Guillotine Invented by Doctor Joseph Guillotin?


Nursing Outtakes

The Halifax Gibbet (left) and Schmidt’s guillotine with its beveled-edged triangular blade (right)

Guillotine Invented by Doctor Joseph Guillotin?

September 2, 2018

The guillotine’s namesake, Doctor Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a French physician and secretary to the National Constituent Assembly in France, is frequently credited with the guillotine's invention. He did not invent the device, he simply proposed to the French Legislative Assembly in 1789 that what was a fairly common method of decapitation should become the sole method of execution in France. Although new to France, it wasn’t a new invention, but a refinement of a machine that had been in operation for hundreds of years before Dr. Guillotin was even born.

His proposal was partly due to the opposition to customary forms of execution, such as hanging, burning, and beheading by sword or axe (usually reserved only for the affluent, rich and powerful), which had been growing in France. The philosophies of the Enlightenment fueled the argument for a more humane approach to execution, irrespective of the social rank or status of the guilty party.

The guillotine, proffered as a “humane” decapitation machine, is a long-standing symbol of the bloody events of the French Revolution. The French National Assembly adopted the guillotine in 1791 as the main official method of execution during the revolution’s Reign of Terror (September 1793 to July 1794). It beheaded such notables as King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and Maximilien Robespierre, along with thousands of French citizens. 

The guillotine, or at least similar decapitation machines, goes back to before the French Revolution by several centuries. Records from around 1286 show that a device known as the Halifax Gibbet, similar to the guillotine, was used for executions in the marketplace of Halifax in West Yorkshire, England. A device similar to the French guillotine depicted in a sixteenth-century engraving entitled The Execution of Murcod Ballagh near to Merton in Ireland 1307. There is the Scottish Maiden, a machine modeled after the Halifax Gibbet that was used for execution from the mid-sixteenth century onward. The MannaiaIn was used in Italy; a mechanism known as a Fallbeil (falling axe) was used in many German states from the seventeenth century onward.

Dr. Guillotin described the machine like this, “This mechanism falls like thunder; the head flies off, blood spurts, the man is no more”. It was at first rejected by the Assembly but in 1791 the Assembly agreed to its use, having been persuaded that its impact in causing instant and humane death was justified, decreeing that “every person condemned to the death penalty shall have his head severed.”

Afterwards the enterprise had passed from Dr. Guillotin to Dr. Antoine Louis, secretary of the Academy of Surgeons. The first prototype was built and  tested on animals, as well as on human corpses from the Bicêtre hospital outside of Paris, by German harpsichord maker and engineer, Tobias Schmidt. The Assembly approved Schmidt’s overhauled model, which altered the curved blade of the original device to a beveled-edged triangular blade. The first execution took place on April 25, 1792, when convicted criminal Nicolas Pelletier was beheaded in the Place de Grève.

Counterparts of Schmidt’s guillotine were sent out beyond Paris to France’s new départements, and there was to be no local variation. Originally known as the louison or louisette, after Dr. Antoine Louis, the name gradually evolved into the more familiar guillotine. The gruesome image of the device fascinated Europe, creating a host of nicknames, such as “Madame Guillotine” and “the national razor.”

By 1795, more than 1,000 people in Paris alone had been beheaded, and by the end of the Revolution in 1799, some 16,000 people across France had been killed by decapitation.

During the Terror, thousands were sent to the guillotine. However, of the estimated 30,000 who died during the Terror, the vast majority were killed by other means. Many were drowned, shot, or bludgeoned to death by crowds, as happened in Lyon between December 4 and 8, 1793, where hundreds of rebels were lined up in front of open graves and shot by cannon.

Until the death penalty was abolished in France in 1981, the guillotine remained the official method of execution. The last prisoner to be executed by guillotine happened in 1977. It was the last public execution (outside what is now the Palais de Justice, near Versailles) in 1939.

The German Empire and the subsequent Weimar Republic also adopted the guillotine as an official method of execution. Adolf Hitler was a fan of the guillotine and between 1933 and 1945 about 16,500 people were executed by guillotine in Germany and Austria.

It’s commonly believed that the vast majority to fall victim to the guillotine were
members of the aristocracy. However, 85 percent of those guillotined were
commoners, with some 1,200 members of the nobility beheaded by the device.
In spite this, the guillotine became the renowned symbol of the revolution’s terror, the quick and savage merchant of justice. 

One myth is that Dr. Guillotin was himself beheaded by the machine that bears his name. Although briefly imprisoned toward the end of the Reign of Terror, he was released in 1794 after Robespierre fell from power and lived to the age of seventy-six. His family petitioned the French government to rename the guillotine, in an attempt to distance themselves from the butchery of the Terror. When the government refused, the Guillotin family changed their last name.