Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Decapitation, or beheading, is the removal of a head. Beheading typically refers to the act of intentional decapitation, e.g., as a means of murder or execution; it may be accomplished, for example, with an axe, sword, or knife, or by means of a guillotine. Accidental decapitation can be the result of an explosion, automobile or industrial accident or other violent injury and always results in immediate death.
Separation of the head from the rest of the body inevitably causes death in humans: there is heavy bleeding from both the head and decapitated body, causing a massive drop in blood pressure and rapid loss of consciousness followed quickly by brain death. Even if the bleeding were stopped, the lack of circulation to supply oxygen to the brain would rapidly lead to brain death. No known medical emergency treatment can save a decapitated patient. In theory, connecting a cardiac pump to a severed head might keep it alive, but this is not known to have ever been tried in practice. However, head transplants have been carried out successfully in monkeys; the first stage of such a transplant, of course, is a surgical decapitation (in which, however, great care is taken to maintain the blood supply by means of catheterization). Thus, survival of a head separated from its body is not an inherent impossibility.
An even more gruesome issue is whether a decapitated head retains consciousness after separation from the body. The issue has been debated many times, especially in the context of whether beheading is or is not a humane form of execution (see below). No definitive answer has ever emerged. Many have argued that loss of consciousness would be virtually instantaneous, either as a result of the massive drop in cerebral blood pressure, or because of the impact of the severing implement. Nevertheless, anecdotal evidence, of varying degrees of credibility, has circulated for centuries that severed heads may, under some circumstances, retain consciousness for at least a few seconds.
The word decapitation can also refer, on occasion, to the removal of the head of someone who is already dead, i.e., to a corpse. This would have probably made the most sense for the purpose of displaying the head to prove the fact of the individual's death or to instill fear in the populace by illustrating the likely fate of an enemy of the authorities.
Decapitation throughout history
Decapitation has been used as a form of capital punishment for millennia. The modern legal terminology capital offence or capital crime, as well as the term capital punishment itself, derives from the punishment for qualifying serious offences having been the removal of one's head (from Latin, caput, capitis, meaning head). Political prisoners (labelled traitors) and serious criminals often had their heads removed and placed on public display for a period of time. For instance, in medieval England, the heads were placed on spikes along the walls of the Tower of London. On the other hand, execution by beheading with a sword could be at times considered an "honourable" way to die for an aristocrat, who, presumably being a warrior, could generally expect to die by the sword in any event. This would be distinguished from a "dishonourable" death on the gallows or through burning at the stake.
If the headsman's axe or sword was sharp and his aim was true, decapitation was a quick and relatively painless form of death. If the instrument was blunt or the execution clumsy, however, multiple strokes might be required to sever the head, which presumably was considerably more painful. The person to be executed was therefore advised to give a gold coin to the headsman so that he did his job with care.
Decapitation by guillotine was a common form of execution invented shortly before the French Revolution (although an earlier version of the guillotine, the gibbet, was used in Britain until the 17th century). The aim was that only one form of execution, involving no torture, should exist. It was used in France until 1977.
In ancient China decapitation was considered a more severe form of punishment than strangulation in spite of the fact that strangulation led to more prolonged suffering. This was because the Chinese believed that their bodies were gifts from their parents and that it was very disrespectful to their ancestors to return one's body to the grave dismembered.
In Japan, decapitation was historically performed as the second step in seppuku (ritual suicide by disembowelment). After the victim had sliced his own stomach open, another warrior would strike his head off from behind with a katana to hasten death and to ease the suffering. As skill was involved, only the most trusted was honoured to take the part. In the late Sengoku period, decapitation was performed as soon as the man to commit seppuku had made the slightest wound to his stomach.
Decapitation was also the highest form of punishment. One of the most brutal forms of decapitation was that of a samurai, Ishida Mitsunari, who had betrayed Tokugawa Ieyasu. He was buried in the ground and his head was sawed off with a blunt wooden saw. This punishment was abolished in the early Meiji era.
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 such an event, so certain commentators believe that this verse refers to the last great persecution of the church that some Christians believe will occur shortly before the Second Coming of Christ.
Decapitation in the modern world
The use of decapitation has been discontinued in part because of suspicion that the severed head may in certain cases continue to be alive to some extent and capable of feeling pain. Some evidence for this was gathered by studying the presence of death-related chemicals in the brains of beheaded animals. There have also been many apocryphal stories from France about the severed heads of guillotined persons that would change facial expression or move their lips. Certainly another major reason for the end of the practice of beheading is the violent and messy nature of the practice.
Decapitation by sword has in modern times occurred in jurisdictions subject to Islamic Sharia, and by militant Islamists during the US-led invasion of Iraq. As of 2004, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran and Qatar had laws allowing decapitation but only Saudi Arabia was known to practice the sentence.
