast to an "honorable" death such as execution by firing squad.
The Fallbeil was used for the last time in West Germany in 1949, in East Germany in 1966.
Kyaram Sloyan was a Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army soldier from Armenia who was killed during the 2016 Armenian–Azerbaijani clashes and beheaded by soldiers of Azerbaijani Armed Forces, with videos and pictures of his severed head posted on social networks.
In traditional China, decapitation was considered a more severe form of punishment than strangulation, although strangulation caused more prolonged suffering. This was because in Confucian tradition bodies were gifts from their parents, and so it was therefore disrespectful to their ancestors to return their bodies to the grave dismembered. The Chinese however had other punishments, such as dismembering the body into multiple pieces (similar to English quartering). In addition, there was also a practice of cutting the body at the waist, which was a common method of execution before being abolished in the early Qing dynasty due to the lingering death it caused. In some tales, people did not die immediately after decapitation.
The British officer John Masters recorded in his autobiography that Pathans in British India during the Anglo-Afghan Wars would behead enemy soldiers who were captured, such as British and Sikh soldiers.
Pakistan's government employs death by hanging for capital punishment. Since 2007, militants from Tehrek-e-Taliban Pakistan have used beheadings as a form of punishment for opponents, criminals and spies in the north west region of Pakistan. Severed heads of opponents or government officials in Swat were left on popular street corners in order to terrorize local population. The beheadings have stopped in Swat since the military incursion and sweep-up that began in May 2009 and ended in June 2009. Three Sikhs were beheaded by the Taliban in Pakistan in 2010. Daniel Pearl was beheaded by his captors in the city of Karachi.
Despite official condemnation from the state itself, such beheading continues to flourish in the Taliban strongholds of Baluchistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and are often jarred and unprofessional resulting in increased pain for the victim.
In Japan, decapitation was a common punishment, sometimes for minor offences. Samurai were often allowed to decapitate soldiers who had fled from battle, as it was considered cowardly. Decapitation was historically performed as the second step in seppuku (ritual suicide by disembowelment). After the victim had sliced his own abdomen open, another warrior would strike his head off from behind with a katana to hasten death and to reduce the suffering. The blow was expected to be precise enough to leave intact a small strip of skin at the front of the neck—to spare invited and honored guests the indelicacy of witnessing a severed head rolling about, or towards them; such an occurrence would have been considered inelegant and in bad taste. The sword was expected to be used upon the slightest sign that the practitioner might yield to pain and cry out—avoiding dishonor to him and to all partaking in the privilege of observing an honorable demise. As skill was involved, only the most trusted warrior was honored by taking part. In the late Sengoku period, decapitation was performed as soon as the person chosen to carry out seppuku had made the slightest wound to his abdomen.
Decapitation (without seppuku) was also considered a very severe and degrading form of punishment. One of the most brutal decapitations was that of Sugitani Zenjubō (ja:杉谷善住坊), who attempted to assassinate Oda Nobunaga, a prominent daimyō, in 1570. After being caught, Zenjubō was buried alive in the ground with only his head out, and the head was slowly sawn off with a bamboo saw by passers-by for several days (punishment by sawing; nokogiribiki ja:鋸挽き). These unusual punishments were abolished in the early Meiji era. This horrific scene is described in the last page of James Clavell's book Shogun.
Historically, decapitation had been the most common method of execution in Korea, until it was replaced by hanging in 1896. Professional executioners were called mangnani (망나니) and they were volunteered from death-rows.
In Southern Thailand, there were at least 15 cases where Buddhists were beheaded in 2005. Thai officials suspect the attackers are part of the South Thailand Muslim insurgency who are seeking to separate the south end part from the rest of Thailand.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
During the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1992–1995) there were a number of ritual beheadings of Serbs and Croats who were taken as prisoners of war by mujahedin members of the Bosnian Army. At least one case is documented and proven in court by the ICTY where mujahedin, members of 3rd Corps of Army BiH, beheaded Bosnian Serb Dragan Popović.
The Celts of western Europe long pursued a "cult of the severed head", as evidenced by both Classical literary descriptions and archaeological contexts. This cult played a central role in their temples and religious practices and earned them a reputation as head hunters among the Mediterranean peoples. Diodorus Siculus, in his 1st-century History had this to say about Celtic head-hunting:
They cut off the heads of enemies slain in battle and attach them to the necks of their horses. The blood-stained spoils they hand over to their attendants and striking up a paean and singing a song of victory; and they nail up these first fruits upon their houses, just as do those who lay low wild animals in certain kinds of hunting. They embalm in cedar oil the heads of the most distinguished enemies, and preserve them carefully in a chest, and display them with pride to strangers, saying that for this head one of their ancestors, or his father, or the man himself, refused the offer of a large sum of money. They say that some of them boast that they refused the weight of the head in gold.
Both the Greeks and Romans found the Celtic decapitation practices shocking and the latter put an end to them when Celtic regions came under their control.
According to Paul Jacobsthal, "Amongst the Celts the human head was venerated above all else, since the head was to the Celt the soul, centre of the emotions as well as of life itself, a symbol of divinity and of the powers of the other-world." Arguments for a Celtic cult of the severed head include the many sculptured representations of severed heads in La Tène carvings, and the surviving Celtic mythology, which is full of stories of the severed heads of heroes and the saints who carry their own severed heads, right down to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, where the Green Knight picks up his own severed head after Gawain has struck it off, just as St. Denis carried his head to the top of Montmartre.
