Instrument for inflicting capital punishment by decapitation. A minimal wooden structure, it supported a heavy blade that, when released, slid down in vertical guides to sever the victim's head. It was introduced in France in 1792 in the French Revolution, though similar devices had been used in Scotland, England, and other European countries, often for executing criminals of noble birth. The name derived from a French physician and member of the National Assembly, Joseph-Ignace Guillotin (1738–1814), who was instrumental in passing a law requiring all sentences of death to be carried out “by means of a machine,” so that execution by decapitation would no longer be confined to nobles and executions would be as painless as possible. The last execution by guillotine in France took place in 1977.
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The guillotine (IPA /ˈgijətin/ or /ˈgɪlətin/ in English; [gijɔtin] in French) was a device used for carrying out executions by decapitation. It consists of a tall upright frame from which a heavy blade is suspended. This blade is raised with a rope and then allowed to drop, severing the victim's head from his or her body. The device is noted for long being the main method of execution in France and, more particularly, for its use during the French Revolution. The guillotine also "became a part of popular culture, celebrated as the people's avenger by supporters of the Revolution and vilified as the preeminent symbol of the Terror by opponents.
The guillotine became infamous (and acquired its name) in France at the time of the French Revolution; however, guillotine-like devices, such as the Halifax Gibbet and Scottish Maiden seen on the right, existed and were used for executions in several European countries long before the French Revolution, the earliest reference to the Halifax Gibbet dating back to 1286. The first documented use of The (Irish) Maiden was in 1307 in Ireland, and there are accounts of similar devices in Italy and Switzerland dating back to the 15th century. Nevertheless, the French developed the machine further and became the first nation to use it as a standard execution method.
In August 1788 France’s High Executioner Charles-Henri Sanson, while attempting to execute a prisoner by breaking on the wheel, was assaulted by a mob who freed the prisoner, and destroyed the wheel. Sensing the growing discontent Louis XVI banned the use of the wheel. In 1791 as the French Revolution progressed, the National Assembly (at the suggestion of Assembly member Joseph-Ignace Guillotin) sought a new method to be used on all condemned people regardless of class. Their concerns contributed to the idea that capital punishment’s purpose was the ending of life instead of the infliction of pain. A committee was formed under Antoine Louis, physician to the King and Secretary to the Academy of Surgery. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a professor of anatomy at the facility of medicine in Paris, was also on the committee. The group was influenced by the Italian Mannaia (or Mannaja), the Scottish Maiden, and the Halifax Gibbet. While these prior instruments usually crushed the neck or used blunt force to take off a head, their device used a crescent blade and a lunette (a hinged two part yoke to immobilize the victim’s neck). An apocryphal story claims that King Louis XVI (an amateur locksmith) recommended a triangular blade with a beveled edge be used instead of a crescent blade.
On October 6 1791, a law was passed that "every person condemned to death should be beheaded". Guillotin's suggestion had by then been almost forgotten and there was some debate on how exactly such sentences were to be carried out. Charles-Henri Sanson, the High Executioner, gave the opinion that beheading with a sword was cruel and uncertain, and a report by Antoine Louis, the secretary to the Académie Chirurgicale (Academy of Surgeons), dated March 7 1792 recommended a machine such as Guillotin had previously described, but without mentioning Guillotin himself.
Laquiante, an officer of the Strasbourg criminal court, made a design for a beheading machine and employed Tobias Schmidt, a German engineer and harpsichord maker, to construct a prototype. Antoine Louis is also credited with the design of the prototype; however, it was Schmidt who suggested placing the blade at an oblique 45-degree angle and changing it from the curved blade.
Although Guillotin did not actually contribute to the machine’s design, it was his name that it would carry throughout history, thanks to a comic song about Guillotin and his proposal which appeared in the Royalist periodical, Actes des Apôtres, shortly after the 1791 debate; the machine was originally called louison or louisette.
The basis for the machine's success was the belief that it was a humane form of execution, contrasting with the methods used in pre-revolutionary, ancien régime France. In France, before the guillotine, members of the nobility were beheaded with a sword or axe, while commoners were usually hanged, a form of death that could take minutes or longer. Other more gruesome methods of executions were also used, such as the wheel, burning at the stake, etc. In the case of decapitation, it also sometimes took repeated blows to sever the head completely, and it was also very likely for the condemned to slowly bleed to death from their wounds before the head could be severed. The condemned or the family of the condemned would sometimes pay the executioner to ensure that the blade was sharp in order to provide for a quick and relatively painless death.
The guillotine was thus perceived to deliver an immediate death without risk of misses. Furthermore, having only one method of execution was seen as an expression of equality among citizens. The guillotine was adopted as the official means of execution on March 20 1792. The guillotine was from then on the only legal execution method in France until the abolition of the death penalty in 1981, apart from certain crimes against the security of the state, which entailed execution by firing squad.
