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Lethal Indirection

Claim:   Man fooled into thinking he has been executed dies of a heart attack.

LEGEND

Examples:

[Smith, 1986]

A group of Birmingham students were discussing the question of hypnosis. They decided to try an experiment and invited into the lecture room a laboratory assistant who was always causing them problems and getting them into trouble.

They explained to him that no one could be made to do anything under hypnosis that they would not do when fully awake. They said that a student had been hypnotised, told to execute someone and they wanted the laboratory assistant to help them prove the student would not go through with it.

They asked the assistant to kneel down with his head bent as if ready to have his head chopped off. The 'hypnotised' student was then brought in and with a suitable build-up he gently dropped a wet towel across the back of the victim's neck. Unfortunately, the assistant was of a nervous disposition and the shock brought on a heart attack which killed him.
 

[Collected via e-mail, 2004]

Another story I've heard quite a few times is about a man in England (before capital punishment was outlawed there) condemned to death by hanging. Shortly before he dies, he is told that he will have his throat cut with a knife instead. A hood is placed over his head and, instead of the sharp side, the blunt side of the knife is run across his throat. He makes gurgling noises as if he has just had his throat cut and dies. The teller usually points out that the "experiment" was carried out by British psychologists.
 

Origins:   According to folklorist Paul Smith, this legend of a faked beheading's causing the victim to expire of fright reaches back into distant times, with one well-traveled version from the 1800s set at Aberdeen University recounting the mock execution of a porter named Downie. Smith also asserts that an even earlier Italian analogy is found in a story from the 1500s wherein a jester is accidentally polished off in a staged
execution.

More recent tellings describe the about-to-be-deceased as a laboratory assistant who is a liability to the group (Smith, 1986) and as a thoroughly loathed "knows it all" freshman (Cohen, 1993), each of whom are lured to their deaths in efforts to prove hypnotized people will not do anything they would not do ordinarily. The victim's being positioned in the mind of the audience as the sort of fellow one would have no love for is far from accidental — his unsympathetic portrayal renders those regaled with the tale free to focus on the blood-chilling manner of the death absent the distraction of pity for the man who died. Likewise, little by way of compassionate urges gets in the way of the story about the condemned criminal: he obviously must have been a right rotter to be under sentence of death — and besides, he was about to kick the bucket anyway.

The theme of a physically unharmed victim who passes away only because he believes himself to be dying underpins another urban legend. In "Deadly Imaginings," a man trapped in a non-functioning refrigerator he presumes to be turned on perishes by way of freezing to death.

Can people be fatally deceived into thinking they've been put to death? We don't honestly know, but we do point out the entire lack of genuine reports of such cases.

Barbara "the hot deceit" Mikkelson

Last updated:   29 June 2011

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Sources:

    Cohen, Daniel.   The Beheaded Freshman and Other Nasty Rumors.
    New York: Avon Books, 1993.   ISBN 0-380-77020-2   (pp. 53-58).

    Smith, Paul.   The Book of Nastier Legends.
    London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986.   ISBN 0-7102-0573-2   (p. 50).