Execution Before the Guillotine
The guillotine was a mechanical execution device, designed in the late 18th century to ensure a humane, swift and painless death for the condemned. Prior to the introduction of the guillotine, most executions were carried out as grotesque public spectacles where the victim was cruelly tortured to death. For example, one of the common means of execution across Europe before the 18th century (and the introduction of the guillotine) was “breaking” the victim on the wheel, where the condemned had his outstretched limbs tied on a large wheel upon which he was – quite literally – broken by the executioner, who bludgeoned him to death.
In most cases, the executioner would not deliver the killing blow immediately; rather he would torture the victim with repeated blows, shattering the bones of his body, starting with the arms and legs. This provided a gruesome display for the audience, as most executions were public, delivering both entertainment and a warning for those present, showing the spectators what fate awaited anyone who would dare commit death penalty crimes. In fact, all death sentences inflicted suffering and pain on the victim, even beheading which was seen as merciful and usually reserved for the upper classes.
The executioner usually had to deliver multiple strikes to separate the head from the body, causing an agonizing death. This was especially true for unskilled or inexperienced executioners. Mary, Queen of Scots, and Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, required three strikes, while Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, allegedly needed ten blows to be decapitated. There are many known instances throughout history where the families and friends of the condemned bribed the executioner for this very reason, paying him to sharpen his blades, in the hope that one strike would be enough to finish the job.
Change of Views
With the passage of time, people became more sensible to the subject of execution and by the end of the 18th century the general consensus, at least in France, was that capital punishment had the purpose to end life, not necessarily inflict pain. The social changes which occurred in France and inflamed the Revolution and the infamous Reign of Terror demanded equality between all social classes, and that equality expanded to criminals as well. It was in these circumstances that in 1789 a French physician and lawmaker named Dr. Joseph Ignace Guillotin proposed six articles in front of the National Assembly, favoring a reformation of capital punishment.
The proposal was initially rejected, but two years later, in 1791, the Assembly decided to adopt it. Capital punishment had to be equal for everyone, regardless of class, social rank or status, and death had to be swift and painless, to make the execution “humane”. Dr. Guillotin was put on a committee formed under Antoine Louis, the king’s personal physician, where he started working on inventing the new execution device. Dr. Guillotin and his colleagues took their inspiration from earlier beheading machines, such as the Halifax Gibbet and the Scottish Maiden. Both devices were introduced in the 16th century in Britain.
However, these devices used large axe heads which killed the victim with blunt force, not a clean cut. It took a few months until an officer of the Strasbourg criminal court by the name of Laquiante, designed what would become the famous guillotine. The committee was very pleaused with Laguiante’s design, so they hired Tobias Schmidt, a German engineer and harpsichord maker to build a prototype. Tobias did so, contributing with some improvements of his own: he installed a straight blade at a 45 degree angle. After its creation, the execution device was known as Louisette, after Antoine Louis, but was later renamed to Guillotine, after the man who proposed the introduction of such a device.
Official Method of Execution
The first execution by guillotine was performed on 25 April 1792 on a highwayman named Nicolas Jacques Pelletier. A huge crowd gathered to the place of execution, eager to see the new device at work; it was a world premiere, after all. Pelletier was placed in the guillotine and within seconds the blade fell, decapitating him instantly. The crowd was utterly discontent with the new invention, finding it underwhelming and boring. The execution was “too swift” to provide any entertainment like the previous methods of execution they were used to, such hanging or breaking on the wheel.
The malcontent masses even cried out in protest: “Bring back our wooden gallows!” Despite the device’s unpopularity, the guillotine was introduced as the only legal execution method in France because of its “clinical efficiency”. The only exceptions were death sentences passed by military courts, in which case the condemned were executed by firing squads. Just one year after its invention, the guillotine became an iconic symbol of the Reign of Terror during which the National Razor cut the lives of an estimated 40,000 people in just one year.
Afterwards the guillotine kept being used, remaining France’s official method of execution until the death penalty was abolished in 1981. In these 185 years, the device snuffed the lives of tens of thousands of people, particularly during the French Revolution: Louis XVI of France, Marie Antoinette, Madame du Barry, Olympe de Gouges, Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, Élisabeth of France, Charlotte Corday, Georges Danton, Maximilien Robespierre and Louis Antoine de Saint-Just are some noteworthy individuals who had been guillotined during the Reign of Terror.
The last public execution in France occurred on 17 June 1939 in Versailles, when Eugen Weidmann, a German career criminal, was guillotined outside his prison. The “spectators” who witnessed the event were so scandalized and outraged that public executions were immediately banned. Execution by guillotine went on in private until 1977, when the last such execution was carried out on 10 September in Marseille, on torture-murderer and rapist Hamida Djandoubi, a Tunisian immigrant.
Consulted Works and Sources:
- Kellaway, J. (2002). The history of torture and execution: From early civilization through medieval times to the present. Globe Pequot.
- Laurence, J. (1963). A history of capital punishment. Citadel Press.
- Furet, F. (1981). Interpreting the French revolution. Cambridge University Press.
- Kronenwetter, M. (2001). Capital punishment: A reference handbook. Abc-clio.
- Ballard, R. (2011). A new dictionary of the French Revolution. IB Tauris.
- Mercer, J. (2008). When the Guillotine Fell: The Bloody Beginning and Horrifying End to France’s River of Blood, 1791–1977. Macmillan.
- Doyle, W. (2000). The execution of Louis XVI and the end of the French monarchy. History Review, 21-25.