Medieval Torture: The Guillotine

Responsible for decapitating a victim, the guillotine was a tall, upright frame that had a blade attached to a rope. The blade is raised up by the rope and then let go, so that the head became separated from the body.

Despite the origin of its name, the concept of the guillotine is much older than the common belief that it was an invention of the French people. In fact, the Scots were the first to use a smaller guillotine as a means of executing their nobles. When the French learned of its existence, they felt it would become a suitable way to not only punish their nobles, but anyone else that required discipline. As for its introduction into French culture, it was a medical professor by the name of Joseph-Ignace Guillotin that gets the credit.

When the device first arrived in the country, the French used dead bodies from the hospital as a way to test it out. In Paris, it debuted on April 4, 1792, and on the 25th day of that month, the first official execution took place. Between 1792 and 1794, the guillotine was used quite often , taking the heads off of royalty in clean strokes. On January 21, 1793, Louis XVI lost his head, which gave way to the name of “Le Louison” until in 1800, the term “guillotine” was born.

The Role of the French Revolution

The people were growing unhappy with the breaking wheel and as a result, Louis XVI banned its use. In 1791, the French Revolution encouraged the National Assembly to research a new method of execution that could be used on all people in the country without discriminating against class. They were starting to shift from the thought that capital punishment should simply end life and not inflict pain on the condemned. A committee was organized, which included Joseph-Ignace Guillotin. The guillotine was actually fashioned after other earlier devices, such as the Scottish Maiden and the Halifax Gibbet.

The Last Guillotine Execution

The guillotine quickly found a place as an effective means of execution in The Papal States, France, Scotland, and throughout the rest of Europe. The last time the guillotine was used in France was in 1977 and by 1981, it was no longer the official method of execution when the country abolished the death penalty under Mitterrand.

Throughout time, some of the most notable people to have died by the guillotine include:

Nicolas-Jacques Pelletier (1792) , officially the first executed by guillotine

Marie Antoinette (1793) , a queen

George Danton (1794) , revolutionary leader

Maximilian Robespierre (1794) , revolutionary leader

Eugene Weidmann (1939) , murdered six people