Guillotine: History Of The French Invention That Made Death Into Theater

By Grace Taylor
The Execution of Louis XVI in the Place de la Revolution on January 21, 1793. (Getty Images)

Today marks the 228th anniversary of the guillotine, which sliced its way onto the capital punishment scene on April 25, 1792 with the execution of French criminal Nicolas Jacques Pelletier. The deadly apparatus was originally devised a few years earlier by a doctor, surprisingly enough, by the name of Joseph-Ignace Guillotin. Although it sounds counterintuitive, Guillotin actually invented the murder machine to offer a more humane form of death to those sentenced, and it's hard to say he didn't succeed. At the time, the method of choice was drawing and quartering, in which the condemned is hanged, dragging by a horse, disemboweled, and dismembered. The swift chop of the guillotine is a paper cut in comparison.

With a heavy blade and straps to keep the victim still, the guillotine was also much more effective and dependable than the typical beheading by sword since it didn’t rely either strength or aim to behead the unfortunate prisoner. Unlike hanging, death by guillotine was thought to be both immediate (at least, as immediate as possible—more on that shortly) and painless.