Cutting Off One’s Head: Self-Decapitations of the Past

suicide machine

Cutting Off One’s Head: Self-Decapitations of the Past

[Thanks to Michael Robinson who first brought the Tulsa story to my attention.]

Since we are nothing if not topical here, I was inspired to go all Grand Guignol on you and pull out my files of ingenious historical self-decapitations by the story of the Tulsa man found in his garage bound hand and foot, with his head cut off. Naturally the police suspect suicide, reminding me of a similar case in (I think) Indiana, where a body was found tied up and shot to death in a sealed crawl space. That was also ruled a suicide in what seems to argue a certain lack of forensic rigor at the Coroner’s Office.

Here, ripped from the headlines of yesterday’s newspapers, are some cutting-edge examples of self-decapitations of the past. Remember, kids, don’t try this at home…

Let’s start with a bit of exotic history, with self-decapitation as ethnic humor, as a loyalty test and, apparently, for boasting rights:

Colonel Henry Yule, C.B., F.R.G.S., in editing the adventures of a 14th-century Dominican missionary to Asia, is reminded by an execution anecdote of

Sir Jonah Barrington’s story of the Irish mower, who, making a dig at a salmon in a pool with the butt end of his scythe, which was over his shoulder, dropt his own head into the water. There is a remarkably parallel story in Ibn Batuta. When he was at the court of the pagan king of Mul-Java… he says, “I one day saw, in the assembly of this prince, a man with a long knife in his hand, which he placed upon his own neck; he then made a long speech, not a word of which I could understand; he then firmly grasped the knife, and its sharpness, and the force with which he urged it, were such that he severed his head from his body, and it fell on the ground. I was wondering much at the circumstance, when the king said to me: ‘Does anyone among you do such a thing as this?’ I answered, ‘I never saw one do so.’ He smiled, and said: ‘These, our servants, do so out of their love to us.’ One who had been present at the assembly, told me that the speech he made was a declaration of his love to the sultan, and that on this account he had killed himself, just as his father had done for the father of the present king, and his grandfather for the king’s grandfather.” (Lee’s Ibn Batuta, p. 205) Also we are told by Abu Zaid al Hasan, in Reinaud’s Relation des Voyages faits par les Arabes, etc. (Paris, 1845), how a young man of India, tying his hair to a great elastic bamboo stem, which was pulled down to the ground, cut his own head off, telling his friends to watch that they might see and hear how the head would laugh, as it sprung aloft with the resilient bamboo. (i. 124)  Mirabilia Descripta: The Wonders of the East, Jordanus Catalani, Bishop of Columbum, 1863 edition

The “Irish mower” story referred to above, was a well-circulated 19th-century ethnic joke about accidental self-decapitation. Simply insert [ethnic group you wish to label stupid] here. For example:

Amongst all the inhabitants of Finland the Tavastland peasant is the best worker and the poorest. He is quiet and matter-of-fact, with none of the poetical characteristics of his brothers in Savolaks or Osterbotten. The Tavastland peasants are also held to be the densest of all the people in Finland, and many are the tales told of their stupidity. The following anecdote is a good example of their credulity. A party of seven men were cutting hay close to the shore, when one of them perceived a fish in the water. Wishing to kill it, he swung his scythe round; but instead of killing the fish, he managed to cut off his own head. The rest accused his nearest comrade of having done the deed. “No, no,” the man protested,” I had nothing to do with it. He” (pointing to the dead man) “did like this;” and to illustrate his statement, he also cut his own head off in exactly the same manner as the first. Four more followed suit one by one, and at last there was only a single survivor, and he, working out the puzzle for his own enlightenment, cut his head off too!  A Summer Tour in Finland, Sylvia Borgström MacDougall, 1908 

It is not easy to cut off one’s own head without mechanical assistance, although there was much loose talk in the press about people “cutting their own heads off,” when in reality, they had “merely” managed to “nearly” do it, cutting their throats from ear to ear–in itself no mean feat. Although there were a few accomplished souls reported to have decapitated themselves with razors (the most notable, a determined butcher), if one really wanted to do the job properly one needed a device like a guillotine. If no guillotine was to hand, trains were readily available. We need only look at reports of railway accidents and the folklore of headless conductors to acknowledge the train’s peerless efficiency at taking off heads. 

