Odd beheading incident -- possible?

There is a particular incident I read a while back, involving a French executioner beheading someone with a sword. Evidently the blow from the sword was so quick, precise, and superbly executed that the head did not immediately fall.
The man just stood there, as if nothing had happened. The spectators thought that the executioner had actually missed, but he simply said to his victim something along the lines of, “Shake yourself – it is done!”, whereupon, in a few seconds, the man collapsed. Or, more accurately, the severed head fell one way, and the decapitated body fell the other way to the floor.

Now, at this point, I do not remember where I read this account.

I am wondering, though – is this even possible?

As always, I appreciate any information that you guys can give me.
And I apologize for the gruesome subject matter!

In my opinion it’s unlikely because beheadings weren’t traditionally performed on people that were standing up, as the story suggests. Plus as Shodan points out, the whole anatomical impossibility thing.

I believe this is more or less physiologically impossible - severing the nerves would make it impossible for a person with a severed head to initiate movement in the extremities.

I remember reading the same thing, but it was some medieval legend or other. I thought Gawaine and the Green Knight, but that isn’t it.


I think the first question would be “how were people positioned when they were executed?” The traditional depiction is that they kneel down and put their heads on a block, which looks like it would be easier for the executioner and would make for less mess. This story relies on someone being executed while standing up.

However I found a source that repeats the story. The book is called… wait for it… Amazing True Stories of Execution Blunders. It identifies the victim and the year, so that should help us look for details.

The only way that would be even remotely possible would be with a variable-sword.

Absent a light sabre, I’m thinking that it would be impossible.

Or maybe a Hattori Hanso wielded by a master?

Marley, I would think that a heavy sword, as reported in that quote, would cause the head to be jostled and dislodged.

You would need a thin blade to make a cut without dislodging the head, wouldn’t you?

Was the executioner really Connor McCleod?

I’ve seen video of people getting shot – I’m sure a lot of us have. I was always slightly amazed that the body collapses immediately. Like it was being held up by a string that just snaps with the gunshot. Wouldn’t that have happened to this dude as well? In fact, that might have been even more noteworthy, with a collapsed headless body on the ground, and head suspended in the air for a few momenst like a Wile-E-Coyote caroon.

IIRC, it’s not well-understood why this happens, and there’s some evidence that it’s actually a cultural/learned thing; people who expect to fall down when shot are more likely to do so. In other words, not universal.

What you’re saying makes sense to me, mlees, but I don’t know anything about swords, so I’m not going to assert that it would. On the other hand, online biographies of Jean-Francois Lefebvre, Chevalier de la Barre, don’t mention this incident. Here’s another. You would think they would include a detail like this. The guy was well known enough that there is a street named after him and some secularists consider the day of his execution a holiday.

I’m guessing this is an apocryphal legend that popular repute has attached to a well-known execution. It seems deeply implausible even knowing nothing about weaponry or the period. Sucks to be the Chevalier, though: at the age of 20 he was tortured, had his tongue cut out, and was then beheaded and then - in case the authorities had not made their point - was burned. According to Voltaire, he was falsely accused of blasphemous vandalism and also had some porn in his room. I guess he could not say “Hey, I’m a 20-year-old Frenchman!” as a defense.

Agreed- a light saber does do this sort of thing quite easily, hoever, even for the untrained

How did you know what Shodan was going to say in the following post?! :eek:

Eerie …

Best not to think about such things.

I assume you mean that the body collapses if the spinal cord is severed or brain stem is damaged. Often, when someone is shot in a way that does not damage the central nervous system, they will not collapse and will continue to fight or try to escape, perhaps not even registering the injury. This can even happen with head wounds with pistol caliber rounds that do not penetrate the skull or do not immediately result in damage to the brain stem.

In the case of a penetrating wound that does damage the CNS, yes, they will collapse immediately, just as someone who passes into unconsciousness will. The human body remains upright only by continued feedback and control, and no blade could severe the spinal cord so smoothly that the nerve impulses could be transmitted. Also, it would be very difficult to cleanly behead someone standing upright, even with a very sharp sword, as the neck has muscles going in several directions. Even if an executioner could direct the blade between vertebrae, the release of tension of the muscles would cause the head to shift.


My thought, exactly!

Here’s another guy telling the story: Geoffrey Abbott in 2006’s Execution: the Guillotine, the Pendulum, the Thousand Cuts, the Spanish Donkey, and 66 Other Ways of Putting Someone to Death.

Too bad the knight didn’t think to stall the execution by asking for watermelons when they were out of season. I’m not sure what Abbott’s source is here.

The story as told here was recounted in Chapter XIII of a book by Sanson’s grandson. The book gives a rather detailed account of the events leading up to the execution, although there do not seem to be any cites as to contemporary sources of the information. It is likely this source tapped by the author of the book cited by Marley23, although it doesn’t mention the bit about Sanson ordering his victim to shake. Near the end of the book, the author includes what are alledgedly several pages from Sanson’s diary, though the diary entries don’t cover this episode. It is not clear where the author could possibly have gotten such a dramatic and detailed account of the execution if not from Sanson’s own writings.

A thread on the difficulties of beheading someone can be found here: How easy is it to sever a head?