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

By | April 23, 2020

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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.

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Maximilien de Robespierre dressed as deputy of the Third Estate. (Wikimedia Commons)

The guillotine couldn't have come at a better (or worse, depending on your perspective) time. It coincided with the French Revolution, so idealist revolutionaries were already pretty psyched to punish the nobles who had starved and oppressed them for centuries. On January 21, 1793, King Louis XVI of France was executed by guillotine, and his wife, Queen Marie Antoinette, would suffer the same fate just nine months later. Many nobles were soon to follow.

Originally, the guillotine stood for some level of equality, as all classes died the same way. However, what may have once been the vigor of revolutionary spirit quickly devolved into bloodlust. The theatrical flair of the guillotine drew huge crowds, and justice became entertainment. Children even began making tiny guillotine toys.

The vengeful fever that had swept France suited fundamentalist revolutionaries like Maximilien Robespierre, who took power in the chaos. Robespierre was a strict moralist with a fanatical commitment to the core ideals of the Revolution, but while many people initially looked up to him as a man of strength, they would soon regret his rise to power. In 1793, Robespierre—alongside the ironically named Committee of Public Safety—ushered in a Reign of Terror that would see over 40,000 citizens die in just one year. Over 16,000 of the Terror's casualties were formally executed by guillotine.