Workman Thrusts Head Under Moving Freight

Toledo, O., Feb. 25. Within view of a score or more employes of the Toledo Stove and Range Company, George Mould, 68 years old, committed suicide by allowing a New York Central freight to pass over his body here today.

Witnesses say he took off his glasses, placed them on a window sill of the stove company and then walked to the track, placing his neck over the rails in the path of a backing freight train.

His head was cut off before the spectators realized what was taking place. Lexington [KY] Herald 26 February 1922: p. 4 

Even with the ease and convenience of trains, a surprising number of tinkerers built their own devices.

Singular Suicide. A most singular suicide in London is thus described: “The man was about fifty, of a morose, gloomy and taciturn disposition; the deceased had screwed the handle of an axe to the bed-post; suspended over the head of the axe, by an elaborate arrangement, a stone weighing ninety pounds; placed his head on a bench under  the axe; cut a cord that held the stone in air; and on the fall of the weight died as surely, if not as sweetly, as if his guillotine had not been merely improvised.” Montana Post [Virginia City, Montana Territory] 9 June 1866: p. 4


A California Man Rigged Up a Guillotine, Placed His Neck on a Block, and Caused the Ax to Fall.

Chicago, April 9. A special to the Tribune from San Jose, Cal., says: “Death resulted from a cut in the neck made by a guillotine and operated with suicidal intent.”

Such was the verdict rendered here today by a coroner’s jury impanelled to inquire into the facts surrounding the death of John Connelly, whose body was discovered in a cabin at Wrights Station. Connelly had rigged up a guillotine and cut off his own head. He swung a broad ax by a rope in such a position that when he cut a cord, the ax fell across his neck, which was stretched don a block of wood, conveniently located. The plan worked effectively, as death probably was instantaneous.  Connelly was 57 years of age, and unmarried. Watertown [NY] Daily Times 9 April 1901: p. 1


Deliberate Preparations Which a Demented French Inventor Made to Take His Own Life.

Arthur Charollais, a demented inventor, 40 years old, guillotined himself this week in his laboratory at Mulhouse in Alsace. He had constructed the machine himself. It was an exact duplicate of the legal French guillotine, but was made of costly woods and finely polished.

  The triangular knife had engraved on it: “This blade cut Arthur Charollais’ neck, October, 1900.”

  Near the body was found a note reading: “Distribute my belongings among the poor. Demolish this guillotine. It is intended solely for my own private use.”

  Charollais’ servants heard an unfamiliar electric bell suddenly ringing persistently, and rushing to answer it discovered with horror a wriggling, headless body, with blood gushing in streams from the neck. The head was in a basket with sawdust where it had fallen.   The suicide had so arranged the knife that its fall started an electric bell.  Marietta [OH] Daily Leader 7 November 1900: p. 7

 In 1876 a guillotine inventor came along who captured the imagination of the nation with his death. Stories are still told of him today including this really excellent series of posts from author L.D. Littleton Baher, who has written a play about James Moon and his suicide machine.


How an Ingenious Drummer Cut Off His Own Head

The recent unsuccessful attempt of a Chicago man to commit suicide by means of a clumsily constructed guillotine reminds a St. Louis Republic correspondent of the self-decapitation of James Moon, a traveling man, in a hotel at Lafayette, Inc.

When the man came to the hotel, his trunk was overheavy. In it he carried the instrument of death, which he had constructed for that purpose. The shaft supporting the ax was made in three sections to fit snugly in the trunk. These were taken out and bolted strongly together, making the piece perhaps 7 feet long. At the upper end of this shaft what is known as a broadax was firmly bolted. In order to give the ax sufficient weight to carry it through his neck, Moon had placed bars of inch iron three feet long along the sides of the ax.

The lower end of the shaft was fastened to the floor with a hinge. On the side of a window frame was placed a little shelf large enough to hold an old fashioned candlestick. A small eyehook was fastened to the window frame, through which a stout cord was run and fastened to a similar eyehook in the ax shaft. This cord was double or endless and ran on either side of the candle in the stick an inch or two from the top of the candle, so that when it was burned through the ax would surely fall, the shaft having been fixed at an angle of 45 degrees.

