For thousands of years, the forceful removal of the human head has been used as a form of capital punishment. In fact, the word “capital” in the context of punishment was coined to describe execution by decapitation, derived from the Latin word caput, which means “head.” Since the very beginnings of the practice, there has been much speculation and debate regarding the length of time that the head can remain conscious after its removal. Many argue that a beheaded person will almost instantly lose consciousness due to a massive drop in blood pressure in the brain, and/or the heavy impact of the decapitation device. But there are countless eyewitness reports in history describing a few moments of apparent awareness in the victim.
Beheading has been discontinued as a form of execution in much of the world due to the suspicion that a severed head remains conscious and able to experience pain, so there have been no recent scientific observations of human decapitation. However studies of decapitated animals has lent some credibility to the massive number of stories regarding a head’s brief consciousness after being separated from the body. Under certain circumstances, it is very possible that a head so removed may remain lucid long enough to know its fate.
In many cases, the anecdotal evidence describes blinking eyes, wandering gaze, and moving lips on a freshly amputated head. As grotesque and troubling as these movements may be to the witnesses, such muscular spasms are not surprising under the circumstances. It is not uncommon for any separated limb to twitch briefly due to reflex nerve action. More difficult to attribute to nerve reflexes are the stories of specific facial expressions sometimes seen on the faces of the beheaded as they died. Some were said to change expressions several times in the last few moments, ranging from pain and confusion to grief and fear.
In the heyday of the guillotine during the French Revolution, it is said that many of the condemned were asked to blink for as long as possible after decapitation. While many reportedly did not blink at all, some complied for as long as thirty seconds. Still other observations describe much more specific reactions to stimuli following beheading. Consider the case of Languille, a convicted murderer who was guillotined in France. He was observed by Dr. Beaurieux during his execution at 5:30am on June 28th, 1905. As written in Archives d’Anthropologie Criminelle, here are the doctor’s observations:
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 … 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 … Next Languille’s eyes very definitely fixed themselves on mine and the pupils focused themselves … 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.
I have just recounted to you with rigorous exactness what I was able to observe. The whole thing had lasted twenty-five to thirty seconds.
In the book Crucibles: The Story of Chemistry, a story is related where the unnamed servant of chemist Antoine Lavoisier was beheaded by guillotine. According to the writer, Lavoisier immediately picked up the head and asked the servant to blink if he understood. Reportedly, the man blinked. There is also an oft-repeated anecdote involving Antoine Lavoisier’s own later experience on the guillotine in 1794. The story is dubious considering that it does not appear in any of his biographies, but reportedly he told his assistant that he would blink for as long as he was able after execution, and successfully did so for fifteen to twenty seconds.
One oft-retold anecdote regarding apparent post-decapitation awareness is the tale of Charlotte Corday. Corday was an anti-radical French Revolutionary who, in 1793, was caught red-handed in the stabbing assassination of her radical political rival Jean-Paul Marat. When she was executed by guillotine several days later, a carpenter named Legros immediately hefted her severed head from the catching basket and slapped it across the face. Onlookers insisted that Corday’s disembodied head blushed and displayed an expression of “unequivocal indignation” in response to this insult.
A more recent account tells of an accidental decapitation in an automobile. In 1989, a U.S. Army veteran who served in the Korean war was riding in a taxi with a friend when it collided with a truck. The witness was pinned to his seat, and the friend was decapitated by the collision:
My friend’s head came to rest face up, and (from my angle) upside-down. As I watched, his mouth opened and closed no less than two times. The facial expressions he displayed were first of shock or confusion, followed by terror or grief. I cannot exaggerate and say that he was looking all around, but he did display ocular movement in that his eyes moved from me, to his body, and back to me. He had direct eye contact with me when his eyes took on a hazy, absent expression . . . and he was dead.
Not all attempts to observe consciousness in decapitated heads have been successful. In 1836, a murderer named Lacenaire agreed to wink after execution, but he did not do so. Another murderer named Prunier in 1879 also failed to respond to stimuli. It is likely that most individuals will lose consciousness immediately upon decapitation due to sudden loss of blood pressure to the brain, but a few heads might separate from their bodies in such a way that they experience a few horrifying moments of lucidity after the fact. Even among those who have a chance to realize their fate, most are probably too disoriented and/or distracted by pain and grief to trouble themselves with such trivial tasks as winking for the crowd.
Can it be concluded that a separated head is capable of consciousness and awareness following the event? Not with any certainty. Further scientific observation of human decapitation is highly unlikely, so it is a question that may remain unanswered indefinitely. But there is much evidence to indicate that for some, death is not instantaneous, which probably offers a truly surreal experience for those few, brief moments. It goes without saying that there are no first-hand accounts to shed further light on the subject.