The first recorded US execution dates back to 1608 in Jamestown, Virginia. But Europe has employed the death penalty for hundreds of years prior. Throughout history, methods of execution have varied and include hanging, the lethal injection, the electric chair, impalement, stoning, being strung and quartered, burning at the stake, medieval crushing, boiling, sawing, a torture wheel, and even crucifixion. There are also plenty of theories and myths surrounding one of the most gruesome forms of execution: decapitation.
Since people do not usually survive this method of death, it's impossible to know for sure what effects beheading may have. However, science can help explain what happens to one's body when the head is removed. Some animals can survive long enough for scientists to study them - like the chicken that lived for 18 months without a head. And certain species of worms can regrow their heads after they've been decapitated. This list illustrates lesser-known facts about one of history's oldest methods of execution.
Decapitation Hurts - But Only For A Few Seconds
Decapitation is the act of removing a head. While some maintain this method is swift and painless, other reports indicate that beheading may not be humane. This violent form of execution severs the head at the neck, which may afford a quick death - with pain lasting for approximately two to seven seconds. Scientists propose it takes that long for the person's blood pressure to drop, allowing the brain to use the remaining oxygen in the blood. This will diminish the pain effect.
However, if not done correctly, the result could be pain lasting longer than seven seconds. Scientists conducted experiments on rats, concluding that the animals died about 17 seconds after decapitation - but lost consciousness at 3.7 seconds.
Heads Can Naturally Twitch After Decapitation
There are stories about severed heads blinking and biting post-decapitation. Modern medical authorities say such accounts - when they're not urban myths or tall tales - are actually due to reflexive twitching instead of deliberate movement. One widely distributed account of supposed consciousness following a beheading comes from Dr. Gabriel Beaurieux, a French physician. In 1905, Dr. Beaurieux claimed the severed head of a man responded to the sound of his own name by opening his eyelids "without any spasmodic contraction."
However, there are several reasons to doubt this account, according to modern physicians, who have since determined that consciousness is lost within 2 to 3 seconds of decapitation.
Internal Decapitation Can Occur
Decapitation may conjure images of bloodless heads in baskets, but that's not always the case. There is such a thing as internal decapitation, which happens when the skull is severed from the spinal column but the head is still attached to the body. This most commonly happens when someone is hanged, but it can also happen in high-impact accidents.
In 2012, 23-year-old Rachel Bailey from Phoenix suffered internal decapitation when a car accident left her skull severed from the spine. She survived. In 2016, 4-year-old Killian from Idaho also survived internal decapitation after a car wreck.
Head Transplants Could Actually Happen - But Might Be 'Worse Than Death'
In 2015, Valery Spiridonov from Russia volunteered to be the first person ever to have his head installed on another person's body. Spiridonov is 30-years-old and chronically-ill. The procedure - which is projected to take 36 hours and 150 doctors and nurses - technically isn't possible yet, but doctors have a volunteer when and if the time comes. One journalist maintained the patient could sustain a fate "worse than death" because experts have no clear idea of the effects this traumatic procedure could have on the patient's mind.
It's theorized that the transplant could actually result in "a hitherto never experienced level and quality of insanity." This controversial technique is being developed by Italian scientist Sergio Canavero and Chinese surgeon Xiaoping Ren, who have conducted trials on cadavers. While the medical community has considered the idea of transplanting heads as something out of Frankenstein, the experimental doctors aspire to help paralyzed individuals.