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  • Surviving Decapitation January 31, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback

    Beachcombing was traumatised in early childhood by seeing his father execute several hens on a Pennine farm. Even now he smells the metallic tang of their blood and sees the mess of heads and bodies and the feathers sticking everywhere. (Honestly, Mrs B won’t even let the younger Beachcombings watch SOS Nanny, what was Beachcombing Pater thinking?) It was, in any case, this incident that gave Beachcombing a life-long fascination with the fate of victims of decapitation. Of interest is not the useless bodies flapping around but the question of what is going on inside the head of the victim.

    Let Beachcombing elucidate. You’ve daubed some graffiti on Robespierre’s door or burnt down the Reichstag. You are quickly sentenced and out you walk ‘one fine morning’ to the place of justice.But what happens when the guillotine blade or the Prussian axe comes down on your neck? Does consciousness cease immediately? When the executioner picks up your head to show it to the crowd do you actually see the rabble jeering?

    Beachcombing worries about his fascination but he suspects that it is widespread and will watch the wordpress stats with interest.

    He has to date found only one clue that life continues, in Luca della Robbia’s description of the death of Pietro Paolo Boscoli in August 1512  in Florence. Luca had stayed with Pietro in the prisoner’s last hours to console him: in fact, the whole description is a melancholy meditation on death within life. But Beachcombing has no time for sobbing today – his first term papers are in. He can hardly pass over though this final extraordinary detail.

    *Before [Pietro] was placed at the block, just in front of it, bolt upright, he spoke in this way. ‘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.

    Thankfully Pietro’s head was cleanly severed but those lips kept speaking,  intent on his final redeeming prayer, not aware perhaps that the executioner had struck so soon. There must be other references like this out there and Beachcombing would love to gather some together and put them up for general edification – drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    He should also point to a recent article that might give us clues in this regard and for which he owes his reader, JKM, a debt of gratitude. Clementina van Rijn et alii from Nijmegen have written a paper with the winning title of ‘Decapitation in Rats: Latency to Unconsciousness and the ‘Wave of Death’! The good Dutch scientists decapitated anaethetised and ‘awake’ rats – no comment – and found that activity in the brain ceased after about four seconds. In those four seconds, therefore, the senses continued to function? Interestingly they found too that a slow wave was detected in EEG after about fifty seconds in ‘awake’ rats and about eighty second in anesethetised rats. This, they suspect, corresponded to brain death. Whether or not the senses were still working at this point is doubtful: Beachcombing believes that the sense of touch is the last to go? But does this mean that the decapitated head might still have been ‘thinking’ a minute after it rolled off the block?

    Now as well as his father’s chickens Beachcombing has got Clementina’s ‘obsolete rats’ to worry about… Thanks JKM!

    PS He didn’t have much fun looking for images for this post either.


    24 Feb 2010: The answers to this post got shuffled forward to another decapitation post. However, Stan from TYWKIWDBI put Beachcombing onto this fabulous consciousness article. Thanks Stan!

    7 Oct 2016: John points out that Mary Queen of Scots was supposed to have continued praying after her head had been removed.