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The Guillotine... quicker than lethal injection

BASTILLE Day on July 14 has come to symbolise the French Revolution but its real symbol is the guillotine, which ended the lives of King Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette and thousands of others linked with the aristocracy in the Reign of Terror.

It was used for capital punishment in France well into the 20th century, with the last public beheading in 1939 and its last use in 1977 for the execution of convicted murderer Hamida Djandoubi. Capital punishment was not abolished until September 1981.

Always regarded as an instrument of terror, the guillotine was invented as a more humane and more egalitarian form of punishment to echo the motto of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.

Emmanuelle Broux-Foucaud, the curator of the Préfecture de Police Museum in Paris, said that until the Revolution it was thought anyone who was being punished should suffer, often horribly, to deter anyone else from committing a similar crime.

There were different punishments for different crimes and for different ranks: “If you produced false money, thus taking the King’s image in vain, you could be boiled alive. If you were poor you would probably be hanged and the hangman would pull the noose tighter and faster if you paid him more to ensure a quicker death. Execution by axe or sword was reserved for the nobility.

“The Revolution brought with it more enlightened thinkers and one, Dr Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, who was both a doctor and a member of Par­lia­ment, introduced the notion that death was punishment in itself and should be painless and rapid and that all levels of society should be executed in the same way.

“He asked for a more humane form of execution as even the axe or sword meant executioners often needed several attempts before they managed to sever the head completely.

“After the guillotine’s invention this was the only method used in France for capital punishment, other than by firing squad in the army.”

It was named after Dr Guillotin but he was horrified by his link with a killing machine and, when thousands were being killed, petitioned the government to change the name. His request was refused.

He did not invent it and the prototype was designed by another doctor, Antoine Louis, who wanted to find a way of severing the spinal column as quickly and as effectively as possible.

Louis took inspiration from cruder machines already in existence. One was the Scottish Maiden, another the Halifax Gibbet with a sliding axe and there is also evidence of a similar machine in Toulouse.

Dr Louis wanted a much taller contraption, with a heavier blade.

The préfecture’s museum has an original blade from a guillotine used during the Revolution and Mrs Broux-Foucaud said: “The guillotine was 3m high and the blade we have in the museum weighs 8.8kg, so it would fall faster and cut quicker.

“The shape of the blade was changed so that it was oblique which is more efficient at cutting through bone and tendons than an axe.

“We do not know our blade’s exact history but we know it was used during the Revolution. Workmen who put it in the museum said they had to be extremely careful as it was still very sharp and cut easily.”

The new design was made by German harpsichord maker Tobias Schmidt, who tested it on sheep.

Its first human victim was Nicolas Jacques Pelletier on April 25, 1792. He had murdered someone in a robbery.

It was not popular with the general public at first and Mrs Broux-Foucaud said: “At that time executions were one of the only forms of entertainment available to ordinary people.

“There would be food on sale, performers and a sense of festivity. People wanted a show and that was enhanced by seeing the accused meet a difficult end. It sounds barbaric, but for them this new method meant it was all over too quickly and as both head and body were neatly dispatched into baskets there wasn’t much to see.

“Executioners began to provide more entertainment by lifting the severed head and tapping the cheeks which would turn red so the crowds would think the person was still alive. But that was impossible: the colouring was solely due to residual blood flow.”

The guillotine became linked with the Reign of Terror between 1793 and 1794, which was marked by mass executions of “enemies of the revolution”.

Famous among the crowd were the ‘tricoteuses’ who gained a place in the English language with the Oxford Dictionary defining them as “women who sat and knitted while attending public executions”. They were said to spy on the crowd to see if anyone was sympathising with the victim.

Mrs Broux-Foucaud said it was estimated between 10,000 and 15,000 people died under the guillotine overseven years. “However, it was not the biggest killer: in the war in the Vendée around 180,000 died and around 35,000 were shot in massacres around the country.”

After the Revolution the guillotine continued to be used in France until 1977 and the execution of Hamida Djandoubi. It was used in other countries and in Germany it is said Hitler killed thousands by guillotine during the Second World War.

Now relegated to the history books Mrs Broux-Foucaud believes it is still the most humane form of execution: “People think of it as violent and shocking, which it is; but the paradox of the guillotine is that it was created to protect people and I think it is a quicker and less painful method than the electric chair and lethal injection still used in the world today.”

 The Musée de la Préfecture de Police ( is in Paris 5th arrondissement. Open Monday to Friday 9.30-17.00 and the third Saturday in the month 10.30-17.30 but not public holidays, entrance is free. 

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