Guillotine: a “human form” of execution.8 min read
As strange as it may seem, the instrument of capital execution that became the emblem of the French revolutionary excesses of the eighteenth century, the guillotine, was born with humanitarian intent.
It was adopted because it was an egalitarian and humanitarian form of capital punishment. Previously the form of execution depended in part on a person’s class. For example, a noble might merit a quick blow from the headsman’s axe and the custom was to offer a tip to the executioner to ensure a swift death, but if you were a commoner, you might suffer the torture of a drawing and quartering or some equally painful death.
In the eighteenth century death sentences also varied according to the type of culprits: hanging for thieves, dismemberment for regicides, burning for counterfeiters and heretics, while decapitation was a “privilege” destined only for aristocrats (being hanged was in fact considered an infamous death).
Execution for dismemberment of the 1500s:
It was a brilliant anatomist-pathologist, professor at the Paris Medical School, Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, who proposed a more humane execution system, which was quick, free of unnecessary suffering and, above all, devoid of the usual torture sessions that the old penal code provided for persons before they were executed.
Already called for his merits as a scientist, in 1784, to be part of the commission commissioned by King Louis XVI to investigate the theories of animal magnetism by Franz Anton Mesmer, Guillotin was elected in 1789 as a deputy of Paris to the States General. On 6 October, he presented six articles to the National Assembly, aimed at amending the penal code, mainly concerning the procedures for the execution of the death penalty and the treatment to be reserved for relatives of the convicted.
In particular, Guillotin insisted on the need to consider family members unrelated to the crimes committed by their relatives, invoking the approval of a law on the prohibition of confiscation of assets of the accused, confiscation that often had disastrous effects on the innocents related to the guilty. Guillotin also fought for the bodies of those sentenced to death to be returned to families for a private burial. The proposed amendments to the penal code all moved in a direction of humanizing the treatment of victims condemned to the gallows. The same enlightened and egalitarian spirit animated a further legislative proposal, presented by the doctor on October 10, 1789 and approved on June 3, 1791, which provided that the typology of death was unique to all convicted persons, without distinction of class, and that it consisted in having “the strong head”, a technique that should have, in the intentions of its promoter, save the victims unnecessary suffering.
However, as Étienne Lehodey de Sault-Chevreuil reported in the Journal of the States General, the “simple mechanism” intended to guarantee a painless end to the condemned was unhappily described by Guillotin in the National Assembly as a device in which: “The blade falls , the head is cut in the blink of an eye and the man just feels a quick breath of fresh air on the nape“.
Phrases that immediately fueled the popular irony and the birth of verses and satirical songs on the machine for decapitation, the guillotine precisely, from the name of its alleged inventor.
In particular, the song of 1793 was published by the Journal des Actes des Apôtres, which ended with: “And his hand makes the machine in a blink of an eye, which in a simple way will kill us all, and we will call guillotine.”
However, while public opinion scoffed at Guillotin, his hypothesis began to take shape, even if the idea of the guillotine was certainly not new: although the guillotine’s fame dates from its extensive use during the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution, the first guillotine-like instrument was used as early as 1307. The first solid evidence is its use in Ireland in 1307, but even in England there was a similar machine, called the gallows of Halifax, while in Scotland it had been in existence since the mid-1500s, called Scottish Maiden. In Italy, still in the sixteenth century, the device in use was called “mannaia” and was commonly used in papal Rome until it was conquered by the Kingdom of Italy in 1870.
Since many precedents in the sector were not lacking, the National Assembly assigned to a physician, the physiologist Antoine Louis, the task of quickly developing a similar system that would ensure the success of the “perfect executions” desired by Guillotin. Louis presented a project that was commissioned to the German Tobias Schmidt, harpsichord manufacturer, for the figure of 960 francs (compared to the much more expensive estimate presented by the usual Justice supplier, Guédon, who was discarded).
The new device, designed and built in just two weeks, was delivered on 17 April 1792 and its use was first experimented on some rams, then on three corpses of the prison-hospice of Bicêtre.
It turned out to be fully functional!
