Picture of the Week #65: The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots

Yes, I know it’s a video, not a ‘picture’, but to celebrate the birthday of Thomas Edison, here’s a barely appropriate reminder of The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots, filmed in New Jersey for the Edison Manufacturing Co. on 28th August 1895, by Alfred Clark. I could have chosen any number of Edison shorts to mark the man’s birthday, but this is a favourite of mine for its early use of a trick effect in a historical re-enactment. This is probably the first substitution cut, when the actor playing Mary (the Library of Congress lists this as one Robert Thomae) is replaced with a dummy for the moment of death. You can see the join, but it’s still quite skilfully done. This film would have been watched, one viewer at a time, on an Edison kinetoscope, and it apparently caused a bit of a stir, with some viewers allegedly fearing that somebody really had died for their art. I somehow doubt this, but it makes a nice story, and inaugurates the undying myth of the snuff film.

The film is not historically accurate – an eyewitness to the beheading on 7th February 1857 records that it took three strokes to decapitate Mary, while the film makes it all look smooth and easy. Right at the end of the film, you can see the executioner holding up her head for the watching crowd: this is most likely true; he also removed the head-dress from her severed head and revealed the secret that she’d hidden during her long imprisonment (19 years) at her cousin’s pleasure – her hair had turned completely white. Either that, or he dropped the head, having tried to pick it by the wig that Mary wore – accounts vary.

I’m not sure what involvement, if any, Edison himself had in the making of this film, but it definitely marked the start of an escalation in the sensational spectacles recorded for the kinetoscope. Alfred Clark made a few more grisly shorts, including The Burning of Joan of Arc, also produced in 1895. It reached a peak in 1903 with the notorious and self-explanatory Electrocuting an Elephant, which you can read about here: it’s a fascinating story, even if you don’t want to watch the film itself.