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Saint Paul's beheading.Painting by Enrique Simonet in 1887
Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Beheading Holofernes; oil on canvas, Florence 1620.
The head of Orpheus, from a painting by Gustave Moreau.

Decapitation (from Latin, caput, capita, meaning head) is the separation of the head of an animal from its body. Beheading typically refers to the act of intentional decapitation, e.g., as a means of murder or execution; it may be accomplished, for example, with an axe, sword, knife, wire, or by means of a guillotine. An executioner carrying out decapitations is called a headsman.

Accidental decapitation can be the result of an explosion, car or industrial accident,[1] improperly-administered execution by hanging or other violent injury. Suicide by decapitation is rare, but not unknown.[2]

The word decapitation can also refer, on occasion, to the removal of the head from a body that is already dead. This might be done to take the head as a trophy, for public display, to make the deceased more difficult to identify, for cryonics or for other reasons.

In an analogous fashion, decapitation can also refer to the removal of a head of an organization. If, for example, the leader of a country were killed, that might be referred to as 'decapitation'. It is also used of a political strategy aimed at unseating high-profile members of a party, as used by the Liberal Democrats in the United Kingdom general election, 2005.[3]

Decapitation is immediately fatal, as brain death occurs within seconds to minutes without the support of the organism's body.



Beheading—facsimile of a miniature on wood in the Cosmographie Universelle of Munster: in folio, Basle, 1552.
Anne Boleyn in the Tower of London waiting for her decapitation, by Edouard Cibot (1799 - 1877)


Decapitation has been used as a form of capital punishment for millennia. The terms "capital offence", "capital crime", "capital punishment," derive from the Latin caput, "head", referring to the punishment for serious offenses involving the forfeiture of the head; i.e. death by beheading[4]. Decapitation by sword (or axe, a military weapon as well) was sometimes considered the "honorable" way to die for an aristocrat, who, presumably being a warrior, could often expect to die by the sword in any event; in England it was considered a privilege of noblemen to be beheaded. This would be distinguished from a "dishonorable" death on the gallows or through burning at the stake. In medieval England, high treason by nobles was punished by beheading; male commoner traitors, including knights, were hanged, drawn, and quartered; female commoner traitors were burned at the stake. Paul of Tarsus was beheaded as a Roman citizen, not crucified like other Christians who were Roman slaves or Jews.

In countries where beheading was the usual means of capital punishment, such as in Scandinavia, the noblemen would be beheaded with a sword, symbolizing their class as a military caste, thus dying by an instrument of war, while the commoners would be beheaded with an axe.[citation needed]


If the headsman's axe or sword was sharp and his aim was true, decapitation was quick and was presumed to be a relatively painless form of death. If the instrument was blunt or the executioner clumsy, however, multiple strokes might be required to sever the head. The person to be executed was therefore advised to give a gold coin to the headsman to ensure that he did his job with care. Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, and Mary, Queen of Scots, required three strikes at their respective executions. Margaret Pole, 8th Countess of Salisbury, required ten strokes before the fatal blow.[citation needed]

The Beheading of Cosmas and Damian, by Fra Angelico

To ensure that the blow would be fatal, executioners' swords usually were blade-heavy two-handed swords. Likewise, if an axe was used, it almost invariably would be wielded with both hands. In England a special form of axe was used for beheadings, with the blade's edge extending downwards from the tip of the shaft.[citation needed]

Finland's official beheading axe resides today at the Museum of Crime in Helsinki. It is a broad-bladed two-handed axe. It was last used when murderer Toivo Koljonen was executed in 1826. All subsequent Finnish executions were made by firing squad. Capital punishment is no longer practiced in Finland.


