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Title: Guillotine  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: 1790s, French Revolution, Tricoteuse, Johan Alfred Ander, Reign of Terror
Collection: 1789 Introductions, Blade Weapons, Capital Punishment in France, Execution Equipment, Execution Methods
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Historic replicas (1:6 scale) of the two main types of French guillotines: Model 1792, left, and Model 1872 (state as of 1907), right

A guillotine (; French: ) is an apparatus designed for carrying out executions by beheading. It consists of a tall upright frame in which a weighted and angled blade is raised to the top and suspended. The condemned person is secured at the bottom of the frame, with his or her neck held directly below the blade. The blade is then released, to fall swiftly and sever the head from the body. The device is best known for its use in France, in particular during the French Revolution, when it "became a part of popular culture" and it was celebrated as the people's avenger by supporters of the Revolution and vilified as the pre-eminent symbol of the Reign of Terror by opponents.[1] The guillotine continued to be used long after the Revolution and remained France's standard method of judicial execution until the abolition of capital punishment with the backing of President François Mitterrand in 1981.[2] The last person guillotined in France was Hamida Djandoubi, on 10 September 1977.

The guillotine was used, amongst other countries, in 1933-1945 Nazi Germany for 16,500 executions,[3] and by the 1950-1990 Stasi in East Germany for secret executions.[4]


  • Invention 1
  • Precursors 2
  • French Revolution 3
    • Reign of Terror 3.1
    • Retirement 3.2
  • Elsewhere 4
  • Living heads 5
  • Names for the guillotine 6
  • Guillotine types 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9
  • Further reading 10
  • External links 11


Dr. Antoine Louis, together with German engineer Tobias Schmidt, built a prototype for the guillotine. Schmidt recommended using an angled blade as opposed to a round one.[5]


A replica of the Halifax Gibbet on its original site, 2008, with St Mary's Catholic church, Gibbet Street, in the background

There were other beheading machines in countries other than France before 1792. A number of countries, especially in Europe, continued to employ this method of execution into modern times.

Although the guillotine was invented in the late 18th century, similar beheading machines have a longer history. The Halifax Gibbet was a wooden structure of two wooden uprights, capped by a horizontal beam, of a total height of 4.5 metres (15 ft). The blade was an axe head weighing 3.5 kg (7.7 lb), attached to the bottom of a massive wooden block that slid up and down in grooves in the uprights. This device was mounted on a large square platform 1.25 metres (4 ft) high. It is not known when the Halifax Gibbet was first used; the first recorded execution in Halifax dates from 1280, but that execution may have been by sword, axe, or the gibbet. The machine remained in use until Oliver Cromwell forbade capital punishment for petty theft. It was used for the last time, for the execution of two criminals on a single day, on 30 April 1650.

Another early example is immortalized in the picture 'The execution of Murcod Ballagh near to Merton in Ireland 1307'. As the title states, the victim was named Murcod Ballagh, and he was decapitated by equipment looking remarkably similar to the later French guillotines. Another unrelated picture depicts an execution with elements of both a guillotine-style device and a traditional beheading. While the condemned is lying on a bench, a device holds an axe head in position above the neck. The executioner, who is shown wielding a large hammer, strikes down on the mechanism and drives the blade down. Traditional executions by decapitation via sword or axe were notably gruesome, and the device depicted in the illustration may have been conceived in an attempt to improve the accuracy and effectiveness. No reference to its actual use has been found.

French Revolution

Portrait of Guillotin

On 10 October 1789, Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a French physician, stood before the National Assembly and proposed the following six articles in favour of the reformation of capital punishment:

  • Article 1: All offences of the same kind will be punished by the same type of punishment irrespective of the rank or status of the guilty party.
  • Article 2: Whenever the Law imposes the death penalty, irrespective of the nature of the offence, the punishment shall be the same: decapitation, effected by means of a simple mechanism.
  • Article 3: The punishment of the guilty party shall not bring discredit upon or discrimination against his family.
  • Article 4: No one shall reproach a citizen with any punishment imposed on one of his relatives. Such offenders shall be publicly reprimanded by a judge.
  • Article 5: The condemned person's property shall not be confiscated.
  • Article 6: At the request of the family, the corpse of the condemned man shall be returned to them for burial and no reference to the nature of death shall be registered.[6]

