Dry As Dust

A Fortean in the Archives


Some experiments with severed heads

Wiertz guillotined headEarly
on the morning of 18 February 1848, two men and a woman walked into
the square in front of the Porte de Hal, in Brussels [below left], where
a public execution was due to take place shortly after dawn. They were
there to conduct a ground-breaking scientific study, and, by prior
arrangement with the Belgian penal authorities, were permitted to climb
onto the scaffold and wait next to the guillotine at the spot where the
severed heads of two condemned criminals were scheduled to drop into a
blood red sack.

One of the men was Antoine Joseph Wiertz, a well known Belgian
painter and also a fine hypnotic subject. With him were his friend,
Monsieur D_____, a noted hypnotist, and a witness. Wiertz’s purpose on
that winter’s day was to carry out a unique and extraordinary
experiment. Long haunted by the desire to know whether a severed head
remained conscious after a guillotining, the painter had agreed to be
hypnotised and instructed to identify himself with a man who was about
to be executed for murder.

Wiertz – the plan went – ‘was to follow [the murderer’s] thoughts and
feel any sensations, which he was to express aloud. He was also
‘suggested’ to take special note of mental conditions during
decapitation, so that when the head fell in the basket he could
penetrate the brain and give an account of its last thoughts.’ [Shepard
II, 648]  And, incredible as it may seem to us, his scheme appeared to
work – indeed, it worked rather too well. As soon as the tumbrel
carrying the condemned men to their deaths appeared, Wiertz began to
panic. ‘It seemed to the painter that the guillotine’s blade was
cleaving his own flesh. It crushed his spine and tore his spinal cord.’
It was not until killers ascended the scaffold that Wiertz recovered
himself sufficiently to ‘ask Monsieur D to put me in rapport with the
cut off head, by means of whatever new procedures seemed appropriate to
him… He made some preparations and we waited, not without excitement,
for the fall of a human head.’

As the large crowed watched for the fatal moment, though, it became
clear that the painter was still identifying all too closely with his
subject’s extreme predicament. Wiertz ‘became entranced almost
immediately and… manifested extreme distress and begged to be
demagnetised, as his sense of oppression was insupportable. It was too
late, however – the knife fell.’ [Wiertz pp.491-2; Benjamin p.250;
Shepherd op.cit.]

Porte de HalThe
Porte du Hal, Brussels. Once part of the city walls, later a prison,
and in 1848 site of Wiertz’s unusual experiment with a severed head. 

We’ll return to Antoine Wiertz and his severed head in a moment.
First, though, let’s sketch in a little of the background of this
unfortunately macabre tale. Versions of the implement we now know as the
guillotine have been around for hundreds of years – since the 1520s at
least, and arguably as early as the first years of the fourteenth
century. [Laurence p.70]  For much of that time, and certainly since the
name of Dr Joseph-Ignace Guillotin became indelibly associated with it
at the time of the French Revolution, there has been speculation as to
just how painless and how quick death by this invention really is.
It’s fair to say that – at least among that small handful who have
given the subject proper thought – there has long been a suspicion,
amounting in some cases to near certainty, that a head may retain
consciousness, however briefly, after its severing. The subject was
considered as early as 1796 in a French pamphlet, Anecdotes sur les Décapités, and again, briefly, in English, by John Wilson Croker in his History of the Guillotine
(1853). Doctors, for the most part, insisted that the shock of the
blade must cause immediate unconsciousness, and that loss of the blood
supply to the brain brings on actual death a matter of seconds later –
there is a cardiologists’ maxim that when a heart stops, the brain can
retain consciousness for no more than four seconds if the person
concerned is standing, eight if he is sitting, and 12 if he is lying
down. That implies that any movements of a detached noggin’s eyes or
lips “are merely convulsive, and that the severed head does not feel.”
[Wilson p.115]  But, over the years, a small and frankly dubious body of
evidence has accumulated to suggest this view is wrong, and that – in a
handful of cases at least – the severed head remains aware of what has
happened to it.

There’s no denying that this awful thought is gruesomely compelling,
in much the same way as is the idea of being buried alive. It has a “My
God, what if that happened to me?” quality about it. And, while it was
never Guillotin’s intention to do anything other than supply a humane
alternative to the notoriously slow and painful business of executing
criminals by rope or axe (and hardly the good doctor’s fault that the
fascination of a device designed solely to kill makes the guillotine –
like the gas chamber and the electric chair – at least as horrifying as a
gallows in its own mechanically ingenious way), the fact remains that
the device became a victim of its own success. It was so quick, so
clean, so bloodily final that it was hard for an execution-going public
accustomed to the protracted struggles of a hanged man to believe that
life could be extinguished quite so swiftly.

