Weird History
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These Creepy Photos Of Fake Beheadings Were The Biggest Meme Of The 1920s

Updated October 13, 2018 8.8k views6 items

Apparently the 1920s wasn't just the decade of flappers and economic turbulence – it was also the age of fake beheadings. Just like today's most eccentric Internet memes, images of people appearing to have been beheaded took the world by storm. Everyone wanted an opportunity to take a swing at the headless challenge, revealing a bit of their morbid sense of humor in the process.

This rather macabre trend – also known as horsemaning – has roots that reach even further back in history. It potentially dates to the mid-1800s, when people were only beginning to figure out unique ways of manipulating the images created through the recently invented camera.

Don't worry, no one actually lost their heads during the creation of these photographs (hopefully). They were just a creative illusion meant to get a rise out of unsuspecting viewers, much like the images that filter across screens on social media today. The real question is, how exactly did they do it?

  • The Photo Fad Was Known As Horsemaning

    The Photo Fad Was Known As Horsemaning
    Photo: Sociolatte / via YouTube

    Taking headless photos of oneself and sharing them with neighbors may not be something that you'd initially associate with the 1920s. But it was essentially the mannequin challenge of the pre-Depression era, and people were all about it. 

    These momentarily disturbing photographs of headless individuals were the result of an activity known as horsemaning, a label inspired by the chilling figure who haunts the pages of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. In essence, the concept is simple: one person acts as if their head has fallen off while the other, you guessed it, becomes the head. One explanation paints the scene as involving an individual "laying on one’s back on a flat surface with [their] head hidden over the edge while another person hides behind the same object, only leaving the head exposed in the picture."

    As a relatively simple concept with an initially terrifying outcome (at least by 1920s standards), horsemaning became something of a family affair. All you needed was a camera and a few willing participants. 

  • The Trend May Have Been Inspired By The Victorians

    The Trend May Have Been Inspired By The Victorians
    Photo: Samuel Kay Balbirnie / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Horsemaning goes back much further than the '20s. In fact, some of the earliest photos of beheadings that weren't actually beheadings come out of the Victorian era in Great Britain. These, however, employed more sleight of hand than visual illusion. 

    In these images, referred to as headless portraits, individuals are seen holding or otherwise displaying their own heads as opposed to using their friend's head as a prop. The way they accomplished this was rather creative for the day and, in many ways, was the original use of Photoshop. Basically, the images were created by layering the negatives of two or more photographs and exposing them so as to bring out the head in one place and eliminate it in another. The resulting image was then a macabre illusion of the person's apparent beheading.

  • Horsemaning Enjoyed A Resurgence In 2011

    Horsemaning may have been lost to time if it weren't for the meme-worthy fad's sudden re-appearance in 2011, when people around the world began resurrecting it. In fact, the activity became so widespread that it landed on the list of the top ten Facebook sensations of 2011. It even gave rise to the likes of "planking" (which involves laying face down in the dirt like you're dead) and even "owling" (which involves perching yourself on objects and rooftops as if you were, yes, an owl).

  • A Portrait Of William Henry Wheeler Holding His Own Head On A Stake – 1875

    A Portrait Of William Henry Wheeler Holding His Own Head On A Stake – 1875
    Photo: William Henry Wheeler / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain