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The guillotine

The guillotine

The guillotine is a device used for carrying out executions by decapitation. It consists of a tall upright frame from which an angled blade is suspended. This blade is raised with a rope and then allowed to drop, severing the head from the body. The device is noted for long being the main method of execution in France and, more particularly, for its use during the French Revolution, when it "became a part of popular culture, celebrated as the people's avenger by supporters of the Revolution and vilified as the pre-eminent symbol of the Reign of Terror by opponents." Nevertheless, the guillotine continued to be used long after the French Revolution in several countries, including France, where it was the sole method of execution until the abolition of capital punishment in 1981.

On 10 October 1789, Doctor Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a French physician, stood before the National Assembly and proposed the following six articles in favour of the reformation of capital punishment:

· Article 1: All offenses of the same kind will be punished by the same type of punishment irrespective of the rank of status of the guilty party.

· Article 2: Whenever the Law imposes the death penalty, irrespective of the nature of the offense, the punishment shall be the same: decapitation, effected by means of a simple mechanism.

· Article 3: The punishment of the guilty party shall not bring discredit upon or discrimination against his family.

· Article 4: No one shall reproach a citizen with any punishment imposed on one of his relatives. Such offenders shall be publicly reprimanded by a judge.

· Article 5: The condemned person's property shall not be confiscated.

· Article 6: At the request of the family, the corpse of the condemned man shall be returned to them for burial and no reference to the nature of death shall be registered.

Sensing the growing discontent, Louis XVI banned the use of the breaking wheel. In 1791, as the French Revolution progressed, the National Assembly researched a new method to be used on all condemned people regardless of class. Their concerns contributed to the idea that capital punishment's purpose was simply the ending of life instead of the infliction of pain.

A committee was formed under Antoine Louis, physician to the King and Secretary to the Academy of Surgery. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, was also on the committee. The group was influenced by the Italian Mannaia (or Mannaja), the Scottish Maiden and the Halifax Gibbet. While these prior instruments usually crushed the neck or used blunt force to take off a head, devices also usually used a crescent blade and a lunette (a hinged two part yoke to immobilize the victim's neck).

Laquiante, an officer of the Strasbourg criminal court, made a design for a beheading machine and employed Tobias Schmidt, a German engineer and harpsichord maker, to construct a prototype. Antoine Louis is also credited with the design of the prototype. An apocryphal story claims that King Louis XVI (an amateur locksmith) recommended a triangular blade with a beveled edge be used instead of a crescent blade, but it was Schmidt who suggested placing the blade at an oblique 45-degree angle and changing it from the curved blade. The first execution by guillotine was performed on highwayman Nicolas Jacques Pelletier on 25 April 1792.

The basis for the machine's success was the belief that it was a humane form of execution, contrasting with the methods used in pre-revolutionary, Ancien Régime France. In France, before the guillotine, members of the nobility were beheaded with a sword or axe (which typically took at least two blows before killing the condemned), while commoners were usually hanged, a form of death that could take minutes or longer. Other more gruesome methods of executions were also used, such as the wheel or burning at the stake. In the case of decapitation, it also sometimes took repeated blows to sever the head completely, and it was also very likely for the condemned to slowly bleed to death before the head could be fully severed. The condemned or the family of the condemned would sometimes pay the executioner to ensure that the blade was sharp in order to provide for a quick and relatively painless death.

The guillotine was thus perceived to deliver an immediate death without risk of suffocation. Furthermore, having only one method of civil execution was seen as an expression of equality among citizens. The guillotine was then the only civil legal execution method in France until the abolition of the death penalty in 1981, apart from certain crimes against the security of the state, or for the death sentences passed by military courts, which entailed execution by firing squad.

The period from June 1793 to July 1794 in France is known as the Reign of Terror or simply "the Terror". The upheaval following the overthrow of the monarchy, invasion by foreign monarchist powers and the Revolt in the Vendée combined to throw the nation into chaos and the government into frenzied paranoia. Most of the democratic reforms of the revolution were suspended and large-scale executions by guillotine began. The first political prisoner to be executed was Collenot d'Angremont of the National Guard, followed soon after by the King's trusted collaborator in his ill-fated attempt to moderate the Revolution, Arnaud de Laporte, both in 1792. Former King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette were executed in 1793. Maximilien Robespierre became one of the most powerful men in the government, and the figure most associated with the Terror. The Revolutionary Tribunal sentenced thousands to the guillotine. Nobility and commoners, intellectuals, politicians and prostitutes, all were liable to be executed on little or no grounds; suspicion of "crimes against liberty" was enough to earn one an appointment with "Madame Guillotine" or "The National Razor". Estimates of the death toll range between 16,000 and 40,000.

At this time, Paris executions were carried out in the Place de la Revolution (former Place Louis XV and current Place de la Concorde); the guillotine stood in the corner near the Hôtel Crillon where the statue of Brest can be found today.

For a time, executions by guillotine were a popular entertainment that attracted great crowds of spectators. Vendors would sell programs listing the names of those scheduled to die. Many people would come day after day and vie for the best locations from which to observe the proceedings; knitting female citizens (tricoteuses) formed a cadre of hardcore regulars, inciting the crowd as a kind of anachronistic cheerleaders. Parents would bring their children. By the end of the Terror, the crowds had thinned drastically. Excessive repetition had staled even this most grisly of entertainments, and audiences grew bored. Eventually, the National Convention had enough of the Terror, partially fearing for their own lives, and turned against Maximilien Robespierre. In July 1794, he was arrested and executed in the same fashion as those whom he had condemned. This arguably ended the Terror, as the French expressed their discontent with Robespierre's policy by guillotining him.


Comoren Islands, 1989, Dr. Guillotin and Guillotine

Virgin Islands, 1970, «A Tale of Two Cities»

Great Britain, 2012.06.19, London. A Tale of Two Cities

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