Heads Will Roll: 8 Facts About Historical Beheadings
By Jake Rossen
A state-sponsored beheading isn’t as antiquated a notion as you may think: The last person to be decapitated by way of the guillotine in France was Hamida Djandoubi, a murderer who was placed in stocks and lost his head on September 10, 1977—several months following the premiere of Star Wars and effectively making decapitation technically more modern than R2-D2.
That morbid trivia aside, this gruesome method of execution has largely been consigned to ancient history, with its many euphemisms (“the patriotic haircut,” “sneezing into the basket”) glossing over a spectacularly gory display that persisted for centuries. And while the guillotine—named after Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, who in 1789 recommended the use of a gravity-assisted blade for a cut that should feel “like a cool breath on the back of the neck”—was efficient, there were alternative approaches, too. Take a look at eight facts about the unkindest cut of all.
1. The Halifax Gibbet was a guillotine prototype.
Before Guillotin successfully lobbied for the guillotine, another variation on the gravity blade existed. Dubbed the Halifax Gibbet, it was a popular punishment for petty theft in 16th- and 17th-century England and consisted of two 15-foot pillars with a heavy wooden block set between them. The block held a blade on the bottom and was held in place by a pin attached to a rope. Pulling the pin caused the block to fall, and the prisoner to cease existing. For added drama, a horse was sometimes used, running off and drawing a rope attached to the pin.
If this doesn’t sound much different than its successor, it wasn’t—save for the fact that little attention was paid to the condition of the often-dull blade and that its victims were actually getting their necks crushed rather than severed.
Eventually, public sentiment disagreed with decapitation as a punishment for stealing, and Oliver Cromwell had it dismantled. Cromwell, of course, was himself beheaded posthumously by political rivals and had his noggin stuck on a spike. You can visit a non-working replica of the gibbet in Halifax today.
2. Beheadings were subject to bribes.
Executioners who wielded axes had the benefit of titrating the violence they could inflict. Sometimes, this meant either purposely drawing out or shortening the suffering endured by the condemned. Jack Ketch, a 17th-century axe man in London, is perhaps the most glaring example. It’s believed Ketch accepted bribes from the soon-to-be-dead to ensure a quick end. Likewise, he also took money from a person’s enemies to make the execution a prolonged spectacle. Most infamously, Ketch botched the Duke of Monmouth’s beheading in 1685, striking the duke with an axe five times before being forced to finish the job with a knife. One (possibly apocryphal) detail: The duke was so annoyed by the first and largely harmless axe swing that he took his head off the chopping block to shoot Ketch an annoyed look.
3. Some could dodge the blade by winning a foot race.
The executions of the Ottoman Empire were tinged with a degree of psychological torture. Those wondering if they would be condemned to death were given a drink to sip; if it was white, they were fine. If it was red, it was time to die. For the wealthy or one of society’s elite, that meant a beheading—but there was a workaround. If the victim could outrun the executioner in a foot race, they’d effectively get a pardon.
The sprint was about 300 yards and wound its way around Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. If successful, the prisoner would merely be banished. Few succeeded, since the executioners knew the grounds better than the prisoners. The practice lasted into the 18th century.
4. Executioner’s hoods weren’t a thing.
Pop culture is awash in depictions of old-timey executioners wearing hoods to protect their identities, presumably so they wouldn’t have to fear reprisal from the recently-beheaded. While masks did exist, it was actually more common for regions to boast of their executioners rather than try to hide their identities. In the Middle Ages, countries like Scandinavia mutilated the ears of their professional killers or branded their face, making them unmistakable.
Executioners were probably better off with the mask. In France and other places, they were often reviled, forced to live apart from regular society. Even their offspring were expected to fraternize only with the offspring of other executioners before getting old enough to inherit the family business.
5. Beheadings inspired Madame Tussaud.
What to do with a freshly-chopped head? If you’re pioneering waxwork specialist Marie Tussaud, you take it as inspiration. Tussaud learned her trade in part by creating casts of decapitated heads that had lolled into baskets following the guillotine—at one point, she wrote in her memoirs, balancing a bloody head on one knee to better capture its features. Tussaud was almost beheaded herself after being arrested for being a royalist during France’s Reign of Terror. After being freed, she continued her work, eventually moving to London to open her now-renowned museum.
6. Some swords had inscriptions.
Beheadings by axe were common owing to their instrument’s heft: A clean cut was expected when wielding a heavy tool with both hands. But swords were also used, and some bore inscriptions worthy of a Hallmark card. One sword on display at the Cleveland Museum of Art reads, “When I raise this sword, so I wish that this poor sinner will receive eternal life.”
7. Cephalophores continued using their heads.
For as long as there have been beheadings, so there’s been mythology around those who can at least briefly resist death. Some Christian saints, dubbed cephalophores, were reputedly capable of holding their own heads aloft after beheading. One such saint, Justus, spoke some words of prayer and asked to be reunited with his mother before expiring. Another, St. Denis, was said to have carried his head six miles, preaching all the while. While there’s debate whether wisps of consciousness persist after beheading, long-distance walking is probably out of the question.
8. One man laughed at his own beheading.
For the most part, getting your head chopped off was no picnic. For Lord Simon Fraser, it still held a little amusement. In 1747, the Scottish lord was set to be beheaded in London for treason during the Jacobite uprisings. Before being forced onto the chopping block, Fraser was said to have mocked his executioner. He also let out a chuckle when a podium holding spectators collapsed, killing nine of the people who had assembled to watch him die. Sometimes all you can do is laugh.