To the east of the shaft, but in direct line, was a soapbox, with one side removed for the purpose of admitting his head. Moon was desirous that his features should not be marred by the ax in its fall and had arranged the box at such an exact spot that the ax should not miss his neck while preserving his face from disfigurement.

Beneath his neck, at the point where the ax would strike, he had screwed a billet of wood, which exactly fitted the hollow at the back of his neck, thus insuring a clean cut of the ax.

When all was ready, Moon lighted the candle, lay down and strapped his feet and body to the floor by means of leather strips and eyehooks. He had provided himself with a vial of chloroform and some cotton batting. He saturated the batting with the anaesthetic and awaited the end. The candle soon burned down to the cord, releasing the ax, and Moon’s head was cut from the body with remarkable precision. Not a scratch was made upon the chin. Whether he was unconscious when the ax fell is, of course, a matter of conjecture. The blood, which saturated the floor, was the only “muss” made by the self execution.When found, Moon had been dead several hours. The guillotine is now in the museum of Perdue University.  Jackson [MI] Citizen Patriot 26 June 1894: p. 3

 The suicide actually occurred in June of 1876. I have used a much later, shorter article which seems to describe the machine correctly. However, Moon was not a drummer (traveling salesman) but an inventor and farmer. I will revisit his story in more detail in a future post.

 Moon’s success may have inspired a Bostonian to design his own guillotine, complete with a place for the anaesthetic. 


A Bostonian Builds a Self-acting Guillotine and Inhales Ether Till it Chops his Head Off

Boston, April. 19 A remarkable and ingenious suicide occurred in Chelsea yesterday. Stephen M. Pillsbury, Jr., was found by his father in a barn where he was last seen on Sunday. The head was nearly severed from the body, connected only by the skin front.

Pillsbury had committed suicide in a most methodical manner. He built a guillotine of joist and plank, and took for a knife a carpenter’s broadax, set in a wooden slide, the latter being held in position above by resting on a weighted lever. The weight was a large watering pot full of small leak holes at the bottom. A large box filled with stones was placed on the knife slide to weight it. Pillsbury’s plan being that, when the water had escaped enough, the lever would release the knife, which would instantly drop. At the foot of the posts Pillsbury made a collar for his neck, and made close by a hollow in the joist, holding about a quart. The collar was fastened by heavy boxes of stones to keep him quiet if he struggled.

From appearances he had filled the hollow with ether, placed himself in the guillotine, fastened himself with his nose and mouth over the ether, and probably became insensible. The knife fell, nearly severing his head from his body.

Pillsbury was about thirty years old, and probably insane, as insanity occurs in his family. He left a letter addressed: “Dear parents, brothers, and sisters,” saying he believed the step he was about to take was right. Cincinnati [OH] Daily Gazette 20 April 1880: p. 2 

An excruciating variant of the self-decapitation was the saw method. 


An Ohio Penitentiary Convict Commits Suicide in a Horrible Manner.

Columbus, Oct. 13 Joseph Smith, a convict in the Ohio Penitentiary from Montgomery County, committed suicide this afternoon in a peculiarly horrible manner. He obtained a small piece of iron, which he ground to a point on the stone of the floor. With this he literally sawed his head off. The weapon he used was too dull to cut unless extraordinary force was used, and in spite of this fact all the arteries of the neck were severed. When found he was quite dead, lying in a pool of blood.

Smith was sent up from Dayton to serve one year for burglary and larceny. Of late he has been considered mentally unbalanced and has given the officials a great deal of trouble. His parents live in Philadelphia. Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 14 October 1896: p. 1


A Crazy Chinaman’s Act of Self-Destruction.

A Sharp Cleaver Used By the Insane Man in Heinenville Last Night, Coroner’s Inquest.

Coroner Secord held an inquest this morning upon the remains of Ah Choy a Chinese who committed suicide about 5 o’clock yesterday afternoon by cutting his head nearly off with a cleaver.

The Chinaman was crazy and was known to be unusually eccentric in his conduct during the past few days. He entered the rooms of a friend where he was accustomed to calling and went directly into the kitchen.

In a fit of insanity he raised a cleaver he found lying on a block and drew the sharp blade to and fro on his neck making the ugliest wound a man could inflict on himself, and dying a few moments later. He had completely severed the jugular vein.

