The Guillotine

The Guillotine in Algeria, Execution for murder of prisonners, under the eye of the victims young nephew, forced to watch heads roll in order to acknowledge revenge
The Guillotine in Algeria, Execution for murder of prisonners, under the eye of the victims young nephew, forced to watch heads roll in order to acknowledge revenge. Engraving. Frontpage of French newspaper Le Petit Parisien February 5, 1899. Private Collection. Leemage/ Universal Images Group/ Getty Images

The guillotine is one of European history's most bloody icons. Although designed with the best of intentions, this hugely recognizable machine soon became associated with events that have overshadowed both its heritage and its development: the French Revolution. Yet, despite such a high profile and chilling reputation, histories of la guillotine remain muddled, often differing on quite basic details.

This article explains, not just the events that brought the guillotine to prominence, but also the machine's place in a broader history of decapitation which, as far as France is concerned, finished only recently.

Pre-Guillotine Machines: Halifax Gibbet

Although older narratives may tell you that the guillotine was invented in the late 18th century, most recent accounts recognize that similar 'decapitation machines' have a long history. The most famous, and possibly one of the earliest, was the Halifax Gibbet, a monolithic wooden structure which was supposedly created from two fifteen foot high uprights capped by a horizontal beam. The blade was an axe head, attached to the bottom of a four and a half foot wooden block that slid up and down via grooves in the uprights. This device was mounted on a large, square, platform which was itself four foot high. The Halifax Gibbet was certainly substantial, and may date from as early as 1066, although the first definite reference is from the 1280s.

Executions took place in the town's Market Place on Saturdays, and the machine remained in use until April 30th, 1650.

Pre-Guillotine Machines: Ireland

Another early example is immortalized in the picture 'The execution of Murcod Ballagh near to Merton in Ireland 1307'. As the title suggests, the victim was called Murcod Ballagh, and he was decapitated by equipment which looks remarkably similar to the later French guillotines.

Another, unrelated, picture depicts the combination of a guillotine style machine and a traditional beheading. The victim is lying on a bench, with an axe head held above his neck by some sort of mechanism. The difference lies in the executioner, who is shown wielding a large hammer, ready to strike the mechanism and drive the blade down. If this device existed, it may have been an attempt to improve the accuracy of the impact.

Use of Early Machines

There were many other machines, including the Scottish Maiden - a wooden construction based directly on the Halifax Gibbet, dating from the mid 16th century - and the Italian Mannaia, which was famously used to execute Beatrice Cenci, a woman whose life is obscured by clouds of myth. Beheading was usually reserved for the wealthy or powerful as it was considered to be nobler, and certainly less painful, than other methods; the machines were similarly restricted. However, the Halifax Gibbet is an important, and often overlooked, exception, because it was used to execute anyone breaking the relevant laws, including the poor. Although these decapitation machines certainly existed - the Halifax Gibbet was alleged to have been only one out of a hundred similar devices in Yorkshire - they were generally localized, with a design and use unique to their region; the French guillotine was to be very different.

Pre-Revolutionary Methods of French Execution

Many methods of execution were used across France in the early 18th century, ranging from the painful, to the grotesque, bloody and painful. Hanging and burning were common, as were more imaginative methods, such as tying the victim to four horses and forcing these to gallop in different directions, a process that tore the individual apart. The rich or powerful could be beheaded with axe or sword, while many suffered the compilation of death and torture that comprised hanging, drawing and quartering. These methods had a twofold purpose: to punish the criminal and to act as a warning for others; accordingly, the majority of executions took place in public.

Opposition to these punishments was slowly growing, due mainly to the ideas and philosophies of the Enlightenment thinkers - people such as Voltaire and Locke - who argued for humanitarian methods of execution.

One of these was Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin; however, it is unclear whether the doctor was an advocate of capital punishment, or someone who wanted it to be, ultimately, abolished.

Dr. Guillotin's Proposals

The French Revolution began in 1789, when an attempt to relieve a financial crisis exploded very much in the faces of the monarchy. A meeting called an Estates General transformed into a National Assembly which seized control of the moral and practical power at the heart of France, a process which convulsed the country, re-shaping the country's social, cultural and political makeup. The legal system was reviewed immediately. On October 10th 1789 - the second day of the debate about France's penal code - Dr. Guillotin proposed six articles to the new Legislative Assembly, one of which called for decapitation to become the sole method of execution in France. This was to be carried out by a simple machine, and involve no torture. Guillotin presented an etching that illustrated one possible device, resembling an ornate, but hollow, stone column with a falling blade, operated by an effete executioner cutting the suspension rope. The machine was also hidden from the view of large crowds, according with Guillotin's view that execution should be private and dignified. This suggestion was rejected; some accounts describe the Doctor being laughed, albeit nervously, out of the Assembly.

