A Brief History
On January 21, 1793, King Louis XVI of France was convicted of treason and taken to the guillotine where he was promptly beheaded, just one of the many instances of famous beheadings in a long history of human violence, both intentional and accidental, both by the state as an execution or by criminal action, and even by our animal “friends.” Sometimes, people are even decapitated posthumously for some sort of extra emphasis. Today we list 10 of these cases of human decapitation, both famous and infamous. Execution by beheading has been a long historical means of capital punishment, so the list of those beheaded is dauntingly long, leaving many thousands of potential persons to include on a list such as this. In recent years, terrorists and drug lords have used decapitation to send a message of terror. Feel free to mention those people that lost their heads in the comments below.
1. King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette of France, 1793.
Victims of their own excess and the French Revolution combined to spell doom for the French monarchs, King Louis XVI and his Queen, Marie-Antoinette. As is often the case with deposed monarchs, those doing the deposing wisely determine that dead monarchs cannot reclaim their throne, and thus kill those deposed monarchs to emphasize the finality of the usurping. Beheadings are not only reliably final “solutions,” the severed head is often displayed publicly as proof of execution.
2. Oliver Cromwell, 1661.
The leader of the rebels that deposed and eventually executed King Charles I of England, Cromwell died in 1658 of natural causes. When King Charles II, the son of Charles I, took the throne, he had Cromwell’s body dug up and beheaded for the crime of regicide. Just to make the point, his body was draped in chains and publicly displayed. Another historical figure that suffered the indignity of having their head/skull stolen from the grave was the Apache leader, Geronimo, though details are sketchy.
3. Joseph Haydn (composer), 1809.
Although the famous Austrian composer Joseph Haydn died of natural causes, phrenologists removed and stole his head! Joseph Carl Rosenbaum and Johann Nepomuk Peter, minor government officials and acquaintances of Haydn waited until the great man was buried, then bribed the grave digger to dig up the body and steal the head. The theft of Haydn’s head was discovered in 1820 when the body was exhumed in order to be moved to Eisenstadt, Haydn’s ancestral home. In 1954, Haydn’s skull was placed in the tomb with the rest of his remains after a century and a half of separation.
4. Shirley Ann Durdin, 1985.
This Australian had the misfortune of meeting a Great White Shark in the shark’s native habitat, losing her head to the giant predatory fish. Other large predators are capable of removing the head from a human victim, and another Australian that suffered this fate was Kerry McLoughlin who lost his head to a saltwater crocodile in 1987.
5. Byzantine Emperor Phocas, 610.
Emperor Phocas was not a particularly nice leader, as he had deposed his predecessor and executed the previous Emperor’s sons in front of the deposed Emperor’s very eyes. Of course, that previous Emperor (Maurice) was also executed by Phocas. No real surprise when Heraclius fought a successful civil war to depose Phocas that Heraclius not only had Phocas executed, but the new Emperor actually performed the beheading of Phocas personally in a rare instance of victorious monarch personally killing the losing monarch.
6. Sir William Wallace, 1305.
A Scottish knight that advocated for the independence of Scotland from England, Wallace is the key character in the famous 1995 film, Braveheart. Although the movie was an Oscar winner, it was seriously flawed historically. Little is really known about Wallace, other than he fought bravely against the English and was finally captured and executed in 1305, by the method reserved for traitors to the crown. Leading the Scotts’ victory at the battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297, earned him the title of Guardian of Scotland, and also the enmity of King Edward I. When Wallace was captured, he was taken to London for a quick trial and gruesome execution by means of being hanged, drawn and quartered. Wallace was stripped naked, dragged by a horse, hanged almost to death, emasculated, disemboweled while still alive and finally cut up, including decaptitation. The “quartering” part included cutting off Wallace’s head (of course), which was put on display on London Bridge after being dipped in tar to preserve it so as to provide a long term warning to potential rebels.
7. Jayne Mansfield, 1967.
Technically the beautiful actress was not completely decapitated, but she did suffer extensive trauma to the head that resembled scalping when the car she was driving in drove under a slower truck in front of it. The legend that her head got separated from her body sprung from the pictures that were taken of the crash scene, in which the roof of the car had been ripped off and either her blonde wig or scalped forehead was seen in what remained of windshield/hood of the car. The official cause of Jayne Mansfield’s death was determined to be a crushed skull with avulsion of cranium and brain. An avulsion is a forcible tearing away of a body part by trauma or surgery. In other words, she was indeed partially decapitated, but not entirely as commonly believed. Let us hope that death truly was immediate. Thankfully her three children who were asleep on the back seat survived the crash. As not to leave you on a negative note with this horrifying imagery, we direct you to one of our other articles in which the beauty of Jayne Mansfield is celebrated. We have also cited Jayne as one of the celebrities that are smarter than you thought, and also included her in our list of “The 10 Most Beautiful Women of the 20th and 21st Centuries.”
8. Queen Anne Boelyn of England, 1536.
The second wife of King Henry VIII, her marriage to Henry in 1533 was the precipitating factor in the establishment of the Church of England when the Catholic Pope refused to grant Henry an annulment from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Alas, Henry proved fickle and had his wife convicted on trumped up charges of adultery, incest and treason and then executed by beheading in 1536. Henry also had his fifth wife, Catherine Howard, executed by beheading (1542), this time for probably real crimes, but her execution is hardly remembered compared to the notorious execution of Anne. While Henry VIII is often portrayed as a capricious killer of wives, he only had these two wives executed out of his total of 6 wives.
9. Thomas Cromwell, 1540.
People named Cromwell seem susceptible to being beheaded in England! This time, Thomas was an advisor and Chief Minister to King Henry VIII, the same King from the entry above notorious for having 2 of his wives beheaded. What did Thomas do to deserve such a fate? He set up Henry with Anne of Cleves for another go at marriage, and when Henry found Anne of Cleves physically repulsive (he was by then no looker himself) and had the marriage annulled, Cromwell was in the doghouse. Thomas was accused and convicted of treason and heresy, and duly beheaded, although Henry later expressed some remorse at having his close advisor so killed. Before you get all teary eyed over the death of Cromwell, understand that Thomas was also instrumental in the discrediting of and eventual execution of Anne Boelyn.
10. Adam John Walsh, 1981.
Quite possibly the saddest incident on this list, this young boy was kidnapped and murdered in 1981, his severed head found 2 weeks later. Although no one was ever convicted of the murder of the 6 year old, a convicted serial killer, Otis Toole confessed to killing little Adam and is generally accepted as the perpetrator of the terrible crime. The tragedy did not lead to the disintegration of the marriage of the victim’s parents, who later had 3 more children, and Adam’s father, John Walsh, went on to a high profile career campaigning for the capture of criminals on the run via the television shows America’s Most Wanted (1988-2012), The Hunt with John Walsh (2014-2017) and In Pursuit with John Walsh (2019). Over 1000 captures of dangerous criminals have been attributed to the television shows hosted by John Walsh, at least some minor consolation for the death of his beautiful son.
Question for students (and subscribers): Is decapitation a justifiable form of punishment? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Janes, Regina. Losing Our Heads: Beheadings in Literature and Culture. NYU Press, 2005.
Walsh, John. TEARS OF RAGE. Atria, 1997.
The featured image in this article, an engraving by Isidore Stanislas Helman (1743–1806) of the execution of Louis XVI in the Place de la Révolution, is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1925.