, meaning head), or beheading
, is the cutting off of the head
of a person or animal. Beheading
typically refers to the act of intentional decapitation, e.g., as a means of murder
; it may be accomplished, for example, with an axe
, or by means of a guillotine
. An executioner
carrying out decapitations is called a headsman.
Accidental decapitation can be the result of an explosion, automobile or industrial accident, improperly-administered execution by hanging or other violent injury. Suicide by decapitation is rare, but not unknown.
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.
Decapitation is fatal, as brain death occurs within seconds to minutes without the support of the organism's body.
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. Decapitation by sword (or axe, a military weapon as well) was sometimes considered the "honourable" 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 "dishonourable" death on the gallows
or through burning at the stake
. High Treason
by nobles was punished by beheading; male commoners, including knights
, were hanged, drawn, and quartered
; female commoners were burned at the stake
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.
If the headsman
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 so that he did his job with care. Not getting their proper money's worth, 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.
To ensure 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 used by both hands.
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 reccounts "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 and dismissed for slapping the face of the victim after the blade had fallen in order to see whether any flicker of life remained . The guillotine was used in France
during the French Revolution and remained the normal judicial method in both peacetime and wartime into the 1970s, the firing squad
being 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 and did indeed use it, once. 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.
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 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 40,000 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., by execution by firing squad
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.
Book of Revelation
It is of note that in the biblical Book of Revelation
, beheading is named as a method of execution of Christian
martyrs during a great persecution (Rev. 20:4). There is no historical record of precisely such an event, so certain commentators believe that this verse refers to a last great persecution of the church that some Christians believe will occur shortly before the Second Coming of Christ
. There are some who interpret this as losing the natural (or carnal) mind, and taking on the "mind of Christ".
In traditional China
decapitation was considered a more severe form of punishment than strangulation although strangulation caused more prolonged suffering. This was because the Chinese believed that their bodies were gifts from their parents, and that it was therefore disrespectful to their ancestors to return their bodies to the grave dismembered. The Chinese however had other punishments, such as the lingering death
, that involved cutting the body into multiple pieces. 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.
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 decapitated head rolling about, or towards them, whilst spraying blood; 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. 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. These unusual punishments were abolished in the early Meiji era.
However, the Japanese used decapitation extensively during World War II, especially against Chinese Nationals. A particularly brutal case is that of the Nanking Massacre, in which thousands of Chinese were killed through decapitation. The Japanese viewed the Chinese, Koreans, and other East Asian peoples as inferior to Japan and not worthy of humane treatment, partially explaining the many decapitations carried out by the Japanese. After World War II, Japan stopped using decapitation as a punishment against both Japanese citizens and foreign citizens.
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
Less orthodox instances of decapitation have also occurred in recent times in some areas of Colombia
. Marxist FARC
guerrilla as well as right-wing paramilitary groups such as the AUC
have sometimes used this method to intimidate local populations and political opponents, and it has not been uncommon for criminal gangs of druglords to also make limited use of decapitation on occasion. The primary means of decapitation in these cases has been the use of a machete
or a chainsaw
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. 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
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 Zweihander with the amazing length of 213 cm. For his extreme brutality he was nicknamed "Cross of the Dutchmen".
A Serbian newspaper, Večernje Novosti
, published photos in 2003 of men in Kosovo Liberation Army
uniforms holding decapitated heads. According to the paper, the Albanian terrorists commited the crime in April 1999, during the Kosovo War
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 insurgency
who are seeking to separate the Muslim-dominated south from the rest of Thailand.
Saudi Arabian authorities also 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. On January 12
, an Indonesian housemaid was beheaded in Saudi Arabia after being convicted of killing her employer.
Beheadings have emerged as another tactic especially in Iraq since April 2003. 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.
Judicial execution is practiced in Iraq, but is generally carried out by hanging.
Ghulam Nabi (Pakistan)
A video obtained by the Associated Press
on April 20
shows a young boy, appearing to be around 12 years of age, viciously 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!" — "Allah is greater!" — as blood spurts from the wound. The film, overlain with jihadi songs, then shows the boy hacking and slashing at the man's neck until the head is severed.
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.
Notable people who have been beheaded
- In July 1931, notorious serial killer Peter Kürten, known as "The Vampire of Düsseldorf", was executed on the guillotine in Cologne.
- On 1 August 1933, in Altona, Bruno Tesch and three others were beheaded. These were the first executions in the Third Reich. The executions concerned the Altona Bloody Sunday (Altonaer Blutsonntag) riot, an SA march on 17 July 1932 that turned violent and led to 18 people being shot dead .
- In February 1935 Benita von Falkenhayn and Renate von Natzmer were beheaded with the axe and block in Berlin for espionage for Poland. Axe beheading was the only method of executions in Berlin until 1938.
- In February 1943, university students Hans Scholl, his sister Sophie Scholl, and Christoph Probst of the White Rose protest movement, for distributing anti-war and anti-Nazi leaflets. Four other members of the White Rose were also executed by the Nazi People's Court later that same year. The LDS anti-Nazi Helmuth Hübener was also decapitated by People’s Court order.
- Sir William Wallace, (1305)
- William Hastings, 1st Baron Hastings (1483)
- Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham (1483)
- Edward Plantagenet, 17th Earl of Warwick (1499)
- Edmund Dudley (1510)
- Richard Empson (1510)
- Edmund de la Pole, 3rd Duke of Suffolk (1513)
- Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham (1521)
- Saint John Fisher (1535)
- Saint Thomas More (1535)
- George Boleyn, Viscount Rochford (1536)
- Anne Boleyn (1536)
- Henry Courtenay, 1st Marquess of Exeter (1539)
- Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex (1540)
- Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury (1541)
- Catherine Howard (1542)
- Jane Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford (1542)
- Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1547)
- Thomas Seymour, 1st Baron Seymour of Sudeley (1549)
- Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset (1552)
- John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland (1553)
- Lord Guilford Dudley (1554)
- Lady Jane Grey (1554)
- Henry Grey, 1st Duke of Suffolk (1554)
- Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk (1572)
- Mary, Queen of Scots (1587)
- Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex (1601)
- Sir Walter Raleigh (1618)
- Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford (1641)
- William Laud (1645)
- Charles I of England and Scotland (1649)
- James Hamilton, 1st Duke of Hamilton (1649)
- Oliver Cromwell (1661) Although already dead, he was beheaded by order of Charles II; some believe his mother ordered him to.
- James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth (1685)
- Arthur Elphinstone, 6th Lord Balmerinoch (1746). A Jacobite supporter of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, he was taken prisoner at Culloden, he was beheaded on 18 August 1746. His last words to the executioner were "Take care with that damned axe !"
- William Boyd, 4th Earl of Kilmarnock. A Jacobite supporter of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, he was taken prisoner at Culloden, he was beheaded on 18 August 1746.
- Simon Fraser, 11th Lord Lovat (1747). A prominent veteran Jacobite supporter of Prince Charles Edward Stuart. Though too old to participate in the 1745 Rising, he was chosen by the British Crown for execution in lieu of his youthful son, who had actually led Clan Fraser for the Jacobite cause.
- Vasco Núñez de Balboa was the Spanish conquistador who discovered the Pacific Ocean (1519)
- Dutty Boukman (1791)
- Joaquim José da Silva Xavier (Tiradentes). The body was quartered after his hanging (1792)
- Miguel Hidalgo and Ignacio Allende, Mexican insurgents were beheaded after their executions by Firing Squad in 1811.