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Decapitation (from Latin, caput, capita, meaning head) is the separation of the head of an animal from its body. 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, knife, wire, or by means of a guillotine. An executioner carrying out decapitations is called a headsman.

Accidental decapitation can be the result of an explosion, automobile or industrial accident, improperly-administered execution by hanging or other violent injury. Suicide by decapitation is rare, but not unknown.

The word decapitation can also refer, on occasion, to the removal of the head from a body that is already dead. This might be done to take the head as a trophy, for public display, to make the deceased more difficult to identify, for cryonics or for other reasons.

In an analogous fashion, decapitation can also refer to the removal of a head of an organization. If, for example, the leader of a country were killed, that might be referred to as 'decapitation'. It is also used of a political strategy aimed at unseating high-profile members of a party, as used by the Liberal Democrats in the United Kingdom general election, 2005.

Decapitation is immediately fatal, as brain death occurs within seconds to minutes without the support of the organism's body.



Decapitation has been used as a form of capital punishment for millennia. The terms "capital offence", "capital crime", "capital punishment," derive from the Latin caput, "head", referring to the punishment for serious offenses involving the forfeiture of the head; i.e. death by beheading. Decapitation by sword (or axe, a military weapon as well) was sometimes considered the "honorable" way to die for an aristocrat, who, presumably being a warrior, could often expect to die by the sword in any event; in England it was considered a privilege of noblemen to be beheaded. This would be distinguished from a "dishonorable" death on the gallows or through burning at the stake. In medieval Englandmarker, high treason by nobles was punished by beheading; male commoners, including knights, were hanged, drawn, and quartered; female commoners were burned at the stake.

In countries where beheading was the usual means of capital punishment, such as in Scandinavia, the noblemen would be beheaded with a sword, symbolizing their class as a military caste, thus dying by an instrument of war, while the commoners would be beheaded with an axe.


If the headsman's axe or sword was sharp and his aim was true, decapitation was quick and was presumed to be a relatively painless form of death. If the instrument was blunt or the executioner clumsy, however, multiple strokes might be required to sever the head. The person to be executed was therefore advised to give a gold coin to the headsman so that he did his job with care. Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex and Mary, Queen of Scots required three strikes at their respective executions. Margaret Pole, 8th Countess of Salisbury required ten strokes before the fatal blow.

To ensure that the blow would be fatal, executioners' swords usually were blade-heavy two-handed swords. Likewise, if an axe was used, it almost invariably would be wielded with both hands. In England a special form of axe was used for beheadings, with the blade's edge extending downwards from the tip of the shaft.

Finlandmarker's official beheading axe resides today at the Museum of Crime in Helsinkimarker. It is a broad-bladed two-handed axe. It was last used when murderer Toivo Koljonen was executed in 1826. All subsequent Finnish executions were made by firing squad. Capital punishment is no longer practiced in Finland.


Decapitation by guillotine was a common, mechanically-assisted form of execution, invented shortly before the French Revolution (although an earlier version of the guillotine, the Halifax Gibbetmarker, was used in Halifaxmarker, England from 1286 until the 17th century). The aim was to create a painless and quick form of execution that did not require great skill to carry out. The executioner, after chopping off the head, would hold it up to the crowd. It was believed (with dubious evidence) that the head could still see for around ten seconds. The account of Dr. Beaurieux who observed the decapitation of a convict named Languille in 1905, may imply that the head could still see as he recounts "Next Languille's eyes very definitely fixed themselves on mine and the pupils focussed themselves" (A history of the guillotine, Alister Kershaw). The French had a strict code of etiquette surrounding the executions; a man named Legros, one of the assistants at the execution of Charlotte Corday, was imprisoned for three months and dismissed for slapping the face of the victim after the blade had fallen in order to see whether any flicker of life remained . The guillotine was used in Francemarker during the French Revolution and remained the normal judicial method in both peacetime and wartime into the 1970s, although the firing squad was used in certain cases. France abolished the death penalty in 1981. The guillotine was also used in Algeriamarker before the Frenchmarker relinquished control of it, as shown in Gillo Pontecorvo's film The Battle of Algiers. Another guillotine existed in Vatican Citymarker until recent years. It had been brought in by Napoleon's forces during the early 19th century; and, in 1870, the Pope still claimed the authority to use it. In recent times however, the Vatican has abolished capital punishment in its own jurisdiction, and recent Popes have condemned capital punishment where it is still practiced.