At this time, Paris executions were carried out in the Place de la Revolution (former Place Louis XV and current Place de la Concorde) (near the Louvre); the guillotine stood in the corner near the Hôtel Crillon where the statue of Brest can be found today.
For a time, executions by guillotine were a popular entertainment that attracted great crowds of spectators. Vendors would sell programs listing the names of those scheduled to die. Regulars would come day after day and vie for the best seats. Parents would bring their children. By the end of the Terror the crowds had thinned drastically. Excessive repetition had staled even this most grisly of entertainments, and audiences grew bored.
Eventually, the National Convention had enough of the Terror, partially fearing for their own lives, and turned against Maximilien Robespierre. In July 1794 he was arrested and executed in the same fashion as those whom he had condemned. This arguably ended the Terror, as the French expressed their discontent with Robespierre's policy by guillotining him.
The guillotine remained the official method of execution in France until France abolished the death penalty in 1981. The last guillotining in France was that of torture-murderer Hamida Djandoubi on September 10, 1977.
As has been noted, there were guillotine-like devices in countries other than France before 1792. A number of countries, especially in Europe, continued to employ this method of execution into modern times.
In Antwerp, Belgium, the last beheaded was Francis Kol. Convicted for robbery with murder, he received his punishment on 1856-05-08. During the period 1798-03-19 until 1856-03-12, the town of Antwerp counted 19 beheadings
A notable example is Germany, where the guillotine is known in German as Fallbeil ("falling axe"). It has been used in various German states since the 17th century, becoming the usual method of execution in Napoleonic times in many parts of Germany. Guillotine and firing squad were the legal methods of execution in German Empire (1871-1918) and Weimar Republic (1919-1933).
The original German guillotines resembled the French Berger 1872 model but eventually evolved into more specialised machines largely built of metal with a much heavier blade enabling shorter uprights to be used. Accompanied by a more efficient blade recovery system and the eventual removal of the tilting board (or bascule) this allowed a quicker turn-around time between executions, the victim being decapitated either face up or down depending on how the executioner predicted they would react to the sight of the machine. Those deemed likely to struggle were backed up from behind a curtain to shield their view of the device.
In 1933 Hitler had a guillotine constructed and tested. He was impressed enough to order 20 more constructed and pressed into immediate service. Nazi records indicate that between 1933 and 1945 16,500 people were executed in Germany by this method. In Nazi Germany beheading by guillotine was the usual method of executing convicted criminals as opposed to political enemies, who were usually either hanged or shot. By the middle of the war, however, policy changed: the six members of the White Rose anti-Nazi resistance organisation were beheaded in 1943, as were a hundred or more conscientious objectors from that date, including Franz Jägerstätter, beheaded in Berlin on 9 August 1943. The last execution in Germany, other than in East Germany, took place on 11 May 1949, when 24-year-old Berthold Wehmeyer was beheaded in Moabit prison, West Berlin, for murder and robbery. When West Germany was formed in 1949, its constitution forbade the death penalty; East Germany abolished it in 1987, and Austria in 1968.
In Sweden, where beheading was the mandatory method of execution, the guillotine was used for its last execution in 1910 in Långholmen prison, Stockholm. Although the guillotine has never been used in the United States as a legal method of execution (it had been considered in the 19th century before introduction of the electric chair), in 1996 Georgia state legislator Doug Teper proposed the guillotine as a replacement for the electric chair as the state's method of execution to enable the convicts to act as organ donors. The proposal was not adopted.
From its first use, there has been debate as to whether the guillotine always provided as swift a death as Guillotin hoped. With previous methods of execution, there was little concern about the suffering inflicted. As the guillotine was invented specifically to be "humane", however, the issue was seriously considered. Furthermore, there is the possibility that the very swiftness of the guillotine only prolonged the victim's suffering. The blade cuts quickly enough so that there is relatively little impact on the brain case, and perhaps less likelihood of immediate unconsciousness than with a more violent decapitation, or long-drop hanging.
Audiences to guillotinings told numerous stories of blinking eyelids, speaking, moving eyes, movement of the mouth, even an expression of "unequivocal indignation" on the face of the decapitated Charlotte Corday when her cheek was slapped. Anatomists and other scientists in several countries have tried to perform more definitive experiments on severed human heads as recently as 1956. Inevitably the evidence is only anecdotal. What appears to be a head responding to the sound of its name, or to the pain of a pinprick, may be only random muscle twitching or automatic reflex action, with no awareness involved. At worst, it seems that the massive drop in cerebral blood pressure would cause a victim to lose consciousness in several seconds.
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