Coroner Secord was notified about 5:30 o’clock and Deputy Coburn went to the scene. The remains had been removed to the Chinese dead house by the Chinese and from there they were taken to the Morgue, together with the large cleaver that did the deadly work.

Yuck Chong testified that the deceased owned a ranch near Milpitas and came to town last Saturday. Since then he has hung about Heinlenville and manifested signs of insanity and at times complained of illness.

Ah Luck another Heinlenville resident testified substantially the same. The verdict of the jury was that the deceased committed suicide while laboring under a fit of temporary insanity. Evening News [San Jose, CA] 5 March 1895: p. 1

Even apparitions got into the self-decapitation act.






Delaware, O., March 19. A ghostly apparition has been seen near an old brick ruin, vacated for several years, which stands just on the outskirts of Galena. It was supposed in past years to have been a rendezvous for robbers and bandits, and has been avoided by the timid and superstitious.

  A young man said to be Hugh Barnes has occasion to pass this lonely spot frequently. Last Wednesday night, while returning home, he was startled by hearing a noise in the house. Upon looking around he saw a figure, robed in white standing in the upstairs window looking down upon him. Frightened half out of his wits, young Barnes ran to a neighboring house and told what he had seen, but when the parties went back to the house, they heard or saw nothing.

  The next day the event was the talk of the street loafers and it was agreed to organize a small company of brave men to go to the place Thursday night. To investigate the cause of the strange apparition. At the same hour as the night before the party placed themselves at a convenient place. Soon their patience was rewarded by hearing a rumbling noise, the old ruined house seemed illumined by electricity, and then as suddenly became darkened. In another moment or two the same white form which young Barnes had seen the evening before appeared at the same window, but strangely without a head. While the men were yet standing in speechless horror, they saw the head coming down from above and joining itself to the trunk of the ghostly form. The terrifying look it then put on was enough to freeze the blood of the bravest man in the party and they all took to their heels and made themselves a scarce as possible.

  A little later the same night it was seen again by a party of young folks returning home from prayer meeting. This time it came out into the road brandishing a flaming sword. The ghost was not more than fifty feet away when the young people came upon it, and they could easily see that it was a visitor from the world of shades. The body seemed to be nothing more than a light milky mist, showing the outlines of a human skeleton over which was thrown a light gauzy mantle of a waving mist. A strange supernatural glow came from the sword which gave it the appearance of a flame and cast a frightful unearthly light around the figure.

  While the young people were still looking at the advancing figure, huddled together in a little group, the shade raised its sword and with one sweep severed the head from its body. At this the boys ran for dear life leaving the girls to look out for themselves. The latter, terrified and hysterical almost to unconsciousness, were found shortly after by some passers-by and taken to their homes where they told their horrible experience.

  The stories of the witnesses have caused the little town to bubble over with excitement, the people having grown very superstitious, and will not go near the house or along the highway after sundown. Another effort will be made, however, to organize a party of watchers to ascertain what is the cause of the strange apparition.

  There is a tradition that many years ago a strange man going through the country became stranded in the town and having neither home, friends, or money, suicided near the house by cutting his throat. Repository [Canton, OH] 19 March 1894: p. 5

 Self-decapitation was also an extremely popular conjuring act and a zany subject for the newfangled art of photographic manipulation.

And the tradition of cutting off one’s head continues today, with up-to-date tools.

Once again, don’t even think of trying this at home.  I mean it.

That is all.

Except for this last report, which I forgot to add last night. I’ve read about religious self-decapitations in Asia–they almost always start at the back of the neck. One wonders if this doctor, who had the right tool for the job, knew exactly where to cut through the backbone.

Dr Harvey Smith, a wealthy physician, of Blanchester, Ohio, recently warned his family that he was losing his mind. While walking with his wife a few days later he drew an amputating-knife from his pocket and, like a flash, beheaded himself. Sacramento [CA] Daily Record-Union 11 November 1882: p. 1

For more on notable Heads Through History, see my previous posts on Guiteau’s Head , Tales of Heads., and Phantom Heads.

Portions of this post appear in The Victorian Book of the Dead, also available in a Kindle edition.



Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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