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Lavoisier Blinks February 6, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

Today a continuation of the decapitation series with the life and unusual death of Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier (1794). Lavoisier was a dreamy French chemist responsible, in part, for the metric system and a few other crimes against humanity (‘hydrogen’, the elementary table…). The facts of Lavoisier’s death are, meanwhile, suitably enough, a mix of brutal fact and legend sympathique.

Let’s start with the facts. Lavoisier was condemned to death by a people’s court in 1794 – a typical example of the revolution’s Saturn-like eating of its own children. When mercy was asked for so that he could continue his experiments the judge responded with the words ‘La révolution n’à pas besoin de savants’, ‘the revolution doesn’t need scholars’, forgetting for a moment that the revolution was a direct result of scholars: echoes of Pol Pot shooting people with glasses.

As it happened Lavoisier would be pardoned a little more than a year after his death – this is fact too. But facts are hard to come by at the guillotining…

It is said by numerous authorities that Lavoisier, in his last service to science, agreed to blink for as long as he could after the blade came down and that blink he did, for as many as thirty seconds, depending on the source.

Beachcombing loves the image of a couple of earnest French savants (the kind that mother liberté had for elevenses) lifting the head and counting the blinks as the grinning executioner stepped over them to get at the next prisoner.

But is this story true? The most serious biographers are uncertain about the judge’s comment, quoted above. And they are downright hostile to the idea of Lavoisier’s blinking his way into eternity: though Beachcombing hopes that some reader might be able to make a case – drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com.

So where does the story come from? Quite simply human curiosity about the fate of the head when the blade has separated it from the body and a desperate attempt to add some romance to the industrialisation of killing with the guillotine. Certainly, there are a lot of good stories about. Beachcombing got some fascinating responses to his recent question about proof for continued consciousness after decapitation. Most were unsourced and if anyone can fill in the gaps he would most grateful.

Invisible offered: Charlotte Corday, whose head blushed and looked indignant when slapped (Beachcombing has chased down several non-contemporary references); Mary Queen of Scots, lips moving for 15 minutes; and Sir Everard Digby, whose head supposedly spoke to refute that he was a traitor!

RR offered the following story (Beachcombing’s favourite because it turns from the head to the body): ‘I recall reading about a man in Britain or France who was beheaded, but made a request of the executioner to pardon his half-dozen comrades if he could run past them as they stood in a row.  After losing his head.  I recall he did this.’ RR also mentions ‘the celebrated chicken who was beheaded for dinner, but lived for years after losing his head.  Went on tour and was exhibited.  Fed thru the top of his neck with an eyedropper.’ Beachcombing is lost for words…

Ostrich, meanwhile, gave a link to Mike Dash’s examination of Antoine Joseph Wiertz’s hypnotic experiments with a decapitated head that has several other references and considerations. There have also, Beachcombing learns, been literary reflexes: including C.S. Lewis in That Hideous Strength (RR), an unnamed Aleister Crowley short story (AG, probably The Testament of Magdalen Blair) and an attractive Japanese story from CF.

Beachcombing will, if he can get his nerve up, be visiting the decapitated head experiments of Dr Beaurieux in the not so distant future.

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15 May 2013: PJ writes: My favorite beheading story actually involved the “humanitarian” guillotine rather than the chopping block. (You may be familiar with this tale, as it’s rather famous.) Many reports from the French Revolution speak of the heads of guillotine victims remaining animated for several minutes after tumbling off the neck and into the basket. By far the most vivid of these stories, for me, is that of Charlotte Corday, the woman who stabbed the revolutionary, Marat, to death while he was taking a bath, memorialized most famously by Jacques-Louis David: http://bit.ly/12WPSGI. When her head tumbled into the basket, witnesses reported, it was snatched out by the executioner’s assistant who held it up by the hair and slapped Charlotte’s cheek. It’s said her eyes looked his way and her disembodied head wore an expression of indignation. Some even say her lips moved as if she tried to speak. Sources for this story listed at Wikipedia: [La Révolution française vue par son bourreau : Journal de Charles-Henri Sanson, Documents (in French), Monique Lebailly, preface, Le Cherche Midi, 2007, p. 65, ISBN 978-2-7491-0930-5; idem, Griffures, Paris: Éditions de l'Instant, 1988, ISBN 978-2-86929-128-7] and [Mignet, François (1824), History of the French Revolution from 1789 to 1814.]  Whether this is apocryphal, who can say? It’s widely repeated, at any rate, and a hell of a good story. For more fascinating “Life After Beheading” stories (including a skeptical shoot down of such): http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/human-brain/10-brain-myths6.htm Thanks PJ!

21 June 2013: Open Sesame, an old friend of the blog, has been reading The Faithful Executioner by Harrington (2013) and came across this reference from the executioner’s diary. The executioner has decapitated Georg Praun ‘when his head turned several times [on the stone] as if he wanted to look about it, the tongue moved and the mouth opened as if he wanted to speak, for a good quarter of an hour. I have never seen the likes of this.’ The best evidence yet? Thanks OS!

23 Nov 2013: Ben Vokes sends in this extraordinary video. Compelling and creepy!