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Linden
I'll Be Home for After Christmas Sales


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I've searched, but I can't find anything here on the story that the famous scientist Lavoisier, who was guillotined during the Reign of Terror, asked an assistant to watch his head after the execution to see whether he blinked. (I have a vague memory that it has been discussed -- am I going about my searches in the wrong way?)

The story is discussed in `The Straight Dope', which discounts it, saying that `There is no mention of the blinking incident in the standard biographies of Lavoisier'
http://www.straightdope.com/classics/a5_262.html

However, the story is sufficiently persistent that it gets a mention in the Wikipedia entry on Lavoisier
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lavoisier#Can_a_severed_head_think.3F

Whether or not a severed head can retain consciousness, the story about Lavoisier must be false. He was one of 28 people who were executed at that time, and the efficient executioner and his team took 35 minutes to do all of them. There would have been no time to perform any such observation, and the only people who would have been in a position to do the observation would have been the executioners.

I'm interested in finding out when the story first started to circulate. The Straight Dope article is dated 1998 and the story was obviously in circulation then. But I can't find any reference much earlier; it's not merely that there is no mention of the story in any biography of Lavoisier: there's no mention of it in the biographies of Sanson, the executioner.

I have found earlier discussion of the possibility of consciousness in severed heads, but it's usually associated with the decapitation of Charlotte Corday (who, the legend says, was observed to blush after the executioner's assistant slapped her face). Not a mention of Lavoisier.

Can anyone help?

--------------------
Yours, &c

Linden

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Grand Illusion
Jingle Bell Hock


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For what it's worth, the main Wikipedia article on beheading is ambiguous, saying that the time a head remains alive after decapitation has been debated. Other sources I've read say that a head can survive for four to ten seconds, and thus, if properly done, is the most humane (if bloody) method of execution. Since none come back to tell their tales, we may never know the truth.

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"Are you pondering what I'm pondering?" - The Brain

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EthanMitchell
Deck the Malls


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Linden-

The only citation being offered in Wikipedia for the Lavoisier story is Cecil Adams himself. And it doesn't take that much 'persistence' for a story to show up on a wiki.

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Kathy B
Angels Wii Have Heard on High


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I looked up guillotining and blinking in general. Everything I found was either uncited, referred to the Straight Dope, or referred to this:

Guillotined persons remain conscious long enough to blink from the AFU archives.

This is a report "written by Dr Beaurieux, who under perfect circumstances experimented with the head of Languille, guillotined at 5.30 a.m. on June 28th, 1905." Dr Beaurieux's report

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The plural of "anecdote" is not "data."

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Cold DecEmbra Brings The Sleet
Angels Wii Have Heard on High


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Not of any relevance to the thread, but I noticed that Dr Beaurieux said
quote:
The head fell on the severed surface of the neck and I did not therefor 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.
How would this work with a guillotine? I imagine a guillotine to be effected by lying the person down - surely their head would fall forwards or sideways rather than beck against their neck? Just curious, honest!

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I want you to lay down your life, Perkins. We need a futile gesture at this stage. It will raise the whole tone of the war.

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shifty rob
Jingle Bell Hock


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quote:
Originally posted by Embra:
Not of any relevance to the thread, but I noticed that Dr Beaurieux said
quote:
The head fell on the severed surface of the neck and I did not therefor 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.
How would this work with a guillotine? I imagine a guillotine to be effected by lying the person down - surely their head would fall forwards or sideways rather than beck against their neck? Just curious, honest!
The way I read it, the head fell and landed upright. "The severed surface of the neck" being referred to is the part of the neck still attached to the head, not the part still attached to the body.

Kind of like when you "land on your feet", your feet end up bottommost.

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"They got a name for the winners in the world; I want a name when I lose" -Steely Dan

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Cold DecEmbra Brings The Sleet
Angels Wii Have Heard on High


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ah, that makes sense...
Obviously having a spatial-awareness-blip!

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I want you to lay down your life, Perkins. We need a futile gesture at this stage. It will raise the whole tone of the war.

