The Surprisingly Recent History of the Guillotine
To the modern mind, the guillotine might seem like a gruesomely theatrical and thoroughly French method of execution, a relic of the barbaric and powdered-wiggy past, but it was actually intended as a more humane and dignified manner of death. In fact, it was so successful in that regard that it was used long past when you probably assume it died its own death.
It Didn’t Start in France
Guillotine-like machines have been found all over Europe dating back to the Middle Ages, and it’s easy to see why. All other concerns aside, the typical methods of execution back then, like hanging or beheading with a sword, were more of an art than science and ended up taking a long, icky time if the executioner couldn’t stay inside the lines. Nothing says “efficiency” like a pulley system, so it was all but an engineering inevitability.
It Was Considered More Humane
If you were the rare second-millennium European who wasn’t hardened by a lifetime of brutality and plague, those long, icky executions were more than just distasteful. A head that requires several swings to detach or a twitching, hanging body is a pretty horrifying sight, so believe it or not, the powerful slice of the guillotine blade was considered the more merciful and dignified end in a society that didn’t really question whether that end was entirely necessary.
The guillotine got its name from Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, who proposed a list of death penalty reforms to the National Assembly, including that it “be done solely by means of a simple mechanism,” in 1789. Yes, they named it after Joe Guillotine.
It Was Originally Called a Louisette
Dr. Guillotin had only a vague idea of what kind of mechanism that might be, though. It was actually Dr. Antoine Louis who designed the machine, which is why it was initially known as a “louisette” or “louison,” although the association with the king probably tickled a few revolutionary fancies as well. In fact…
King Louis Helped Out
According to the memoirs of a famous executioner (which was a thing -- we’ll get to that), it was King Louis XVI who suggested a solid sheet of a blade rather than the crescent that was commonly used in such machines, reasoning that it would cut through thicker necks easier. It was no case irony that he ended up being killed by the guillotine -- clearly, Louis saw the writing on the wall, and he didn’t want to end up doing the Pharyngeal Clap.
It Was Also Considered More Equal
At the time, aristocrats on death row were usually given a relatively quick and painless beheading, while poors got hanged or, if they really fucked up, broken on the wheel. (Don’t Google it. Trust us.) Petty crimes were also sometimes punished more harshly if the convict didn’t have the francs to butter the judicial croissant. Under Dr. Guillotin’s guidelines, every crime was punished equally no matter who did it, so if they weren’t gonna just not execute people, at least they could do it fairly.
A Whole Lot of People Got Guillotined
Estimates vary widely, but officially, a whopping 17,000 people were executed in France during the 13 months of the Reign of Terror, nearly 3,000 in Paris alone. How did anyone get anything else done? Especially since…
The Guillotine Was a Spectator Event
During the Reign, executions were publicly promoted like music festivals, and people showed up with roughly the same set of expectations. A group of women called Tricoteuses were known to show up and hunker down with their knitting while they took in the show, and restaurants like the Cabaret de la Guillotine sprang up to capitalize on the crowds. That’s right: The guillotine was a tourist trap.
The guillotine became such a cultural sensation that toy manufacturers began producing mini guillotines for kids to decapitate their dollies. It even led to a severely misguided moral panic and subsequent campaign to ban the toys much like today’s pushback against violent video games, although the adults also got in on the fun, buying guillotine-shaped vegetable choppers and cigar cutters.
Even pissing themselves with fear, the wealthy elite on the chopping block still managed to set trends. The women of Paris soon began wearing the billowing white gowns and choppy haircuts of the prisoners and even red scarves to evoke a neck stump. They were the original goths.
Executioners Were Idols
The victims weren’t the only trendsetters on the guillotine stage. Executioners were treated like competition reality show sensations: Everyone had their favorite and debated spiritedly over who was better, dressed like them, and mobbed them in the streets. Entire families -- like the notorious Sansons, who served as state executioners -- rose to power with their rope-releasing and head-swinging flourishes, which honestly would be a really good reality show.
One of the Sansons Sold Guillotine Parts to Madame Tussauds
By the mid-1800s, the last Sanson to perform executions, Henri Clément, had fallen on alcoholic and gambling debt times, so he started selling off the family heirlooms. The Madame Tussauds wax museum bought a guillotine blade that he claimed killed Marie Antionette but definitely killed a lot of people, but not before he was fired as an executioner for doing, you know, that.
The Last Public Execution (Was Surprisingly Recent)
The guillotine remained France’s execution method of choice all the way through to the 20th century. In fact, they were still public all the way through 1939 -- that’s the year The Wizard of Oz was made -- until the crowds at the execution of murderer Eugène Weidmann became so bloodthirsty that officials began to worry the spectacle was having “practically the opposite” of its intended “moralizing effect.” Who knew public decapitation would make people act weird?
The Last Execution By Guillotine (Was Even More Recent)
That doesn’t mean they shoved the guillotine into storage with Jean-Paul Sartre and all their excess berets. Private executions by guillotine continued until 1977, when Hamida Djandoubi was convicted of murder, and only stopped when France abolished the death penalty in 1981. That means there are people who remember the last guillotining, and they’re not even that old. We’re talking young Boomer. They probably know how to use Instagram.
You Can Still See One
Guillotine blades and even a wax sculpture made from the head of a guillotined murderer are on display at the Musée de la Prefecture de Police in Paris, nicely rounding out your morbid itinerary of the Catacombs and Jim Morrison’s grave, but it does mean you have to go into a police museum and not spit on anything. Well, you can, but you’ll be surrounded by police, and they’ll have guillotines.
Top image: Musée Antoine-Lécuyer/Wikimedia Commons