Narratives often ignore the other five reforms: one asked for a nationwide standardisation in punishment, while others concerned the treatment of the criminal's family, who were not to be harmed or discredited; property, which was not to be confiscated; and corpses, which were to be returned to the families. When Guillotin proposed his articles again on December 1st 1789, these five recommendations were accepted, but the beheading machine was, again, rejected.

Growing Public Support

The situation developed in 1791, when the Assembly agreed - after weeks of discussion - to retain the death penalty; they then began to discuss a more humane and egalitarian method of execution, as many of the previous techniques were felt to be too barbaric and unsuitable.

Beheading was the preferred option, and the Assembly accepted a new, albeit repetitive, proposal by the Marquis Lepeletier de Saint-Fargeau, decreeing that "Every person condemned to the death penalty shall have his head severed". Guillotin's notion of a decapitation machine began to grow in popularity, even if the Doctor himself had abandoned it. Traditional methods like the sword or axe could prove messy and difficult, especially if the executioner missed or the prisoner struggled; a machine would not only be fast and reliable, but it would never tire. France's main executioner, Charles-Henri Sanson, championed these final points.

The First Guillotine is Built

The Assembly - working through Pierre-Louis Roederer, the Procureur général - sought advice from Doctor Antoine Louis, the Secretary of the Academy of Surgery in France, and his design for a quick, painless, decapitation machine was given to Tobias Schmidt, a German Engineer. It is unclear whether Louis drew his inspiration from existing devices, or whether he designed from afresh. Schmidt built the first guillotine and tested it, initially on animals, but later on human corpses. It comprised two fourteen-foot uprights joined by a crossbar, whose internal edges were grooved and greased with tallow; the weighted blade was either straight, or curved like an axe. The system was operated via a rope and pulley, while the whole construction was mounted on a high platform.

The final testing took place at a hospital in Bicêtre, where three carefully chosen corpses - those of strong, stocky men - were successfully beheaded. The first execution took place on April 25th, 1792, when a highwayman called Nicholas-Jacques Pelletier was killed. Further improvements were made, and an independent report to Roederer recommended a number of changes, including metal trays to collect blood; at some stage the famous angled blade was introduced and the high platform abandoned, replaced by a basic scaffold.

The Guillotine spreads throughout France.

This improved machine was accepted by the Assembly, and copies were sent to each of the new territorial regions, named Departments. Paris's own was initially based at the place de Carroussel, but the device was frequently moved. In the aftermath of Pelletier's execution the contraption became known as the 'Louisette' or 'Louison', after Dr. Louis; however, this name was soon lost, and other titles emerged.

At some stage, the machine became known as the Guillotin, after Dr. Guillotin - whose main contribution had been a set of legal articles - and then finally 'la guillotine'. It is also unclear precisely why, and when, the final 'e' was added, but it probably developed out of attempts to rhyme Guillotin in poems and chants. Dr Guillotin himself wasn't very happy at being adopted as the name.

The Machine Open to All

The guillotine may have been similar in form and function to other, older, devices, but it broke new ground: an entire country officially, and unilaterally, adopted this decapitation machine for all of its executions. The same design was shipped out to all the regions, and each was operated in the same manner, under the same laws; there was supposed to be no local variation. Equally, the guillotine was designed to administer a fast and painless death to anyone, regardless of age, sex or wealth, an embodiment of such concepts as equality and humanity.

Before the French Assembly's 1791 decree beheading was usually reserved for the rich or powerful, and it continued to be in other parts of Europe; however, France's guillotine was available to all.

The Guillotine is quickly adopted.

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the guillotine's history is the sheer speed and scale of its adoption and use.

Born out of a discussion in 1789 that had actually considered banning the death penalty, the machine had been used to kill over 15,000 people by the Revolution's close in 1799, despite not being fully invented until the middle of 1792. Indeed, by 1795, only a year and a half after its first use, the guillotine had decapitated over a thousand people in Paris alone. Timing certainly played a part, because the machine was introduced across France only months before a bloody new period in the revolution: The Terror.

The Terror

In 1793, political events caused a new governmental body to be introduced: The Committee of Public Safety. This was supposed to work quickly and effectively, protecting the Republic from enemies and solving problems with the necessary force; in practice, it became a dictatorship run by Robespierre. The committee demanded the arrest and execution of "anyone who 'either by their conduct, their contacts, their words or their writings, showed themselves to be supporters of tyranny, of federalism, or to be enemies of liberty'" (Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution, Oxford, 1989 p.251). This loose definition could cover almost everyone, and during the years 1793-4 thousands were sent to the guillotine.

