Decapitation. First thing that comes to mind? Do you think of the Headless Horseman? Marie Antoinette and the infamous guillotine? The Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland bellowing, “Off with her head!” Anne Boylen and King Henry’s hunger for a son? I got onto a decapitation kick after my Marie Antoinette and the brioche blog. Naturally, anything lurid and macabre captivates my imagination and commands my attention. Enough of that.
Beheadings are as old as time, (“I dare say you never even spoke to time“, said the Hatter, tossing his head [aside] contemptuously). The terms “capital offence”, “capital crime”, “capital punishment,” derived from the Latin caput, “head“, referring to the punishment involving loss of one’s head. They were a convenient form of execution in ancient civilizations. Assyrians, Egyptians, Persians, Philistines, and many other ancient civilizations, were known to have practiced it. Of course, these beheadings didn’t involve guillotines, as it would be many centuries before they’d be invented, (“I see you’re admiring my little box,” said the Knight in a friendly tone. “It’s my own invention“).
Oddly, beheadings were concerned the worst brutality after one’s death. Decapitation was used as a means of execution, however, the treatment of corpses was far more significant than the actual death. Beheading a corpse was the worst outcome because it violated the purpose of mortuary rituals and preparations that were meant to assist the deceased’s transition into an eternal afterlife. For the ancient Egyptians these beheadings literally were worse than death. Decapitation amounted to a “second death” that terminated hope for an afterlife and condemned the deceased to oblivion. Sounds serious. Beheading was considered so grisly and extreme that only the most reprehensible individuals deserved to lose their heads. The majority of decapitated criminals were the king’s enemies, i.e., foreigners and rebels. They have a long and (un)distinguished history.
Decapitation by sword or axe was the honourable way to die for an aristocrat. In England noblemen were beheaded. It was a privilege. Wow. Pick me. This was distinguished from a dishonourable death on the gallows (hanging) or burning at the stake (what I like to call bake-on-the-stake). Jeanne d’Arc knows a thing or two about that experience, however she was unable to tell about it after her execution. In Medieval England, the punishment for commoners for high treason was to be hanged, drawn and quartered but nobles and knights were simply beheaded.
Hanging, drawing and quartering was a nasty, messy business. Only a criminal convicted of high treason received this yummy ending. S/he was to a wooden panel, and drawn by horse to the place of execution, where they were hanged (almost to the point of death), emasculated, disembowelled, beheaded and quartered (chopped into four pieces). Draw might mean”to draw out the viscera or intestines.” Drawn follows hanged or hung, and probably the disembowelment of the traitor. Those still conscious after the hanging might have seen their entrails burnt, before their heart was removed and the body decapitated and quartered. Those Medieval types wrote the book on bloodthirsty pastimes. This was considered a form of public entertainment. Well, they didn’t have television then, you know.
Mind you, ancient Greece had its own sadistic prize: the Bronze Bull Bonfire, where a person was locked inside a hollow bronze invention in the shape of a bull. A fire was built beneath it. Slowly the unfortunate victim was boiled, burned and suffocated to death. When the unhappy victim screamed in agony, the sound roared through the bull and out the nostrils, sounding like a bull bellowing. It took quite a long time for death to occur. Great fun.
In China during the early 1900s, beheading was done with a sword. Sometimes, when the swordsman wasn’t experienced with such executions, or when a prisoner chose not to cooperate, the job wasn’t done right away. Of course that meant the unhappy victim was alive for a number of hackings until death. Might I say this felt rather painful? Here’s a pretty visual for you:
The criminal keeps his head on the ground. He is forced then to his knees. The executioner became irritated and gives the prisoner a gash at the ear. The victim grimaces. Thrice the sword falls on the head without cutting it off and on the ground fall bloody lumps of human flesh. The executioner takes the victim’s head and brings it to the ground in a twisting motion; the backbone is broken with a snap, but the head is still attached by a long piece of flesh.
The Guillotine and Lucid Decapitation
After the guillotine was invented, decapitation became much more humane. The idea was to painlessly and swiftly sever the head from the body, therefore bypassing any sort of torture. Initially, the guillotine had its glitches, of course, but eventually it became a very efficient means of execution. Although no torture or other gruesome acts were involved, the public still clamored to witness the execution, especially when the victim was of the nobility or even the monarchy. Good times. Naturally, creepy stories about a head’s ability to live after decapitationbegan to circulate among the uninformed public. People swore that eyes kept blinking, mouths kept moving as if trying to talk, facial expressions such as grimacing and frowning continued. They were convinced the head still lived without the body (lucid decapitation). If any of this is true, it’s probably due to involuntary nerve reactions. Decapitation is quickly fatal to humansand most animals as brain death occurs within seconds without circulating oxygenated blood. Frankly, I’ve met many brain-dead people walking around and doing quite well for themselves.
