Having your head removed is usually seen as a finality. But decapitation does not necessarily lead to instant death, and in some cases is not even the direct cause! Many people have heard of chickens running around without their heads (a famous example being Mike the Headless Chicken) and even Soviet experiments on dogs (which have since been shown to have been a hoax). But what about human decapitation? How long do human beings survive after their heads are severed?
There are plenty of anecdotal accounts telling of moving eyes, mouths, and, inexplicably, even speaking. Witnesses at the execution of Charlotte Corday (a French revolutionary and assassin of Jean-Paul Marat) claim such movement. A man named Legros (the carpenter who made that particular guillotine) lifted her head and slapped it, leading to a reported look of unequivocal indignation.
June 28th, 1905, a man name Languille was executed by guillotine. Attending the execution was one Dr. Beaurieux; there specifically to find evidence of how long life lasts after a beheading. Dr Beaurieux noted these things immediately following the event:
I waited for several seconds. The spasmodic movements ceased. The face relaxed, the lids half closed on the eyeballs, leaving only the white of the conjunctiva visible, exactly as in the dying whom we have occasion to see every day in the exercise of our profession, or as in those just dead. 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.
Next Languille’s eyes very definitely fixed themselves on mine and the pupils focused themselves. I was not, then, dealing with the sort of vague dull look without any expression, that can be observed any day in dying people to whom one speaks: I was dealing with undeniably living eyes which were looking at me. “After several seconds, the eyelids closed again, slowly and evenly, and the head took on the same appearance as it had had before I called out.
It was at that point that I called out again and, once more, without any spasm, slowly, the eyelids lifted and undeniably living eyes fixed themselves on mine with perhaps even more penetration than the first time. Then there was a further closing of the eyelids, but now less complete. I attempted the effect of a third call; there was no further movement – and the eyes took on the glazed look which they have in the dead.
I have just recounted to you with rigorous exactness what I was able to observe. The whole thing had lasted twenty-five to thirty seconds.
The small tests performed by Dr. Beaurieux certainly paint a vivid image, but it’s only the word of one (not very well known) man in 1905. Though this is the first attempt at actual research on the topic, it adds up to not much more than anecdotal evidence. More research is not only unlikely, but would very likely be cruel. So we may never learn the answer.