Decapitation by guillotine was a common, mechanically-assisted form of execution, invented shortly before the French Revolution (although an earlier version of the guillotine, the Halifax Gibbet, was used in Halifax, England from 1286 until the 17th century). The aim was to create a painless and quick form of execution that did not require great skill to carry out. The executioner, after chopping off the head, would hold it up to the crowd. It was believed (with dubious evidence) that the head could still see for around ten seconds. The account of Dr. Beaurieux who observed the decapitation of a convict named Languille in 1905, may imply that the head could still see as he recounts "Next Languille's eyes very definitely fixed themselves on mine and the pupils focussed themselves" (A history of the guillotine, Alister Kershaw). The French had a strict code of etiquette surrounding the executions; a man named Legros, one of the assistants at the execution of Charlotte Corday, was imprisoned for three months and dismissed for slapping the face of the victim after the blade had fallen in order to see whether any flicker of life remained[citation needed]. The guillotine was used in France during the French Revolution and remained the normal judicial method in both peacetime and wartime into the 1970s, although the firing squad was used in certain cases. France abolished the death penalty in 1981. The guillotine was also used in Algeria before the French relinquished control of it, as shown in Gillo Pontecorvo's film The Battle of Algiers. Another guillotine existed in Vatican City until recent years. It had been brought in by Napoleon's forces during the early 19th century; and, in 1870, the Pope still claimed the authority to use it. In recent times however, the Vatican has abolished capital punishment in its own jurisdiction, and recent Popes have condemned capital punishment where it is still practiced.

Aristocratic heads on pikes - a cartoon from the French Revolution

German Fallbeil

Many German states had used a guillotine-like device known as a Fallbeil since the 17th and 18th centuries, and decapitation by guillotine was the usual means of execution in Germany until the abolition of the death penalty in West Germany in 1949. In Nazi Germany, the guillotine was reserved for criminal convicts and political crimes including treason. A famous example of the guillotine being used was on the members of the White Rose resistance movement, a group of students in Munich led by Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans. Contrary to popular myth, executions were generally not conducted face-up, and chief executioner Johann Reichhart was peculiarly insistent on maintaining "professional" protocol throughout the era, having administered the death penalty during the earlier Weimar era. Nonetheless, the Nazis' use of the Fallbeil was chillingly routine. It is estimated that some 16,500 persons were guillotined in Germany and Austria between 1933 and 1945. This number includes resistance fighters both in Nazi Germany itself and in those countries that were occupied by them. As these resistance fighters were not part of any regular army they were considered common criminals and were in many cases taken to Germany and decapitated. Decapitation was considered a "dishonorable" death, unlike an "honorable" death, e.g., execution by firing squad.

A fresco by Ambrogio Lorenzetti

Nordic countries

In Nordic Countries, decapitation was the usual means of carrying out capital punishment. Noblemen were beheaded with a sword, and commoners with an axe. The last executions by decapitation in Finland in 1825, Norway in 1876 and in Iceland in 1830 were carried out with axes. The same was the case in Denmark in 1892. The last decapitation in Sweden was carried out in 1910 with a guillotine. The last execution in Sweden carried out with an axe was in 1900.

Historical practices by nation



Ranked beheaded bodies on the ground, in a lane of Caishikou crossroad, China, 1905

In traditional China decapitation was considered a more severe form of punishment than strangulation although strangulation caused more prolonged suffering. This was because in Confucian tradition bodies were gifts from their parents, and so it was therefore disrespectful to their ancestors to return their bodies to the grave dismembered. The Chinese however had other punishments, such as that involved dismembering the body into multiple pieces (similar to English quartering). In addition, there was also a practice of cutting the body at the waist, which was a common way of execution before being abolished in early Qing dynasty and the lingering death. Some tales people did not die immediately without head.[5][6]


Pakistan's government employs death by hanging for capital punishment. Since 2007, militants from Tehrek-e-Taliban Pakistan have used beheadings as a form of punishment for opponents, criminals and spies in the north west region of Pakistan. Severed heads of opponents or government officials in Swat were left on popular street corners in order to terrorize local population. The beheadings have stopped in Swat since the military incursion and sweep-up that began in May 2009 and ended in June 2009.