Sensing the growing discontent, Louis XVI banned the use of the breaking wheel.[7] In 1791, as the French Revolution progressed, the National Assembly researched a new method to be used on all condemned people regardless of class. Their concerns contributed to the idea that the purpose of capital punishment was simply to end life rather than to inflict pain.[7]

A committee was formed under Antoine Louis, physician to the King and Secretary to the Academy of Surgery.[7] Guillotin was also on the committee. The group was influenced by the Italian Mannaia (or Mannaja), the Scottish Maiden and the Halifax Gibbet, which was fitted with an axe head weighing 7 pounds 12 ounces (3.5 kg).[8] While these prior instruments usually crushed the neck or used blunt force to take off a head, devices also usually used a crescent blade and a lunette (a hinged two part yoke to immobilize the victim's neck).[7]

Laquiante, an officer of the Strasbourg criminal court,[9] designed a beheading machine and employed Tobias Schmidt, a German engineer and harpsichord maker, to construct a prototype.[10] Antoine Louis is also credited with the design of the prototype. An apocryphal story claims that King Louis XVI (an amateur locksmith) recommended that a triangular blade with a beveled edge be used instead of a crescent blade,[7] but it was Schmidt who suggested placing a straight blade at a 45 degree angle.[11] The first execution by guillotine was performed on highwayman Nicolas Jacques Pelletier[12] on 25 April 1792.[13][14][15] He was executed in front of what is now the city hall of Paris (Place de l'hôtel de ville). All citizens deemed guilty of a crime punishable by death were from then on executed there, until the scaffold was moved on 21 August to the Place du Carrousel.

The machine was successful as it was considered 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, which often took two or more blows to kill the condemned, while commoners were usually hanged, which could take minutes or longer. In the early phase of the French Revolution, the slogan À la lanterne (in English: To the Lamp Post!, String Them Up! or Hang Them!) had became a symbol of popular justice in revolutionary France. The revolutionary radicals hanged officials and aristocrats from street lanterns. Other more gruesome methods of executions were also used, such as the wheel or burning at the stake. The condemned or their family would sometimes pay the executioner to ensure that the blade was sharp, to achieve a quick and relatively painless death.

The guillotine was thus perceived to deliver an immediate death without risk of suffocation. Furthermore, having only one method of civil execution was seen as an expression of equality among citizens. The guillotine was then the only civil legal execution method in France until the abolition of the death penalty in 1981,[16] apart from certain crimes against the security of the state, or for the death sentences passed by military courts,[17] which entailed execution by firing squad.[18]

Reign of Terror

The execution of Louis XVI
Marie Antoinette's execution on October 16, 1793.
The execution of Robespierre

The period from June 1793 to July 1794 in France is known as the Reign of Terror or simply "the Terror". The upheaval following the overthrow of the monarchy, invasion by foreign monarchist powers and the revolt in the Vendée combined to throw the nation into chaos and the government into paranoia. Most of the democratic reforms of the revolution were suspended and the Revolutionary Tribunal sentenced thousands to the guillotine. The first political prisoner to be executed was Collenot d'Angremont of the National Guard, followed soon after by the King's trusted collaborator in his ill-fated attempt to moderate the Revolution, Arnaud de Laporte, both in 1792. Former King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette were executed in 1793. Maximilien Robespierre became one of the most powerful men in the government, and the figure most associated with the Terror. Nobility and commoners, intellectuals, politicians and prostitutes,[19] all were liable to be executed on little or no grounds; suspicion of "crimes against liberty" was enough to earn one an appointment with "Madame Guillotine" or "The National Razor". Estimates of the death toll range between 16,000 and 40,000.[20]

At this time, Paris executions were carried out in the Place de la Revolution (former Place Louis XV and current Place de la Concorde); 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 sold programs listing the names of those scheduled to die. Many people came day after day and vied for the best locations from which to observe the proceedings; knitting women (tricoteuses) formed a cadre of hardcore regulars, inciting the crowd. Parents often brought their children. By the end of the Terror, the crowds had thinned drastically. 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. He was arrested, and on 28 July 1794, was 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.[21]


Public guillotining in Lons-le-Saunier, 1897

After the French Revolution, the executions began again in the city center. On 4 February 1832, the guillotine was moved behind the church of Saint Jacques, just before being moved again, to the Grande Roquette prison, on 29 November 1851.

