Heads-Up on a Heads-Off

Dutch watercolour c1613, execution of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, 8 Feb 1587 (detail)

08 February 2016
· Mary Stuart’s execution and its place in the history of cinema ·

Feast or famine – a pair of posts today. Too bad it’s not the 13th of October, the feast day of Saint Edward (that’s the Confessor, a man slightly more saintly than I). Today’s another sort of anniversary.

Four hundred and twenty-nine years ago, on the 8th of February 1587, near my 37th year’s end, Mary Stuart met her life’s end at the sharp end of a large axe, on the block at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire.

I didn’t see her execution, but as I described recently in this post, and went into significant detail in this one, I was one of the Commissioners (judges) at Mary’s treason trial, held in October 1586.

The anniversary of Mary’s death was brought to my attention today by a short piece of digitised cinema film dating to 28 August 1895, almost as far back as cinema goes. The scene portrays Mary’s beheading and was filmed at the New Jersey laboratory of the famous American inventor Thomas Edison, whose Kinetoscope company was one of the early developers of motion-picture camera technology.

Edison was one of history’s supreme attention-hounds, eager to take 100% of the credit and profit merited by the 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration of others. All you need to know about Thomas Edison you will learn by reading about Nikola Tesla.

Here’s the film.

The video I saw was a slight variant posted at The Public Domain Review, a sublime website (philosophically, intellectually, visually) which is well worth checking out. The page with the Edison film includes historical notes, and there are links to download the video should you wish to do so. If you really want to explore the film’s details, the original archive is at the US Library of Congress’s website.

Not only does this brief Edison film contain the first example of an edit being used to create a special effect (replacing the live Mary with a dummy just before the axe falls), but it is also the very first death scene in all of cinematographic history. There has been a plague’s worth of death on the screen ever since, to which I have contributed more than a few corpses. Perhaps I’ll write my version of Mary, Queen of Scots someday. Stranger things have happened.


This video shows up in my earlier post, but it needs to be here also, on this of all days. There is no such thing as too much Python. This is the audio version. The sketch was performed by Graham Chapman and John Cleese in Series 2, Episode 9 of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.