Daily Archives: September 7, 2009

Guillotine and Death: How Long Does It Take?

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.


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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