On 6 August 1909, the guillotine was used on the junction of the Boulevard Arago and the rue de la Santé, behind the prison which bears the latter street's name.

The last public guillotining in France was of Versailles, which is now the Palais de Justice. A number of problems with that execution (inappropriate behavior by spectators, incorrect assembly of the apparatus, and the fact that it was secretly filmed) caused the authorities to conduct future executions in the prison courtyard.

The guillotine remained the official method of execution in France until the death penalty was abolished in 1981.[2] The final guillotinings in France before abolition were those of child-murderers Christian Ranucci on 28 July 1976 and Jérôme Carrein on 23 June 1977 and torture-murderer Hamida Djandoubi on 10 September 1977.

In the late 1840s the Tussaud brothers Joseph and Francis, gathering relics for Madame Tussauds wax museum, visited the aged Henry-Clément Sanson, grandson of the executioner Charles Henri Sanson, from whom they obtained parts, the knife and lunette, of one the original guillotines used during the Age of Terror. The executioner had "pawned his guillotine, and got into woeful trouble for alleged trafficking in municipal property".[22]


The Scottish Maiden (supposedly based on the Halifax Gibbet) was introduced to Edinburgh by James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton in the 16th century and remained in use until 1716. The scaffold itself is now housed in the National Museum of Scotland.

In Antwerp (Belgium), the last person to be beheaded was Francis Kol. Convicted for robbery with murder, he underwent his punishment on 8 May 1856. During the period from 19 March 1798, until 30 March 1856, there were 19 beheadings in Antwerp.[23]

In Germany, where the guillotine is known as the Fallbeil ("falling axe"), it was used in various German states from the 17th century onwards, becoming the preferred method of execution in Napoleonic times in many parts of Germany. The guillotine and the firing squad were the legal methods of execution during the German Empire (1871–1918) and the Weimar Republic (1919–1933).

The original German guillotines resembled the French Berger 1872 model, but they 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 condemned being decapitated either face-up or face-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. As such the blades of some models were covered by a metal screen to hide it from sight.

In 1933, Adolf Hitler had a guillotine constructed and tested. He was impressed enough to order 20 more constructed and pressed into immediate service.[7] Nazi records indicate that between 1933 and 1945, 16,500 people were executed by guillotine in Germany and Austria.[7] It was used for the last time in West Germany in 1949 (in the execution of Richard Schuh) and in East Germany in 1966 (in the execution of Horst Fischer). In Switzerland it was used for the last time by the canton of Obwalden in the execution of murderer Hans Vollenweider in 1940.

In Sweden, where beheading became the mandatory method of execution in 1866, the guillotine replaced manual beheading in 1903 and was used only once, in the execution of murderer Alfred Ander in 1910 at Långholmen Prison, Stockholm. He was also the last person executed in Sweden before capital punishment was abolished in that country in 1921.

In South Vietnam, after the Diệm regime enacted the 10/59 Decree in 1959, mobile special military courts dispatched to the countryside to intimidate the rural peoples used guillotines belonging to the former French colonial power to carry out death sentences on the spot.[24] One such guillotine is still on show at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City.[25]

In 1996 in the US, Georgia State Representative Doug Teper[26] unsuccessfully sponsored a bill to replace the state's electric chair with the guillotine.[27]

Living heads

Execution of Languille in 1905

From its first use, there has been debate as to whether the guillotine always provided a swift death as Guillotin had hoped. With previous methods of execution intended to be painful, there was little concern about the suffering inflicted. As the guillotine was invented specifically to be humane the issue was seriously considered. The blade cuts quickly enough for there to be 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.

