A Brief History of Judicial Beheadings
Published on November 16, 2013 by lahilden | Views: 3390

Decapitation is the separation of the head from the body.  Beheading refers to the act in which the decapitation is carried out for execution.  Beheading as a form of punishment has been around for centuries. This form of punishment was performed by axe, sword, knife, or a wire.  The Romans considered beheading a more humane and honorable way to die when compared to crucifixion, thus they only beheaded their own citizens and crucified the others.

The axe and sword were the favored tools used for beheading, but they tended to become dull and could only strike as hard and accurately as the headsman wielding it.  This meant that it often took a number of blows to the neck to sever the head from the body.  If a person was beheaded by sword, there was usually no block to lay the head upon and the victim kneeled as the sword struck.  A typical execution sword was 36-48 inches long and 2-2.5 inches wide, with a handle long enough for both of the executioner’s hands.  The axe, which was used more often, needed a wooden block where the person would place their head, these blocks were often shaped to fit the neck.

In England, beheading was used as a form of punishment for serious crimes since Anglo-Saxon times.  Beheading was considered an honorable way to die for an aristocrat, when compared to hanging, being burned at the stake, or drawn and quartered.  Nevertheless, beheadings weren’t a regular occurrence, and an inexperienced headsman and a blunt axe could make dying torturous.  The courageous Countess of Salisbury was struck eleven times, once in the shoulder, during a private Tower Green execution of 150 spectators, before she passed.  The 2nd Earl of Essex and Mary, Queen of Scots, required three blows to see the deed completed.

This brings us to the invention of the guillotine in the late 18th century, for this device was seen as a more humane alternative.  Although other similar beheading devices did exist at the time, none of them were adopted on such a large scale as the guillotine with its diagonal blade.  The guillotine carried out executions far more efficiently and post-Revolutionary France adopted the contraption in 1792.  This unfortunately led to the Reign of Terror in France, where more than 30,000 people met the guillotine in a single year.  France used the guillotine for state-sanctioned executions until 1977.

Guillotine Facts:

Total weight of guillotine is about 1278 lbs.

The guillotine’s metal blade weighs about 88.2 lbs.

The height of the guillotine posts average about 14 ft.

The falling blade has a rate of speed of about 21 feet per second.

The beheading takes place in 2/100 of a second.

The time the blade falls and then stops takes a 70th of a second.

There were certain traditions followed in an English beheading.  A raised platform was built and covered with straw.  A minister would offer comfort and prayer for the victim.  The victim was then expected to forgive the executioner and speak to the crowd if they wished.  The victim was encouraged to gift the executioner with a gold coin to ensure the job was done with care.  The headsman usually wore a black suit and a half mask covering his face.  The victim is usually blindfolded so they do not see the weapon coming and possibly move at a crucial moment.  The results are horrific, and as you can imagine, blood spurts from the severed arteries.  After, the severed head was held up by the hair to the crowd in an effort to teach a lesson.  Death by beheading is immediate, but stored oxygen in the brain takes about eight seconds to disperse before death occurs, which is due to the separation of the brain and spinal cord, this is why some people report seeing the eyes and mouth move on a severed head.  The heads of traitors were then displayed on top of spikes on London Bridge.  The Tower of London saw many executions but severity of punishment depended upon the crime committed.  Most executions were held in public on Tower Hill, but some executions were conducted behind the walls of the Tower at Tower Green.  These private executions were considered politically charged or the victims were female, thus certain beheadings were believed to be too sensitive for the often-riotous public.  Double hangings were rare, but they did occur during the Jacobite Rebellion.  Beheading was outlawed in England in 1747.

Over time, many began to see beheading as cruel and barbaric, in turn leading most of the world to banish it as a form of punishment.  Nevertheless, beheading is still legal in Saudi Arabia and various Middle Eastern Countries.  Saudi Arabia conducts public beheading’s for many crimes, including murder, rape, drug trafficking, sodomy, armed robbery, and others.

Some famous beheadings in the American Colonies and Great Britain:  This list could begin in Roman times and unfortunately it would end in current times.

American Colonies (Utah Territory allowed beheading as a means of execution as an option, but no one chose that option and beheadings were no longer permitted when Utah became a state.)

1586- Roanoke Indian Chief Wingina was beheaded by English settlers.
1676- New England Indian Chief Metacomet “King Philip” was killed in battle, posthumously beheaded and quartered, for resisting white settlement.  His head was displayed on a pole for 25 years in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
1718- Famous pirate Blackbeard was beheaded posthumously after his capture at Ocracoke Island off North Carolina.

Great Britain (Executions in England were implemented according to birth and execution of the lower classes was usually achieved by hanging from the gallows.)

1536- Anne Boleyn, Queen of England was beheaded by sword for treason.
1541- Catherine Howard, Queen of England was beheaded for treason.
1567- Mary, Queen of Scots was beheaded for treason.
1716- Viscount Kenmure was beheaded at Tower Hill as a Jacobite Rebel.
1746- 6th Lord Balmerinoch was beheaded at Tower Hill as a Jacobite Rebel.
1817- Jeremiah Brandreth was beheaded in Derby for treason.  He was the last person in Britain to be beheaded, but since beheading was outlawed at this time, he was hanged and then posthumously beheaded.

For a full list of executions at the tower of London; http://www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/tower.html


A special thank you to capitalpunishmentuk.org and The History of the Guillotine by Dr. Jospeh Ignace Guillotin.