Aristocratic heads on pikes - a cartoon from the French Revolution

German Fallbeil

Many German states had used a guillotine-like device known as a Fallbeil since the 17th and 18th centuries, and decapitation by guillotine was the usual means of execution in Germany until the abolition of the death penalty in West Germany in 1949. In Nazi Germany, the guillotine was reserved for criminal convicts and political crimes including treason. A famous example of the guillotine being used was on the members of the White Rose resistance movement, a group of students in Munich led by Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans. Contrary to popular myth, executions were generally not conducted face-up, and chief executioner Johann Reichhart was peculiarly insistent on maintaining "professional" protocol throughout the era, having administered the death penalty during the earlier Weimar era. Nonetheless, the Nazis' use of the Fallbeil was chillingly routine. It is estimated that some 16,500 persons were guillotined in Germany and Austria between 1933 and 1945. This number includes resistance fighters both in Nazi Germany itself and in those countries that were occupied by them. As these resistance fighters were not part of any regular army they were considered common criminals and were in many cases taken to Germany and decapitated. Decapitation was considered a "dishonorable" death, unlike an "honorable" death, e.g., execution by firing squad.

Nordic countries

In Nordic Countries, decapitation was the usual means of carrying out capital punishment. Noblemen were beheaded with a sword, and commoners with an axe. The last executions by decapitation in Finlandmarker in 1825, Norwaymarker in 1876 and in Icelandmarker in 1830 were carried out with axes. The same was the case in Denmarkmarker in 1892. The last decapitation in Swedenmarker was carried out in 1910 with a guillotine. The last execution in Sweden carried out with an axe was in 1900.

Book of Revelation

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 precisely such an event, and certain commentators believe that this verse refers to a last great persecution of the church that some Christians believe will occur shortly before the Second Coming of Christ . There are some who interpret this as losing the natural (or carnal) mind, and taking on the "mind of Christ".

The Quran

Beheading is sanctioned in the Quran under these passages:

5:33-“The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is: execution (by beheading), or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land: that is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the Hereafter;”

8:12- “I will instill terror into the hearts of the unbelievers: smite ye above their necks and smite all their finger-tips off.”

47:4- “Therefore, when ye meet the Unbelievers (in fight), strike off their heads; at length; then when you have made wide Slaughter among them, carefully tie up the remaining captives”: thereafter (is the time for) either generosity or ransom: Until the war lays down its burdens.”

Historical practices by nation



traditional Chinamarker decapitation was considered a more severe form of punishment than strangulation although strangulation caused more prolonged suffering. This was because in Confucian tradition bodies were gifts from their parents, and so it was therefore disrespectful to their ancestors to return their bodies to the grave dismembered. The Chinese however had other punishments, such as the lingering death, that involved dismembering the body into multiple pieces (similar to English quartering). In addition, there was also a practice of cutting the body at the waist, which was a common way of execution before being abolished in early Qing dynasty.


Pakistan's government employs death by hanging for capital punishment. Since 2007, militants from Tehrek-e-Taliban Pakistan have used beheadings as a form of punishment for opponents, criminals and spies in the north west region of Pakistan. Severed heads of opponents or government officials in Swat were left on popular street corners in order to terrorize local population. The beheadings have stopped in Swat since the military incursion and sweep-up that began in May 2009 and ended in June 2009.

A video obtained by the Associated Press on April 20, 2007 shows a young boy, appearing to be around 12 years of age, beheading a man identified as Ghulam Nabi, a Pakistani militant accused of betraying the Taliban. According to the AP report, "A continuous 2 1/2-minute shot then shows the victim lying on his side on a patch of rubble-strewn ground. A man holds Nabi by his beard while the boy, wearing a camouflage military jacket and oversized white sneakers, cuts into the throat. Other men and boys call out "Allahu akbar!" — "God is great!" — as blood spurts from the wound. The film, overlain with nasheeds, then shows the boy hacking and slashing at the man's neck until the head is severed."


