The guillotine was supposed to be human, but became a brute force for almost two centuries.
The guillotine. This terrifying emblem of the French Revolution, which brought an end to the French monarchy and many others after it, including the revolutionary leader Robespierre. But did you know that he was still sending French prisoners to their deaths as recently as 1977?
It all started with Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a member of the French National Assembly, who was, perhaps ironically, a doctor and a fan of medical reform. On October 10, 1789, Guillotin proposed to the Assembly that, to make citizens equal, all those condemned to death be executed by the same human means: mechanical decapitation. A contradiction in terms perhaps, but an alternative to the horribly theatrical punishments to which commoners had hitherto been subjected.
Initially, Guillotin’s ideas were met with contempt. “Now, with my machine, I break your head, in the blink of an eye and you never feel it”, he boasted. The Assembly found it rowdy and the French press quickly followed it. Guillotin’s pompous proclamation even gave rise to a comic song – The Permanent Guillotine, and his name has always been associated with the device, although he was only ever an advocate for its use. Nonetheless, Guillotin’s appeal for compassion struck a chord with the Assembly, which in 1791 legislated that all capital punishments be enacted quickly and effectively by beheading. A suitable mechanical device had not yet been found, so the Royal Surgeon, Antoine Louis, was commissioned to create it.
Louis’ original design was flawed: it could not guarantee a quick death, an important detail for French master executioner Charles-Henri Sanson. Sanson’s friend, Tobias Schmidt, a harpsichord maker by trade, fine-tuned Louis’ design and came up with a sketch of what was needed in his workshop at 9, Cour du Commerce-Saint-André. Ominously enough, he tests his device on the cattle and corpses of convicts outside the nearby Café Procope.
Satisfied at last, Schmidt painted the machine blood red and it was nicknamed La Guillotine – much to Dr. Guillotin’s dismay. The first victim of the machine was the brigand Nicolas Jacques Pelletier in April 1792. Doctor Guillotin had considered a private death for convicted criminals, but the Revolution insisted on public executions. In less than a year, the reign of King Louis XVI ended under the blade of the guillotine and, during the Revolution, more than ten thousand people lost their minds.
In nearly two centuries, France has executed more people by guillotine than any other nation in the world. The last person to be publicly guillotined was six-time murderer Eugen Weidmann, who was put to death on June 17, 1939. Photographs of the grim spectacle and reports of inappropriate behavior by spectators caused such outrage that the government put a stop to to public executions. Then, on September 10, 1977, the knife fell one last time, when Hamida Djandoubi, 27, was executed for the murder of Elisabeth Bousquet, 22. He was the last person to be guillotined by a government in the world. Four years later, in 1981, the newly elected François Mitterrand honored his campaign promise and the death penalty in France was abolished.
Today, 40 years after its abolition, polls suggest that the French population remains divided on the issue; but President Macron has pledged to continue the fight to end capital punishment around the world.
Excerpt from France Today magazine