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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.

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.