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shifty rob
Jingle Bell Hock


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Embra-

I want to thank you for providing me with the opportunity to practice my descriptive skills on something as visceral as the landing of a severed head. I wish now I had thrown in a
"splat" for a sound effect!

Hey, look. It's lunch time! Gotta run...

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"They got a name for the winners in the world; I want a name when I lose" -Steely Dan

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Linden
I'll Be Home for After Christmas Sales


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quote:
Originally posted by Kathy B:
I looked up guillotining and blinking in general....
This is a report "written by Dr Beaurieux, who under perfect circumstances experimented with the head of Languille, guillotined at 5.30 a.m. on June 28th, 1905." Dr Beaurieux's report

Thanks for your diligence. I too have been searching, and I've found nothing earlier than the late 1990s connecting Lavoisier with the blinking head. I first came across the story when I was googling for Lavoisier, mis-typed his name, and found the blinking story.

I'm guessing that what happened is that people have long wanted to know whether a head remained conscious after decaptitating and wondered how to find out. Someone, not knowing about the gruesome experiment of Dr Beaurieux, thought that only a scientist would agree to blink after decapitation, and so attached the story to the most famous beheaded scientist, namely Lavoisier. The `Discovery Channel' programme referred to in The Straight Dope gave the story legs, as it were.

It's rather sad that there are now plenty of people in the world who have mainly heard of Lavoisier in connection with his blinking head.

--------------------
Yours, &c

Linden

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Hans Off
Markdown, the Herald Angels Sing


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I recall reading something about a king mouthing words after he got the Axe (I think it was Charles I)


Anyone else heard this?


No mention of it Here though...

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"British English speakers point to Americans adding more syllables so that they can make even more noise without actually saying anything." Llewtrah


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Cervus
Ding Dong! Merrily on High Definition TV


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I'd like to see the Mythbusters try this one on, if they haven't already.

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"There is no constitutional right to sleep with endangered reptiles." -- Carl Hiaasen
Won't somebody please think of the adults!

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Brandi
Little Sales Drummer Boy


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I'm not sure how they could. Never mind PETA, the ASPCA would probably not be keen on mass animal decapitation.
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Brandi
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I'm not sure how they could. Never mind PETA, the ASPCA would probably not be keen on mass animal decapitation.
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Linden
I'll Be Home for After Christmas Sales


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quote:
Originally posted by Hans Off:
I recall reading something about a king mouthing words after he got the Axe (I think it was Charles I)

Anyone else heard this?

The only thing I've heard on these lines is an old riddle:
quote:
King Charles walked and talked half an hour after his head was cut off.
Punctuate it properly and you get:
quote:
King Charles walked and talked. Half an hour after, his head was cut off.
Maybe somebody took it seriously.

--------------------
Yours, &c

Linden

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Bonnie
The Red and the Green Stamps


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Linden, I have to say that I think you bring up the most fascinating topics.

Nina Rattner Gelbart's "The Blonding of Charlotte Corday" (Eighteenth-Century Studies 38[1]: 201, Fall 2004) repeats that

quote:
[t]he legend of [Corday's] indignant blush actually led to much serious research by medical authorities of the day on whether or not the head remains alive for some seconds after being severed, and inspired the great scientist Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, when his time at the guillotine came around, to tell his students to count the number of times he blinked after the blade fell. [note]
Gelbart's note tells us to "[s]ee, on this matter, Ludmilla Jordanova, 'Medical Mediations: Mind, Body and the Guillotine,' History Workshop 28 (1989): 39-52." Unfortunately (or fortunately, I guess), Jordanova fails to mention Lavoisier's blinking head and instead concentrates on Corday's blushing cheeks. Gelbart gives no source for her Lavoisier anecdote.

Nor is Lavoisier's blinking head mentioned in Daniel Arasse's The Guillotine and the Terror (English translation, London: Penguin Press, 1989; original French edition, Paris: Flammarion, 1987) or in Daniel Gerould's Guillotine: Its Legend and Lore (New York: Blast Books, 1992).

