More tales of heads: A brief look at suicidal decapitation

In a previous blog, I examined non-suicidal decapitations and said that I would look at suicidal decapitations in a future blog (so this is it). In that previous article, I made reference to a paper by Dr. B. Kumral and colleagues who evaluated medico-legal deaths due to decapitation in the Romanian Journal of Legal Medicine. Their paper confirmed that such deaths were indeed rare events in the civilian population accounting for approximately 0.1% of medico-legal autopsies. However, they also reported that the most common method of suicidal decapitation was people jumping in front of trains. Other suicidal decapitation methods included suicidal hanging, vehicle-assisted ligature suicide, and in extremely rare cases, decapitation by guillotine. They carried out a retrospective study investigating characteristic features of decapitation deaths using data collected a 10-year period in autopsies carried out in Istanbul (Turkey).

“A total of 36,270 forensic autopsies were performed over the period of the study and in 19 cases, the bodies were found to be decapitated (0.05%). The age range of decapitated bodies was 18 to 71 years (average 39.1 years), with a male to female ratio of 13/6. There was only one case of suicide and the way used for suicide was a mechanism like guillotine. In this case, a guillotine-like device designed by male victim had been used for deliberately decapitating the body. The age of the suicide case was 41 years”.

A similar study in South Australia by Dr. R.W. Byard and Dr. J.D. Gilbert investigated the characteristic features of deaths due to decapitation between 1986 and 2002 (published 2004 in the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology). They reported that suicidal decapitation accounted for less than 1% of total suicides and showed “a striking male predominance”, with the favoured method (as with the Turkish study) being the jumping in front of trains.

A paper published in a 2004 issue of Forensic Science International, headed (no pun intended) by Dr. M. Tsokos analysed the phenomenology and morphology of 10 cases of suicidal decapitation (six male, four female; aged 18-60 years). Eight of the suicides involved decapitation by jumping in front of a train, with the remaining two being suicidal hangings. The paper concluded that:

“In suicidal hanging resulting in complete decapitation, the wound margins were clear-cut with an adjacent sharply demarcated circumferential band-like abrasion zone showing a homogenous width, the latter determined by the thickness of the rope. In decapitations due to railway interference a broad spectrum of pathologic alterations such as the co-existence of irregular, ragged and sharp-edged wound margins, vascular and nervous pathways forming bridges in the depth of the wound and bruising could be observed. In such cases skin abrasion zones were generally not circumferential and showed a heterogenous width. Concerning hanging-related complete decapitations, our findings are well in line with those of other authors, namely that heavy body weight of the suicidal, fall from a great height and in some cases inelastic and/or thin rope material used for the noose are the determining factors decisive for complete decapitation”.

Suicidal decapitations by guillotine are rare but do crop up in the forensic literature. For instance, a paper by Dr. Petr Hejna and colleagues in the Journal of Forensic Sciences reported a case of suicidal decapitation. They described the case of a 31-year old male agricultural machinery technician that had built his own guillotine and killed himself (most likely) as a result of extreme psychological distress caused by the death of his father. They reported that:

“The construction of the guillotine was very interesting and sophisticated. The guillotine-like blade with additional weight was placed in a large metal frame. The movement of the blade was controlled by the frame rails. The steel blade was triggered by a tensioned rubber band after releasing the safety catch”.

Given the man’s occupation, it is perhaps unsurprising that he was able to build his own guillotine. Before killing himself, he tested whether it would work by using the guillotine on animal bones. The death was (obviously) almost immediate because of the severe and dramatic loss of blood. What surprised me more was that there were three other cases in the forensic science literature of suicide by guillotine. Two of these are reported in the German literature (so I was unable to read the original papers and have to rely on the descriptions in the paper by Hejna and colleagues). The first case was published in 1994 by Dr. R. Nowak and Dr. S. Seidl. They reported the case of a 21-year-old man that attempted to kill himself by another self-constructed guillotine. The man initially survived but later died because of his serious neck injury caused by the guillotine blade severing the right carotid artery. The second case (that I did manage to track down) was by Dr. K. Shorrock and published in a 2002 issue of the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology. As Dr. Shorrock reported:

“A recently widowed man constructed a guillotine in the entrance to his cellar, having previously announced his intention to decapitate himself. A neighbor who saw the device from her house alerted the police. The deceased was found completely decapitated, still holding a pair of pliers that he had used to activate the mechanism”

As in the case reported by Dr. Hejna (above), the functionality of the guillotine was tested (with wood rather than animal bone) and he was also a technical engineer. The third case from 2009 (which again I haven’t read because it was in German) by Dr. J. Sidlo and colleagues involved a 56-year-old male locksmith with large financial problems that constructed a small portable guillotine at his home. He successfully decapitated himself.