Murky and unsubstantiated rumours concerning the survival of
consciousness in severed heads swirled through France throughout the
nineteenth century, and it is not hard to find versions of the same
stories today in the less reputable crannies of the internet. For
example, tall tales about at least two of the guillotine’s most noted
victims abound: Lavoisier, the chemist, is supposed to have agreed with
an assistant that he would blink as many times as he could after his
execution in 1794 – and the assistant is said to have counted 15 or 20
blinks, at the rate of one a second. Similarly, when the executioner held up the head of Charlotte Corday,
who had stabbed Marat in his bath, and delivered a sharp slap to its
cheek, the head is said – on the authority of one Dr Sue – to have
blushed and displayed “unequivocal marks of indignation.” [Croker p.70;
Gelbart p.201]  Neither story, though, rests on a solid contemporary source.

Despite such early manifestations of interest in the subject,
moreover, it remains equally difficult to uncover reputable sources for
several nineteenth- and early twentieth-century incidents in which
doctors are popularly believed to have conducted some gruesomely
suggestive experiments to finally answer the question. Accounts of
several such experiments can be found in the secondary literature – see,
for example, Richard Zacks’s influential counterculture classic An Underground Education,
and most texts mention tests supposedly done on the head of “a
necrophile rapist by the name of Prunier,” or the story of an unnamed
doctor who took an unknown head and pumped it full of blood from a
vivisected dog. The cultural historian Philip Smith, who dissects
several such tales, suggests they form little more than “a stubborn
counter-discourse of wild speculation and morbid popular inquiry” [Smith
p.139] – and he has a valid point, for the most part. Yet some quite
extensive digging does eventually reveal that at least three
sets of experiments on severed heads really were carried out in France
between 1879 and 1905, albeit with less than spectacular results. Since
these cases form a useful counterpoint to the experiences of Antoine
Wiertz, it seems a good idea to summarise them briefly here.

•   On 13 November 1879, a father-and-son duo, Drs E. and G.
Descaisne, witnessed the execution of Théotime Prunier, who had been
found guilty of the rape and subsequent murder of an elderly woman at
Beauvais. A report in the British Medical Journal, 13 December 1879,
notes that the doctors were given ready access to the killer’s head
and “tried certain experiments” on it, concluding: “We have
ascertained, as far as it is humanly possible to do so, that the head
of the criminal in question had no semblance whatever of the sense of
feeling; that the eyes lost the power of vision; and, in fact, the head
was perfectly dead to all intents and purposes.” A fuller report,
published in the Gazette Médicale de Paris, noted some of the
tests the doctors subjected the head to: shouting “Prunier!” in the
dead man’s ear, pinching his cheek, inserting a brush soaked with
ammonia into his nostrils, pricking the face with needles, and holding a
lighted candle to an eyeball. Since secondary sources invariably
stress that these experiments were conducted only moments after
Prunier’s head was severed, the complete lack of any response might be
considered good evidence for the conventional medical view that shock
causes instant unconsciousness and death. The key detail in this
instance, however, is one reported by the BMJ: the doctors took
charge of the killer’s head only “about five minutes after the
execution.” This suggests that the experiments must be regarded as
inconclusive; even the most optimistic proponent of the idea that a head
remains briefly alive after severing rarely suggests that
consciousness endures for more than 15 or 20 seconds at best. [Everard
& Decaisne pp.629-30; Verplaeste p.372; Gerould p.55]

Execution_of_Languille_in_1905

• A year later, in September 1880 – at least according to the later
account of a certain Dr Dassy de Lignères, of whom nothing else seems
to be known – some experiments were conducted on the head of a
particularly unpleasant murderer named Louis Menesclou. Menesclou, who
had lured a little girl into his room with a spray of violets, raped
her and killed her, was a man “of limited intelligence… frequently
guilty of sexual perversity” – as suggested by the fact that he then
dismembered his victim; parts of her body were found in his pockets.
[London Evening News, 15 October 1888; Stewart]  In this case,
apparently, Dassy de Lignères was provided with his head three hours
after the execution, and claimed to have connected the principal veins
and arteries to a supply of blood provided by a living dog. A quarter
of a century later, when the doctor gave an interview to the French
newspaper Le Matin (3 March 1907), he claimed that colour
almost immediately returned to the face, the lips swelled and the dead
man’s features “sharpened.” Perhaps. What’s really incredible is Dassy
de Lignères’ insistence that “as the transfusion proceeded, suddenly,
unmistakably, for a period of two seconds, the lips stammered
silently, the eyelids twitched and worked, and the whole face wakened
into an expression of shocked amazement. I affirm… that for those two
seconds, the brain thought.” This reads as either spectacularly shoddy
research or, more likely, simple sensationalism on the part of either
the doctor or the newspaper.