In Luca della Robbia’s description of the death of Pietro Paolo Boscoli in August 1512 in Florence, Pietro suddenly sat bolt upright, and began to pray: ‘I submit myself to the faith of Jesus Christ and I wish to die in it, and although I have, an infinite number of times, offended against divine goodness, nevertheless I hope to win salvation in the blood of Jesus Christ, and not in anything else. And since it pleases you, my Jesus, that I bear this death, I accept it willingly out of love for you’. And placing himself down, and the executioner, giving him the shortest time, cleanly removed his head, which, so cut, continued to move its mouth for a time.
Pietro’s head was severed but his lips kept speaking, not aware that the executioner had struck. This description suggests that not only does one’s head continue to live after decapitation, but also is capable of thought processes and emotions such as shock and grief. It also suggests that, if you believe in this sort of thing, people who retain consciousness after death are initially unaware they are dead.
Dead people, like in graves and coffins?
No, walking around, like regular people… They don’t see each other. They only see what they want to see. They don’t know they’re dead.
– M. Night Shyamalan
The first of King Henry’s six wives to be beheaded (the second and last was his fifth wife, Catherine Howard, at the age of 20). Anne was a controversial figure at court for several reasons:
- her insistence that King Henry divorce Queen Catherine of Aragon, in order to marry her, rather than becoming the King’s mistress
- making it necessary for the King to establish the Church of England, and the beginning of Protestantism, since the Pope would not grant Henry his divorce
- her arrogant and self-righteous personality
- bad-mouthing people at court, including Henry’s advisors, to their faces
- her rumoured sexual promiscuity, before and during her marriage
- her failure to deliver Henry a son
- rumours that she indulged in incest with her brother and 1st cousin
How true it is that Anne was executed because of her failure to deliver Henry a son is debated even today. More likely, it was the combination of several issues that factored into her death. By the time of her execution Anne had managed to isolate herself from everyone at court. In other words, everyone hated her guts. This allowed Thomas Cromwell, one of the King’s closest advisors, the opportunity to arrange for her downfall. She had no sympathizers and that meant no one to argue on her behalf during her trial. During her last hours before her execution, Anne Boleyn was locked into a small bedroom with her aunt and a priest. Her aunt also intensely disliked her niece and said barely a word to the frightened woman, as she prayed to God to have mercy on her soul. Nice.
In the elusive contemporary novel, Severed, about the thoughts historical, notorious, severed heads might have, Anne Boleyn figures into her own chapter and the author speculates about her final thoughts. My narration would be quite brief and would read like this: “You fat bastard.”
Catherine married Henry VIII on 28 July 1540 almost immediately after the annulment of his fourth marriage to Anne of Cleves. However, Catherine Howard, whom Henry regarded as his “rose without a thorn“, at the age of 20, was beheaded after less than two years of marriage to Henry on the grounds of treason (adultery). Early in 1541, Catherine had an affair with Henry’s favorite male courtier, Thomas Culpeper, a young man whom it was rumoured”had succeeded [Henry] in the Queen’s affections”, and whom Catherine had considered marrying even before she was wed to Henry. The couple’s meetings were arranged by one of Catherine’s older ladies-in-waiting, Lady Rochford, the widow of Anne Boleyn’s brother . At some point in time, Catherine also had an affair with another courtier by the name of Dereham. By late 1541, Catherine’s indiscretions had become known to Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Cranmer was only too happy to divulge this information to the King. Unfortunately, Catherine denied the affair with Culpeper, the worst thing she could have done, since the affair had been witnessed by many people at court. She did admit that she was “most unworthy to be called Henry’s wife or subject.” Rather than admit her guilt to her husband, however, she denied any precontract maintaining that Dereham had raped her.
No matter. Catherine was stripped of her title as queen on 23 November. Parliament passed a bill on attender, making it treason for a queen consort not to disclose her sexual history to the king within twenty days of their marriage, or to incite someone to commit adultery with her.This made Catherine guilty, even without trial. The night before her execution, Catherine spent hours practising how to lay her head upon the block which she had brought to her. She looked pale and terrified at her execution, and required assistance to climb the scaffold. She made a speech describing her punishment as “worthy and just” and asked for prayers for her soul. According to popular folklore, her final words were, “I die a Queen, but I would rather have died the wife of Culpeper,” although this is widely discredited. That Catherine would admit to Henry’s flimsy definition of adultery after her many denials is unlikely. Catherine was beheaded with a single stroke. Henry did not attend.
