Do You Really Stay Conscious After Being Decapitated?

A History of Head Loss

Queen Anne Boleyn
Queen Anne Boleyn was one of the rare executed whose head was taken in a single blow.
Hulton Archives/Getty Images

Cutting the head from the body has long been used as a means of execution, whether extrajudicial or state-sanctioned. For example, in the Biblical Apocrypha, a widow named Judith famously cuts off the head of an Assyrian general named Holofernes, who had been laying siege to her town [source: Vatican]. Civilizations throughout history have used beheadings as a means of punishment. The Romans considered it a more honorable means of execution and decidedly less painful than crucifixion, which it used to execute non-citizens [source: Clark]. In Medieval Europe, beheading was used by the ruling class to dispatch nobles and peasants alike. Eventually, most of the world abandoned beheading as a form of capital punishment, viewing it as barbaric and inhumane. That said, judicial beheading is legal today in the Middle Eastern states of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Iran [source: Weinberg].

The factors that have always made beheading so brutal are the tools used in beheadings and the people who use those tools. The axe and the sword have always been the favored implements of beheading, but they can go blunt and are subject to the physical force exerted by the executioner. While in some cultures, like Saudi Arabia, executioners are highly trained in their jobs, some historical cultures allowed unskilled workers to act as headsmen, or executioners who performed beheadings. The result was that it often took a number of blows to the neck and spine to sever the head from the body, meaning a painful and torturous death.

The guillotine was introduced in the late 18th century as a humane alternative to beheading. Contrary to popular belief, the instrument doesn't get its name from its inventor; in actuality, surgeon Antoine Louis invented the guillotine. The machine's namesake, Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, was a physician who called for a humane means of dispatching the convicted and championed the device that now bears his name. With the invention of the guillotine, executions could be carried out more efficiently and post-Revolutionary France officially adopted the contraption in 1792. This major increase in efficiency led to the Reign of Terror in France, in which more than 30,000 people suffered the guillotine in one year alone [source: McCannon]. France used the guillotine for state-sanctioned executions until it removed the last head in 1977.

The guillotine developed a dreaded reputation in France. The author Victor Hugo wrote, "One can have a certain indifference on the death penalty as long as one has not seen a guillotine with one's own eyes" [source: Davies]. But almost from the beginning of its use, many sensed the guillotine worked almost too precisely.