A further example of this regeneration after beheading lies in the tales of Connemara's St. Feichin, who after being beheaded by Viking pirates carried his head to the Holy Well on Omey Island and on dipping the head into the well placed it back upon his neck and was restored to full health.
The ancient Greeks and Romans regarded decapitation as a comparatively honorable form of execution for criminals. The traditional procedure, however, included first being tied to a stake and whipped with rods. Axes were used by the Romans, and later swords, which were considered a more honorable instrument of death. Those who could verify that they were Roman citizens were to be beheaded, rather than undergoing the much more horrific experience of crucifixion. In the Roman Republic of the early 1st century BC, it became the tradition for the severed heads of public enemies—such as the political opponents of Marius and Sulla, for example—to be publicly displayed on the Rostra in the Forum Romanum after execution. Perhaps the most famous such victim was Cicero who, on instructions from Mark Antony, had his hands (which had penned the Philippics against Antony) and his head cut off and nailed up for display in this manner.
Altogether, over 40,000 Germans were legally executed under the Nazi regime, most of them by guillotine.
In France, until the abolition of capital punishment in 1981, the main method of execution had been by beheading by means of the guillotine. Other than a small number of cases where a firing squad was used, the guillotine was the only legal method of execution from 1789, when it was introduced during the French Revolution, until 1981. In 1981, President François Mitterrand abolished capital punishment and issued commutations for those whose sentences had not been executed.
The last person to be beheaded by the guillotine was Hamida Djandoubi, in 1977. Djandoubi's execution was the last legal beheading in a Western democracy, and the last use of guillotine in the world.
In Nordic countries, decapitation was the usual means of carrying out capital punishment. Noblemen were beheaded with a sword, and commoners with an axe. The last executions by decapitation in Finland in 1825, Norway in 1876, Faroe Islands in 1609, and in Iceland in 1830 were carried out with axes. The same was the case in Denmark in 1892. Sweden continued the practice for a few decades, executing its second to last criminal - mass murderer Johan Filip Nordlund - by manual cleaver in 1900. It was replaced by guillotine, which was used for the first and only time on Johan Alfred Ander in 1910.
Nordlund's execution was the last (legal) manual beheading in the Western world except for in Germany, where it prevailed until the days of World War II (see above).
The official beheading axe of Finland resides today in the Museum of Crime, Vantaa.
In Spain executions were carried out by various methods including strangulation by the garrotte. In the 16th and 17th centuries, noblemen were sometimes executed by means of beheading. Examples include Anthony van Stralen, Lord of Merksem, Lamoral, Count of Egmont and Philip de Montmorency, Count of Horn. They were tied to a chair on a scaffold. The executioner used a knife to cut the head from the body. It was considered to be a more honourable death if the executioner started with cutting the throat.
Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, Ignacio Allende, José Mariano Jiménez and Juan Aldama were tried for treason, executed by firing squad and beheaded during the Mexican independence in 1811. Their heads were on display on the four corners of the Alhóndiga de Granaditas, in Guanajuato.
Recently during the Mexican Drug War some Mexican drug cartels have turned to decapitation and beheading of rival cartel members as a method of intimidation.
Indians and Black slaves were often beheaded during slave revolts or "Indian wars." The most notorious example was during an uprising near New Orleans in 1811. Over 100 slaves were beheaded, and some had hands or feet chopped off before beheading, or were slowly roasted over fires. Many of their heads were then mounted on pikes and left in public as warnings.
Maryland law required slaves be punished specifically by "brutal" means for the worst crimes, and one way specified as an option was by beheading.
In the Seminole Wars in Florida, Seminole Indians were sometimes beheaded, the most famous example being Chief Osceola.
In the California Indian genocide during the Gold Rush, many of the 120,000 to 300,000 Natives killed were beheaded. The state of California and some local governments had money set aside in their budget for the scalps of Indians, and sometimes the murderers in gold miner militias simply chopped off the heads.
Saudi Arabia is at present the only country that carries out beheadings of its offenders. They are commonly performed outside of mosques in major cities after prayer services on Friday, the Muslim holy day. The punishment derives from the country's Wahhabi interpretation of the Islamic religious laws of Shariah. Crimes such as of rape, murder, apostasy, sorcery, armed robbery, drug trafficking and repeated drug use are punishable by beheading.
According to Amnesty International, at least 79 people were executed in the kingdom in 2013. Foreigners are not exempt, accounting for "almost half" of executions in 2013.
Though not officially sanctioned, legal beheadings were carried out against at least 50 prostitutes and pimps under Saddam Hussein as late as 2000.
Beheadings have emerged as another terror tactic especially in Iraq since 2003. Civilians have borne the brunt of the beheadings, although U.S. and Iraqi military personnel have also been targeted. After kidnapping the victim, the kidnappers typically make some sort of demand of the government of the hostage's nation and give a time limit for the demand to be carried out, often 72 hours. Beheading is often threatened if the government fails to heed the wishes of the hostage takers. Sometimes, the beheadings are videotaped and made available on the Internet. One of the most publicized of such executions was that of Nick Berg.
Judicial execution is practiced in Iraq, but is generally carried out by hanging.
The Syrian Government employs hanging as its method of capital punishment. However, the terrorist organisation known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which controls territory in much of eastern Syria, has regularly carried out beheadings of people.