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The guillotine ( or ; ) was a device used for carrying out execution by decapitation. It consists of a tall upright frame from which a blade is suspended. This blade is raised with a rope and then allowed to drop, severing the head from the body. The device is noted for long being the main method of execution in Francemarker and, more particularly, for its use during the French Revolution, when it "became a part of popular culture, celebrated as the people's avenger by supporters of the Revolution and vilified as the pre-eminent symbol of the Terror by opponents". Nevertheless, the guillotine continued to be used long after the French Revolution in several countries.

History and variations

Middle Ages

The guillotine became notorious (and acquired its name) in Francemarker at the time of the French Revolution; however, guillotine-like devices, such as the Halifax Gibbetmarker and Scottish Maiden, 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.

Tudor era to 17th century

The first documented use of the (Irish) Maiden was in 1307 in Irelandmarker, and there are accounts of similar devices in Italymarker and Switzerlandmarker 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.

French Revolution

Image:Joseph-Ignace Guillotin cropped.JPG|Portrait of Dr. GuillotinImage:Execution robespierre, saint just....jpg|The execution of Robespierre

Sensing the growing discontent, Louis XVI banned the use of the breaking wheel. In 1791, as the French Revolution progressed, the National Assembly 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 Gibbetmarker. 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).

Laquiante, an officer of the Strasbourgmarker criminal court, made a design for a beheading machine and employed Tobias Schmidt, a Germanmarker engineer and harpsichord maker, to construct a prototype. Antoine Louis is also credited with the design of the prototype. 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, but it was Schmidt who suggested placing the blade at an oblique 45-degree angle and changing it from the curved blade. The first execution-by-guillotine was performed on highwayman Nicolas Jacques Pelletier on April 25, 1792.

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 suffocation. Furthermore, having only one method of execution was seen as an expression of equality among citizens. The guillotine was then 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.

Reign of Terror

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 frenzied paranoia. Most of the democratic reforms of the revolution were suspended and large-scale executions by guillotine began. 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. The Revolutionary Tribunal sentenced thousands to the guillotine. Nobility and commoners, intellectuals, politicians and prostitutes, 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" (also referred to as "The National Razor"). Estimates of the death toll range between 16,000 and 40,000.

[[Image:Guillotine.jpeg|thumb|right|Public guillotining in Lons-le-Sauniermarker, 1897.Picture taken on 20 April 1897, in front of the jailhouse of Lons-le-Saunier, Jura. The man who was going to be beheaded was Pierre Vaillat, who killed two elder siblings on Christmas Day, 1896, in order to rob them and was condemned for his crimes on 9 March 1897.]]At this time, Paris executions were carried out in the Place de la Revolution (former Place Louis XV and current Place de la Concordemarker) (near the Louvremarker); 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. People would come day after day and vie for the best seats; knitting female citizens (tricoteuses) formed a cadre of hardcore regulars, inciting the crowd as a kind of anachronistic cheerleaders. 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 last public guillotining was of Eugen Weidmann, who was convicted of six murders. He was beheaded on 17 June 1939, outside the prison Saint-Pierre rue Georges Clémenceau 5 at Versailles, which is now the Palais de Justice. The allegedly scandalous behaviour of some of the onlookers on this occasion, and an incorrect assembly of the apparatus, as well as the fact it was secretly filmed, caused the authorities to decide that executions in the future were to take place in the prison courtyard.

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 10 September 1977.


200 px

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 Antwerpmarker, Belgiummarker, the last beheaded was Francis Kol. Convicted for robbery with murder, he received his punishment on 8 May 1856. During the period from 19 March 1798 until 12 March 1856, the town of Antwerpmarker counted 19 beheadings

In Germanymarker, where the guillotine is known in German as Fallbeil ("falling axe"), it was used in various German states from the 17th century onwards, becoming the usual 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 Empiremarker (1871–1918) and the Weimar Republicmarker (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 Adolf 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 and Austriamarker 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 Berlinmarker on 9 August, 1943. The last execution in what would later become West Germanymarker took place on 11 May, 1949, when 24-year-old Berthold Wehmeyer was beheaded in Moabitmarker prison, West Berlin, for murder and robbery. When West Germanymarker was formed in 1949, its constitution prohibited the death penalty; East Germany abolished it in 1987, and Austriamarker in 1968.

In Swedenmarker, where beheading was the mandatory method of execution, the guillotine was used only once, for the very last execution in the country, in 1910 at Långholmen Prisonmarker, Stockholmmarker.

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. One such guillotine is still on show at the War Remnants Museummarker in Ho Chi Minh Citymarker.

Living heads

Execution of Languille in 1905
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.

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:


There have been several incidents in recent years in which people built homemade guillotines to commit suicide.

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. Robertson, Patrick The Book of Firsts Clarkson Potter, 1974.
  3. 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
  4. "Chase's Calendar of Events 2007", p. 291
  5. Scurr, pp. 222–223
  6. Abbot, p. 144
  7. Pre-1981 penal code, article 12: "Any person sentenced to death shall be beheaded.".
  8. 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.".
  9. Loi n°81-908 du 9 octobre 1981 portant abolition de la peine de mort
  10. Gazet van Mechelen, 8 May 1956
  11. Excerpt from British Medical Journal, Vol 294: February, 1987, quoting Proges Medical of 9 July 1886, on the subject of research into "living heads".
  12. Guillotine death was suicide, BBC News, 24 April, 2003
  13. Dad's suicide by guillotine, The Sun, 3 April 2004
  14. Police Find Man's Body, Guillotine In Wooded Area, WDIV Detroit, 12 September 2007


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