the guillotine's fame dates from its extensive use during the Reign
of Terror of the French Revolution, the first guillotine-like instrument
was used as early as 1307. It may have been used earlier but the
first solid evidence is its use in Ireland in 1307. It was not used
much until it became the official instrument of execution for the
French revolution. It was named for Dr. Louis Guillotin, who proposed
that such a machine be used for official executions. It was actually
constructed by others, though his name was forever associated with
was adopted because it was an egalitarian and humanitarian form
of capital punishment. Previously the form of execution depended
in part on a person's class. A noble might merit a quick blow from
the headsman's axe (the custom was to offer a tip to the executioner
to ensure a swift death), but if you were a commoner, you might
suffer the torture of a drawing and quartering or some equally painful
official executioner of the French Revolution, Charles-Louis Sanson,
said on April 25, 1792:
the machine invented for the purpose of decapitating criminals
sentenced to death will be put to work for the first time. Relative
to the methods of execution practised heretofore, this machine
has several advantages. It is less repugnant: no man's hands will
be tainted with the blood of his fellow being, and the worst of
the ordeal for the condemned man will be his own fear of death,
a fear more painful to him than the stroke which deprives him
have speculated that these very virtues made it easier and more
efficient to use it as an instrument to kill in large numbers. Would
Maximilien Robespierre and his followers have been so quick to remove
those citizens who failed to measure up in order to create his perfect
"republic of virtue" if it were not so efficient and humane?
It certainly would have been more difficult.
spite of its efficiency, an execution by guillotine was still a
sickening spectacle. When the head was severed, blood poured from
the body as the heart continued to pump. When it was used frequently
(as it was during the revolution), the stench from the place of
execution was horrible. There is also some evidence to suggest that
the head retained some life for a moment after the head was severed
and so the death might not be as quick as has been supposed.
the guillotine is most closely associated with the French, the Nazis
guillotined more people than were killed during the French Revolution.
Hitler considered it a demeaning form of punishment and used it
for political executions. 20,000 had a date with Madame la Guillotine
in 1942 and 1943.
last use of the guillotine was in 1977. Capital punishment has been
abolished in France.
an interesting look at the mechanism of the guillotine check out
to the French Revolution
to the Reign of Terror