I read somewhere that there was a prisoner facing a death sentence sometime before the 1950s, on whom a psychological experiment was conducted.


He was blindfolded and told that he would be killed by a bite by a venomous snake. But in reality, he was just pricked by a needle and he died from it. His autopsy report showed that he died from snake venom.

I did Google and I found this and this.


  • Did something like that really happen?
  • Is it really possible for a person to die from a placebo venom, like in the experiment?
  • I note that one of those sources claims that it was in the US. The other claims that it was Russian. Both are vague as to exact time and place. As fas as I can tell, neither one is notable. Do you have a source that is notable?
    – Ben Barden
    Jan 3, 2019 at 14:27
  • @BenBarden Yes I've noticed that they claim to be from different countries. No, I do not found any notable source of the info. But AFAICT this seems to be pretty common story(?).
    – noobs
    Jan 3, 2019 at 14:31
  • 5
    Notability isn't related to whether the sources are reliable and accurate. It is whether it widely believed. The first reference admits they aren't sure whether it is true and the comments are mostly people believing it is false.
    – Oddthinking
    Jan 3, 2019 at 15:12
  • 4
    Note: The second story is posted by an author in India, is set in the USA, but is about a snake you'd find in India, not the USA. Let's find some more sources.
    – Oddthinking
    Jan 3, 2019 at 15:14
  • Another claim example: ravislibrary.blogspot.com/2014/09/…
    – Laurel
    Jan 3, 2019 at 18:15

1 Answer 1


There is a set of very old urban legends - fictional stories that are widely believed and passed around as true - which are closely related to this story.

In the book The Lore of Scotland: A Guide to Scottish Legends (page 291), one variant is presented:

In 1824, an account appeared in print of Aberdeen students ganging up on an unpopular sacrist (a term used at Aberdeen University for a porter). The man, named as Downie, was subjected first to a mock trial in a black-draped room and then to an `execution'. The strokes of the axe were simulated by flicking his neck with a wet towel, so convincingly that the man died of shock, and the body had to be secretly buried.

Snopes points to a number of other more contemporary variants:

We’ve been hearing versions of this story for years, tales in which the details change but the theme remains that of an unfortunate man who dies after he is trapped in a situation which he presumes to be dangerous but is later revealed not to have posed any real threat to his well-being: The air-tight room he’s locked in turns out to have a vent to the outside which brings a steady supply of fresh air but the man suffocates because he believes he’s used up all the oxygen; the cooling unit on the refrigerated boxcar he’s trapped in isn’t turned on, but the man stuck inside the car slowly succumbs to hypothermia nonetheless.


Could someone really think himself to death? The jury may still be out on that concept, but we’ve yet to find any documentation for the claim that someone once died because his power of thought turned him into a corpsicle.

The executed prisoner story fits the format very well. Alas, this doesn't prove it never happened, but combined with the lack of traceable details (who, when and where?), and the inconsistencies between the stories, it seems fairly safe to dismiss these as modern folklore.

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