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Tales of heads: A brief look at non-suicidal decapitation

I apologise in advance that today’s blog (a) contains almost no psychology, and (b) may upset my more squeamish readers. However, the material in today’s blog certainly fits my definition of both ‘extreme’ and ‘extreme behaviour’. The idea for this blog began when (quite by accident) I read a 2012 paper by Dr. A.F. Rashid and his colleagues in the Egyptian Journal of Forensic Sciences entitled ‘Accidental decapitation – An urban legend turned true’. They wrote that:

This is a rare case of complete decapitation involving a 78-year-old bus passenger. All the occupants of the bus except the driver, sustained multiple injuries and died on the spot. An old man was decapitated in the accident. His head was recovered outside the mangled remains of the vehicle and the rest of the body was in the seat of the damaged vehicle. Evaluation of roadside evidence and the deceased injuries revealed that the victim was holding his head outside a window as the vehicle spun out of control, decapitation being due to the impact of his head against a tree on the side of the road”.

What piqued my interest was the claim that decapitations were “rare”. A paper by Dr. B. Kumral and colleagues evaluating medico-legal deaths due to decapitation in the Romanian Journal of Legal Medicine confirmed that such deaths are indeed rare events in the civilian population accounting for approximately 0.1% of medico-legal autopsies. I was surprised to find that quite a few decapitation case studies in the literature were suicides (and I’ve written these up in a separate blog that I will post at a later date). Today’s blog takes a brief look at some of the recorded non-suicidal decapitations from the forensic literature.

From my own reading of the non-suicidal decapitation literature, it would appear that the majority of decapitations are either caused by tragic traffic accidents or by murderers during or after the killing. For instance, in relation to traffic accidents, Dr. K. Kibayashi and colleagues reported in a 1999 issue of Medicine, Science, and the Law the case of decapitation of a vehicle passenger in an accident on a. The roadside evidence and the victim’s injuries revealed that the passenger was partially ejected from a broken car window as the vehicle spun out of control. The decapitation occurred as a result of the impact of the man’s head hitting a barrier on the side of the road. The key causes of the accident were listed as (i) an unfastened seat belt, (ii) high-speed driving and (iii) the design of the road barrier.

The most common vehicle associated with decapitation appears to be motorcycles. For instance, 2008 paper in the International Journal of Legal Medicine by Dr. Y. Ihama and colleagues reported the tragic head decapitation of an 18-year old motorcycle rider in an off-road accident when his motorcycle tore a roadblock chain from its attachment. The paper noted that:

“The decapitation injuries of the head and the torso corresponded perfectly, without apparent loss of tissue. The severance plane passed horizontally through the upper cervical region and [the] C4 [neck vertebrae], which sustained a comminuted fracture…The decapitation resulted from the rotational movement of the unstrung chain, which struck and strangled the driver’s neck”.

Another paper (reported a year earlier) also described the decapitation of a motorcyclist. In a case study in the journal Folia Medica, Dr. I. Doichinov, and his colleagues reported on the complete decapitation of a 20-year old motorcyclist during a road accident. However, in this case, the motorcycle rider was hit in his neck by the edge of a car compartment and resulted in complete decapitation of the rider’s head. The authors also noted that:

“The head of the motorcyclist was 37.5 [metres] away from the car in the direction of the motorcycle movement. The collision speed of the motorcycle was about 133 km/h…In our case the basic mechanism for decapitation was the direct trauma in the cervical region”.

In a third motorcycling tragedy, Dr. R. Zoja and colleagues reported the death and complete decapitation of motorcyclist wearing full-face helmet in a 2011 issue of the journal Forensic Science International. In this case:

“A young man lost control of his motorcycle and was thrown about 20 [metres], hitting his head against the barrier separating a tramline from the road. The resulting trauma caused his decapitation, the only fatal wound ascertained by the various forensic investigations…The absence of abrasions or signs that the wound edges came into contact with a metal structure, the presence of signs of impact on the side of the helmet and the finding of a transversal fracture at the base of the skull point to the violent action of a side-to-side opposite force, due to the resistance provided by the lower edge of the protective helmet”.

