During The Reign of Terror many thousand would be given an appointment with Madame Guillotine, perhaps the major icon of the French Revolution. But an automated device to behead a convicted criminal had been used for centuries before the Revolution – and it did not originate in France.
Perhaps the first to ‘enjoy’ broad usage was the Halifax Gibbet from Yorkshire, England. It was in use from 1280 to 1650 not just in Halifax but in perhaps a hundred locations around the county. A derivative of this device was developed later as the Scottish Maiden.
In 1307 in Ireland an individual called Murcod Ballagh about whom little is known was depicted being beheaded by a device very similar to that used in France. An Italian noblewoman, Beatrice Cenci, was apparently sexually assaulted by her father. She and her family members first tried to drug her father then when that failed bludgeoned him to death. Beatrice’s case caused a great deal of attention with pleas to the Pope to pardon her, but she and others of her family were executed in 1599, she was beheaded by the Mannaia a guillotine-like device. Her legend was continued by artists, playwrights and poets; including Percy Bysshe Shelley
During the 18th century France used many different forms of execution including public burning and hanging. Notorious criminals would often be hung, drawn and quartered ‘pour encourager les autres’. Noble people were however usually afforded a beheading by sword or axe, though this regularly required several blows.
Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire questioned the current approach and called for more humane approaches to be adopted. In October 1789 Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a doctor, proposed six articles for reforming the approach to capital punishment.
His proposal was to adopt a common approach for all and for this to be by beheading by a device. He also proposed that no opprobrium or blame should pass to family members, that property should not be forfeit. Finally he suggested that if requested the body should be passed back to the family for burial. Discussions proceeded for two years until the death penalty was formally retained.
A committee was formed to investigate his proposal, Guillotin was a member. They reviewed the Halifax Gibbet, the Scottish Maiden and the Italian Mannaia. They employed a German engineer to create a prototype; he was also a harpsichord maker. After much discussion of the shape of the blade the German designer opted for a straight blade set at a 45-degree angle.
It was put to test on animals and then used on three large corpses to test its efficacy. Their tests led to some proposed modification that included trays to catch blood and the head.
Its first live human application was on a highwayman in the place de l’Hôtel de Ville in Paris during April 1792. From then on all those sentenced to death were killed in this manner. The device was later moved to the place du Carrousel. Though Dr Guillotin had only contributed his six proposed legal articles it subsequently became known as La Guillotine, though there is no explanation I can find for the ‘e’ added to the end of his name.
Devices were built in each département and their usage defined so that the approach would be common throughout France. It was soon exported to French colonial territories too. It was also adopted in Belgium, Germany, Greece, Switzerland and Sweden.
The Committee of Public Safety made clear that anyone who threatened the Republic my words, writing or action should be arrested and executed. In the seven years from 1792 to 1799 the Guillotine despatched between 15,000 and 40,000 individuals from all classes of the population.
The guillotine remained the sole legal means of execution in France. The last public execution in France was in 1939. Nazi Europe despatched more individuals by guillotine than had taken place during the Terror. In France executions were performed in private until 1977; the death penalty was abolished in 1981. Military executions more often used a firing squad.