The following report was written by a Dr. Beaurieux, who experimented with the head of a condemned prisoner by the name of Henri Languille, on 28 June 1905:

Here, then, is what I was able to note immediately after the decapitation: the eyelids and lips of the guillotined man worked in irregularly rhythmic contractions for about five or six seconds. This phenomenon has been remarked by all those finding themselves in the same conditions as myself for observing what happens after the severing of the neck ...
I waited for several seconds. The spasmodic movements ceased. [...] It was then that I called in a strong, sharp voice: "Languille!" I saw the eyelids slowly lift up, without any spasmodic contractions – I insist advisedly on this peculiarity – but with an even movement, quite distinct and normal, such as happens in everyday life, with people awakened or torn from their thoughts.
Next Languille's eyes very definitely fixed themselves on mine and the pupils focused themselves. I was not, then, dealing with the sort of vague dull look without any expression, that can be observed any day in dying people to whom one speaks: I was dealing with undeniably living eyes which were looking at me. After several seconds, the eyelids closed again [...].
It was at that point that I called out again and, once more, without any spasm, slowly, the eyelids lifted and undeniably living eyes fixed themselves on mine with perhaps even more penetration than the first time. Then there was a further closing of the eyelids, but now less complete. I attempted the effect of a third call; there was no further movement – and the eyes took on the glazed look which they have in the dead.[28]

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 the very least, it seems that the massive drop in cerebral blood pressure would cause a victim to lose consciousness in a few seconds.[29]

Names for the guillotine

During the span of its usage, the French guillotine has gone by many names, some of which include these:

  • La Monte-à-regret (The Regretful Climb)[30][31]
  • Le Rasoir National (The National Razor)[31]
  • Le Vasistas or La Lucarne (The Fanlight)[31][32]
  • La Veuve (The Widow)[31]
  • Le Moulin à Silence (The Silence Mill)[31]
  • Louisette or Louison (from the name of prototype designer Antoine Louis)[31]
  • Madame La Guillotine[33]
  • Mirabelle (from the name of [31]
  • La Bécane (The Machine)[31]
  • Le Massicot (The Cutter)[32]
  • La Cravate à Capet (The Necktie of Capet, Capet being Louis XVI)[32]
  • La Raccourcisseuse Patriotique (The Patriotic Shortener)[32]
  • La demi-lune (The Half-Moon)[32]
  • Les Bois de Justice (Woods of Justice)[32]
  • La Bascule à Charlot (Charlot's Rocking-chair)[32]
  • Le Prix Goncourt des Assassins (The Goncourt Prize for Murderers)[32]

