Some experiments with severed heads

Posted: October 13, 2013 in History

Some experiments with severed heads.

Early on the morning of 18 February 1848, two men and a woman walked into the square in front of the Porte de Hal, in Brussels, where a public execution was due to take place shortly after dawn. They were there to conduct a ground-breaking scientific study, and, by prior arrangement with the Belgian penal authorities, were permitted to climb onto the scaffold and wait next to the guillotine at the spot where the severed heads of two condemned criminals were scheduled to drop into a blood red sack.

One of the men was Antoine Joseph Wiertz, a well known Belgian painter and also a fine hypnotic subject. With him were his friend, Monsieur D_____, a noted hypnotist, and a witness. Wiertz’s purpose on that winter’s day was to carry out a unique and extraordinary experiment. Long haunted by the desire to know whether a severed head remained conscious after a guillotining, the painter had agreed to be hypnotised and instructed to identify himself with a man who was about to be executed for murder.

Wiertz – the plan went – ‘was to follow [the murderer’s] thoughts and feel any sensations, which he was to express aloud. He was also ‘suggested’ to take special note of mental conditions during decapitation, so that when the head fell in the basket he could penetrate the brain and give an account of its last thoughts.’ [Shepard II, 648]  And, incredible as it may seem to us, his scheme appeared to work – indeed, it worked rather too well. As soon as the tumbrel carrying the condemned men to their deaths appeared, Wiertz began to panic. ‘It seemed to the painter that the guillotine’s blade was cleaving his own flesh. It crushed his spine and tore his spinal cord.’ It was not until killers ascended the scaffold that Wiertz recovered himself sufficiently to ‘ask Monsieur D to put me in rapport with the cut off head, by means of whatever new procedures seemed appropriate to him… He made some preparations and we waited, not without excitement, for the fall of a human head.’

As the large crowed watched for the fatal moment, though, it became clear that the painter was still identifying all too closely with his subject’s extreme predicament. Wiertz ‘became entranced almost immediately and… manifested extreme distress and begged to be demagnetised, as his sense of oppression was insupportable. It was too late, however – the knife fell.’ [Wiertz pp.491-2; Benjamin p.250; Shepard op.cit.]

 

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