It is important to remember that, of the many who perished during the terror, most were not guillotined. Some were shot, others drowned, while in Lyon, on the 4 - 8th of December 1793, people were lined up in front of open graves and shredded by grape-shot from cannons. Despite this, the guillotine became synonymous with the period, transforming into a social and political symbol of equality, death and the Revolution.

The Guillotine Passes into Culture.

It is easy to see why the quick, methodical, movement of the machine should have transfixed both France and Europe. Every execution involved a fountain of blood from the victim's neck, and the sheer number of people being beheaded could create red pools, if not actual flowing streams. Where executioners once prided themselves on their skill, speed now became the focus; 53 people were executed by the Halifax Gibbet between 1541 and 1650, but some guillotines exceeded that total in a single day.

The gruesome images coupled easily with morbid humour, and the machine became a cultural icon affecting fashion, literature, and even children's toys. After the Terror, the 'Victim's Ball' became fashionable: only relatives of the executed could attend, and these guests dressed with their hair up and their necks exposed, mimicking the condemned.

For all the fear and bloodshed of the Revolution, the guillotine doesn't appear to have been hated or reviled, indeed, the contemporary nicknames, things like 'the national razor', 'the widow', and 'Madame Guillotine' seem to be more accepting than hostile. Some sections of society even referred, although probably largely in jest, to a Saint Guillotine who would save them from tyranny. It is, perhaps, crucial that the device was never associated wholly with any one single group, and that Robespierre himself was guillotined, enabling the machine to rise above petty party politics, and establish itself as an arbiter of some higher justice. Had the guillotine been seen as the tool of a group who became hated, then the guillotine might have been rejected, but by staying almost neutral it lasted, and became its own thing.

Was the Guillotine to blame?

Historians have debated whether The Terror would have been possible without the guillotine, and its widespread reputation as a humane, advanced, and altogether revolutionary piece of equipment. Although water and gunpowder laid behind much of the slaughter, the guillotine was a focal point: did the population accept this new, clinical, and merciless machine as their own, welcoming its common standards when they might have balked at mass hangings and separate, weapon based, beheadings? Given the size and death toll of other European incidents within the same decade, this might be unlikely; but whatever the situation, la guillotine had become known across Europe within only a few years of its invention.

Post-Revolutionary Use

The history of the guillotine does not end with the French Revolution.

Many other countries adopted the machine, including Belgium, Greece, Switzerland, Sweden and some German states; French colonialism also helped to export the device abroad. Indeed, France continued to use, and improve upon, the guillotine for at least another century. Leon Berger, a carpenter and executioner's assistant, made a number of refinements in the early 1870's. These included springs to cushion the falling parts (presumably repeated use of the earlier design could damage the infrastructure), as well as a new release mechanism. The Berger design became the new standard for all French guillotines. A further, but very short lived, change occurred under the executioner Nicolas Roch in the late 19th century; he included a board at the top to cover the blade, hiding it from an approaching victim. Roch's successor had the screen swiftly removed.

Public executions continued in France until 1939, when Eugene Weidmann became the last 'open-air' victim. It had thus taken nearly one hundred and fifty years for the practice to comply with Guillotin's original wishes, and be hidden from the public eye. Although the machine's use had gradually fallen after the revolution, executions in Hitler's Europe rose to a level that neared, if not exceeded, that of The Terror. The last State use of the guillotine in France occurred on September 10th ​1977,  when Hamida Djandoubi was executed; there should have been another in 1981, but the intended victim, Philippe Maurice, was granted clemency. The death penalty was abolished in France that same year.

The Infamy of the Guillotine

There have been many methods of execution used in Europe, including the mainstay of hanging and the more recent firing squad, but none have quite the lasting reputation or imagery as the guillotine, a machine which continues to provoke fascination. The guillotine's creation is often blurred into the, almost immediate, period of its most famous use and the machine has become the most characteristic element of the French Revolution. Indeed, although the history of decapitation machines stretches back at least eight hundred years, often involving constructions that were almost identical to the guillotine, it is this later device which dominates. The guillotine is certainly evocative, presenting a chilling image entirely at odds with the original intention of a painless death.

Dr. Guillotin

Finally, and contrary to legend, Doctor Joseph Ignace Guillotin was not executed by his own machine; he lived until 1814, and died of biological causes.