The guillotine is most famous for its role in the French Revolution. But executions using the guillotine continued well into the late 20th century.
"Hidden History" is a diary series that explores forgotten and little-known areas of history.
On July 14, 1789, a mob of French citizens attacked the royal prison at the Bastille in Paris and tore it to the ground. Although the prison held only a handful of occupants, it had become a symbol of a royal regime that was now hated. Within a few years, King Louis XVI was deposed from office, tried for treason, and sentenced to death. His wife, Marie Antoinette, would follow him shortly later. In what became known as the "Reign of Terror", the radical Jacobins, led by a lawyer named Robespierre, carried out a steady stream of executions, killing thousands of royalists, critics and opponents, until finally the terror was ended when Robespierre himself was arrested and executed.
Executions were no new thing in France. For hundreds of years, the death penalty was applied for a myriad of crimes ranging from murder to thievery. The most common method of execution was hanging on the gallows, but this was usually applied only to commoners: members of the nobility who went astray met a more dignified end by axe or sword.
Well, it was supposed to be dignified, anyway. If your crimes were unpopular and people didn't like you, the executioner might decide to create a bit of a spectacle for the watching crowd (executions being carried out publicly in the town square) by missing the mark and cutting only partway into your neck or head instead of lopping your head clean off. (To help prevent this, it became customary for condemned noblemen to tip the executioner, passing along a sum of money to insure a good aim and a quick death.)
Even if the executioner intended to dispatch you quickly, it was often difficult to hit the small target of a human neck, especially if the condemned were squirming nervously on the block. So it was not unusual for the first blow to fail, falling onto the shoulders or the back of the head instead of the neck and necessitating further swings of the axe. The most famous victim of a bungled execution was Mary Queen of Scots: the executioner's first blow crushed her neck and paralyzed her, but did not kill her, and it took another blow of the axe to remove her head and end her suffering. In another horrific example in 1632, one of the executioners showed up at the appointed time apparently drunk--and it took 29 swings before the condemned's head was finally hacked off.
In addition to the hangman and the axeman, there were special forms of execution that were reserved for particular types of criminals. Religious outlaws and witches would be burned at the stake. People who had plotted the overthrow of the King were executed by "drawing and quartering", in which they would be briefly hung until almost dead, then cut down. Their genitals would be cut off and burned, and their stomach would be opened and the entrails pulled out. Finally they would be decapitated with an axe, and the body pulled into pieces with ropes and horses. Each piece would then be sent out to a portion of the country, as a stark warning of what happened to traitors.
When the National Assembly took control of France in 1789, there was a series of debates about the future of the death penalty, with a significant number of delegates advocating its abolition. Prominent among these was a lawyer named Maximillian Robespierre, a leader of a radical faction known as the Jacobins. After much rancor and argument, it was decided to retain the death penalty, but to make it more democratic by developing a new painless method of execution that could be applied to everyone equally regardless of their social status.
During these debates, a delegate from Paris, a doctor named Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, made a speech advocating that some sort of mechanical device be produced for executions which would make the whole process a matter of routine, to be uniformly applied everywhere in the country. Guillotin further declared that the most painless and humane method of execution would be by decapitation. In this he was supported by, of all people, Charles Henri Sanson, who had been serving as the Royal Executioner and was now continuing his old job under the new regime.
It wasn't until 1791, however, that the Assembly resolved to take action on Guillotin's proposal. By this time, the deposed King Louis XVI was attracting political support both from the French aristocracy and from foreign governments like England, Prussia and Austria, and there was a real possibility that foreign troops could invade France, destroy the revolutionary government, and put the French King back into power. In response to this threat, the Jacobins were able to win control of the Assembly and form a "Committee of Public Safety", headed by Robespierre, which quickly established a virtual dictatorship. Anyone who showed insufficient loyalty to the Revolution (i.e., to the Jacobins) was labeled a "counter-revolutionary", and Robespierre, who had once argued in favor of abolishing the death penalty completely, now argued for its use against "enemies of the people".
A committee was set up in March 1792 under Dr Antoine Louis, an official from the Academy of Surgery, to study the matter. Louis adopted Guillotin's advice and designed a mechanical beheading device which would operate uniformly every time. Similar such devices had been used before: in Britain there had been a medieval device called the "Scottish Maiden" which lifted a heavy cutting blade into the air with a rope and then released it to fall upon the victim's neck. Upon the advice of the executioner Sanson, the new machine was provided with a wooden collar that could be tightly fitted around the condemned man's neck to prevent him from moving, thus insuring that the blade would always strike the correct spot. The weighted blade itself was slanted, to impart a slicing motion which would always be certain to cut through the neck with just one blow. Although Dr Guillotin had no role in designing the machine, it adopted his name anyway (though the spelling was slightly altered: in the French language all nouns are either feminine or masculine, and the execution machine was considered to be "feminine"--and thus the appropriate "e" was added to the name).
The design was given to the royal carpenter (who was also keeping his old job under the new regime), but when his price estimate was too high, a harpsichord maker named Tobias Schmidt was given the job, and the machine was finished a week later. After being tested on a sheep and a couple of dead corpses, the "guillotine" was ready.
The first execution took place on April 25, when a convicted thief named Nicolas-Jacques Peletier was beheaded. The process was simple and quick. The condemned would have his (or her) hair cut short to expose the neck, then be taken from the prison to the scaffold in an open cart. With hands tied behind their back, the prisoner was led up the stairs and tied to an upright board which then swung down into position, allowing the head to be inserted through the machine and the wooden collar slid into place. At the pull of a rope, the blade slid down.
It was still, however, a messy operation. While the severed head fell into a basket, the heart inside the decapitated body continued to pump for several seconds, spurting out blood at high pressure and often splattering the executioner's assistants and any spectators who were standing too close. (The blood then seeped between the boards of the scaffold and down to the ground, and nearby businesses would often complain about the flies and the smell.) The head was meanwhile held up to the crowd, to prove that the execution had been carried out.
Although death was supposed to be instantaneous, there were several contemporary reports which described the mouth on the severed head spasmodically opening and closing as if it were trying to say something. In a more scientific approach, a number of French doctors were appointed to examine the heads immediately after they were cut off to try to determine if they were still conscious--and one doctor indeed reported that when he held up a severed head and shouted the man's name, the eyes seemed to look towards him and focus for a few seconds before glazing over.
It has been estimated that somewhere around 17,000 people were guillotined during the French Revolution. On one day, 24 people were decapitated in just 38 minutes. The Reign of Terror finally ended in July 1794, when Robespierre himself was condemned by his fellow Jacobins and executed.
But it was not the end of the guillotine. When Napoleon Bonaparte took power and crowned himself as Emperor of France, the guillotine continued as the preferred method of public execution, with Charles Henri Sanson’s sons dutifully continuing their duties as executioner. By the 20th century, while executions were no longer public, they did not stop. And so when the Germans invaded and conquered France in 1940, the guillotine was still in use, and the Nazis beheaded some 20,000 members of the French Resistance.
After the war, though, the death penalty fell out of favor, and was finally abolished in 1981. The last guillotine execution in France was in 1977, when convicted murderer Hamida Djandoubi was beheaded.
NOTE: As some of you already know, all of my diaries here are draft chapters for a number of books I am working on. So I welcome any corrections you may have, whether it's typos or places that are unclear or factual errors. I think of y'all as my pre-publication editors and proofreaders. ;)