It presented a structure as simple as it was effective, composed of some essential elements: the chapeau, or a horizontal bar surmounting two vertical woods; the mouton, the large piece of lead in which the couperet was inserted, the blade, destined to flow into the grooves of the lateral posts; the bascule or movable axis on which the convict was lying; the lunettes, the “collar”, which immobilized the head of the condemned and finally the panier, the basket full of sawdust in which fell the head of the condemned once detached from the rest of the body, before being grabbed by the hair and shown bloody to the public.
The official inauguration day fell was April 25, 1792, in the crowded Place de Grève, a traditional place of execution for common criminals. Nicolas Jacques Pellettier, responsible for murder and theft, was the chosen condemned. The new, lethal device was ready to begin its bloody work against the alleged enemies of the Revolution.
The official executioner of the French Revolution, Charles-Louis Sanson, said on the same day:
“Today the machine invented for the purpose of decapitating criminals sentenced to death will be put to work for the first time. Relative to the methods of execution practised heretofore, this machine has several advantages. It is less repugnant: no man’s hands will be tainted with the blood of his fellow being, and the worst of the ordeal for the condemned man will be his own fear of death, a fear more painful to him than the stroke which deprives him of life.”
Some have speculated that these very features made it easier and more efficient to use it as an instrument to kill in large numbers.
On 21 August 1792, with the first political executions that followed the events of 10 August, the device was moved to the Place de la Réunion (now Place du Carrousel). Further displacement followed on 9 June 1794, when the Louisette moved into Place Saint-Antoine (today Place de la Bastille) and after only 4 days in the Place du Trône-Renversé (today Place de la Nation). This shift was due to public health concerns: in three days he had performed 73 sentences and the amount of blood spilled was so copious that it could not be absorbed by the soil, causing pestilential miasms.
Despite its efficiency, an execution by guillotine was a sickening spectacle: when the head was severed, blood poured from the body as the heart continued to pump. When it was used frequently (as it was during the revolution), the stench from the place of execution was terrible and there is also some evidence to suggest that the head retained some life for a moment after the head was severed and so the death might not be as quick as has been supposed.
Overall, in almost 23 months, it is estimated that in France there were 30,000 executions and 12,000 summary executions. The escalation of revolutionary terror culminated in the weeks of the “Great Terror”, between June and July 1794 with its 1,376 victims in a single day.
In the long list of the guillotines of the Revolutionary Tribunal figured the sovereign Luigi Capeto as number 1 and Marie Anne-Charlotte Corday as number 48, while Queen Marie Antoinette was registered at number 102.
Contrary to the one for which Joseph-Ignace Guillotin had fought, a capital execution that took place in private and which preserved, as far as possible, a certain humanity, the instrument which took his name unduly, transformed it in a real place of spectacularization of death, making the execution an occasion for macabre leisure for the citizens. What’s more, the speed of execution that was required to the executioner to avoid suffering to the condemned, a couple of minutes in all, was judged, by the chronicles of the era, mechanical and dehumanizing.
When he heard people renamed the sinister device with his name, the bewildered Guillotin, who had never in principle participated in any public performance, protested vigorously and continued to protest in vain against what seemed to him always an incredible injustice: he had spent his life as a politician spending himself in defense of human rights and as a doctor distinguishing himself for his professionalism (it was, among other things, always present in the fight against smallpox and had immediately sensed the potential of the vaccine invented by Edward Jenner), but it was seen finally condemned to be remembered not for his humanitarian yearning, but as a “national razor” (as it was ironically called by the French) who had not even invented.
An authentic paradox for an idea who wanted instead to confer a minimum of piety and human justice to capital execution. The Guillotine was the instrument of execution par excellence in France until 1981, when the death penalty was abolished following the famous “Affaìre Ranucci”.
However, although the guillotine is most closely associated with the French, the Nazis guillotined more people than were killed during the French Revolution: Hitler considered it a demeaning form of punishment and used it especially for political executions. Between 1942 and 1943, about 20,000 people had a date with Madame la Guillotine!
In the image, the macabre execution of François Ravaillac, assassin of Henry IV of France, in 1610: