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Decapitation (from Latin, caput, capitis, meaning head), or beheading, is the removal of a living organism's 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, any kind of wire, or knife, or by means of a guillotine. 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. An executioner carrying out decapitations is called a headsman.

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, or for other reasons.

In an analogous fashion, decapitation can also refer to the removal of the head of an organization. If, for example, the leader of a country were killed, that might be referred to as 'decapitation'.

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


Judith, beheading Holofernes by Caravaggio. Ca. 1598.
Beheading—facsimile of a miniature on wood in the Cosmographie Universelle of Munster: in folio, Basle, 1552.


Decapitation has been used as a form of capital punishment for millennia. The terms capital offence, capital crime, and capital punishment derive from the punishment for serious offenses involving the forfeiture of the head or life[1]. Decapitation by sword (or axe, a military weapon as well) was sometimes considered the "honourable" 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 "dishonourable" death on the gallows or through burning at the stake. 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. Not getting their proper money's worth, Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex and Mary, Queen of Scots required three strikes at their respective executions. But compared to Essex and Mary, James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth required at least five strokes before the executioner used a knife to complete the execution.

The Beheading of Cosmas and Damian, by Fra Angelico

To ensure 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 used by both hands.


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 Gibbet, was used in Halifax, 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 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 and dismissed for slapping the face of the victim after the blade had fallen in order to see whether any flicker of life remained[citation needed] (witnesses say that it blushed as though angry, although, with no blood circulation possible, this evidence is obviously false). The guillotine was used in France during the French Revolution and remained the normal judicial method in both peacetime and wartime into the 1970s, the firing squad being used in certain cases. France abolished the death penalty in 1981. The guillotine was also used in Algeria before the French relinquished control of it, as shown in Gillo Pontecorvo's film The Battle of Algiers. Another guillotine existed in Vatican City 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 and did indeed use it, once. 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 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 40,000 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., by execution by firing squad.


In Scandinavia, 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 Finland in 1825, Norway in 1876 and in Iceland in 1830 were carried out with axes. The same was the case in Denmark in 1892. The last decapitation in Sweden was carried out in 1910 with a guillotine. The last execution in Sweden carried out with an axe was in 1900.

Book of Revelation

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 precisely such an event, so 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.


In traditional China decapitation was considered a more severe form of punishment than strangulation although strangulation caused more-prolonged suffering. This was because the Chinese believed that their bodies were gifts from their parents, and that 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 cutting the body into multiple pieces. 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.


In Japan, decapitation was a common punishment, sometimes for minor offenses. Samurai were often allowed to decapitate their inferiors (who were nearly everyone else) at will. James Clavell makes this point early in his novel Shogun. In addition, 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 decapitated head rolling about, or towards them, whilst spraying blood; 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: spectators were invited to help with the sawing, also described at the end of the novel Shogun.[citation needed] These unusual punishments were abolished in the early Meiji era.


The Muslim rulers of India, especially the Mughals, treated their religious rivals with exceptional severity.The Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur was openly beheaded at Chandni Chowk in Delhi by Aurangzeb after he refused to convert to Islam. To add insult to the injury he forbade any ritual cremation of the Guru. An infuriated Jaita the Rangretta, a sweeper-caste devotee of the Guru, snatched the head away from the executioners and brought it to Anandpur Sahib for the traditional ceremony. The headless torso was also stolen by another devotee of the Guru and cremated in Delhi.

Modern world

Condemned Chinese about to be beheaded by Japanese soldiers, 1901

Sharia law

Decapitation by sword has in modern times occurred in jurisdictions subject to Islamic Sharia Law. As of 2007, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Qatar all had laws allowing decapitation, but only Saudi Arabia was known to practice the sentence; a curved, single-edged sword is used, in public. This event is carried out in the main mosque of the city on Friday following prayers. Rape, murder, drug crimes, and religious crimes draw this public punishment.

Terrorist Decapitation

Militant Islamic groups have, in recent years, begun carrying out beheadings with small knives, some as small as pocket knives: these beheadings begin with cutting the throat, then slowly severing the head, beginning with the spine. Historically, most methods of beheading use a heavy, sharp steel blade, cutting through the neck from behind, which quickly severs the spine, then cuts the blood vessels, trachea, and esophagus: a single stroke usually suffices. The gangs' frontal approach more closely resembles Ḏabīḥah, a method used to slaughter animals, thereby rendering the meat halal, in which the goal is to drain all the blood from the animal as quickly as possible. Ritual slaughter of this kind does not require decapitation, only the draining of all the blood: commonly—and controversially—the animal is hanging upside down before its throat is cut. Among those who practiced this nonritual slaughter were Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who confessed to beheading American journalist Daniel Pearl.

