Curious History : The Guillotine

The evolution of the guillotine is a unique…and curious one.  The history of the guillotine started long before the French Revolution, but when and where exactly is a mystery in itself.  You see, public executions were not only a spectacle but they were sometimes fraught with unfortunate misses by the axeman/swordsman in which it might have taken several chops…and several minutes to actually decapitate the convicted thus prolonging the suffering.  During the middle ages a few simple “chopping” devices were used for both public spectacle, basically serving as a reminder to others in a very theatrical way, and for more humanitarian purposes…so to speak.

First, let’s see about some earlier devices shall we?

In Ireland there was a marvelous little device that is a rather odd take on the guillotine or gibbet (not to be confused with the hanging cage) as it was called.  The convicted would lay on the block and have a block with blade laid slightly above the neck.  Instead of having an axeman they had a “hammer-man” since the blade with in the block above the neck.  At the appropriate time, the hammer-man began pounding on the block.  The strong the hammer-man, the luckier your chances of a swift death.

The gibbet was made famous by its steady use in Halifax, a cloth trading city known for its thieves.  The Halifax gibbet as it is now called was in use from as early as 1280 with the last victim being somewhere in 1648.  The device was incredibly similar to the real guillotine in design but without the oblique (slanted) blade.  The fable is that when cloth trade rose, the cloth thieves doubled.  The good gentlemen of Halifax couldn’t imagine having the dual employment of hangman as well so a “feat friar” presented to the towns people a device with which the intervention of human hands would be avoided.

After the curious beheading of King Charles I in 1649, the public scrutiny of public beheading became less favored and the Halifax gibbet was dismantled.  Since this gibbet it the only one preserved from this time period, it remains one of the first ever beheading devices.

A few more similar machines were designed before the French Revolution such as Scotland’s Maiden (nothing like the iron maiden!  This was definitely a guillotine-like machine.)  But it really was the French that gave this monstrous machine fuel!

It has always been a curious fact in history that class plays a great role in how you are executed for a crime.  For nobles and royalty, it was normally beheading by axe or sword.  It was the quickest and most humane death.  For peasants the range and style of execution were intense.  Drowning, hanging, burning alive, disemboweling, drawn, quartered…it is truly endless!  And ridding the social barrier that separated class was one of the goals during the Age of Enlightenment and The French Revolution.

The guillotine was named after the man who suggested its use to the Assembly, Dr. Guillotin, who was a great influence on capital punishment during the early years of the Revolution.   The Assembly approved a text providing that “Every person condemned to the death penalty shall have his head severed”.  The device was later designed, built, and tested by Tobias Schmidt (a German harpsichord maker) and by 1792, the machine was placed in the place du Carroussel.  Then came the Reign of Terror.

No other device took a country by storm so quickly or curiously as “Madame Guillotine” as it was so lovingly called by the French libertines.  No one of any class could escape the blade.  Prostitutes, beggars, statesmen, judges, ever member of The Assembly!  At first, the people called for the return of the gallows (a preferred form of public entertainment for many Parisians) but soon many libertines saw the machine as a piece of liberty for the very reason that no one was above getting chopped!

I supposed it might be a curiously frightening thought…to think people actually enjoyed these public beheadings, but it was even more popular then the theater!  Some of the more famous victims you might know!

King Louis XVI, King of France

The execution of Louis XVI

After the fall of the monarchy and the establishment of the republic, the king was considered an enemy of the republic and was executed at Place de la Révolution in 1793.

Marie Antoinette, Queen of France

Death mask of Marie Antoinette by Marie Tussaud

In October of 1793, the curiously fashionable queen met her end after having been imprisoned and tormented by the people.  One such torture was presenting her with the head of her favorite, Princess de Lamballe,  after they had torn her apart on the streets!

Madame Elisabeth

The execution of Madame Elisabeth

The sister of the king.  She chose to stay with the royal family and even encouraged others on the way to the blade with prayer and kind words.

Maximilien Robespierre

The supposed shooting of Robespierre

A nobleman for lower class rights.  This is the man responsible for The Terror!  He didn’t really believe in trials, witnesses, or the truth.  He even had a religious cult established but he soon fell out of favor when he killed innocents and the misjudged.  After being found guilty, he along with his brother and several followers were captured…but not before Robespierre broke both legs trying to escape out of the window.  A bit of debate about the bullet wound in the jaw (whether he did it as a suicide attempt or they shot him) is still floating about.  During his execution, the executioner ripped the bandage from his jaw so his screams didn’t stop until the blade dropped.  Quite horrific really!

Weidmann a second before his beheading.

This is a photograph of the end result of a guillotine execution in the early 20th century.  WARNING: This is a very graphic image!  So graphic that it is a link to the source I found!

The guillotine was still in use in France until the late 20th century but with the last public execution being in 1939.  A little fact you might not have known.  A human head is very aware of it’s separation from the body for several moments after the deed is done.  Severed heads have been known to blink in response, the mouths move to speak, and facial features continue to show signs of horror and fear.  The main curious goal for many people was to remove the suffering from the death penalty with this device only to realize later that the condemned are quite aware of having their heads presented to the crowds like Louis and Marie’s most likely were.


5 thoughts on “Curious History : The Guillotine

  1. Wow … the photo of Eugen Weidmann “disconnected” postmortem is sobering. I Googled to find more information, and it’s surreal to see the film of him walking up to the guillotine and the quick dispatch. Swift justice, indeed!

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