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The Invention of the Guillotine and Its Role in the French Reign of Terror 

The execution device came to be known as a symbol of violent class warfare.

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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Most of us are familiar with the guillotine, a means of execution and a symbol of the Reign of Terror, a particularly bloody period of the French Revolution. For the revolutionaries, it was the “peoples’ avenger,” the symbol of their righteous anger, while for their opponents, the guillotine represented the uncontrolled violence of the masses. Even today, guillotine imagery is used the world over in art and activism critical of class and wealth disparities. 

However, the guillotine was not originally designed as a symbol or even a weapon of class warfare. It was conceived as a practical, simple, and humane means to an inhumane end—a way to put someone to death quickly and cleanly, without the suffering that many other commonly used methods of execution tended to inflict.

Beheadings were already an accepted form of execution in the late 18th century, after all, and the guillotine as we know it was not even the first mechanical means to perform the operation. Similar devices were already in use throughout Europe by 1789, when the French guillotine was first conceived, including the Italian Mannaja, the Scottish Maiden, and the Halifax Gibbet, to name a few.

In 1789, Joseph-Ignace Guillotin attempted to persuade King Louis XVI of France that a more humane form of execution was needed. A physician-turned-politician and an opponent of the death penalty, Guillotin believed that so long as it was carried out, it should be done in the most humane way possible, in accordance with the Enlightenment ideals that were gaining ever more traction in the nation.

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At the time, executions in France were carried out in various ways that often required specific skills to complete successfully, and that were frequently drawn out and incredibly painful. For instance, there was the so-called “breaking wheel” or “Catherine wheel,” which King Louis banned after accepting Guillotin’s proposal that all executions be carried out via decapitation “by means of a simple mechanism.”

Guillotin did not have a design in mind himself, but it wasn’t long before one was conceived by a committee formed under Antoine Louis, physician to the king. Antoine Louis is credited with designing the prototype for the first guillotine, and employing a German harpsichord maker named Tobias Schmidt to actually build it. According to the country’s royal executioner, Charles-Henri Sanson, it was King Louis himself who recommended the device’s immediately-identifiable angled blade, rather than a crescent, the argument being that a crescent blade might not cut through all necks as evenly.

invention of the guillotine
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  • Joseph-Ignace Guillotin.

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Though he proposed the device that eventually came to be named after him, Guillotin did not invent it, and for a short time after its conception the device was actually known as a “louisette” after Antoine Louis, its designer. It didn’t take long for Guillotin’s name to become attached to the device, however, and give us the guillotine we know today.

The first head to fall before the newly invented blade was that of a highwayman by the name of Nicolas Jacques Pelletier, who was executed in April of 1792 in front of what is now the city hall of Paris. Pelletier had been captured and sentenced some months earlier, but because decapitation by the new mechanism was now the only legal means of execution, he had to wait while the first guillotine was being constructed.

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When the appointed day arrived, such a crowd was expected that soldiers of the National Guardsmen were called upon to preserve order. For the crowd that gathered, however, the sight proved to be anticlimactic. Pelletier’s decapitation took only seconds, and the crowd was said to have found the whole thing too “clinically effective,” and to have even chanted, “Bring back our wooden gallows!”

Despite that, the guillotine became the de facto and only legal means of execution in France. It remained that way until 1981, when the nation abolished the death penalty. The last person to die by guillotine in France was convicted murderer Hamida Djandoubi in 1977. He was the last person to be executed in Western Europe, and the last person to be legally slain by beheading in the Western world.

Between the guillotine’s invention and 1981, however, the device saw its most strenuous use during the so-called Reign of Terror, which lasted from around 1793 to 1794, near the end of the French Revolution. During this time, as many as 17,000 people were guillotined, including King Louis XVI, who allegedly helped design the device that took his life, and Queen Marie Antoinette. Most of these executions took place in what is today the Place de la Concorde and was then the Place de la Revolution, one of the largest public squares in Paris.

These executions were attended by throngs of citizens, with vendors selling programs listing the names of the condemned. But the ideals which had been behind the original design of the device weren’t lost on the revolutionaries. For many, the guillotine represented the very ideals their revolution had been built upon: equality before the law.

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In the Old Regime which had preceded the revolution, nobles and commoners were subject to different forms of execution, just as they were treated differently by the law overall. With the guillotine, there was one justice for everyone, noble and commoner alike. Meanwhile, the public nature of the executions was intended to showcase the transparency of revolutionary justice.

For royalists and opponents of the revolution, the guillotine was equally a symbol of the Terror itself. A machine of death designed to spill blood and end lives while absolving the people dropping the blade of any bad feelings. The bloodthirst of the revolutionaries given physical form. For both sides, it became a symbol, as much as a tool.

robespierre's death
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  • Engraving of Maximilien Robespierre's death by Giacomo Aliprandi, c. 1799.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The first person guillotined for his political views as part of the Reign of Terror was a royalist by the name of Louis Collenot d’Angremont. By the end of 1794, thousands had died at the blade of the device, including many leaders of the revolution themselves, among them such architects of the revolution as Georges Danton and Maximilien Robespierre.

Even after the Reign of Terror had drawn to a close, public executions via guillotine continued in France until 1939, when executions were moved to a private courtyard within prison walls. From the time of its invention, however, the guillotine was a subject of controversy, and not just because of its political associations and symbolism.

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While earlier methods of execution had not been subject to such scrutiny, the guillotine’s expressly humane intent put it under a more intense microscope, with many opponents suggesting that the mechanism’s delivery of the killing blow was not as quick nor painless as Guillotin had in mind. Questions arose, including whether the severed head retained consciousness for a short time after being parted from the body. 

In 1905, a Dr. Beaurieux observed the execution of Henri Languille by guillotine, after which time he “called out” to the head the deceased’s name and, according to his own notes, got a response. “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,” Beaurieux wrote. “I was dealing with undeniably living eyes which were looking at me.”