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 and media, methods of execution have varied. But there are plenty of theories and myths surrounding one of the most gruesome forms of execution: decapitation.
Since people do not usually survive this method, 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. This list illustrates lesser-known facts about one of history's oldest methods of execution.
It Hurts - But Only For A Few Seconds
While some maintain removing someone's head is swift and painless, other reports indicate that it may not be humane. Severing a head at the neck can create 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 perished about 17 seconds after losing their heads - but lost consciousness at 3.7 seconds.
Heads Can Naturally Twitch Afterwards
There are stories about severed heads blinking and biting after their removal. 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 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 losing one's head.
Internal Decapitation Can Occur
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.
Removing A Head Wasn't Always Quick
Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin invented the guillotine in 1789. He argued that, unlike messy sword or axe executions prone to painful mishaps, his device would deliver a clean and humane decapitation. Reportedly, Dr. Guillotin opposed capital punishment and strived to create a more effective method.
Even modern-day methods like lethal injections can sometimes fail, and the device was designed to lessen the pain of the execution. Before the guillotine was invented, using a sword or axe often meant multiple strokes were required to behead someone. Mary, Queen of Scots, for example, required three strokes when she was executed in 1587.
In 1541, an amateur executioner beheaded Margaret Pole, the Eighth Countess of Salisbury, in a drawn-out process that required 11 blows. In 1886, Pope Leo XIII blessed Pole, in part due to her unusually grisly end.