If you ever find yourself in a pub with me, chances are that at some point, the conversation will turn to death. Not just death, but the terrifying and horrible ways people have succumbed to it in the past.

I have often heard a story retold about a man who attended the execution of his friend during the French Revolution. Seconds after the guillotine fell, the man retrieved the severed head and asked it a series of questions in order to determine whether or not it was possible to retain consciousness after decapitation. Through a system of blinking, the victim allegedly communicated his message back to his friend. The ending to this story changes according to the whims of the narrator… or perhaps the number of drinks he or she has consumed by that time.

I wondered: was this the 18th-century equivalent to an urban legend? Or could there, in fact, be a degree of truth in this ghastly tale?

My investigation into this grisly subject took me down some strange but intriguing paths.

In 1791, the French National Assembly decreed that all those condemned to death should die by means of decapitation.  This was decided on upon the advice of Dr Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a man who petitioned for this method of execution on the grounds that it was more humane than traditional methods of strangulation. Ironically, the good doctor’s name would soon become associated with the very thing he wished to abolish: the death penalty.

[Incidentally, should you ever feel compelled to make your own model of a guillotine, you can find the instructions here.]

As soon as the guillotine was put into use, debates broke out over how ‘humane’ decapitation really was. When Charlotte Corday’s head was sliced off with a guillotine in 1793, witnesses observed that she blushed after being slapped by the executioner. One spectator wrote:

The eyes seemed to retain speculation for a moment or two, and there was a look in the ghastly stare…which implied that the head was aware of its ignominious situation. [1]

Another wrote to Dr Guillotin asking: ‘Do you know that it is not at all certain when a head is severed from the body by the guillotine that the feelings, personality and ego are instantaneously abolished…?’ [2] Others soon took an interest in this question and set out to find an answer.

The first to reportedly do so was a Dr Séguret, who subjected a number of guillotined heads to a series of experiments during the French Revolution. In several instances, he exposed their eyes to the sun and observed that they ‘promptly closed, of their own accord, and with an aliveness that was both abrupt and startling’. He also pricked one of the severed head’s tongue with a lancet, noting that the tongue immediately retracted and  ‘the facial features grimaced as if in pain’. [3] Was this my urban legend?

Right century, wrong story.

The trail went cold, until I came across the story of Jean Baptiste Vincent Laborde nearly a hundred years later. [4] In 1884, the French authorities began supplying Laborde with the severed heads of condemned criminals. In a series of experiments, Laborde ‘bore holes in the skull and insert[ed] needles into the brain’. [5] He then ran an electrical current through the needles in an attempt to trigger a response from the nervous system. In one instance, a prisoner reportedly opened an eye, as if ‘he sought to figure out where he was and what sort of strange locality hell had turned out to be’. [6]

As interesting as Laborde and his twisted experiments were, this still wasn’t the story I had hoped to find.

Just then, I came across a newspaper clipping dated 4 July 1892 entitled (appropriately enough): ‘Being Decapitated: An Interesting Question that May Never be Answered’. This looked promising. I scoured the article for more details.

In it, a letter from the condemned murderer, Louis Anastay, is described. Prior to his death, he entreated his brother to attend his execution and solve a mystery which had been plaguing doctors for a century. He wrote:

The separation of my body and that which constitutes my thinking being cannot so soon be accomplished. I believe there is a survival of about an hour. Come, then, Leon, be present at my execution and insist that my head be given to you. Call me with your voice and my eyes will reply to you. [7]

Surely, this is the tale that had been recounted to me endless times by others! Yet, further follow-up led disappointingly to the realisation that Anastay’s brother never did attend the execution, as there is no mention of this in subsequent newspaper clippings from the period.

Now thinking that the tale was a conglomeration of several stories relating to decapitation and experimentation, I was about to give up the search. I had already reached the end of the 19th century. Experiments involving decapitation couldn’t possibly have gone into the 20th century, right?

Wrong.

That was when I stumbled across the name of Dr Gabriel Beaurieux. In 1905, he arranged to attend the execution of the murderer, Henri Languille. Shortly after the blade severed Languille’s head, Beaurieux noted a frightening observation:

[T]he eyelids and lips of the guillotined man worked in irregularly rhythmic contractions for about five or six seconds. [After several seconds], the spasmodic movements ceased…It was then that I called in a strong, sharp voice: “Languille!” I saw the eyelids slowly lift up, without any spasmodic contractions – I insist advisedly on this peculiarity – but with an even movement, quite distinct and normal, such as happens in everyday life, with people awakened or torn from their thoughts. [8]

Henri Languille

Fascinated, Beaurieux called out the victim’s name again, and again, Languille’s ‘eyelids lifted and undeniably living eyes fixed themselves on mine with perhaps even more penetration than the first time’. [9] On the third attempt, there was no response.

So there you have it. Next time you find yourself at a pub and the conversation turns to decapitation (as it often does when I am around), remember the name Henri Languille.

And make sure you tell the story correctly.

1. Frank H. Stauffer, The Queer, the Quaint, the Quizzical (1882; reprint, 1968), p. 204. Qtd from Christine Quigley, The Corpse: A History (2005), p. 147.
2. The letter was reprinted in Andre Soubiran, The Good Doctor Guillotin and His Strange Device, trans. Malcolm MacCraw (1964). Qtd from Mary Roach, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2003), p. 200.
3. Qtd from Daniel Gerould, Guillotine: Its Legend and Lore (1992), p. 54.
4. A more detailed and fascinating account can be found in Roach, Stiff, pp. 202-205. I’m indebted to Roach for bringing to light this story. There were several other doctors who experimented with severed heads which I will follow-up on in subsequent posts.
5. Ibid., p. 202.
6. Ibid., p. 204. Roach deals with this rather gruesome subject in a very humorous and light-hearted way that often leaves one laughing one minute and feeling guilty the next.
7. St John Daily Sun (4 July 1892), p. 6.
8. Qtd from Alister Kershaw, A History of the Guillotine (1958).
9. Ibid.