Execution by beheading, whether it is carried out by sword or guillotine, is one of the most gruesome forms of capital punishment. At least it's usually quick.
A print depicting the execution of King Louis XVI during the French Revolution. The guillotine, a sophisticated instrument designed to automate death by beheading, has fallen out of fashion.
Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Beheading was probably the most humane form of punishment available in the ancient world, with the possible exception of the administration of poison. Although it has never been a legal form of execution in the United States, it is practiced elsewhere. Most notably, it remains the preferred method of execution in Saudi Arabia.
One benefit of beheading is that it allows the executioners to display the victim's head as a warning. This practice dates back to ancient times, but one particularly striking semi-recent example took place in the aftermath of Nat Turner's rebellion
, as posses searching for Turner allegedly killed nearby slaves nearly at random and mounted their heads on fenceposts as a warning.
How It Works:
The victim is restrained, usually forced to kneel, and the executioner removes the head by way of a sword or knife. In renaissance-era Europe (most famously in the aftermath of the French Revolution), the process was automated by way of a device called a guillotine, which dropped a heavy blade through the prisoner's neck--allowing for a clean, instant decapitation.
Beheading can actually be a fairly humane form of punishment, provided that the executioner is strong and reasonably competent. When the executioner is less strong or less competent than would be desirable, however, death can be slow and excruciatingly painful.