Less orthodox instances of decapitation have also occurred in recent times in some areas of Colombia. Right wing paramilitary groups such as the AUC have sometimes used this method to intimidate local populations and it has not been uncommon for their Left wing guerrilla enemies in the FARC as well as 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 machete or chainsaw.
Beheading by Islamist militants
After the 2003 invasion of Iraq and during both the U.S. led occupation of Iraq and the "War on Terror", some foreigners have been kidnapped by Islamic extremists and used for pressing the United States and the rest of the countries of the coalition to release prisoners or remove their troops from the country. In many cases the kidnappers have also seized other Muslims as hostages, especially non-Arabs and Shia Muslims. The kidnappers threaten to behead the victims if their demands are not met. Where the kidnappers have not succeeded the beheading has sometimes been videotaped and the tape sent to the media, who however did not broadcast the actual beheadings. The executioners frequently use a knife or hacksaw rather than a quicker method such as axe or guillotine. The killers sometimes flash the head in front of the camera and then set it onto the decapitated body as a way of showing that the person died. In July 1995 the Kashmiri islamist group al-Faran kidnapped five Western tourists in Kashmir because India's Government refused to release guerillas who were held in prison. One of them was later found beheaded.
Some famous persons who have been beheaded
- John the Baptist in the Gospels
- Holofernes in the deuterocanonical Book of Judith (probably fictional)
- Apostle James, traditionally
- Apostle Paul, traditionally
Actually thousands of famous Chinese have been decapitated since decapitation was the most commonly used capital punishment in imperial China.
- William Hastings, 1st Baron Hastings (1483)
- Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham (1521)
- Sir Thomas More (1535)
- George Boleyn, Viscount Rochford (1536)
- Anne Boleyn (1536)
- Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex (1540)
- Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury (1541)
- Catherine Howard (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)
- Walter Raleigh (1618)
- Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford (1641)
- William Laud (1645)
- Charles I of England (1649)
- James Hamilton, 1st Duke of Hamilton (1649)
- James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth (1685)
- Simon Fraser, 11th Lord Lovat (1747)
- Marie Antoinette
- Georges Danton
- Madame du Barry
- Louis XVI of France
- Antoine Lavoisier
- Maximilien Robespierre
- Camille Desmoulins
- Louis de Saint-Just
- Philippe Egalité
- Jacques Hébert
- Adam Philippe, Comte de Custine
- Jacques Pierre Brissot
- Charlotte Corday
- Madame Roland
- Pierre Victurnien Vergniaud
- Jean Sylvain Bailly
- Antoine Barnave
- William Wallace was hanged, drawn and quartered; his head was impaled on a pike on London Bridge
- Mary Queen of Scots
- Marinus van der Lubbe, January 10, 1933 (executed after he was accused of setting fire to the German Reichstag building)
- Sophie Scholl, February 22, 1943 (executed for treason)
- Yukio Mishima, November 25, 1970 (seppuku)
- Vic Morrow, July 23, 1982 (accident)
- Robert Lees, June 13, 2004 (murdered)
Iraq Insurgency Decapitation Victims
- 1 Bulgarian
- 1 Pakistani
- 1 Turkman
- 1 Nepali (one of twelve was beheaded , the rest shot)
- 3 Iraqi Kurds
- 2 of unknown nationality
- Hans Christian Ostrø, August, 1995
- Daniel Pearl, 29/30 January 2002
- Nicholas Berg, April/May, 2004
- Paul Johnson, June 18, 2004
- Kim Sun-il, June 22, 2004
- Mohammed Mutawalli , August 8, 2004
- Khaled Abdul Messih , August 25, 2004
- Durmus Kumdereli , August 17/September 13 2004
- Eugene Armstrong September 20, 2004
- Jack Hensley September 21, 2004
- Barea Nafea Dawoud Ibrahim October 2, 2004
- Kenneth Bigley, October 8, 2004
- Luqman Mohammed Kurdi Hussein, reported October 11, 2004
- Maher Kemal, reported October 11, 2004
- Ala al-Maliki, October 12, 2004
- Fadhel Ibrahim , October 13, 2004
- Firas Imeil , October 13, 2004
- Ramazan Elbu , October 14, 2004
- Seif Adnan Kanaan, October 22, 2004
- 1 Iraqi, October 28, 2004 (one of eleven was beheaded, the rest shot)
- Shosei Koda, October 31, 2004
- Major Hussein Shunun , November 3, 2004
Decapitation in politics and in the military
The term 'decapitation' is also used in politics, and other organisational structures as meaning to remove the leaders, ie. the 'head', of the organisation in the hope or expectation that it would flounder without direction from the top. This is a figurative usage, rather than the literal meanings above.
'Decapitation' is similarly used as a military term to refer to the targeting of the leader of a country or army, such as the United States' "decapitation attempt" against Saddam Hussein. 
- Is decapitation of civilians allowed by Islamic law? (Islamonline.net)
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