Dery on decapitation

Last week, I touched a nerve with a post discussing whether one could retain consciousness, even briefly, after decapitation. A heady conversation ensued. (Sorry.) Cultural critic Mark Dery then pointed me to a feature he wrote in 2003 for Cabinet Magazine. Mark would seem to be the perfect writer to delve into decapitation and, as usual, he does not disappoint. (Seen here, "the severed heads of convicted armed robbers and twin brothers Auguste and Abel Pollet, guillotined on 11 January 1909.") From Dery's Cabinet article, titled "Thirteen Ways of Looking at Decapitation":
 Images  Issues 10 Assets Images Main Dery1 The evidence for the survival of awareness (as opposed to brain activity) after decapitation remains inconclusive. According to Dr. Ron Wright, a forensic pathologist and former chief medical examiner of Broward County Florida, "After your head is cut off by a guillotine, you have 13 seconds of consciousness (+/- 1 or 2). [...] The 13 seconds is the amount of high energy phosphates that the cytochromes in the brain have to keep going without new oxygen and glucose."4 Naturally, electrochemical activity is no guarantor of conscious thought, although as Wright notes, there are alleged instances of disembodied heads blinking in response to questions, "two for yes and one for no."

If bodiless heads can think, what about headless bodies? Mike the Headless Wonder Chicken springs immediately to mind. On September 10, 1945, Fruita, Colorado resident Lloyd Olsen sent–or attempted to send–Mike the way of all fryers with a well-aimed whack. Amazingly, the rooster survived his beheading; the next morning, Olsen discovered him pecking and preening (phantom head syndrome?), his reflex actions intact, thanks to a brainstem that had miraculously escaped the vorpal blade. Sustained by grain and water dripped into his exposed esophagus, Mike went on to sideshow fame. He lived for another 18 months before succumbing, at last, to decapitation-related complications.
Thirteen Ways of Looking at Decapitation

Previously on BB:
Conscious after decapitation?
HOWTO do a movie decapitation


  1. After I read the original post I was haunted by the thought of a guillotine that had the condemned lying FACE UP on the thing so one could see the blade coming at you. as well as a mirror placed on top so you could see your own head being lopped off… THAT is cruel and unusual punishment.

  2. @ 2,

    I believe the Nazi’s used a guillotine in that fashion. (Sounds like a misreading of history, “Nazi” and “guillotine” but I remember seeing a photo of a Nazi guillotine where face up executions had been supposedly practiced. It was a short gullotine, not like the giant French ones.

  3. I’m not sure why the horror of awareness after decapitation is that much more awful than the preceding minutes beforehand knowing you are about to be decapitated. It all seems pretty horrible to me.

  4. Granted, this is the internet, but a bit of a warning BEFORE seeing actual decapitated heads might have been in better taste. Some of us don’t want to see that crap while we’re just looking to casually read some interesting articles.

  5. I wish I had known that the article would be exploring decaptitation fetishes, or I wouldn’t have packed a lunch today.

  6. Can we cut out the grusome photos? I’d like to be able to check this site at my workplace, but photos like this are distastful.

    Even though they were convicted fellons, these two were part of someone’s family, we don’t need to parade their cadavers.

  7. I’ve long suspected that, due to a glitch in “consciousness”, that one cannot experience his or her own extinguishment. The last moment before obliteration trails into something like a Bardo, and then… whatever. The only church I ever went to growing up was UU, and I’m not quite convinced of the “other side” just yet. Nor am I in a hurry to find out.

    This, however? Probably one of the worst ways one could go. I’d have to be carried. My body would just rebel. Even if I, inside, had given up, I have a feeling that my body would fight it.

    Not a fun way to go out.

  8. #9 djox106

    Can we cut out the grusome photos? I’d like to be able to check this site at my workplace, but photos like this are distastful.

    Even though they were convicted fellons, these two were part of someone’s family, we don’t need to parade their cadavers.

    I second that (or third, or fourth it)–both on the gross grounds (I often check this site on lunch/dinner breaks), and on humanitarian/respect grounds.

  9. “these two were part of someone’s family…”

    Actually, these heads are just PART of a PART of someone’s family! Besides, they’re not nearly as gross as a vibrating toilet seat, eww.

  10. David, assuming that photo is of actual decapitated heads, I would say it’s probably distasteful to post on the main page. I’m not telling BB what to post, just that if it’s actual human beings, it comes off as callous if not disrespectful to the dead.

  11. i would like to balance out these comments and state that i am all for vintage pictures of stylishly mustached bodiless twin heads.

  12. From the linked article: “The severed heads of convicted armed robbers and twin brothers Auguste and Abel Pollet, guillotined on 11 January 1909.”

    They’re real heads from 100 years ago. But is is any different than the last several months pictures of sneakers with unidentified feet in them? Or unidentified flayed quadripeds? I’ll stick my neck out and say there is no difference to me.

  13. Now, now, let’s not get a head of ourselves over these decapitation photos…

    (Sorry,I couldn’t resist such low hanging fruit. Maybe someone should contact the head waiter….)

    Okay, I’m outta here. Gotta go to the head.

  14. I shrank the photo so as to reduce discomfort of some people at work, but I do think it’s a historically interesting image.