A video obtained by the Associated Press on April 20, 2007 shows a young boy, appearing to be around 12 years of age, beheading a man identified as Ghulam Nabi, a Pakistani militant accused of betraying the Taliban. According to the AP report, "A continuous 2 1/2-minute shot then shows the victim lying on his side on a patch of rubble-strewn ground. A man holds Nabi by his beard while the boy, wearing a camouflage military jacket and oversized white sneakers, cuts into the throat. Other men and boys call out "Allahu akbar!" — "God is great!" — during the beheading. The film, overlain with nasheeds, then shows the boy hacking and slashing at the man's neck until the head is severed."[7]


Condemned Chinese about to be beheaded by Japanese soldiers, 1901

In Japan, decapitation was a common punishment, sometimes for minor offenses. Samurai were often allowed to decapitate soldiers who had fled from battle, as it was considered cowardly. Decapitation was historically performed as the second step in seppuku (ritual suicide by disembowelment). After the victim had sliced his own abdomen open, another warrior would strike his head off from behind with a katana to hasten death and to reduce the suffering. The blow was expected to be precise enough to leave intact a small strip of skin at the front of the neck—to spare invited and honored guests the indelicacy of witnessing a severed head rolling about, or towards them; such an event would have been considered inelegant and in bad taste. The sword was expected to be used upon the slightest sign that the practitioner might yield to pain and cry out—avoiding dishonor to him and to all partaking in the privilege of observing an honorable demise. As skill was involved, only the most trusted warrior was honored enough to take part. In the late Sengoku period, decapitation was performed as soon as the person chosen to carry out seppuku had made the slightest wound to his abdomen.[citation needed] Decapitation (without seppuku) was also considered the severest and most degrading form of punishment. One of the most brutal decapitations was that of a daimyo, Ishida Mitsunari, who had warred against Ieyasu Tokugawa. After he lost the Battle of Sekigahara, he was buried in the ground and his head was sawn off with a blunt bamboo saw. Spectators passing by were invited to take a few hacks. These unusual punishments were abolished in the early Meiji era. However, the Japanese used decapitation extensively during World War II, especially against Chinese Nationals. After World War II, Japan stopped using decapitation as a punishment against both Japanese citizens and foreign citizens.[citation needed]

An Australian POW captured in New Guinea, Sgt. Leonard Siffleet, about to be beheaded with a shin gunto sword.


In Southern Thailand, there were at least 15 cases where Buddhists have been beheaded in 2005. Thai officials suspect the attackers are part of the South Thailand Muslim insurgency who are seeking to separate the south end part from the rest of Thailand.[8][9]


Chechen Muslim rebels were known to practice beheading against the captured Russian Army soldiers during the First Chechen War and the Second Chechen War. Four Western telecommunication workers (three Britons and a New Zealander) who were taken hostage for ransom in Chechnya in 1998, were eventually beheaded and their heads were found on a side of a road[10]. In 1999, a beheading video was widely circulated on the internet, depicting a Russian soldier being beheaded by Chechen rebels.


Bosnia and Herzegovina

During the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1992-1995) there were a number of ritual beheadings of Serbs who were taken as prisoners of war by mujahedin members of the Bosnian Army. At least one case is documented and proven in court by the ICTY where mujahedin, members of 3rd Corps of Army BiH, beheaded Bosnian Serb Dragan Popović.[11][12]

Image of Pier Gerlofs Donia, known for his ability to behead multiple people in a single blow.


During the Frisian Peasant Rebellion between 1515 and 1523, the Burgundian and Habsburgian enemies were usually beheaded when captured to prevent them from returning to fight again. The rebel leader, Pier Gerlofs Donia performed many of the decapitations. He was known for his amazing skill and for the ability to behead multiple people in a single blow using a Zweihänder with the amazing length of 213 cm (~7 ft). For his extreme brutality he was nicknamed "Cross of the Dutchmen".[13]



In Spain executions were carried out by various methods including strangulation by the garrotte. In the 16th. and 17th. century noblemen were sometimes executed by means of beheading. They were tied to a chair on a scaffold. The executioner used a knife to cut the head from the body. It was considered to be a more honourable death if the executioner started with cutting the throat[16].

