Beheading hurts. How much it hurts depends on the executioner’s skill, or lack of it.
When Mary, Queen of Scots, was executed at Fotheringay Castle in 1587, a clumsy headsman gave her three strokes without quite managing to sever her head.
The headsman then had to saw though the skin and gristle with his sheath knife before the job could be regarded as complete.
The profound, protracted groan Mary gave when the ax first hit left the horrified witnesses in no doubt that her pain was excruciating.
How long is the interval of consciousness after the head is severed? In France, in the days of the guillotine, some of the condemned were asked to blink their eyes if they were still conscious after the knife fell.
Reportedly, their heads blinked for up to 30 seconds after decapitation. How much of this was voluntary and how much due to reflex nerve action is speculation.
Most nations with science sophisticated enough to determine this question have long since abandoned decapitation as a legal tool.
Antoine Lavoisier, the French chemist who lived between 1743 and 1794, was caught up in the revolution and faced beheading. He asked friends to observe closely as he would continue blinking as long as possible after being killed. He was reported to have blinked for 15 seconds after decapitation.
The story of Antoine Lavoisier’s last heroic service for science has been reported many times but unfortunately appears to have no basis in fact.
It is not given in any contemporary account we have been able to find, or in the standard accounts of his life and death. As pointed out above, however, there have been attempts to ascertain if a severed head retains consciousness.
The most reliable account appears to be that given below.
A particularly detailed report comes from Dr. Beaurieux, who, under perfect circumstances, experimented with the head of the murderer Languille, guillotined at 5:30 A.M. on June 28, 1905. From A History of the Guillotine by Alister Kershaw. His source is Archives d’Anthropologie Criminelle, 1905.
Here, then, is what I was able to note immediately after the decapitation: the eyelids and lips of the guillotined man worked in irregularly rhythmic contractions for about five or six seconds. I waited for several seconds.
The spasmodic movements ceased. The face relaxed, the lids half closed on the eyeballs, leaving only the white of the conjunctiva visible, exactly as in the dying whom we have occasion to see every day in the exercise of our profession, or as in those just dead.
It was then that I called in a strong, sharp voice: “Languille!” I saw the eyelids slowly lift up, without any spasmodic contractions.
Next Languille’s eyes very definitely fixed themselves on mine and the pupils focused themselves.
After several seconds, the eyelids closed again, slowly and evenly, and the head took on the same appearance as it had had before I called out.
It was at that point that I called out again and, once more, without any spasm, slowly, the eyelids lifted and undeniably living eyes fixed themselves on mine with perhaps even more penetration than the first time.
Then there was a further closing of the eyelids, but now less complete. I attempted the effect of a third call; there was no further movement and the eyes took on the glazed look which they have in the dead.
I have just recounted to you with rigorous exactness what I was able to observe. The whole thing had lasted twenty-five to thirty seconds.
If indeed a severed head remains conscious for a short while, then the following procedure might be regarded as humane, assuming the purpose was to convince the dying man he was flying to heaven.
Dr. Livingstone wrote that Africans he encountered were aware that consciousness is not lost immediately. He recounts how they bent a springy sapling and tied cords from it under the ears of a man to be decapitated so that his last few moments of awareness would be of flying through the air.
However quickly consciousness is lost, there is little doubt that the procedure must produce a painful few seconds.
In 1983, Harold Hillman, then reader in physiology at the University of Surrey, wrote an account of the suffering caused by different methods of execution for New Scientist at the time when the World Medical Association had just discussed attitudes of physicians to capital punishment. This is what Hillman said about the guillotine:
The guillotine was named after the French deputy who proposed the use of the device in 1789. It was tested on corpses at the Bicetre Hospital in Paris, and employed by the French Revolution in 1792.
It was introduced as a swift and painless device, as Joseph-Ignace Guillotin believed, to extend to all citizens the advantages of a technique used only on noblemen. Although people believe that Guillotin invented the device, it had been used in Italy, Germany, France, and Scotland in the sixteenth century.
Guillotining was considered more humane because the blade was sharper and execution was more rapid than that accomplished with an ax.
Death occurs due to separation of the brain and spinal cord, after transection of the surrounding tissues. This must cause acute and possibly severe pain. Consciousness is probably lost within 2 to 3 seconds, owing to a rapid fall of intracranial perfusion of blood.
There are accounts of the eyes looking around from the severed head, and animals may do this when they are guillotined for experiments in which their organs are to be excised or their brain biochemistry is to be examined rapidly.