  15. Assuming a decapitated head could be aware for 13 seconds, it would have to make it past the trauma of falling from a guillotine to the floor/ground/head-catching basket. If a person with a head is hit with a frying pan, we would likely lose our senses for a bit. So first order or business for testing the awareness of decapitated heads: a nest of soft pillows for the head to land in.

  16. @18, thank you, David. I agree with you that from a historic perspective it’s relevant. I hadn’t meant to dissuade you from posting it, but it’s worth noting it’s relative sensitive nature.

  17. US society in particular, and Western society in general, need to see more images of death. I’ve seen a fair number of corpses and deaths, some violent and bloody. It gives one a broader perspective on the value of life.

    One of the factors in ending the Vietnam War was the gruesome images that showed up every day on the news. Iraq and Afghanistan have been sanitized for our ideological protection. If we had to see decapitated heads, heave the occasional corpse out of the way or bleach the blood off our shoes, we might not be so cavalier about dealing out death in war or penalty.

  18. there’s an incredible amount of photographs of dead, mutilated civilians from the past decade in the Middle East. They just won’t show them in the USA. I wonder what the “mainstream media” has done with all these images

  19. #26 haha yep I was going to post the damninteresting link as well. That one is one of their best.

    New postings there have been a bit slow lately which is a bit sad, but for anyone here who hasn’t seen that site, it’s worth reading every article on there.

  20. So first order or business for testing the awareness of decapitated heads: a nest of soft pillows for the head to land in.

    Agree. If I may express a preference, I’d much prefer down over synthetic. Martha Stewart or Ralph Lauren linens, if available.

  21. I interviewed an elderly fisherman on the island of Favignana, off the northwest coast of Sicily, a few years ago. He swore to me that a headless human can walk because he saw it happen. He watched as shrapnel from a WWII bomb decapitated a man who was on the sidewalk, he said, and the headless person stepped off the curb into the street and then took a few steps before collapsing.

  22. I thought the image was really kind of interesting. It got me to thinking though: I would have probably been repulsed if it was a modern photo of two severed heads. Why the disconnect? Are old black and white photos less real to me, or do we view things much differently through the lens of history?

  23. @ Takuan:

    “Hi Takeshi! Feeling better?”

    I wasn’t sick, but thanks for asking. I may type quickly, but the only time I wasn’t chuckling was when someone used your name in place of mine.

  24. The NAZIs also used an executioner with a axe and appropriate blade too. Somehow that sounds better than the guillotine.

  25. the fatal blow in a beheading induces immediate unconsciousness – from Straight Dope

    That’s the kind of mindless, unproven, all-encompassing statement that invalidates whatever else he says. When they hook people up to EEGs and scan them as they’re ‘shortened’, I’ll believe it. Otherwise, it’s just idle speculation.

  26. @ Mikelotus: axe with accompanying executioner? No thanks! Even a skilled executioner is going to fudge it every now and then, and if the blade of the axe is dull then that’s going to have a greater impact than if the blade of the guillotine is dull.

    In fact – higher ranking members of the aristocracy in England were allowed to opt for decapitation by sword. This was partly because it was considered more noble, but also to do with greater efficiency.

    Witness, for example, the execution of Mary Queen of Scots – an average execution: ‘she endured two strokes of the other executioner with an axe’. Screw that. Margaret of Salisbury: ‘It was not until the third or fourth stroke of the axe that Margaret’s head was severed from her body’. No thanks. Or indeed, the Duke of Monmouth: ‘first blow only grazed the back of the duke’s head….When two more blows failed to sever the head, [the executioner] threw the axe down and offered 40 guineas to anyone in the crowd who could do better. At this the Sheriff of Middlesex, who was in charge of the execution, threatened to have him killed if he did not finish his job…two more blows failed…had to use his knife, butchering the Duke like a pig’

    Makes the guillotine sound like a positive mercy.

  27. Another WWII anecdote: My father was an infantryman in the South Pacific. He told me he’d seen a guy’s head taken clean off by a shell. The body walked six feet before collapsing.

    One of my favorite things about Roman Polanski’s MacBeth occurred just after MacDuff took off MacBeth’s head. MacDuff ran with the head in his hand and we saw the cheering crowds a couple of times from MacBeth’s head’s point of view, racing by in silence. I know, I know, the ears should have still been working if the eyes were. Call it artistic license, whatever. It was chilling.

    Sorry, forgot to write ‘spoiler.’ But hey, you’ve had four hundred years.

  28. Am I the only one who wasn’t grossed out by the photos? Probably the only time I would be truly grossed out would be if there was a photo of the severed part. It being in black and white helps to lessen the blow, so to speak.

    Funny, I was just talking about the severed rooster who lived to my mother before I checked my feeds. She didn’t believe me when I told her, so I showed her this article. Thanks for proving my point for me.

  29. Why do we have so much more brain than we need to survive? We are able to do all the things required of a modern human with the same brain our ancestors possessed more than twenty thousand years ago. How and why did hominids develop so much spare capacity?

  30. Harper’s had a fascinating piece from 1905 about a man who experimented with interacting with criminals immediately after their decapitation. He found that when he shouted the person’s name loudly, their head opened its eyes and stared at him.

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