North America


Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, Ignacio Allende, José Mariano Jiménez and Juan Aldama were tried for treason, executed by firing squad and beheaded during the Mexican independence in 1811. Their heads were on display on the four corners of the Alhóndiga de Granaditas, in Guanajuato.

Recently during the Mexican Drug War some Mexican drug cartels have turned to decapitation of rival cartel members as a method of intimidation.[17]

Middle East

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabian authorities beheaded four men in February 2007— Sangeeth Kumara, Victor Corea, Ranjith Silva and Sanath Pushpakumara. These four Sri Lankan workers were convicted in a Saudi Arabian court for an armed robbery committed in October 2004. Their deaths sparked reactions from the international human rights watchdog Amnesty International, which called on the Saudi authorities to abolish the death sentence. The court also ruled that the bodies of the four workers be crucified for public view as an example for others. In most of the cases the respective embassy gets notification only after the execution thereby eliminating chances for international or diplomatic uproar.[18]


Beheadings have emerged as another tactic especially in Iraq since April 2003.[citation needed] Foreign civilians have borne the brunt of the beheadings, although U.S. and Iraqi military personnel have also been targeted. After kidnapping the victim, the kidnappers typically make some sort of demand of the government of the hostage's nation and give a time limit for the demand to be carried out, often 72 hours. Beheading is often threatened if the government fails to heed the wishes of the hostage takers. Frequently the crude beheadings are videotaped and made available on the Internet. One of the most publicized of such executions was that of Nick Berg.

The type of "beheading" practiced by Al Qaeda and similar groups differs from traditional judicial beheading. Traditional beheading is done quickly, with a massive steel blade, which cuts through the neck from the back, first severing the spinal column, then cutting the four large blood vessels, the trachea, and the esophagus. Unconsciousness is instantaneous, and death is within seconds. Terrorist-style beheading is reversed: using a rather small knife, first the throat is cut, severing the carotid arteries and jugular veins, the trachea, and the esophagus, causing the victim to bleed out within a minute; then the spine is slowly severed by an instrument that is not massive enough for the job. (Acceptable substitutes would include a machete, a butcher's cleaver, or a more traditional sword or axe. The first half of this procedure follows the method for Islamic ritual slaughter of food animals. The second half follows no clear precedent.

Judicial execution is practiced in Iraq, but is generally carried out by hanging.



On March 13 2008, it was reported that Hizbul Shabaab militants fighting the presence of an interim government backed by thousands of Ethiopian combat troops in Somalia beheaded three government soldiers. It was the first case of beheadings since the government and its Ethiopian military allies ousted the Islamists from power in late 2006, sparking a bloody insurgency characterised by roadside bombs and hit-and-run attacks.[19]

