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Guillotine and Death: How Long Does It Take?

07 Sep

There are very few things that can cause instantaneous death and virtually all involve severe trauma to the heart, brain, or upper spinal cord. A gunshot to the head or heart or the sudden fracture of the neck with spinal cord damage or transection (cutting in half) as occurs in hanging or severe accidents are events associated with instantaneous death.

But just how instantaneous is instantaneous? There is an adage in cardiology that says if the heart suddenly stops, loss of consciousness will occur in 4 seconds if standing, 8 if sitting, and 12 if lying down. This is simply a reflection of whether gravity drains blood from the brain or not. Gravity is a more powerful force if standing as opposed to reclining.

But what of beheading? Did Marie and Louie die instantly or did they have a few seconds of reflection?

The guillotine was a French favorite and some executions attracted large crowds to the Place de la Revolution, currently Place de la Concorde, in Paris. There was competition for the best seats and children were often brought to the festivities. I guess things were fairly boring during the post-monarchy Reign of Terror.

Often the blade didn’t do its job and the victim was only injured. He would then either bleed to death or the blade would have to be cranked up and dropped again. Who wouldn’t fight for a front row seat to this? I’ll pass. Seen way too many auto accidents in my career. Even one plane crash and a couple of train wrecks. Not pretty.

But even when the blade was quick and efficient, many witnesses said the victim’s head didn’t die instantly. Reports of grimacing, facial twitches, blinking eyes, mouth movements, and even speech from the severed head are numerous.

In 1905, Dr. Beaurieux reported on his close examination of Henri Languille’s guillotine execution. While he watched, the blade did its thing and Languille’s head dropped into the basket. Beaurieux had luck on his side when the head landed on its severed neck in an upright position. This allowed him to observe Languille’s face without having to touch the head or set it up right.

300px-Execution_of_Languille_in_1905

Languille’s Execution

Beaurieux’s observations:

“the eyelids and lips of the guillotined man worked in irregularly rhythmic contractions for about five or six seconds”

“I called in a strong, sharp voice: “Languille!” I saw the eyelids slowly lift up, without any spasmodic contractions……but with an even movement, quite distinct and normal, such as happens in everyday life, with people awakened or torn from their thoughts.”

“Next Languille’s eyes very definitely fixed themselves on mine and the pupils focused themselves.”

What happened here? Was Languille alive for those few seconds or were these movements simply neurological reflexes? Such reflexes are not uncommon and are simply the nerves firing and causing muscular activity. They do not require any stimulus from the brain so can occur after death.
Whether Languille lived a few seconds or whether these were normal reflexes will never be known but it is intriguing.

Guillotine Wikipedia

Beaurieux’s 1905 Report

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14 responses to “Guillotine and Death: How Long Does It Take?

  1. Susanne Alleyn

    September 11, 2009 at 5:25 am

    As someone who’s been writing about the French Revolution for a decade, and studying the history of the French executioners for much longer than that, I have to correct a misconception here. “Often the blade didn’t do its job and the victim was only injured” is a lurid myth. There are NO contemporary eyewitness accounts of guillotinings going wrong, with multiple chops needed–and there certainly would have been breathless descriptions in all the newspapers if it had happened.

    The only thing close to such an account is when Gouverneur Morris, the American ambassador, wrote in a letter after Louis XVI’s execution that (paraphrasing here) “the executioners were in such a hurry to get him in place that they set him wrong and he was mangled.” However, he didn’t witness it himself and he was wriiting four days after the execution (plenty of time for wild rumors to start) and there are no accounts from any actual eyewitnesses to the king’s execution that this happened–even from Louis’s partisans, who would have been the first to set up an outcry if it had gone wrong.

    Anyone who has seen an actual guillotine (stage magicians’ guillotines, the one at Madame Tussaud’s, and most movie props are totally inaccurate and much too small) would probably agree that it’s almost impossible for the chop to fail, unless the executioners are completely incompetent (which they certainly weren’t in the 18th century!) and let the victim thrash around until his neck is no longer where it’s supposed to be under the blade. The guillotine was very carefully designed by a surgeon and a highly trained craftsman to be as quick and efficient as possible and not cause any pain to the victim, and was tested several times before it was first used on a living victim. A guillotine blade, which is about 20 pounds of highly sharpened steel, is further weighted by a 60 to 80-pound lead weight attached to it. Drop this along well-greased grooves from the top of a 12-foot frame and there is no way it’s not going to go right through whatever’s underneath it.

    Charles Sanson, the master executioner during the French Revolution, wrote in his diary that once, during the first months of using the guillotine, the ropes that were used for hauling up the blade got tangled and the blade stopped halfway down its track (but NOT halfway through the victim’s neck!). This was immediately rectified and the ropes were no longer allowed to follow the blade in its descent, for fear of future mishaps. (From that point, a hook like a “lobster-claw” jewelry clasp was used to open and release the blade, and the blade dropped all by itself. Anytime you see a movie where the blade is dropping with a rope attached, they’ve got it wrong.)

    This, and Gouverneur Morris’s letter, are the only contemporary accounts that come anywhere near to saying that a guillotining went wrong. And, sorry, though heads and bodies certainly twitched, the mention of “even speech from the severed head” is another myth. Lips may move, but actual audible speech has never been reported and is, of course, impossible–no breath and probably the vocal cords have been sliced through.