• Finally, on 30 June 1905, Dr Gabriel Beaurieux obtained permission to attend the guillotining of Henri Languille
[above left] a “bandit who has terrorised the Beauce and the Gatinais
[in the valley of the Loing, between Paris and Orléans] for several
years.” [Morain p.300]  His report concluded that Languille [below
right] retained some form of consciousness for a bout half a minute
after his execution:

“The head fell on the severed surface of the neck and I did not
therefore have to take it up in my hands, as all the newspapers have
vied with each other in repeating; I was not obliged even to touch it
in order to set it upright. Chance served me well for the observation
which I wished to make.

“Here, then, is what I was able to note immediately after the
decapitation: the eyelids and lips of the guillotined man worked in
irregularly rhythmic contractions for about five or six seconds. This
phenomenon has been remarked by all those finding themselves in the
same conditions as myself for observing what happens after the
severing of the neck…

“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 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.

Henri Languille

“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. The 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.” [Anon, 'Revue des journaux...']

Bearing those mixed results in mind, then, let’s return to the Porte
de Hal in Brussels in February 1848 (and you’ll note that the
experiments of Antoine Wiertz predated all three of the French
experiments outlined above.) According to Wiertz’s biographer, the
subject of his study was a nasty and incompetent burglar by the name of
François Rosseel, who had – with his accomplice Guillelme Vandenplas –
broken into the apartment of Rosseel’s landlady, Mlle. Evanpoel, the
previous September and bludgeoned her and two female servants to death
for the sake of a few hundred francs. This crime horrified all Belgium,
and Wiertz followed the resulting newspaper coverage intently,
suggesting that his choice of the double execution of Mlle. Evanpoel’s
murderers for his experiment was a deliberate one. [Anon, Causes Célèbres... I, 109-16; Annales de l'Université de Bruxelles pp.173-5; Van der Haeghen, V, 94; Watteau p.232; Metdepenningen]

As Rosseel’s head rolled into the sack in front of him, anyway, the
hypnotised Wiertz was asked to place himself inside the dying brain. The
description that follows is drawn from the text that the artist
himself wrote to accompany a triptych that he later painted to
illustrate his experience, which was, in turn, incorporated into that
work in the form of a painted inscription on a trompe-l’oeil
frame and printed, later, in the first catalogue of his work. The
description is rather long and rather overwrought, and part of it is in
the first person, as Wiertz [below left] describes what he identifies
as Rosseel’s own final thoughts. It has been somewhat abbreviated here,
and several sharply differing versions of the text have been merged as
best I am able to reconcile them. [Watteau pp.132-41; Benjamin
pp.250-2; Shepard II, 648]:

Monsieur D_____ took me by the hand… led me before the twitching
head, and asked: ‘‘What do you feel? What do you see?’ Agitation
prevented me from answering him on the spot. But right after that I
cried in the utmost horror: “Terrible! The head thinks!” … It was as if
an oppressive nightmare held me in its spell. The head of the executed
man thought, saw, suffered. And I saw what he saw, understood what he
thought, and felt what he suffered. How long did it last? Three
minutes, they told me. The executed man must have thought: three
hundred years.

What the man killed in this way suffers, no human language can
express. I wish to limit myself here to reiterating the answers I gave
to all the questions during the time that I felt myself in some measure
identical to the severed head.

First minute: On the scaffold

Antoine Joseph WiertzA
horrible buzzing noise… It’s the sound of the blade descending. The
victim believes that he has been struck by lightning, not the axe.

Astonishingly, the head lies here under the scaffold and yet still
believes it is above, still believes itself to be part of the body,
and still waits for the blow that will cut it off.

Horrible choking! No way to breathe. The asphyxia is appalling. It
comes from an inhuman, supernatural hand, weighing down like a
mountain on the head and neck… Oh, even more horrible suffering lies
before him.