Guillotine types

See also


  1. ^ R. Po-chia Hsia, Lynn Hunt, Thomas R. Martin, Barbara H. Rosenwein, and Bonnie G. Smith, The Making of the West, Peoples and Culture, A Concise History, Volume II: Since 1340, Second Edition (New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2007), 664.
  2. ^ a b (French) Loi n°81-908 du 9 octobre 1981 portant abolition de la peine de mort. Retrieved on 2013-04-25.
  3. ^ Robert Frederick Opie (2013). Guillotine: The Timbers of Justice. History Press. p. 131. 
  4. ^ John O. Koehler (5 August 2008). Stasi: The Untold Story of the East German Secret Police. Basic Books. p. 18. 
  5. ^ Bellis, Mary. "The History of the Guillotine". Retrieved 13 February 2014.
  6. ^ R. F. Opie (2003) Guillotine, Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing Ltd, p. 22, ISBN 0750930349.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g Executive Producer Don Cambou (2001). Modern Marvels: Death Devices. A&E Television Networks. 
  8. ^ Parker, John William (26 July 1834). "The Halifax Gibbet-Law".  
  9. ^ Croker, John Wilson (1857). Essays on the early period of the French Revolution. J. Murray. p. 549. Retrieved 21 October 2010. 
  10. ^ Edmond-Jean Guérin, "1738–1814 – Joseph-Ignace Guillotin : biographie historique d'une figure saintaise", Histoire P@ssion website, accessed 2009-06-27, citing M. Georges de Labruyère in le Matin, 22 Aug. 1907
  11. ^ "Joseph Ignace Guillotin". Retrieved 9 March 2008. 
  12. ^ "Crime Library". National Museum of Crime & Punishment. Retrieved 13 June 2009. [I]n 1792, Nicholas-Jacques Pelletier became the first person to be put to death with a guillotine. 
  13. ^ Chase's Calendar of Events 2007. New York: McGraw-Hill. 2007. p. 291.  
  14. ^ Ruth Scurr (2007). Fatal Purity. New York: H. Holt. pp. 222–223.  
  15. ^ Jeffery Abbott (2007). What a Way to Go. New York: St. Martin's Griffin. p. 144.  
  16. ^ Pre-1981 penal code, article 12: "Any person sentenced to death shall be beheaded."
  17. ^ Pre-1971 Code de Justice Militaire, article 336: "Les justiciables des juridictions des forces armées condamnés à la peine capitale sont fusillés dans un lieu désigné par l'autorité militaire."
  18. ^ Pre-1981 penal code, article 13: "By exception to article 12, when the death penalty is handed for crimes against the safety of the State, execution shall take place by firing squad.".
  19. ^ Jordanova, L. J. Nature Displayed: Gender, Science, and Medicine, 1760–1820. Vol. 1. London: Longman, 1999. Oxford University Press. Print.
  20. ^ "Reign of Terror". 
  21. ^ "The Reign of Terror". French Revolution Exhibit. Retrieved 7 March 2011. 
  22. ^ Leonard Cottrell (1952) Madame Tussaud, Evans Brothers Limited, pp. 142–43.
  23. ^ Gazet van Mechelen, 8 May 1956
  24. ^ Nguyen Thi Dinh; Mai V. Elliott (1976). No Other Road to Take: Memoir of Mrs Nguyen Thi Dinh. Cornell University Southeast Asia Program. 27.  
  25. ^ Farrara, Andrew J. (2004). Around the World in 220 Days: The Odyssey of an American Traveler Abroad. Buy Books. 415.  
  26. ^ "Representative Doug Teper (D-61)". Georgia House of Representatives. Retrieved 2013-10-03. 
  27. ^ "Georgia House of Representatives - 1995/1996 Sessions HB 1274 - Death penalty; guillotine provisions". The General Assembly of Georgia. Retrieved 2013-10-03. 
  28. ^ Dr. Beaurieux. "Report From 1905". The History of the Guillotine. Retrieved 13 February 2009. 
  29. ^ J P Neoptolemos, D L Carr-Locke and D P Fossard (1987). "Prospective randomised study of preoperative endoscopic sphincterotomy versus surgery alone for common bile duct stones". British Medical Journal 294 (6570): 470–4.   Quoting Proges Medical of 9 July 1886, on the subject of research into "living heads".
  30. ^ abbaye de monte-à-regret : définition avec Bob, dictionnaire d'argot, l'autre trésor de la langue. Retrieved on 2013-04-25.
  31. ^ a b c d e f g h Joseph-Ignace GUILLOTIN (1738–1814). Retrieved on 2013-04-25.
  32. ^ a b c d e f g h guillotine du XIVeme arrondissement. Retrieved on 2013-04-25.
  33. ^ Guillotine. Whonamedit. Retrieved on 2013-04-25.

Further reading

  • Caryle, Thomas. The French Revolution In Three Volumes, Volume 3: The Guillotine. Charles C. Little and James Brown (Little Brown). New York, NY, 1839. No ISBN. (First Edition. Many reprintings of this important history have been done during the last two centuries.)
  • Gerould, Daniel (1992). Guillotine; Its Legend and Lore. Blast Books.  

External links

  • The Guillotine Headquarters with a gallery, history, name list, and quiz.
  • L'art de bien couper a French site with a quite complete list of guillotined criminals, pictures, history.
  • Bois de justice History of the guillotine, construction details, with rare photos (English)
  • Fabricius, Jørn. "The Guillotine Headquarters". 
  • Does the head remain briefly conscious after decapitation (revisited)? (from The Straight Dope)
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