The former has a terrific section on "The Thinking Head" and includes not only Corday's head's famously cheeky response to being slapped [1], but also a reference to Villiers de L'Isle-Adam's story "Le Secret de l'échafaud" ("The Secret of the Scaffold," ca. 1883), which is obviously based on the anecdote involving the condemned Lacenaire and Dr. Lelut of the Bicêtre (mentioned in the Straight Dope column).

Gerould's chapter on "Talking Heads and Walking Trunks" mentions the Languille story, which Kathy references above, and tells us more about the Lacenaire story,

quote:
In 1836 the infamous murderer Pierre-François Lacenaire on the eve of his execution made an agreement with Dr. Lelut of the Bicêtre to try to prove the survival of consciousness after decapitation. Lacenaire agreed that after his execution he would close his left eye but leave the right one open. Dr. Lelut observed the severed head of the executed criminal for some time, but he was unable to detect movement of any kind in its features. [p. 55]
So, nothing really significant to add to the discussion, just more negative evidence from two books, published between 1987 and 1992, that -- while mentioning other winking experiments -- I think should have included references to Lavoisier's blinking head had the notion been at all prevalent, say, 15 years ago.


A post to AFU in May, 1994, however, refers to not one but two anecdotes involving Lavoisier and blinking heads,

quote:
In Crucibles: The Story of Chemistry, the story is related that after Antoine Lavoisier's servant was beheaded on Dr. Guillotin's handy new slicer, Lavoisier picked up the head and asked him to blink if he understood. The head is reported to have blinked.

Talk about scientific detatchment [sic]!

Lavoisier later was given the opportunity to be the subject, rather than the experimenter, but no reports are extant of the experiment.

The same poster retells the anecdote a few months later for rec.org.sca,

quote:
There's also the curious case of the French chemist, Lavoisier, and his just-guillotined servant: Lavoisier appears to have held a conversation of some seconds duration, according to Crucibles: the Story of Chemistry. {Fascinating book, BTB. Read it!} As it happens, Lavoisier got to use personal experience to check his earlier work: he was shortened not long after his servant.
As far as I can tell the 1976 edition (New York: Dover Publications) of Bernard Jaffe's Crucibles, which is the only one I've been able to inspect, doesn't mention Lavoisier's participation as a blinker or as an observer of blinks. Perhaps it's to be found in another edition or perhaps the poster misremembered his source.

Two years after the story popped up in AFU it was also told in sci.med by Robert A. Fink, the same neurosurgeon who contributed to the (presumably later) Discovery Channel special,

quote:
You are correct (that the head may retain consciousness for a few seconds after severing). This phenomenon was also observed with Lavoisier, the French chemist, who was guillotined during the French Revolution. He told his friend, before going to his death, that he would try to blink his eyes as long as he could,a [sic] and he was observed to blink about 15 times!
As the Straight Dope article mentions, Dr. Fink, when queried about his source, said "he heard the story from a colleague. The colleague says he read it in a book, but can't remember which."

Bonnie "that's just off the top of his head" Taylor

[1] Arasse also mentions Auberive's Anecdotes sur les décapités, a pamphlet published in 1797, which recounts all sorts of grisly and improbable responses of decapitated heads.

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Se non è vero, è ben trovato.

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Linden
I'll Be Home for After Christmas Sales


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quote:
Originally posted by Bonnie:
Linden, I have to say that I think you bring up the most fascinating topics.

And Bonnie, I have to say that I think you find the most fascinating answers. Thank you very much indeed -- I reckon you've found the origins of this story.

Incidentally, as well as there being no mention of Lavoisier's own head blinking in any standard biography, neither is there any mention of one of his servants agreeing to blink. Indeed, I don't think there's any mention of any of his servants going to the guillotine -- the only servant of Lavoisier's who is commonly mentioned was his butler, Louis Antoine Masselot, with whom Madame Lavoisier took refuge after her husband was executed.

Once again, thanks a lot

--------------------
Yours, &c

Linden

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courier1009
I'm Dreaming of a White Sale


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Still an easier way to go than the chair.
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