When most people think of beheadings they probably think of events far away in time and place, such as Marie Antoinette's 1793 guillotine execution during the French revolution.

But beheadings are hardly a thing of the past; in fact in some places they are becoming increasingly commonplace.


Though most Americans are unaware of it, many beheadings take place very near the United States, in Mexico. As Will Grant noted in a recent BBC News story,

This month [May] has been perhaps the worst in terms of decapitations. In the past 10 days alone, there have been an unprecedented 81 beheaded bodies discovered in the country. In early May, 14 decapitated bodies were found in Nuevo Laredo, just over the border from Texas. Last week, 18 bodies and severed heads were left in two mini-vans near Lake Chapala, an area popular with tourists in western Mexico. Finally, in one of the most shocking incidents of its kind since the current drug war began, 49 headless and mutilated bodies were left in plastic bags on a road outside the industrial city of Monterrey.

The idea of execution by decapitation is bizarre and horrific, though for millennia public beheadings around the world were fairly common. It's only in modern times that cutting a person's head off has come to be considered barbaric.


In centuries past, beheading was actually preferable to other common forms of execution (such as being burned alive or disemboweled). In early England, beheading was considered a noble, and even honorable, death. Nigel Cawthorne, author of "Public Executions" (2006, Capella Press) notes that "Hanging was usually reserved for the lower classes.

Rebellious noblemen who had been sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered for treason were understandably relieved when their sentence was changed to beheading...knowing that they could make a parting speech before departing this life in a relatively swift and painless manner."


Beheading even remains an officially sanctioned method of execution in several Middle Eastern countries.

Though historically decapitation was essentially a means to an end, the beheading element itself carried a powerful message, and continues to do so today. There are far cleaner and less gruesome ways to kill a person, but few things make a greater impression on the public than seeing a severed head. That shock value is used to strike fear in enemies and ensure obedience.

In October 2010, an American businessman on vacation with his wife at Texas's Falcon Lake bordering Mexico was killed by suspected drug runners. The Mexican police chief investigating his death was himself murdered and decapitated; his severed head was found inside a suitcase.


According to a Oct. 13, 2010 dispatch from Fred Burton, Vice President of Intelligence at the Stratford Global Initiative think tank, "The Zeta cartel boss responsible for the beheading of the Mexican investigator sent a strong signal to the Mexican authorities that this is his geography, this is Zeta controlled area, and for the Mexican government to stay out."

Only a few hundred years ago the severed heads of criminals were often placed atop poles, landmarks, and bridges at the entrances to cities as a warning to visitors that crime would not be tolerated.

Today the tradition continues, only the message has been completely inverted: instead of a warning to criminals and the public by authorities, the beheadings are a warning to authorities and the public by criminals.


This post by Benjamin Radford originally appeared on Discovery News. It has been republished here with full permission.


The beheading of St. John the Baptist by Carvaggio, via The Yorck Project