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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Historic replicas (1:6 scale) of the two main types of French guillotines: Model 1792, left, and Model 1872 (state as of 1907), right

The guillotine (English pronunciation: /ˈɡɪlətiːn/ or /ˈɡiː.ətiːn/; French: [ɡijɔtin]) was a device used for carrying out executions 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, separating the head from the body. The device is noted for long being the main method of execution in France 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".[1] Nevertheless, the guillotine continued to be used long after the French Revolution in several countries.


French Revolution

Sensing the growing discontent, Louis XVI banned the use of the breaking wheel.[2] 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 capital punishment's purpose was the ending of life instead of the infliction of pain.[2]

A committee was formed under Antoine Louis, physician to the King and Secretary to the Academy of Surgery.[2] 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 Gibbet. 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).[2]

Laquiante, an officer of the Strasbourg criminal court[citation needed], made a design for a beheading machine and employed Tobias Schmidt, a German engineer and harpsichord maker, to construct a prototype.[3] 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,[2] but it was Schmidt who suggested placing the blade at an oblique 45-degree angle and changing it from the curved blade.[4] The first execution-by-guillotine was performed on highwayman Nicolas Jacques Pelletier[5] on April 25, 1792.[6][7][8]

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[9], apart from certain crimes against the security of the state, which entailed execution by firing squad.[10]

Reign of Terror

Francisco de Goya - The French Penalty.

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,[citation needed] 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.[11]

At this time, Paris executions were carried out in the Place de la Revolution (former Place Louis XV and current Place de la Concorde) (near the Louvre); the guillotine stood in the corner near the Hôtel Crillon where the statue of Brest can be found today.

Public guillotining in Lons-le-Saunier, 1897. Picture taken on 20 April 1897, in front of the gaolhouse 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.

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.[12]


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.[13] The last guillotining in France was that of torture-murderer Hamida Djandoubi on 10 September 1977.


German Fallbeil of 1854, Munich
(Historic replica 1:6 scale)

As has been noted, there were[citation needed] 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 Antwerp, Belgium, 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 Antwerp counted 19 beheadings[14]

In Germany, 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 Empire (1871–1918) and the Weimar Republic (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.[2] Nazi records indicate that between 1933 and 1945, 16,500 people were executed in Germany and Austria by this method.[2] In Nazi Germany, beheading by guillotine was the usual method of executing convicted criminals as opposed to political enemies, who were usually[citation needed] 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 Berlin on 9 August 1943. The last execution in what would later become West Germany took place on 11 May 1949, when 24-year-old Berthold Wehmeyer was beheaded in Moabit prison, West Berlin, for murder and robbery. When West Germany was formed in 1949, its constitution prohibited the death penalty; East Germany abolished it in 1987, and Austria in 1968.

In Sweden, 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 Prison, Stockholm.

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.[15] One such guillotine is still on show at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City.[16]

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.[17]

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.


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 c d e f g Executive Producer Don Cambou. (2001). Modern Marvels: Death Devices. A&E Television Networks. 
  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. ^ "Joseph Ignace Guillotin". Retrieved 2008-03-09. 
  5. ^ "Crime Library". National Museum of Crime & Punishment. Retrieved June 13, 2009. "[I]n 1792, Nicholas-Jacques Pelletier became the first person to be put to death with a guillotine." 
  6. ^ "Chase's Calendar of Events 2007", p. 291
  7. ^ Scurr, pp. 222–223
  8. ^ Abbot, p. 144
  9. ^ Pre-1981 penal code, article 12: "Any person sentenced to death shall be beheaded.".
  10. ^ 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.".
  11. ^ "Reign of Terror". 
  12. ^ "The Reign of Terror". French Revolution Exhibit. 
  13. ^ Loi n°81-908 du 9 octobre 1981 portant abolition de la peine de mort
  14. ^ Gazet van Mechelen, 8 May 1956
  15. ^ Mrs Nguyen Thi Dinh; Mai V. Elliott (1976). No Other Road to Take: Memoir of Mrs Nguyen Thi Dinh. Cornell University Southeast Asia Program. 27. ISBN 087727102X. 
  16. ^ Farrara, Andrew J. (2004). Around the World in 220 Days: The Odyssey of an American Traveler Abroad. Buy Books. 415. ISBN 074141838X. 
  17. ^ Excerpt from British Medical Journal, Vol 294: February, 1987, quoting Proges Medical of 9 July 1886, on the subject of research into "living heads".
  18. '^ Dr. Beaurieux. "Report From 1905". The History of the Guillotine. Retrieved 2009-02-13. 