A cloud of fire passes before his eyes. Everything is red and glitters.

Second minute: Under the scaffold

Now comes the moment when the executed man thinks he is stretching
his cramped, trembling hands towards the dying head. It is the same
instinct that drives us to press a hand against a gaping wound. And it
occurs with the intention, the dreadful intention, of setting the head
back on the trunk, to preserve a little blood, a little life.

Delirium redoubles his strength and energy.

In his imagination, it seems that his head is on fire and spins in a
dizzying motion, that the universe collapses and turns with it, that a
phosphorescent liquid swirls around and merges with his skull… In a
moment more, his head is plunging into the depths of eternity.

But is it only the body that writhes and cries out in anguish, which
produces the torture suffered by the guillotine? No, because here
comes the intellectual and moral agony. The heart, which beats in his
chest, is still beating in the brain.

That’s when a crowd of images, each more terrible than the others,
crowd into a soul beaten by the fiery breath of nameless pain. The
guillotined head sees his coffin, sees his trunk and limbs collapse,
ready to be enclosed in the wooden box in which thousands of worms are
about to devour his flesh. Physicians explore the tissue of his neck
with the tip of a scalpel. Every nick is a bite of fire.

He sees his judges, too…  They sit well served at a table, talking  quietly of business and pleasure…

The exhausted brain sees… the smallest of his children close to him.
Oh! he likes that. That’s him: his hair blond and curly, his little
cheeks round and pink … And meanwhile, he feels the brain continue to
sink and feels sharp stabs of pain…

Third minute: In eternity

It is not yet dead. The head still thinks and suffers.

Suffers fire that burns, suffers the dagger that dismembers, suffers
the poison that cramps, suffers in the limbs, as they are sawn
through, suffers in his viscera, as they are torn out, suffers in his
flesh, as it is hacked and trampled down, suffers in his bones, which
are slowly boiled in bubbling oil. All this suffering put together
still cannot convey any idea of what the executed man is going through.

And here a thought makes him stiff with terror:

Is he already dead and must he suffer like this from now on? Perhaps for all eternity?…

No, such suffering cannot endure for ever; God is merciful. All that
belongs to earth is fading away. He sees in the distance a little
light glittering like a diamond. He feels a calm stealing over him.
What a good sleep he shall have! What joy!”

Human existence fades way from him. It seems to him slowly to become
one with the night. Now just a faint mist – but even that recedes,
dissipates, and disappears. Everything goes black… The beheaded man is
dead.

Dernières pensées et visions d'une tête décapitée-Last thoughts and visions of a decapitated head, triptych, 1853

It is difficult to know how best to handle Wiertz’s bizarre evidence.
How much of his remarkable experience was noted down at the time
remains uncertain; the painter did not actually produce the strange
triptych he entitled Dernières pensées et visions d’une tête coupee (Last Thoughts and Visions of a Decapitated Head)
[right]  until five years later, in 1853, so he had plenty of time to
think through the events of 1848 again and again, perhaps so often that
his recollections became distorted, romanticised, exaggerated and
unreliable – if they ever were reliable in the first place, that is.

Wiertz’s impressions, too, were so vivid, so melodramatic, that it
hard to believe that they did not come to him as he penetrated a dying
brain, but were actually generated somewhere deep within his own morbid
imagination. For this, after all, was a painter whose works scandalised
contemporaries, and is nowadays pretty much ignored (the Musée Wiertz,
in Brussels, based in the painter’s old studio, currently averages no
more than 10 visitors a day, “many of them dragooned in school
parties.” [Anon, 'A Belgian national champion']). A look at some of his
other works certainly reveals an obsession with death; they include Two Young Ladies (which depicts a naked beauty contemplating a skeleton), Premature Burial
(in which an anguished figure bursts from a coffin lying in a crypt)
and – perhaps the most over-the-top of many over-the-top creations – Ravishing of a Belgian Woman.
In this last painting, as one critic remarks, “Wiertz breaks with
convention by equipping his heroine with a pistol (although not with any
clothes). She duly shoots the soldier molesting her, causing his head
to explode, an event Wiertz depicts in gory detail.” [Ibid]

Last Thoughts and Visions of a Decapitated Head survives, although in a sadly decayed state;
it was painted in an experimental style that has not stood up at all
well to the passage of the years. A close look at its three panels
reveals that they correspond quite closely to the description Wiertz
left of his experiences on the Brussels scaffold. The severed head of
Rosseel can be seen tumbling down in the bottom right hand corner of the
central panel, and, in the third and final portion of the triptych,
the murderer’s slide into eternity can still just be discerned.

