The History of beheading and decapitation

by on Sep.11, 2012, under Syndicated from the Web

Reposted from Gothic Tea Society | Go to Original Post


The History of beheading.
Beheading with a sword or axe goes back a very long way in history, because like hanging, it was a cheap and practical method of execution in early times when a sword or an axe was always readily available.
The Greeks and the Romans considered beheading a less dishonorable (and less painful) form of execution than other methods in use at the time. The
Roman Empire used beheading for its own citizens whilst crucifying others.
Beheading was widely used in
Europe and Asia until the 20th century, but now is confined to Saudi Arabia, and Iran. One man was reportedly beheaded in Iran in 2003 – the first for many years. It remains a lawful method in Qatar and Yemen, although no executions by this method have been reported.
Beheading was used in
Britain up to 1747 (see below) and was the standard method in Norway (abolished 1905), Sweden (up to 1903) and Denmark (last in 1892) and was used for some classes of prisoners in France (up until the introduction of the guillotine in 1792) and in Germany up to 1938. China also used it widely, until the communists came to power and replaced it with shooting in the 20th century. Japan too used beheading up to the end of the 19th century prior to turning to hanging.
Equipment for beheading.

There were two distinct forms of beheading – by the sword and by the axe. Where a person was to be decapitated with a sword, a block is not used and they are generally made to kneel down although they could, if short, be executed standing up, or even sitting in a chair. A typical European execution sword was 36-48 inches (900-1200 mm) long and 2 to 2-1/2 inches (50-65mm) wide with the handle being long enough for the executioner to use both hands to give maximum leverage. It weighed around 4 lbs. (2 Kg.)
Where an axe was the chosen implement, a wooden block, often shaped to accept the neck, was required. Two patterns of block were used, the high block, 18-24 inches (450-600 mm) high, where the prisoner knelt behind it and lent forward so that their neck rested on the top or lay on a low bench with their neck over the block. The neck on a high block presented an easier target due to the head pointing slightly downwards, thus bringing the neck into prominence. It also meant that the axe was at a better angle at that point in the arc of the stroke to meet the neck full on.
The high block was favored in later times in
Britain and was standard in Germany up to the 1930’s.
Some countries used a low block where the person lies full length and puts there neck over the small wooden block which is just a few inches high. This arrangement was used in
Sweden. The low block presented the executioner with certain difficulties. The arc prescribed by the axe as he brought it down meant that the blade was at quite an angle to the prisoner’s neck making it more difficult to sever the head with a single blow. Two patterns of axe were also used – the pattern used in Britain, which was developed from the traditional woodsman’s axe, has a blade about one foot 8 inches (500 mm) high by 10 inches (250 mm) wide with a 5 foot (1525 mm) long handle. In Germany, the axe was like a larger version of a butcher’s cleaver, again the handle was long enough for the headsman to use both hands.


Beheading in Britain.

