Madame Guillotine – the terror of France

by Steve Martindale

The guillotine is an iconic execution device that made its name (and indeed, took its name) during the French Revolution. In reality, beheading machines had already been around for centuries. The ‘Halifax Gibbet’ and the ‘Scottish Maiden’ are well-documented devices that date back as far as 1286. These machines were not as precise and efficient as the guillotine and whilst the Halifax Gibbet is documented as having performed a total of 53 executions, the guillotine regularly performed that many a day in Paris alone.

In pre-revolutionary France, executions were public, lengthy and often gruesome affairs. Common methods of execution included hanging or burning at the stake. You could also find yourself bound to four oxen that were then driven in four different directions, effectively tearing you into quarters. In the most extreme version of this type of execution, you would first be tortured in public in a practice known as being ‘hung, drawn and then quartered’. If you were rich, you could buy your way to a manual beheading – a death that was usually reserved for the upper classes.

The guillotine in its most famous form is credited as the creation of Dr Joseph-Ignace Guillotin. Dr Guillotin was not a fan of executions. In fact, he was one of a growing number of French philosophers during the Enlightenment that argued for a more humane form of capital punishment. It is not even known if Dr Guillotin was a supporter of capital punishment at all and certainly abhorred it in its current form at the time.

The new execution machine was originally proposed as a more humane, egalitarian form of execution. In the early months of the French Revolution in 1789, Dr Guillotin proposed the principle of the machine, along with a few crude sketches, as a universal method of execution across France – one that involved no torture, would be performed in private and would be used irrespective of class or wealth.

Although initially rejected, his proposals were eventually accepted a few years later, but executions would continue to be public affairs. The design of the machine was then given to Tobias Schmidt, a German harpsichord maker who used Dr Guillotin’s sketches as his starting point. In 1792 he completed his prototype, and after numerous tests on animal and human corpses, the machine was finally ready to be used.

The completed machine 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 and the whole construction was mounted on a high platform.

The first execution by guillotine took place on April 25, 1792, when a convicted highwayman, Nicolas Jacques Pelletie, was executed in Paris.

At some point in the following years the machine came to be called a Guillotine, even though Dr Guillotin had very little input in its actual design. Exactly when and how this came about is not known. The blueprints were sent to all parts of France, exact replicas were created and soon all public executions were being performed by Madame Guillotine. By the end of the Revolution in 1799, the guillotine had executed up to 45,000 people.

The period 1793-1794 became known as The Terror in France, a time when “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” could be executed. This loose definition could and did cover almost everyone, and during the years 1793-4 thousands were sent to the guillotine. Historians have argued whether this bloody period in French history would have been possible without the guillotine, and whether its invention led directly to the huge scale of these mass executions.

The history of the guillotine does not end with the French Revolution and as well as being used in France for a further 150 years, it was also adopted by many other European countries. In 1939, Eugen Wiedmann became the last person to be publicly executed using the guillotine and on 10th September 1977 the guillotine was used for the last time in France when it was used to execute Hamida Djandoubi. Four years later the death penalty was abolished in France.

Contrary to popular belief, Dr Joseph-Ignace Guillotin did not fall foul of his own creation and lived on to die a natural death in 1814.

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