Notable people who have been beheaded

See also


  1. ^ see Isadora Duncan
  2. ^ "Guillotine death was suicide". BBC News. 2003-04-24. Retrieved 2008-09-26. 
  3. ^ Carlin, Brendan; David Sapsted (2005-05-04). "Defiant Kennedy takes 'decapitation' strategy into Tory heartland". The Telegraph.'decapitation'-strategy-into-Tory-heartland.html. Retrieved 2008-06-21. 
  4. ^ Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, edited by Noah Porter, published by G & C. Merriam Co., 1913
  5. ^ 原來斬頭係唔會即刻死既(仲識講野)中國有好多斬頭案例!!
  6. ^ 人类不止一个大脑
  7. ^ The Star Online Video in Pakistan shows youngster beheading man for alleged betrayal of Taliban leader Dated: Saturday, April 21, 2007.
  8. ^ "Buddhist decapitated in Thailand". Herald Sun. 2005-07-26.,21985,16055672-1702,00.html. Retrieved 2008-02-15. 
  9. ^ "Man beheaded, two shot dead the man was later found in a shallow grave.". News Limited. 2005-10-14.,10117,16917051-23109,00.html. Retrieved 2008-02-15. 
  10. ^ "Four Western hostages beheaded in Chechnya". CNN. 1998-12-08. Retrieved 2008-02-15. 
  13. ^ "Greate Pier fan Wûnseradiel" (in West Frisian). Gemeente Wûnseradiel. Retrieved 2008-01-04. 
  14. ^ asfpg ~ Altonaer Stiftung für philosophische Grundlagenforschung
  15. ^ Das Beil Von Wandsbek - Trailer - Cast - Showtimes - The New York Times
  16. ^ Execution of the Marquess of Ayamonte on the 11th. of december 1645 Described in "Varios relatos diversos de Cartas de Jesuitas" (1634-1648) Coll. Austral Buones Aires 1953 en Dr. J. Geers "Van het Barokke leven", Baarn 1957 Bl. 183 - 188.
  17. ^ George W. Grayson (February 2009). "La Familia: Another Deadly Mexican Syndicate". Foreign Policy Research Institute. Archived from the original on 2009-09-15. 
  18. ^ BBC
  19. ^ Garowe Online - Home

This article incorporates content from the 1728 Cyclopaedia, a publication in the public domain.

External links

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

BEHEADING, a mode of executing capital punishment. It was in use among the Greeks and Romans, and the former, as Xenophon says at the end of the second book of the Anabasis, regarded it as a most honourable form of death. So did the Romans, by whom it was known as decollatio or capitis amputatio. The head was laid on a block placed in a pit dug for the purpose, - in the case of a military offender, outside the intrenchments, in civil cases outside the city walls, near the porta decumana. Before execution the criminal was tied to a stake and whipped with rods. In earlier years an axe was used; afterwards a sword, which was considered a more honourable instrument of death, and was used in the case of citizens (Dig. 48, 19, 28). It was with a sword that Cicero's head was struck off by a common soldier. The beheading of John the Baptist proves that the tetrarch Herod had adopted from his suzerain the Roman mode of execution. Suetonius (Calig. c. 32) states that Caligula kept a soldier, an artist in beheading, who in his presence decapitated prisoners fetched indiscriminately for that purpose from the gaols.

Beheading is said to have been introduced into England from Normandy by William the Conqueror. The first person to suffer was Waltheof, earl of Northumberland, in 1076. An ancient MS. relating to the earls of Chester states that the serjeants or bailiffs of the earls had power to behead any malefactor or thief, and gives an account of the presenting of several heads of felons at the castle of Chester by the earl's serjeant. It appears that the custom also attached to the barony of Malpas. In a roll of 3 Edward II., beheading is called the "custom of Cheshire" (Lysons' Cheshire, p. 299, from Harl. MS. 2009 fol. 34b). The liberty of Hardwick, in Yorkshire, was granted the privilege of beheading thieves. (See Guillotine.) But with the exceptions above stated beheading was usually reserved as the mode of executing offenders of high rank. From the 15th century onward the victims of the axe include some of the highest personages in the kingdom: Archbishop Scrope (1405); duke of Buckingham (1483); Catherine Howard (1J42); earl of Surrey (1547); duke of Somerset (1552); duke of Northumberland (1553); Lady Jane Grey (1554); Lord Guildford Dudley (1554); Mary queen of Scots (1587); earl of Essex (1601); Sir Walter Raleigh (1618); earl of Strafford (1641); Charles I. (1649); Lord William Russell (1683); duke of Monmouth (1685); earl of Derwentwater (1716); earl of Kenmure (1716); earl of Kilmarnock and Lord Balmerino (1746); and the list closes with Simon, Lord Lovat, who (9th of April 1747) was the last person beheaded in England. The execution of Anne Boleyn was carried out not with the axe, but with a sword, and by a French headsman specially brought over from Calais. In 1644 Archbishop Laud was condemned to be hanged, and the only favour granted him, and that reluctantly, was that his sentence should be changed to beheading. In the case of the 4th Earl Ferrers (1760) his petition to be beheaded was refused and he was hanged.