Condemned Chinese about to be beheaded by Japanese soldiers, 1901

In Japanmarker, decapitation was a common punishment, sometimes for minor offenses. Samurai were often allowed to decapitate soldiers who had fled from battle, as it was considered cowardly. Decapitation was historically performed as the second step in seppuku (ritual suicide by disembowelment). After the victim had sliced his own abdomen open, another warrior would strike his head off from behind with a katana to hasten death and to reduce the suffering. The blow was expected to be precise enough to leave intact a small strip of skin at the front of the neck - to spare invited and honored guests the indelicacy of witnessing a severed head rolling about, or towards them; such an event would have been considered inelegant and in bad taste. The sword was expected to be used upon the slightest sign that the practitioner might yield to pain and cry out - avoiding dishonor to him, and to all partaking in the privilege of observing an honorable demise. As skill was involved, only the most trusted warrior was honored enough to take part. In the late Sengoku period, decapitation was performed as soon as the person chosen to carry out seppuku had made the slightest wound to his abdomen. Decapitation (without seppuku) was also considered the severest and most degrading form of punishment. One of the most brutal decapitations was that of a daimyo, Ishida Mitsunari, who had warred against Ieyasu Tokugawa. After he lost the Battle of Sekigahara, he was buried in the ground and his head was sawn off with a blunt bamboo saw. These unusual punishments were abolished in the early Meiji era.However, the Japanese used decapitation extensively during World War II, especially against Chinese Nationals. A particularly brutal case is that of the Nanking Massacre, in which thousands of Chinese were killed through decapitation. The Japanese viewed the Chinese, Koreans, and other East Asian peoples as inferior to Japan and not worthy of humane treatment. After World War II, Japan stopped using decapitation as a punishment against both Japanese citizens and foreign citizens.


In Southern Thailandmarker, there were at least 15 cases where Buddhists have been beheaded in 2005. Thai officials suspect the attackers are part of the South Thailand Muslim insurgency who are seeking to separate the south end part from the rest of Thailand.


Chechenmarker Muslim rebels were known to practice beheading against the captured Russian Army soldiers during the First Chechen War and the Second Chechen War. Four Western telecommunication workers (three Britons and a New Zealander) who were taken hostage for ransom in Chechnya in 1998, were eventually beheaded and their heads were found on a side of a road. In 1999, a beheading video was widely circulated on the internet, depicting a Russian soldier being beheaded by Chechen rebels.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

During the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1992-1995) there were a number of ritual beheadings of Serbs who were taken as prisoners of war by mujahedin members of the Bosnian Army. At least one case is documented and proven in court by the ICTYmarker where mujahedin, members of 3rd Corps of Army BiH, beheaded Bosnian Serb Dragan Popović.


During the Frisian Peasant Rebellion between 1515 and 1523, the Burgundian and Habsburgian enemies were usually beheaded when captured to prevent them from returning to fight again. The rebel leader, Pier Gerlofs Donia performed many of the decapitations. He was known for his amazing skill and for the ability to behead multiple people in a single blow using a Zweihänder with the amazing length of 213 cm (~7 ft). For his extreme brutality he was nicknamed "Cross of the Dutchmen".



In Spain executions were carried out by various methods including strangulation by the garrotte. In the 16th. and 17th. century noblemen were sometimes executed by means of beheading. They were tied to a chair on a scaffold. The executioner used a knife to cut the head from the body. It was considered to be a more honourable death if the executioner started with cutting the throat.

North America


Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, Ignacio Allende, José Mariano Jiménez and Juan Aldama were tried for treason, executed by firing squad and beheaded during the Mexican independence in 1811. Their heads were on display on the four corners of the Alhóndiga de Granaditas, in Guanajuatomarker.

Recently during the Mexican Drug War some Mexican drug cartels have turned to decapitation of rival cartel members as a method of intimidation.

Middle East

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabian authorities beheaded four men in February 2007— Sangeeth Kumara, Victor Corea, Ranjith Silva and Sanath Pushpakumara. These four Sri Lankan workers were convicted in a Saudi Arabian court for an armed robbery committed in October 2004. Their deaths sparked reactions from the international human rights watchdog Amnesty International, which called on the Saudi authorities to abolish the death sentence. The court also ruled that the bodies of the four workers be crucified for public view as an example for others. In most of the cases the respective embassy gets notification only after the execution thereby eliminating chances for international or diplomatic uproar.


Beheadings have emerged as another tactic especially in Iraq since April 2003. Foreign civilians have borne the brunt of the beheadings, although U.S. and Iraqi military personnel have also been targeted. After kidnapping the victim, the kidnappers typically make some sort of demand of the government of the hostage's nation and give a time limit for the demand to be carried out, often 72 hours. Beheading is often threatened if the government fails to heed the wishes of the hostage takers. Frequently the crude beheadings are videotaped and made available on the Internet. One of the most publicized of such executions was that of Nick Berg.

Judicial execution is practiced in Iraq, but is generally carried out by hanging.



On March 13 2008, it was reported that Hizbul Shabaab militants fighting the presence of an interim government backed by thousands of Ethiopian combat troops in Somalia beheaded three government soldiers. It was the first case of beheadings since the government and its Ethiopian military allies ousted the Islamists from power in late 2006, sparking a bloody insurgency characterised by roadside bombs and hit-and-run attacks.

Notable people who have been beheaded

See also


External links

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