    Sorry for this long-winded reply, but I really did have to set this straight. :-)

     
    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      September 11, 2009 at 8:04 am

      And thanks for doing so. Still I would suspect that there were failures at some time. Man has never built anything that didn’t fail at some time–even the greatest tech invention ever, the Space Shuttle, has failed–twice. Still the guillotine was infinitely better that the old axe and axman.
      Thanks for sharing your information with us.

       
    • Charles Krug

      September 19, 2011 at 3:13 pm

      There was one small inaccuracy
      The surgeon that you are reffering to must be Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotine, who was a professor of anatomy at the University of Paris. He recommended that a machine should be designed to decapitate all criminals sentenced to death, making the death penalty equal to all. Until then aristocrates were beheaded by sword or axe, and commoners were hung, which could take long and be exceedingly cruel. The actual design was made by an officer of the imperial court and was originally build by Tobias Schmied, a German harpsicord and piano maker.
      Evenso Dr. Guillotine did not really design the famous decapitation device which carries his name, he and his family nonetheless suffered the indignity of being associated with it by name.

       
      • Susanne Alleyn

        September 21, 2011 at 6:16 am

        The surgeon I referred to was Dr. Antoine Louis, physician to Louis XVI and, from 1764, lifetime secretary to the Académie Royale de Chirurgie. He had a hand in actually designing the machine, with some help from Schmidt the piano maker, much more so than Dr Guillotin, who only proposed its adoption. In the guillotine’s early use, it was nicknamed “Louisette” before the name “Guillotine” became popular.

         
  2. JG van Dijk, MD

    March 27, 2010 at 7:54 am

    “Was Languille alive for those few seconds or were these movements simply neurological reflexes?”

    Almost certainly the first is true, and my reasons for thinking so follow. There is extensive experience with tilt table test to provoke reflex syncope. I have personally observed several hundred such instances of syncope, documented with ECG, continuous blood pressure recordings, EEG and video recordings. I am not the only one to have done so; there are quite a few papers on the subject.

    Even with the most abrupt cardioinhibitory syncope, i.e., a sudden cessation of cardiac output, the EEG only starts to slow 5-8 seconds afterwards, and clinical evidence of losing consciousness follows some 2-3 seconds later. In the pause before the EEG starts to slow subjects are completely consious. In subjects with their heads attached to their bodies, aortic blood pressure will drive a steadily dinimishing volume of blood though the brain. When the head is cut off, cerebral blood flow will cease -virtually- immediately. How long the brain will last under such circumstances is not known as far as I am aware, but it is not at all likely that cortical cells should stop working instantly. Why should they?

    The duraton of full consciousness is probably less than the 6 seconds following a complete standstill of the heart, but several seconds are inescapable, enough to feel your head tumbling down and to be aware what is going on. Grisly as well as cruel.

     
  3. Henry Westin

    November 4, 2011 at 6:07 pm

    Is it true that Robespierre was guillotined face up? Or is that a rumor? That would have violated execution protocol. henry_westin@hotmail.com

     
    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      November 4, 2011 at 6:33 pm

      I have no idea.

       
    • Susanne Alleyn

      November 5, 2011 at 5:16 am

      Nonsense. It’s ridiculous. The only remotely possible origin of that rumor might be that Georges Couthon (guillotined with Robespierre), who was a cripple, supposedly had to be guillotined lying on his side because they could not get his body to lie straight on the plank. Where did this silly tale start, I wonder.

       
  4. silentsarcasm

    May 23, 2012 at 10:44 pm

    I have to write a paper about this during the French Revolution. I’ll make sure to cite you, thanks for the information!

     
    • Susanne Alleyn

      May 24, 2012 at 1:52 pm

      Silentsarcasm, if you need some help with the French Revolution or guillotines, feel free to email me. I’ve been researching these topics for decades for my novels.
      Susanne
      s.alleyn /at/ yahoo.com

       
  5. Ronnie Dunn

    November 14, 2013 at 5:29 am

    I hadnt registered the fact that the guillotine was used by the Nazis in conquered Europa. Was this ONLY in the areas incorporated in the Reich, or in general thru-out the militarily- occupied areas? It must have been used in special instances only, from my reading and discussions with survivors of the Nazi terror in both east and west Europa, shooting was generally used, and hanging. Very little if anything about head chopping except in Germany…..
    I wonder which would be quicker loss of consciousness… cut off at the neck- axe/guillotine, or a bullet to the back of the neck where the spinal chord enters the skull? i.e. the classic head shot at the rear base of the skull? Probably a million or more got that during the ww2 time-frame…

     
    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      November 14, 2013 at 8:30 am

      I suspect that both decapitation and a GSW to the head result in essentially instantaneous death. Of course that instant might pass very slowly to the victim. Or maybe very quickly. No one knows.

       
    • Susanne Alleyn

      November 14, 2013 at 9:28 am

      My in-house Nazi-era and WWII expert says that the guillotine was used only within the Reich, as part of a formal, court-imposed death sentence applied to German citizens, specifically political dissidents and traitors to the Reich (such as the members of the White Rose). Foreigners in conquered areas were disposed of more summarily by shooting, etc.

       

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