Britain, beheading was used in Anglo Saxon times as a punishment for certain types of serious theft. It was re-introduced during the reign of William the Conqueror for the execution of Waltheof, Earl of Northumberland on the 31st of May 1076 on St. Giles Hill, near Winchester. Waltheof had been convicted of treason for taking part in the Revolt of the Earls against the King and was beheaded with a sword.
Beheading was confined to those of noble birth who were convicted of treason and was an alternative to the normal punishments for this crime. Men convicted of High Treason were condemned to hanged drawn and quartered and women to be burned at the stake. In the case of the nobility the monarch could vary these punishments to death by beheading. Beheading was both far less painful and considered far less dishonorable than the normal methods. Several members of Royalty were beheaded, including Charles 1st, Anne Boleyn, Mary Queen of Scots and Lady Jane Grey. Many other Earls, Lords and Knights, including Sir Walter Raleigh. Even some Bishops were beheaded.
The majority of English beheadings took place at the
Tower of London. Seven were carried out in private within the grounds, of which 5 were of women and just over 100 on Tower Hill outside the walls of the Tower, where there stood a permanent scaffold from 1485. Only a very small number of beheadings were carried out elsewhere, as the Tower was the principal prison for traitors of high birth. It should be noted that treason often meant displeasing the monarch, rather than in any way betraying the country.
The spot indicated as “The site of the scaffold” on Tower Green which visitors can see today was not used for all of the 7 private beheadings although the plaque implies this.
Those beheaded in private on Tower Green were Lord Hastings in 1483, Anne Boleyn on the 19th of May 1536, Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury on the 28th of May 1541, Catherine Howard and her Lady in Waiting, Jane, Viscountess Rochford on the 13th of February 1542, Lady Jane Grey on the 15th of February 1554 and Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex on the 25th of February 1601.
At various times both the low block and the high block have been used. The axe was the normal implement of execution in
Britain, although Anne Boleyn was beheaded with a sword (see below).
A replica of the scaffold used for the 1601 execution of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex has been constructed for exhibition in the Tower. The original was set up in the middle of the Parade Ground and was made of oak, some 4 feet high and having a 9 feet square platform (1.2 m high x 2.75 m square) with a waist high rail round it. The prisoner mounted it by a short flight of stairs and was not restrained throughout the execution as it was expected that people of noble birth would know how to behave at their executions! Devereux lay full length on the platform and placed his neck on the low block with his arms outstretched. It is recorded that three strokes of the axe were required to decapitate him. Straw was spread on the scaffold to absorb the blood.
The last female execution by beheading was that of 67 year old Lady Alice Lisle who was beheaded for treason at Winchester on the 2nd of September having been convicted of sheltering two traitors.
Beheading in public on Tower Hill was used when the government of the day wished to make an example of the traitor (or traitors). Double beheadings were rare, although not unknown, and were carried out in order of precedence of the victims, as occurred with the Jacobite Earls,
Kilmarnock and Balmerino, executed in 1746 for treason after the battle of Culloden.
Simon Lord Lovatt became the last person to be beheaded on Tower Hill when he was executed for treason on
April the 9th, 1747. The high block used for Lord Lovatt together with the axe were on display in the Tower. (see photo). It was normal for the executioner to pick up the severed head and display to the crowd proclaiming, “Behold the head of a traitor!”
The cause of death.

Beheading is as “humane” as any modern method of execution if carried out correctly and a single blow is sufficient to decapitate the prisoner. Consciousness is probably lost within 2-3 seconds, due to a rapid fall of the “intracranial perfusion of blood” (blood supply to the brain). The person dies from shock and anoxia due to hemorrhage and loss of blood pressure within less than 60 seconds. However, because the muscles and vertebrae of the neck are tough, decapitation may require more than one blow. Death occurs due to separation of the brain and spinal cord, after the transection (cutting through) of the surrounding tissues, together with massive hemorrhage.
It has often been reported that the eyes and mouths of the decapitated have shown signs of movement. It has been calculated that the human brain has enough oxygen stored for metabolism to persist for about 7 seconds after the head is cut off.

The problem with beheading.

Beheading requires a skilled headsman if it is to be at all “humane” and not infrequently, several blows were required to sever the head. It took three blows to remove Mary Queen of Scot’s head at Fotheringhay Castle in 1587. In Britain, beheadings were carried out by the “common hangman” and were relatively rare so he had very little practice or experience, which often led to unfortunate consequences.
Saudi executioners pride themselves on their skill and efficiency with the scimitar.
The prisoner is usually blindfolded so that they do not see the sword or axe coming and move at the crucial moment. Again, this is why in both beheading and guillotining it was not unusual for an assistant to hold the prisoner’s hair to prevent them moving.
In any event, the results are gory in the extreme as blood spurts from the severed arteries and veins of the neck including the aorta and the jugular vein.
All the European countries that previously used beheading have now totally abolished the death penalty.

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