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Wednesday, 13 May 2015


On October 10, 1789, Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a French physician, stood before the National Assembly and proposed an apparatus designed for carrying out executions by beheading be adopted as the official means of capital punishment.

The device, a decapitation piece of equipment incorporating a vertically-descending blade was originally called a louisette. It was later named after Guillotin, however his family were unhappy at having their name attached to such a device.

Before the guillotine was adopted, executions in France were by axe or sword for the nobility and by hanging for commoners. One of the selling points for introducing the guillotine was equality - commoners could now enjoy the comparatively quick and painless death of decapitation just like the nobility, and would no longer have to endure brutal deaths such as those caused by hanging.

Guillotin was actually against the death penalty but thought that if it was imposed, "a machine that beheads painlessly" was the best way to do it.

A replica of the Halifax Gibbet, an early guillotine, or decapitating machine. By Paul Glazzard, 

While the guillotine was being prototyped, King Louis XVI of France "recommended that an oblique blade be used instead of a crescent blade, lest the blade not fit all necks". His own was "offered up discreetly as an example". He was later beheaded in 1793 during the French Revolution.

The French National Assembly approved the adoption of the guillotine as a humane method of execution for the poor on March 20, 1792.

The first guillotine was made by Antoine Louis and German harpsichord maker Tobias Schmidt.

The first execution by guillotine was performed on highwayman Nicolas Jacques Pelletier at 3.30 in the afternoon on April 25, 1792. He was beheaded in front of what is now the city hall of Paris. Pelletier was instantly decapitated, which did not please the crowd They felt it was too swift and clinical to provide proper entertainment, as compared to previous execution methods, such as hanging, death-by-sword, or breaking at the wheel.

Miniature two-foot tall guillotine toys that decapitated dolls were popular with children during the French Revolution.

Estimates of the number of people guillotined during the French Revolution vary between 20,000 and over 40,000.

Marie Antoinette's execution on October 16, 1793

After Charlotte Corday was executed by guillotine on July 17, 1793, a man named Legros lifted her head and slapped it on the cheeks. An expression of "unequivocal indignation" then appeared on Corday's face suggesting that victims of the guillotine may retain consciousness for a short while.

The last public guillotining in France was of Eugen Weidmann, who was convicted of six murders. He was beheaded on June 17, 1939 in Versailles outside the Saint-Pierre prison. The "hysterical behaviour" by spectators was so scandalous that French president Albert Lebrun immediately banned all future public executions. Executions by guillotine continued in private until Hamida Djandoubi's execution on September 10, 1977.

The guillotine was used extensively by Nazi Germany between 1933 and 1945. As many were killed with it in Nazi Germany as were killed during the French Reign of Terror, including 10,000 people between 1944 and 1945 alone.

The murderer Claude Buffet and his accomplice Roger Bontems were the last two people to be guillotined in Paris. They were executed at La Santé Prison on November 28, 1972. Bontems had been found innocent of murder, but as Buffet's accomplice was condemned to death anyway.

Torturer-murderer Hamida Djandoubi was the last person to be guillotined in France. He was executed on September 10, 1977 in Marseilles. Djandoubi was a Tunisian agricultural worker who was sentenced to death for the torture and murder of 21-year-old Élisabeth Bousquet.

The guillotine remained the only legal method of execution until President François Mitterrand  finally abolished the death penalty in 1981.

The metal blade of a guillotine weighed about 40kg (88lb).

Sources The Independent,. Daily Express

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