Apr 252012

The guillotine has a fearsome reputation – deservedly! It has many nick-names, from “The National Razor” “The Hungry Lady”  “The She-wolf ” “Louisette”   “Madame Guillotine,” and “The Widow”. So, what is its background?

1. Hands up those who think the guillotine was invented by Dr Guillotin?

2. And those who think it was invented at the time of the French Revolution?

3. And those who believe more prisoners were guillotined in 18th Century France than in 20th Century Germany?

All those with your hands up go to the bottom of the class…

There is some suggestion that the earliest decapitation machine was used before 1300 – in place of the axe. Hollinshed, in his Chronicles (published in 1577)  illustrates a guillotine-like machine which was apparently used to execute a guy called Murcod Ballagh in Ireland on first April 1307.

Meanwhile the English town of Halifax had its own machine dubbed the Halifax Gibbet. It was used on market days from the Thirteenth Century up until 1648 and apparently was so feared it gave rise to the saying “Avoid Hell, Hull, and Halifax” (which does seem a bit hard on the good burghers of Hull, what did they do to deserve such opprobrium?)

Further North, the Scots adapted the Halifax Gibbet to produce their very own “The Maiden, in use from around 1564. In France however, it remained traditional to dispatch wealthy people by the sword – a skilled swordsman was needed if it was to be done properly. Poorer people were more likely to be hanged, or worse, broken on the wheel or burned at the stake.

At the time of the French Revolution it was felt that the whole process needed to be made more reliable, more clinically effective, and that the moment of execution should not in itself form part of a process of torture. A committee was formed under Antoine Louis, the King´s Physician, and Secretary to the Academy of Surgery. The committee looked at more humane methods of execution. Enter Dr Joseph-Ignace Guillotin who on 10th October 1789 put forward six proposals to the ruling Assembly. These were based on the idea that the death penalty should involve decapitation; that the same kind of offences should incur the same penalty, throughout the whole country;  that no discredit should apply to the family of the criminal; that his or her body should be handed to the family for burial immediately after execution; and that burial should take place without any note or mark to register that the deceased was a criminal. The goods and estates of the deceased should not be confiscated.

Dr Guillotin

The six Articles were approved on 3rd June 1791 with the announcement that “Every person condemned to the death penalty shall have his head severed”. This caused a few concerns for the official executioner, Sanson, because he knew that he could not keep pace with all executions throughout the country  and it was recognized that a mechanical solution needed to be found.

The following April Roederer, the Procureur genéral syndic, entered into an agreement with a German harpsichord manufacturer by the name of Tobias Schmidt to make such a machine in return for a payment of 960 francs. This was to include the leather bag in which the severed head could be disposed! The design was apparently that of Dr Louis himself, although some g¡ve credit to Laquiante, an officer of the Strasbourg criminal court.

Various experiments on animals and  human corpses were carried out until the oblique blade was chosen in place of the curved variety. The very first “live” use was on 25th April 1792 when one Nicolas-Jacques Pelletier, convicted of highway robbery, was sent head-first into the bucket. The crowd were not amused – they preferred the less clinical public spectacle of a hanging, or a few botched attempts with the sword! In the aftermath of Pelletier’s execution the contraption became known as the ‘Louisette’ or ‘Louison’ in honour of Antoine Louis. It later became  known as La Guillotine, possibly after a mischievous campaign by one of the good doctor´s political rivals.

Refinements were introduced – nuts and bolts were to be used in place of nails to make the frame more rigid, and the groove down which the blade dropped was to be made in brass rather than iron.

Finally on 21st August 1792 the contraption was set up at the Place du Carroussel , where it remained until the following year apart from when it  was needed for particularly notable executions (such as the King) when it was moved to the Place de la Révolution. Meanwhile instructions were sent out to all departments in France, accompanied by the illustration shown here, so that machines could be replicated throughout the country.

Nine months after her husband, Louis XVI was beheaded, Marie Antoinette went to meet her fate at the same venue i.e. near the gate to the Tuileries Garden at the Place de la Révolution, now known as Place de la Concorde. She became one of the estimated 16,000 people beheaded during the  Reign of Terror (out of a total of perhaps 40,000, most of whom were killed by other methods such as shooting or drowning). Famously, the public were egged on by the tricoteuses – the knitting ladies – who acted as cheerleaders to the spectacle. Eventually public support for the grisly spectacle waned and the National Council turned against Maximilien Robespierre, one of the architects of the Reign of Terror. In July 1794 he was arrested and executed in the same way as those who he had condemned, a fitting end both for him and, in due course, to  the Terror itself.

The guillotine continued to be used in France and its colonies for nearly 200 years.The last public execution in France took place in 1939 and the death penalty was finally abolished in that country in 1981.

History shows that the guillotine had become a favourite of Adolf Hitler. In the German version the steps leading to the execution platform were removed (it was naturally difficult to force a reluctant prisoner, his feet bound, to mount the steps). This meant that a lower drop required the use of a heavier blade. Mostly it was used for killing common criminals and German records show at least 16,500 were dispatched in this way between 1933 and 1945.

It does seem a trifle unfair that the name La Guillotine has been applied to the contraption, thereby associating the name of a fine and humane doctor with a macabre and fearsome instrument of death. He actually opposed the death penalty and simply stated that if it were to be used it should be done in a humane manner. The Guillotin family were so incensed at the association with their name that they petitioned the French government to rename it; when the government refused, they instead changed their own family name.

Wikipedia states that “By coincidence, a person named Guillotin was indeed executed by the guillotine – he was J.M.V. Guillotin, a doctor of Lyons. This coincidence may have contributed to erroneous statements that Guillotin was put to death on the machine that bears his name;however, in reality, Guillotin died in Paris in 1814 of natural causes.”

Guillotin died on 26th March. We remember him with a shudder and with hairs bristling on the back of the neck ….

  3 Responses to “The Guillotine, a cut above the rest…(1st used 25th April 1792)”


    Fascinating! And I had no idea about the Nazis use of the contraption. Thanks for that terrific article!


    Re hell, Hull and Halifax;Hull had a notorious gaol. Incidentally by Richard’s time it was used in another saying too – to have eaten Hull cheese was to be drunk as Hull was also known for its ale.
    Thank you for that, I didn’t know the Nazis used it either.


      Thanks for the explanation re Hull, And thanks too for Prof David Brady (@ProfessorDB) for pointing out that you can see a guillotine blade in the Wellcome Collection & also at Tate Britain at the moment

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