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Public Executions

John Simkin

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History teachers are aware that one of the best ways of getting the attention of young people is to tell gory stories about the past. Youngsters particularly like stories about public executions. In fact, I used to run a local history course entitled “Public Execution in East Grinstead”.

Recently I came across some stories concerning public executions that people might be able to use in the classroom.

It is estimated that a person takes between seven and twenty seconds to lose consciousness when the blood supply is cut off from the brain. This raises the question, when a person is guillotined, do they continue to see after they have lost their heads?

The great scientist, Antoine Lavoisier (1743-94), was sentenced to death by guillotine during the French Revolution. He decided to carry out one last experiment. He would blink his eyes once every second following his decapitation for as long as he could manage and instructed his manservant to hold his head, observe his eyes, and count the number of blinks. He counted 15 blinks.

In Saudi Arabia police officers have reported that they have received bites if they pick up the head of a decapitated man too quickly.

My favourite story concerns the man who was executed in China. The executioner was so skilled that the head remained on the neck after his swift stroke and the prisoner said: “Why haven’t you cut my head off?” The executioner replied: “Just nod your head.”

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