Is a Head Chopped Off by a Guillotine Still Alive?

Legends From the French Revolution

Guillotine instrument for inflicting capital punishment by decapitation
Emilija Randjelovic / Getty Images

Of the many gruesome stories we've come to associate with the guillotine, one recurring theme that just won't die has to do with a particularly gory piece of French Revolutionary folklore: Eyewitnesses claimed to have observed firsthand that victims' heads remained alive after beheading—albeit if only for a short period of time. Given the human fascination for horror and the macabre, it's not surprising that the subject has held our collective interest for centuries. Historians, scientists, and students of urban legend have all weighed in on the topic—but can the brain function when violently separated from the body?

Historical Accounts: Fact or Fiction?

The guillotine was invented as a supposedly humane and painless method of execution designed initially for working-class criminals as an alternative to hanging, which was notoriously inefficient. If their necks didn't snap when the trapdoor dropped open, those sentenced to death by hanging sometimes dangled for long agonizing minutes until they suffocated. The guillotine brought the promise of death that was instant and painless—but could the inventors have been wrong?

There is a wealth of anecdotal information (much of it dating back to the ​French Revolution, one of the guillotine's most prolific periods) that has been used to bolster both sides of the argument. Some of it suggests that people did indeed die instantly and humanely. However, there are as many or more tales that recount lingering deaths after a head was severed from its body. In addition to final data on beheaded French scientists who'd directed their students to stand witness and record how many times they blinked, there are fanciful accounts of decapitated murderers who attempted to speak and stories of bitter rivals executed one after the other who each took one last bite from their respective nemesis after both heads had been tossed in a sack for disposal.

Perhaps the most famous of the guillotine tropes concerns Charlotte Corday, who In 1793, was executed for her part in the assassination of radical journalist/politician Jean-Paul Marat. Legend has it that after her beheading, witnesses reported Corday's eyes turned to the executioner with a look of abject disgust, at which point he added insult to injury by slapping Corday's face as he held her disjointed head up to a cheering crowd, turning Corday's cheek bright red.

However, as stirring as the Revolutionary tale—as well as others from the era—may be, it's more than likely just a piece of propaganda concocted at the time to stoke mob sentiment. As historians point out, the retelling of events that take place during periods of enormous political upheaval is not always motivated by truth—especially where there are clear partisan priorities are involved. Without corroborating evidence, such testimony must be taken with a liberal grain of salt.

The Medical Answer

The simple act of removing a head from a body is not what kills the brain. This doesn't just apply to the guillotine. Any forms of swift decapitation will have the same eventual result. If, however, the brain receives no trauma from the killing blow and the decapitation is clean, the brain will continue to function until the lack of oxygen and vital chemicals from blood loss causes unconsciousness and death. The current medical consensus is that survival does occur post-decapitation for a period of roughly 10 to 13 seconds. The amount of time varies depending on the victim's build, general health, and the immediate circumstances of the fatal blow.

The Question of Consciousness

Technical survival alone forms only part of the answer to how long a human head remains alive after decapitation. The second question must be, how long does the person remain aware? While the brain remains chemically alive, consciousness my cease immediately due to loss of blood pressure, or if the victim was knocked unconscious by the force of the decapitation. Worst case scenario, an individual could, in theory, remain conscious for some or all of their final thirteen seconds.

In fact, when French physician Dr. Beaurieux observed the 1905 execution of a criminal named Henri Languille, he later stated a report he published in "Archives d’Anthropologie Criminelle" that for nearly 30 seconds post-decapitation, he was able to get Languille to open his eyes and "undeniably" focus on him—twice—by calling the man's name.

Even taking scientific evidence into consideration, there's no single answer to the question of how long a decapitated head remains alive once it's been separated from the body to which it was once attached. While it's likely that the most fanciful of the legends—such as people biting one another post head chopping—are simply legends, at least for some who fell victim to the blade of the guillotine, it's very possible that their last few earthly seconds may well have taken place after their heads came off.

Sources

Bellows, Alan. "Lucid Decapitation." Damn Interesting. April 8, 2006.