Reginald Scot, from The Discoverie of Witchcraft

[Click on image to enlarge] Reginald Scot's The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) set out to demonstrate that the devil had no power to grant magical abilities to human beings, and that therefore there were no witches — only unfortunate old women terrorized and often executed as the result of a ghastly error. In hopes of curing his readers of their dangerous gullibility, Scot devoted a chapter to describing and illustrating the methods employed by players and prestidigitators in producing apparently supernatural effects. Here he reveals how to present the spectacle of a severed head.

["The Decollation of John Baptist"]

To cut off one's head, and to lay it on a platter, etc., which the jugglers call "The Decollation >> note 1 of John Baptist":

To show a most notable execution by this art, you must cause a board, a cloth, and a platter to be purposely made, and in each of them holes fit for a boy's neck. The board must be made of two planks, the longer and broader the better. There must be left within half a yard of the end of each plank half a hole, so as both planks being thrust together, there may remain two holes, like to the holes in a pair of stocks. >> note 2 There must be made likewise a hole in the tablecloth or carpet. A platter also must be set directly over or upon one of them, having a hole in the middle thereof, of the like quantity, and also a peek cut out of the same, so big as his neck, through which his head may be conveyed into the middest of the platter; and then sitting or kneeling under the board, let the head only remain upon the board in the same. Then (to make the sight more dreadful) put a little brimstone into a chafing dish >> note 3 of coals, setting it before the head of the boy, who must gasp two or three times, so as the smoke enter a little into his nostrils and mouth (which is not unwholesome), and the head presently will appear stark dead. If the boy set his countenance accordingly, and if a little blood be sprinkled on his face, the sight will be the stranger.

This is commonly practiced with a boy instructed for that purpose, who being familiar and conversant with the company, may be known as well by his face, as by his apparel. In the other end of the table, where the like hole is made, an other boy of the bigness of the known boy must be placed, having upon him his usual apparel. He must lean or lie upon the board, and must put his head under the board through the said hole, so as his body shall seem to lie on the one end of the board, and his head shall lie in a platter on the other end. There are other things which might be performed in this action, the more to astonish the beholders, which because they offer long descriptions, I omit: as to put about his neck a little dough kneaded with bullock's blood, which being cold will appear like dead flesh, and being pricked with a sharp round hollow quill, will bleed, and seem very strange, etc. Many rules are to be observed herein, as to have the table cloth so long and wide as it may almost touch the ground; not to suffer the company to stay too long in the place, etc.

© 2010 W.W. Norton and Company :  Site Feedback  :  Help  :  Credits  :  Home  :  Top of page