Executions by beheading usually took place on Tower Hill, London, where the scaffold stood permanently during the 15th and 16th centuries. In the case of certain state prisoners, e.g. Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey, the sentence was carried out within the Tower on the green by St Peter's chapel.

Beheading was only a part of the common-law method of punishing male traitors, which was ferocious in the extreme. According to Walcot's case (1696), I Eng. Rep. 89, the proper sentence was "quod. .. ibidem super bigam (herdillum) ponatur et abinde usque ad furcas de [[[Tyburn]]] trahatur, et ibidem per collum suspendatur et vivus ad terram prosternatur et quod secreta membra ejus amputentur, et interiora sua intra ventrem suum capiantur et in ignem ponantur et ibidem ipso vivente comburantur, et quod caput ejus amputetur, quodque corpus ejus in quatuor partes dividatur et illo ponantur ubi dominus rex eas assignare voluit." There is a tradition that Harrison the regicide after being disembowelled rose and boxed the ears of the executioner.

In Townley's case (18 Howell, State Trials, 350, 351) there is a ghastly account of the mode of executing the sentence; and in that case the executioner cut the traitor's throat. In the case of the Cato Street conspiracy(1820, 33 Howell, State Trials, 1566), after the traitors had been hanged as directed by the act of 1814, their heads were cut off by a man in a mask whose dexterity led to the belief that he was a surgeon.

Female traitors were until 1790 liable to be drawn to execution and burnt alive. In that year hanging was substituted for burning.

In 1814 so much of the sentence as related to disembowelling and burning the bowels was abolished and the king was empowered by royal warrant to substitute decapitation for hanging, which was made by that act the ordinary mode of executing traitors. But it was not till 1870 that the portions of the sentence as to drawing and quartering were abolished (Forfeiture Act 1870).

The more barbarous features of the execution were remitted in the case of traitors of high rank, and the offender was simply decapitated.

The block usually employed is believed to have been a low one such as would be used for beheading a corpse. C. H. Firth and S. R. Gardiner incline to the view that such a block was the one used at Charles I.'s execution. The more general custom, however, seems to have been to have a high block over which the victim knelt. Such is the form of that preserved in the armoury of the Tower of London. This is undoubtedly the block upon which Lord Lovat suffered, but, in spite of several axe-cuts on it, probably not one in early use. The axe which stands beside it was used to behead him and the other Jacobite lords, but no certainty exists as to its having been previously employed. On the ground floor of the King's House, at the Tower, is preserved the processional axe which figured in the journeys of state prisoners to and from their trials, the edge turned from them as they went, but almost invariably turned towards them as they returned to the Tower. The axe's head is peculiar in form, I ft. 8 in. high by 10 in. wide, and is fastened into a wooden handle 5 ft. 4 in. long. The handle is ornamented by four rows of burnished brass nails.

In Scotland they did not behead with the axe, nor with the sword, as under the Roman law, and formerly in Holland and France, but with the maiden.

Capital punishment is executed by beheading in France, and in Belgium by means of the guillotine.

In Germany the instrument used varies in different states: in the old provinces of Prussia the axe, in Saxony and Rhenish Prussia the guillotine. Until 1851 executions were public. They now take place within a prison in the presence of certain specified officials.

Beheading is also the mode of executing capital punishment in Denmark and Sweden. The axe is used. In Sweden the execution takes place on the order of the king within a prison in the presence of certain specified officials and, if desired, of twelve representatives of the commune within which the prison is situate (Code 1864, s. 2, Royal Ordinance 1877).

In the Chinese empire decapitation is the usual mode of execution. By an imperial edict (24th of April 1905) certain attendant barbarities have been suppressed: viz. slicing, cutting up the body, and exhibiting the head to public view (32 Clunet, 1175).

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