And if Antoine Wiertz’s pioneering experiment remains little more
than an enigmatic anomaly, and he himself is long forgotten, there is at
least a delicious irony in the tail end of his career. A few years
before his death, while at the height of his fame, Wiertz wrote to the
Belgian government, offering to exchange 220 of his largest and most
gaudy paintings for a “huge, comfortable and well-lit studio” to be
funded by the state. Remarkably, the interior minister of the day agreed
to this presumptuous request, though the government baulked at the
idea of setting Wiertz up in expensive premises in the centre of the
capital.

Instead, the painter was provided with a new studio in a cheap and
dismal suburb, albeit one that the artist cheerfully predicted might
someday become “the centre of an immense and rich population.” He may
have been a rotten painter, wrong about hypnotism, and wildly out of his
depth in experimental parapsychology, but Antoine Wiertz was at least
right about that. Today, the little-visited Musée Wiertz stands no more
than 20 metres from the very centre of Europe, in the shape of the
gleaming towers of the European Parliament. And that monolith’s address?
The Parliament stands proudly on Rue Wiertz. [Ibid]

Sources

Anon. ‘A Belgian national champion.’ The Economist, 9 July 2009.

____. Annales de l’Université de Bruxelles: Faculté de Médecine. Brussels: Université Libre, 1880.

____. Causes Célèlebres de Tous les Peoples. Brussels: Libraries Ethnographique, 1849.

____. La Belgique Judiciaire: Gazettes des Tribunaux Belges et Étrangers. Brussels, np. Volume 9, 1851 .

____. ‘Letters, notes, and answers to correspondents.’ British Medical Journal, January 1880.

____. ‘Revue des journaux et sociétés savantes execution de
Languille. Observation prise immédiatement après décapitation.
Communiquée à la Société de médecine du Loiret le 19 juillet 1905…’ Archives de l’Anthropologie Criminelle, de Criminologie et de Psychologie Normale et Pathologique. Volume 20 (1905).

____. ‘Special correspondence. Paris.’ British Medical Journal, 13 December 1879.

‘A medical man’. ‘A theory of the Whitechapel murders.’ Evening News, 15 October 1888.

M. Auberive. Anecdotes sur les Décapités. Paris: Sobry, 1796.

Walter Benjamin. The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media. Cambridge [MA]: Harvard University Press, 2008.

John Wilson Croker. History of the Guillotine. Revised from the ‘Quarterly Review’. London: John Murray, 1853.

Everard & G. Decaisne. ‘Expériences physiologiques sur un décapité.’ Gazette Médicale de Paris, 1879.

Nina Rattner Gelbart. ‘The blonding of Charlotte Corday.’ Eighteenth Century Studies vol.38 (2004).

Daniel Gerould. Guillotine. Its Legend and Lore. New York: Blast Books, 1993.

Louis Labarre. Antoine Wiertz: Etude Biographique Avec les Lettres de l’Artiste et la Photographie du Patrocle. Brussels: Muequardt, 1867.

John Laurence. A History of Capital Punishment. New York: Citadel Press, 1960.

Marc Metdepenningen. ‘L’effroyable triple crime de la place Saint-Géry.’ Le Soir (Brussels), 12 July 2006.

Alfred Morain. The Underworld of Paris: Secrets of the Sûreté. London: Jarrolds, 1930.

Leslie Shepard [ed]. The Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. Detroit: Gale Research, 1984.

Philip Smith. Punishment and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Harry E. Stewart. ‘Jean Genet’s favourite murders.’ The French Review vol.60 no.5 (1987)

Ferdinand Van der Haeghen. Bibliographie Gantoise. Recherches Sur la Vie et les Travaux des Imprimeurs de Gand (1483-1850). Ghent: privately published, 1860.

Jan Verplaetse. Localizing the Moral Sense: Neuroscience and the Search for the Cerebral Seat of Morality, 1800-1930. Dordrecht: Springer, 2009.

Antoine Joseph Wiertz. Oeuvres Littéraires. Brussels: Parent et Fils, 1869.

Louis Watteau. Catalogue Raisoné du Musée Wiertz. Brussels: Musées Royeux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, 1865.

Andrew Wilson. ‘Leaves from the notebook of a naturalist.’ Part X.  The Living Age, vol.31, 1851.

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