Further reading

  • Gerould, Daniel (1992). Guillotine; Its Legend and Lore. Blast Books. ISBN 0-922233-02-0. 

External links



Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

The guillotine was a beheading device named for its inventor, Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a French physician who invented the device in order to permit executions to be conducted more humanely.

Portrait of Dr. Guillotin, the inventor of the Guillotine
The Scottish Maiden, an older Scottish design. This example is an exhibit at the Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh



  • My machine will take off a head in a twinkling and the victim will feel nothing but a refreshing coolness. We cannot make too much haste, gentlemen, to allow the nation to enjoy this advantage.
    • Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, Statement to the French Assembly, 1789.
  • In the social equation, the value of a single life is nil; in the cosmic equation, it is infinite... Not only communism, but any political movement which implicitly relies on purely utilitarian ethics, must become a victim to the same fatal error. It is a fallacy as naïve as a mathematical teaser, and yet its consequences lead straight to Goya's Disasters, to the reign of the guillotine, the torture chambers of the Inquisition, or the cellars of the Lubianka.
  • There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist/Unitarian, Irish/Italian/Octogenarian/Zen Buddhist, Zionist/Seventh-day Adventist, Women's Lib/Republican, Mattachine/FourSquareGospel feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blanc-mange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme.
  • And if my thought-dreams could be seen, they'd probably put my head in a guillotine.
  • As the trend in the ballots slowly made me realize that — in a manner of speaking the guillotine would fall on me — I started to feel quite dizzy. I thought that I had done my life's work and could now hope to live out my days in peace. I told the Lord with deep conviction, 'Don't do this to me. You have younger and better (candidates) who could take up this great task with a totally different energy and with different strength.' Evidently, this time he didn't listen to me.
    • Pope Benedict XVI, Comments on his election as Pope during his first audience with German pilgrims, original comments given in German.

Fictional portrayals

Historic replicas (1:6 scale) of the two main types of French guillotines: Model 1792, left, and Model 1872 (state as of 1907), right
  • Leela: Is this some sort of brain scanner?
Professor Farnsworth: Some sort, yes. In France it's called a guillotine.
[Leela dodges the blade as the professor drops it.]
Leela: Professor! Can't you examine my brain without removing it?
Professor Farnsworth: Yes, easily.


  • Surrealism has been the drunken flame that guides the steps of the sleepwalker who tiptoes along the edge of the shadow that the blade of the guillotine casts on the neck of the condemned.

External links

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Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary

See also guillotine


German Wikipedia has an article on:

Wikipedia de


Guillotine f. (genitive Guillotine, plural Guillotinen)

  1. (execution) guillotine


Simple English

Museum of Bruchsal (Germany).

The guillotine is a machine used to kill (behead) people (by chopping off their heads, or decapitation) as death penalty. It got its first common use in France during the French Revolution of 1789. It was in common use in France (including colonies), Switzerland, Germany, and Austria, and also used in Sweden. Since all those countries have stopped capital punishment (the death penalty), the guillotine is no longer in use.

A guillotine consists of a heavy blade attached to a rack, which moves on a vertical frame. When the rack is released, it will fall down and the blade will cut the convict's head off. Such devices were first invented in the Middle Ages, and used throughout Europe. But it was only during the French Revolution when guillotine rose to general usage.


The Creation of the Guillotine

Joseph Guillotin

The Guillotine is named after a French doctor of medicine, Joseph Ignace Guillotin. Guillotin proposed to use a mechanical device to carry out all the executions. His proposition was on October 10,1789. Although Guillotin contributed little to the design of the machine, his name went down in history. The machine was devised by another doctor, Antoine Louis. Against the will of Guillotin, the device rapidly became known as Guillotine. Guillotin regretted this,up to his death in 1814. Guillotin wanted to have a more humane way of execution. However, Guillotin was against the death penalty, and thought there was a better way to execute people.

Design and Creation

The design for a quick, painless, decapitation machine was given to Tobias Schmidt, a German Engineer. Schmidt built the first guillotine and tested it, on animals at first, but later on dead humans. It was made of two fourteen-foot uprights joined by a crossbar, whose inside edges were grooved and greased with tallow; the weighted blade was either straight, or curved like an axe. The system was started by a rope and pulley, while the whole construction was set up on a platform.

Later Uses

The guillotine remained as the legal means of death penalty in France until 1979, when death penalty was stopped in France. In the Nazi Germany, guillotine was used to kill prisoners sentenced for serious crimes such as murder, treason or conspiring against the government. Guillotine was last time used in West Germany 1949 and East Germany 1961. The last person guillotined was Tunisian murderer Hamida Djandoubi in 1977.

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