Some historians describe Catherine’s life as hedonistic, and characterize her as a “juvenile delinquent“. Others are sympathetic towards poor Catherine. Her marriage to the extremely overweight Henry couldn’t have produced an enjoyable sexual union for Catherine. One physical trait that particularly repulsed Catherine was a large ulcer on the King’s left knee, that was drained every night into a bed pan. Catherine was usually present during this procedure. Ick.
It was also a sword that brought about Catherine’s end in one clean swoop. It would seem that royal swordsmen were more accurate with their beheadings than the average citizen. There is no record of her making any attempt at speech after her beheading. Had she done so, I believe it would have sounded like this: “you fat bastard.” Marriage to an obese, self-indulgent King was bound to lead this lonely, young woman into Culpeper’s arms. Henry himself described his person as a “sick, old man.” Frankly, I’m on her side. You go (to the hereafter), girl.
Dauphine Marie Antoinette
Meanwhile, over in France (the worst of England’s many enemies), a little royal decapitation of its own was unfolding. The Austrian Dauphine Marie Antoinette was 14-years-old when she married King Louis XVI, aged 17. Like Anne and Catherine, Marie was accused of treason, however not by her husband or the court. It was the French public, on the verge of the French Revolution, who judged and convicted the Dauphine. Dogged by false rumours throughout her reign, public opinion had turned against her in no time. Her trial, although necessary, was simply a mockery of justice. Marie’s guilt had been decided long before her conviction. The charges brought against Marie included:
- incest against her son
- treason against the country
- theft of the crown jewels
- delivering the illegitimate child of a Swedish count.
None of these accusations were true. Marie sat in stoney silence during her trial until a juror asked why she wasn’t responding to the incest charge. Marie Antoinette simply answered “it is because nature refuses to answer such a charge brought against a mother.” The prosecutor didn’t pursue the matter further. Convicted of treason, Marie was sent to the guillotine. Fortunately, the guillotine was a humane means of beheading, so far as decapitation is concerned. It is the anguish before the execution that causes the most suffering. Well, it is what it is. No sense in losing one’s head over it.
Here’s another couple of gems I came across, and it too is about lucid decapitation, with a twist. Two little boys in two separate incidents were internally decapitated (atlanto-occipital dislocation, or internal decapitation), and survived.
Micah Andrews – Internal Decapitation
Internal decapitation has got to be the most captivating form of decapitation. Imagine your head being completely severed from your body internally, yet somehow remaining alive? After a severe car accident, doctors informed Micah Andrew’s parents that the impact had jolted his head sideways so forcefully that his skull separated from his spine. They needed to operate to re-attach his head to his spine. Atlanto-occipital dislocation, or orthopedic or internal decapitation, is treated by surgically implanting a titanium loop to reattach the base of the skull to the spine. A piece of the patient’s rib held the rod in place. During the surgery, the little boy’s head was kept perfectly still with sandbags on either side of his head, and he was taped down very precisely, so that he wouldn’t move. Within two months, Micah was able to go home. Soon after he learned to walk and talk again, although for some time he had difficulty with his balance.
- In August 2009, 18-year-old Amanda Kapp suffered internal decapitation, as well as numerous other injuries resulting from a serious car accident.
- A 14-year-old boy from Phoenix, Arizona, suffered an internal decapitation after a car hit him while he was riding his bike. After a full recovery, he was featured on I Came Away Alive for the National Geographic channel. He was later dubbed the Valley Miracle Boy.
- On December 19, 2010, a 20-year-old woman, Amber McKinney, was in an accident with her boyfriend and survived the internal decapitation. Along with the internal decapitation, she had a brain injury. She recovered within 2 months.
Truly the survival of people who experienced internal decapitation is due to doctors with incredible skill, and the impressive evolution of medical technology. Don’t know if titanium loops and sandbags would have saved Marie Antoinette or Anne Boleyn whose decapitations were not of the internal variety, but the idea might have been something to wrap one’s head around. Naturally they would have to have been forewarned about the unlikely odds…that is, they needed to be given the head’s up.
My selection of celebrities who won’t shut up even after their heads are severed (externally):
- Number One without question – Joan Rivers
- Kanye West
- General David Patraeus
- Sarah Palin
- Rick Perry
- Kathie Lee Gifford
- Michele Bachmann
- Howard Stern
- Kim Kardashian
- wendy williams
- Charlie Sheen
- Chris Brown
- Bernard Madoff
- Barbara Walters
- Donald Trump
- johnny rotten
- any new, young athletic coach
- your mother-in-law
And you thought migraines were bad.
Closing thoughts: A little boy is born headless. He spends the first few years of his life as a head then one night, he sees a shooting star and wishes for a body. The next morning he wakes up and lo and behold! His head is attached to a new body. Right away the little boy jumps up and runs outside, only to be hit by a car and killed. Moral: Quit while you’re a head.