Murder by decapitation

posted in: History | 4

Picture of pappenheimerHave you ever wondered about how easy it is to cut off somebody’s head with one blow of a sword? No, I hadn’t either until I wrote ‘To Die a Dry Death’. It’s one of the most famous of the many murders, often quoted, how with just one blow with a sword, one of the murderers struck off the head of a lad about twelve years old simply for amusement.

This event happened towards the end of Cornelisz’s reign of terror after the sinking of the Batavia and I thought it was an excellent opportunity to show both the depravity of the murderers and the pervading terror in the hearts and minds of the few remaining potential victims, forced to witness the killing. I also wanted to get my facts straight.

A careful check of Pelsaert’s journal (translated in Henrietta Drake-Brockman’s ‘Voyage to Disaster’) revealed that Mattijs Beer did not decapitate the boy with one blow. To quote the transalation,

Meanwhile Jan van Bemel was busy to blindfold the boy and Jeronimus, who stood next to him, said, “Now boy, sit still, we are only having some fun with you,” and Mattijs Beer with one blow near enough struck off his head. (p181)

Near enough to one blow is not one blow. So I asked a friend, Anthony Saunders PhD, who is an expert in military history, a fencer and swordsman, whether this was possible. I told him that the sword was probably like one used in the Thirty Years War and would have been a soldier’s weapon, not naval.

This is what he told me.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries a sword was more often used for executions in Germany and central Europe than the axe. Anne Boleyn was beheaded with a sword. The victim knelt, as did Anne, or sat in a chair or a stool, eyes bound, and the sword was swung horizontally. But these were executioners’ swords. That is not to say that a broad-bladed weapon would not serve equally well. With that in mind, I would suggest that the sword is one typical of the Thirty Years War period (1618–48). For example, a schiavona-style basket hilt (used by Croatian mercenaries) but this might be a bit late for 1629, or a broadsword with a swept hilt or a Pappenheimer (with a shell inside the guard). Broadswords were military swords, of course, so their hilts varied more in style than the civilian rapier. Some had a curved down crosspiece (quillon) on one side of the hilt which turned up into a knuckleguard on the other side, with a large shell guard to cover the rest of the hand. Here are some swords of the right period. To be honest, to be effective for execution, the short-handled weapons would be of less use as looking at contemporary engravings of sword executions, the executioner used a two-handed grip.

So I went with the experts. In my version, Cornelis Aldersz’s head was almost (but not quite) removed with one blow.

Doctor Saunders was also able to give me valuable insight into what happens to the human body when such a blow is delivered. Lots of blood as the pressure is released from the arteries and often some twitching and jerking.

Once I’d written the scene, I sent it to him to check my description. He approved. So now you know a little more about swords than you did before. Fascinating stuff.

4 Responses

  1. Don’t believe everything you read on the internet… – Greta van der Rol

    […] He asked me if I had any primary evidence that Leeman was on board the Vergulde Draeck. And no, I didn’t. Neither, it seems, has anybody else. Bob pointed me at an article he’d written about Leeman which I feel pretty much proves his case. Mea culpa. I do know better. In my research for the Batavia ship wreck I read many stories about a lad being decapitated with one blow from a sword. Reading the primary source (Pelsaert’s journal) the story is clearly not true. Here’s my article about that. […]

  2. jackdurish

    It really depends upon the sword and the skill of the swordsman. A Japanese katana may slice up to four men in half (much harder than decapitation) in one blow. However, the swordsman must use the proper “slicing” blow to accomplish this. Like cavalry sabers, they are curved to make the slicing motion more natural. Straight edged swords may be used but the slicing motion is harder to accomplish – but still can be done.

    God, but I’m gruesome tonight.

    Forgive me

    • Greta van der Rol

      As you say, with the correct weapon in the right hands it can be done. But in the instance referred to, neither of those things were in evidence and as I mentioned, the written record makes it clear the boy was not decapitated with one blow.

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