A 2009 paper by Dr. S. Demirci and colleagues in the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology reported the case of an accidental decapitation of a male agriculture worker. While he was working in a field, the man had tied his scarf tied over his face to stop barley dust (to which he was allergic) blowing into his face. The authors reported that:

“The trailer was simultaneously being loaded by a helix elevator machine and its rotating shaft suddenly caught the victim’s scarf and pulled it down to the victim’s neck. The rotating motion immediately tightened the scarf around the neck resulting in hanging/strangulation noose that, by continued tightening, caused decapitation of the victim. The victim’s body was found on the ground by the trailer and the victim’s head was discovered in the barley load in the trailer. Examination revealed that the neck was severed at the level of the second and third cervical vertebrae”.

In 2010, Dr. K.H. Dogan and colleagues reported the disturbing case of a Turkish 33-year schizophrenic daughter who dismembered the corpse of her 57-year old mother (in the Journal of Forensic Sciences). They noted that the dismembering of corpses is always viewed by society as “more hideous crime than the homicide itself”. In the published paper, the authors reported that the mother’s head had been decapitated, and that the daughter had also dismembered her mother’s arms and hands. The authors also reported that:

“On the victim’s head and back there were 71 incised and stab wounds in total. They were superficial, except the five stab wounds which were connected to the right chest cavity and which incapacitated the victim. Although there is not a regulation for the act of dismembering the corpse in the Turkish Penal Code, since this type of case is rare”.

Dr. E. Turk and his colleagues described the features and characteristics of homicide in cases of complete decapitation in a 2004 issue of the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology. The paper examined four different cases of complete decapitation during or after murder. Of the four victims, three had their heads decapitated postmortem after the victim had been killed. The authors reported that the “motives for decapitation were considered defensive, aggressive, and a possible combination of the [two] in one case each”. In the remaining case, decapitation was the murderous cause of death where there was “an offensive motive for mutilation was suspected”.

Finally, a very different – and disturbing – kind of decapitation was reported in 2011 by Dr. J. Hiss and colleagues in the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology – accidental fetal decapitation. The paper noted that blunt trauma to the head and/or neck in newborn babies is very rare. However, the authors reported the shocking case “of decapitation of a live fetus during vacuum-assisted delivery, where excessive traction on the head of the full-term macrosomic fetus with shoulder dystocia resulted in overstretching of the neck up to the point of decapitation”.

Non-suicidal decapitation appears to be very rare which perhaps makes each case shocking irrespective of how it happened. However, decapitation obviously occurs in other non-academically reported circumstances (e.g., terrorist beheadings that have been recorded and then online, beheadings as part of criminal punishment or war crimes), and are equally – if not more – shocking.

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

Further reading

Demirci, S., Dogan, K.H., Erkol, Z., & Gunaydin, G. (2009). Accidental decapitation: a case report. American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, 30, 270-272.

Dogan, K.H., Demirci, S., Deniz, I., & Erkol, Z. (2010). Decapitation and dismemberment of the corpse: A matricide case. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 55, 542-545.

Doichinov, I.D., Spasov, S.S., Dobrev, T. S., & Doichinova, J.A. (2007). Complete decapitation of a motorcyclist in a road accident. A case report. Folia Medica, 49(3-4), 80-83.

Hiss, J., Kahana, T., & Burshtein, I. (2011). Accidental fetal decapitation: a case of medical and ethical mishap. American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, 32, 245-247

Ihama, Y., Miyazaki, T., Fuke, C., Niki, H., & Maehira, T. (2008). Complete decapitation of a motorcycle driver due to a roadblock chain. International Journal of Legal Medicine, 122, 511-515.

Kibayashi, K., Yonemitsu, K., Honjyo, K., & Tsunenari, S. (1999). Accidental decapitation: an unusual injury to a passenger in a vehicle. Medicine, Science, and the Law, 39(1), 82-84.

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.

Türk, E.E., Püschel, K., & Tsokos, M. (2004). Features characteristic of homicide in cases of complete decapitation. American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, 25(1), 83-86.

Zoja, R., Gentile, G., Giovanetti, G. F., & Palazzo, E. (2011). Death by complete decapitation of motorcyclist wearing full face helmet: Case report. Forensic Science International, 207(1), e48-e50.