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The Guillotine: A Humane Way to Kill?


Since the early thirteenth century, engineers have worked to streamline the process of beheading.  The earliest known beheading machine was the Halifax Gibbet, found in the town of Halifax, Yorkshire, England.  The first record of its existence dates from the year 1210, though the first public record of the Gibbet executing anyone comes from 1280.  It was a simple device: two long upright poles fitted with grooves would allow a heavy wooden block to be raised on a rope and dropped by the operator.  Attached to the block was an axe which would chop off the head of the criminal below.  The Gibbet was used for the execution of petty criminals, which was defined as anyone who stole (or who confessed to having stolen) money or goods worth 13½ pence or more.  The Gibbet was used to kill over 150 thieves between 1280 and 1650, when Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell abolished capital punishment for theft.  Certainly others were executed throughout England for theft, but there was only one Gibbet.  There were similar machines elsewhere, though.  In Ireland, the singular Mercod Ballagh operated in a similar way, also for public executions, as did The Maiden, a later device modeled on the Gibbet and used in Edinburgh, Scotland, for much the same purpose.

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The reconstructed Halifax Gibbet.

Of course, the most famous execution machine was to come later.  In 1789, shortly after the outbreak of the French Revolution, someone started talking about a better way to execute people.  Capital punishment was already fairly common, but it was clear that a fast and efficient way to kill people would soon be needed.  But even those who believe in capital punishment think of themselves as civilized and humane, so the prevailing thought was that execution ought to be about ending someone’s life, and not about making them suffer.  The man who started talking about the better way of ending lives was Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a physician who believed the process should be done more humanely, even though he did not believe in the death penalty himself. Guillotin proposed his idea to the National Assembly, and the King liked the idea.  With the revolution spreading, after all, there would be a need for plenty of executions, once the people revolting against the monarchy were put down.

It was Antoine Louis, a physician to King Louis XVI and Secretary to the Academy of Surgery, who saw the idea to its realization.  Working with Laquiante, an officer of the Strasbourg criminal court, and Tobias Schmidt, a German harpsichord maker, the first prototype of the machine was built.  It wasn’t that different from the Gibbet, except that it was more efficient.  The difference was that for this new machine, the condemned person’s head was placed in a lunette, which is a two-part rig that surrounds the neck and holds the head in place.  Then a large blade would drop and take the head off in one blow.

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Some prominent early heads of the guillotine: Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, Antoine Louis, King Louis XVI

It was seen as progress for compassion.  Previously, executions were done by sword or axe, and the executor would often have to strike at someone’s neck once or twice before they actually died.  This got the whole process out of the way, and with minimal pain and suffering.  This humane bit of progress was named the louisette, in honor of King Louis.  As the French Revolution raged on, King Louis fell out of favor, and its new name came to honor Dr. Guillotin who first proposed the idea: the guillotine.  

The first execution by guillotine (or louisette, if you want,) took place in Paris on April 25, 1792.  The condemned was Nicolas Jacques Pelletier, a highwayman who’d been caught.  The execution took place in front of the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville, where all public executions were held, previously by means of the gallows.  This new method took off, serving also as a popular form of public entertainment.  Executions got to be quite common soon after, since this was around the time the Reign of Terror began, when literally thousands of loyalists to the monarchy were executed by the guillotine across France.  King Louis and Queen Marie Antoinette would be executed by guillotine the very next year—the very device their government developed..

The guillotine remained France’s preferred method of execution after the Revolution.  The last public execution by guillotine took place in 1939, where six murderers were put to death in front of a live audience.  Other prisoners were killed after that, with the last execution taking place in 1977.  The guillotine became obsolete in 1981, when France abolished capital punishment altogether.

The guillotine was used predominantly in France, but it was introduced in other countries.  It had some use in Sweden, Belgium and South Vietnam, and was used 16,500 times in Nazi Germany.  Its use persisted in West Germany until 1949, and it was used for the last time in East Germany in 1966.  The guillotine was used in Louisiana a few times, which is the only state that ever officially sanctioned it as a means of execution.  In 1996, Georgia State Representative Doug Teper tried unsuccessfully to replace the electric chair with the guillotine in his state.  In 2017, Governor Paul LePage of Maine idly proposed executing drug offenders by guillotine while giving a radio interview.  LePage has never made a serious push for this policy, but it’s clearly still on many people’s minds.  LePage is now out of office and his successor, Janet Mills, has not commented on guillotine use in her state.

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An early demonstration of the guillotine.  (Now hiring models for product demonstration!)

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