Suicidal decapitation by hanging appears to be more common than by guillotine. Another paper by Dr. Hejna (with Dr. M. Bohnert) in a 2013 issue of the Journal of Forensic Sciences examined cases of suicidal decapitation by hanging. Their paper investigated four cases of suicidal hanging (three of complete decapitation and one of incomplete decapitation). More specifically, they analysed the personal, circumstantial, autopsy, and toxicological data in an attempt to define basic characteristics of such extreme injuries. They made special reference to two known types of injury associated with hangings and asphyxiations (‘Simon’s hemorrhage’ – bleedings that are ‘stripe-like hemorrhages on the ventral surface of the intervertebral discs of the lumbar part of the spinal column’, and air embolisms – air bubbles in the blood system). They concluded that:

“The crucial factor for the state of decapitation itself is the kinetic energy of the falling body, the strength of the human neck tissue, and the diameter and elasticity of the used ligature. Results of [our study] suggest Simon’s hemorrhage and air embolism as useful autopsy findings in posthanging beheading cases. Simon’s hemorrhage was demonstrated in three cases of four. The test for air embolism was positive in all four cases”.

An earlier 1999 case study report by Dr. M. Rothschild and Dr. V. Schneider in Forensic Science International described a 47-year old man that committed suicide by hanging himself from an apartment’s staircase bannister and decapitated his head in the process. They reported that in this case, all the conditions conspired to result in decapitation. More specifically, they noted that “complete decapitation can occur in rare cases under extreme conditions (heavy body weight, inelastic and/or thin rope material, fall from a great height)”.

Dr. B.L. Zhu and colleagues also reported a case of suicidal decapitation by hanging in a 2000 issue of the journal Legal Medicine. Here, the suicidal hanging took place on a river bridge. They noted that:

“The torso and the head of the victim, respectively, were found apart in a river approximately 100m and 600m, respectively, downstream from the bridge in two days…Torn ligaments between the atlas and axis accompanied by fractures in the axis at the partes interarticulares were indicative of a traction force combined with anteroflexion of the head by falling from a height, and the radial pressure due to a strong, single twisted nylon rope with a slip knot was considered to have contributed considerably to the subsequent skin laceration with wavy marginal abrasions”.

Reading through some of the literature in this area does make gruesome reading (and if you read the papers themselves, almost all of the case study reports actually feature the immediate post-mortem scene of death photographs). However, my guess is that most suicides that result in decapitation are not planned that way apart from the rare cases of suicide by guillotine. From a psychological point of view, I would be interested to find out how the psychological make-up of a suicidal guillotine user differed from a suicidal train jumper and a suicidal hanger.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Byard, R. W., & Gilbert, J. D. (2004). Characteristic features of deaths due to decapitation. The American journal of forensic medicine and pathology, 25(2), 129-130

Hejna, P., & Bohnert, M. (2013). Decapitation in suicidal hanging – Vital reaction patterns. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 58(s1), S270-S277.

Hejna, P., Šafr, M., & Zátopková, L. (2012). Suicidal decapitation by guillotine: case report and review of the literature. Journal of forensic sciences, 57(6), 1643-1645.

Kumral, B., Büyük, Y., Gündogmus, Ü. N., Sahın, E., & Sahın, M. F. (2012). Medico-legal evaluation of deaths due to decapitation. Romanian Journal of Legal Medicine, 20, 251-254.

Rashid, A. F., Aggarwal, A. D., Aggarwal, O. P., & Kaur, B. (2012). Accidental decapitation – An urban legend turned true. Egyptian Journal of Forensic Sciences, 2, 112-114.

Nowak, R. & Seidl, S. (1994). Suizid mit einer guillotine. Arch Kriminol, 193, 147-152.

Rothschild, M. A., & Schneider, V. (1999). Decapitation as a result of suicidal hanging. Forensic Science International, 106, 55-62.

Shorrock, K. (2002). Suicidal decapitation by guillotine: case report. The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, 23(1), 54-56.

Sidlo, J, Valko, S. & Valent D. (2009). Suizid durch ein ungewçhnliches Hiebinstrument. Rechtsmedizin, 19, 165-167.

Tsokos, M., Türk, E. E., Uchigasaki, S., & Püschel, K. (2004). Pathologic features of suicidal complete decapitations. Forensic Science International, 139(2), 95-102.

Zhu, B. L., Quan, L., Ishida, K., Oritani, S., Taniguchi, M., Fujita, M. Q.,… & Maeda, H. (2000). Decapitation in suicidal hanging – A case report with a review of the literature. Legal Medicine, 2(3), 159-162.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. In 2013, he was given the Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 710 research papers, five books, over 150 book chapters, and over 1500 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 3000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on February 20, 2015, in Case Studies, Compulsion, Crime, Gender differences, Pain, Psychological disorders, Psychology, Unusual deaths and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: