The Guillotine

The guillotine is an execution device made famous mostly for its use in the French Revolution, which lasted from 1787 to 1799. It was also used in the second French Revolution, from 1830 to 1848.

The guillotine consists of two vertical posts with a horizontal beam across the top. The vertical posts have grooves to hold and guide the blade in the middle, which is heavily weighted at the end so that it could fall faster and more forcefully.

The guillotine is named after Doctor Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, who was born at Saintes in 1738. He was elected into the National Assembly in 1789. His goal was to do away with the death penalty, and as a midway, he suggested having ‘painless capital punishment’. Thus the guillotine was introduced to France.

(A note must be made here that the guillotine was NOT invented by Dr. Guillotin. Before the French Revolution, similar contraptions have been known to be used in Scotland, England and other European countries, mainly to execute criminals of noble birth. The first evidence of the existence of this machine was in Ireland, near Merton, used for the execution of Murcod Ballagh.)

Before that time, noblemen in France were honoured with beheading, following the belief from the ancient Romans that there was no better way to die. But commoners were not allowed the luxury of a quick death. Many criminals were hanged, but the most common form of execution for your standard everyday burglar was drawing, hanging and quartering. As its name suggests, this form of capital punishment involved the criminal dragged to the site of his execution by horses, being hanged but cut down just before losing conciousness, and then being cut into four.

On the 1st December 1789, Dr. Guillotin presented six articles to the Assembly:

1. Offences of the same kind will be punished by the same kind of penalty.

2. In all cases where the law imposes the death penalty on an accused person, the punishment shall be the same, whatever the nature of the offence of which he is guilty; the criminal shall be decapitated; this will be done solely by means of a simple mechanism.

3. In view of the personal character of crime, no punishment of a guilty person shall involve and discredit to his family. The honour of those belonging to him shall be in no way soiled, and they shall continue to be no less admissible to any kind of profession, employment and public function.

4. No one shall reproach a citizen with any punishment imposed on one of his relatives. Whosoever ventures to do so shall be publicly reprimanded by the judge. The sentence imposed on him shall be written up on the offender\'s door. Moreover, it shall be written up on the pillory and remain there for a period of three months.

5. Confiscation of the condemned person\'s property shall in no case be imposed.

6. The corpse of an executed man shall be handed over to his family on their request. In every case, he shall be allowed normal burial and no reference shall be made on the register to the nature of his death.

On the 3rd June 1791, the Assembly passed a law that “Every person condemned to the death penalty shall have his head severed.”

The machine was put through several tests on sheep and calves in the Cour de Commerce. At this time, the blade was not an oblique one. It might have been straight or curved. A few days later, most tests were carried out in the Bicźtre hospital, on human corpses. A new blade then replaced the old one. This was because the straight/curved blade was found to be too messy, more like flailing about with an axe than neatly slicing through with a sword.

On the 25th April 1792, the first one was set up in the Place de Grčve for the execution of Nicholas-Jacques Pelletier, a highwayman. Initially, the machine was known as the ‘Louisette’, but soon after was called la guillotine. Later, it was also nicknamed “the widow”.

Use of the guillotine continued in France well into the 20th century, diminishing significantly in the 1960s and 1970s, with only eight executions between 1965 and the last one in 1977. In September 1981,