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 ICTY where mujahedin, members of 3rd Corps of Army BiH, beheaded Bosnian Serb Dragan Popović.[2][3]


Less orthodox instances of decapitation have also occurred in recent times in some areas of Colombia. Marxist FARC guerrilla as well as right-wing paramilitary groups such as the AUC have sometimes used this method to intimidate local populations and political opponents, and it has not been uncommon for criminal gangs of druglords to also make limited use of decapitation on occasion.[citation needed] The primary means of decapitation in these cases has been the use of a machete or a chainsaw.


The militant Islamic separatist group Abu Sayyaf is known to practice beheading in the southern islands of the Philippines.[4]


In largely Muslim Indonesia, three Christian schoolgirls were beheaded and one other was critically wounded by Islamist extremists in October 2005.[5]

Saudi Arabia

In April 2005, Saudi Arabian authorities beheaded six Somali nationals for auto theft, causing tension between the two countries. Without a government however, Somalia couldn't intervene on behalf of its citizens. Somalis all over the world have protested the Saudi action.

Saudi Arabian authorities also 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.[6]

On January 12, 2008, an Indonesian housemaid was beheaded in Saudi Arabia after being convicted of killing her employer.[7]


In Southern Thailand, there were at least 15 cases where Buddhists have been beheaded in 2005. Thai officials suspect the attackers are part of the South Thailand insurgency who are seeking to separate the Muslim-dominated south from the rest of Thailand[8][9].


Chechen 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[10]. In 1999, a beheading video was widely circulated on the internet, depicting a Russian soldier being beheaded by Chechen rebels.


Jack Hensley, seated in orange, after his capture in Iraq, before being beheaded by the five men standing over him

Beheadings have emerged as another tactic especially in Iraq since April of 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 - usually utterly impossible to fulfill - 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 beheadings are videotaped and made available on the Internet.

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


On January 12, 2007 in Armidale, New South Wales, a World War II veteran named Mark Edwin Hutchinson was beheaded in the backyard of his home by an unknown assailant.[11]

In May 2007, Matthew James Woodroffe-Hill, 41, from Tenterfield was charged with this murder.

Ghulam Nabi (Pakistan)

A video obtained by the Associated Press on April 20, 2007 shows a young boy, appearing to be around 12 years of age, viciously 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!" — "Allah is greater!" — as blood spurts from the wound. The film, overlain with jihadi songs, then shows the boy hacking and slashing at the man's neck until the head is severed."[12]


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.[13]

Notable people who have been beheaded

Salome and the Beheading of St. John the Baptist, by Titian

Biblical Accounts

Christian Saints






The heads of famous English traitors were customarily spiked on London Bridge

Colonial Americas

  • Panama
Vasco Núñez de Balboa was the Spanish conquistador who discovered the Pacific Ocean (1519)
  • Brazil
[Joaquim José da Silva Xavier]] (Tiradentes). The body was quartered after his hanging (1792)
Miguel Hidalgo and Ignacio Allende, Mexican insurgentes were beheading after their executions by Firing Squad in 1811.

French Revolution

World War II





  • In August 2007 a video surfaced on the Internet of Russian neo-Nazis beheading a one man and shooting one other. One of the men was from Dagestan and rhe other, from Tajikistan. [1]
  • Yemelyan Pugachev

United States


Saudi Arabia


  • A French ambassador at Istanbul showed the Grand Seignior a painting of the Decollation of St. John, admirably represented, except that the painter had not observed that when a person is beheaded, the skin around the head shrinks back a little. The emperor immediately noticed this fault, and to convince the ambassador thereof, sent orders for a man to be immediately beheaded, and his head to be brought as proof.[14]
  • Talk radio host Michael Savage hosts videos of Western hostages in Iraq being beheaded on his website.

See also


  1. ^ Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, edited by Noah Porter, published by G & C. Merriam Co., 1913
  4. ^ "Abu Sayyaf Group (Philippines, Islamist separatists)," Council on Foreign Relations. URL
  5. ^ Three Schoolgirls Beheaded in Indonesia, Fox News
  6. ^ BBC
  7. ^ Saudi Arabia beheads foreign maid
  8. ^ "Buddhist decapitated in Thailand". Herald Sun. July 26, 2005. Retrieved 2008-02-15.
  9. ^ "Man beheaded, two shot dead". News Limited. October 14, 2005. Retrieved 2008-02-15.
  10. ^ "Four Western hostages beheaded in Chechnya". CNN. December 8, 1998. Retrieved 2008-02-15.
  11. ^ Armidale wakes to shocking news By Mark Smith and Anna Moulder Dated: Monday, January 15, 2007
  12. ^ The Star Online Video in Pakistan shows youngster beheading man for alleged betrayal of Taliban leader Dated: Saturday, April 21, 2007
  13. ^
  14. ^ Nicolas Catherinot, Traite De La Peinture, 1687.  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChambers, Ephraim, ed. (1728). "article name needed". Cyclopædia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (first ed.). James and John Knapton, et al.

External links