The Guillotine - 1792-1981
For Those Who Read Instruction Manuals: Before and After

The Guillotine

The French Revolution introduced many new concepts and designs. Some were kept, some were forgotten.

One of these new ideas was the guillotine, and it was definitely a keeper.

Image Above
Egte afbeelding van de guillôtine te Parys

Authentic image of the guillotine in Paris.

Print, Amsterdam (?), 1795

Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie

In fact, in France, the guillotine was in use from 1792 until 1981.

It was a great success and adopted by other European states. Even Greece and Hanover had one.


Why Was the Guillotine Invented?

The guillotine was invented to make capital punishment a humane experience, as opposed to the horrors of the tortures of the wheel or the stake, the unreliable beheading by sword, or the infamy of hanging.

But there was another revolutionary aspect to it, and that was equality of the death penalty. Beheading, usually by sword, was considered a privilege and reserved for the nobles. The average criminal was hung or worse.

With the introduction of the guillotine came the abolition of privileges on death row.


The Device

The guillotine was a device for decapitation, invented to execute capital punishment as swiftly and as neatly as possible.

The apparatus separated head from body by a heavy blade that fell down between two upright posts that were joined by a crossbeam.


Similar Instruments

Beheading had been a popular way of execution since people could carry sticks. In time, decapitation typically involved swords, axes, or hatchets of sorts.

Inventing a contraption for the purpose was the logical next step. In England, there was the Halifax Gibbet, for example.

The Halifax Gibbet - Halifax, Yorkshire
The Halifax Gibbet, Halifax, Yorkshire
Copyright Calderdale Council


What was the difference between the Halifax Gibbet and the common gibbet?

Originally, the gibbet was synonymous with gallows. Later, it referred to gallows with dead bodies of criminals hung from it in chains after execution.


In Scotland, it was The Maiden that stood proudly at Edinburgh from 1564 to 1710.

Ironically, James Douglas, who was the 4th Earl of Morton and the man who invented The Maiden, ended up on it in 1578. More irony to come.

Here is the Scottish Maid:

The Maiden - Scotland
The Maiden
National Museum of Scotland


Similar devices were developed all across Europe, for example by the Germans (who called it diele or hobel), the Dutch (who brought it to East India), the Italians (who called it mannaia), the Russians, the Poles, the Danes, etc.

It was not uncommon, however, that it took three or four attempts to finish the job. This hacking was generally undesired and to be avoided if possible.

The guillotine was different in that it made a swift and clinical cut. Welcome to advanced beheading.


Who Invented the Guillotine?

You would think the name gives it away, but the French doctor and politician Joseph Ignace Guillotin did not invent it. He only recommended to develop it.

In a nutshell, Dr. Guillotin had nothing to do with the plan, the instructions, or the construction of the instrument that carried his name.

The surgeon Antoine Louis (born 1723, died in Paris in 1792) invented the guillotine on paper. The piano maker Tobias Schmidt (also spelled Schmitt) built it.

Dr. Guillotin - Idea for the guillotine

Dr. Louis - Plan for the guillotine

Mr. Schmidt - Carpenter of the guillotine

The Idea The Plan The Works
Dr. Guillotin Dr. Louis Mr. Schmidt



First called Louisette, or Louison (after Antoine Louis), it was later nicknamed La Veuve (The Widow), Le Glaive de la Liberté (The Sword of Freedom), Le Rasoir National (The National Razor), or Sainte Guillotine.

All of these nicknames were eventually forgotten in favor of La Guillotine.


Agreeing on Equality

Dr. Guillotin (born at Saintes in 1738, died at Paris in 1814) was professor of anatomy at the University of Paris.

In 1789, Guillotin represented the Third Estate as deputy of Paris to the  Estates General, then to the National Constituent Assembly.

Joseph Ignace Guillotin 1738-1814
Joseph Ignace Guillotin 1738-1814
Copyright Académie nationale de médecine


Human rights were a big concern of the revolutionaries, at least at first, and on August 26, 1789  The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, or in French  Declaration des Droits de l'Homme et du Citoyen, was adopted by the National Constituent Assembly.

Article 8 of the Declaration read:

"La loi ne doit établir que des peines strictement et évidemment nécessaires."

In other words:

"The Law must prescribe only the punishments that are strictly and evidently necessary."


In the October 9, 1789 session of the National Constituent Assembly, Dr. Guillotin proposed that all death sentences should be carried out by beheading, regardless of the perpetrator's social state or professional rank.

Here are the minutes:

From the National Assembly

Archives parlementaires

9 octobre 1789

page 393

M. Guillotin, membre de l'Assemblée, a proposé d'ajouter aux articles décrétés les six articles qui suivent relatifs aux suppliciés (1) :

Art. 29. Les mêmes délits seront punis par le même genre de supplice, quels que soient le rang et l'état du coupable.

Art. 30. Dans tous les cas où la loi prononcera la peine de mort contre un accusé, le supplice sera le même, quelle que soit la nature du délit dont il se sera rendu coupable. Le criminel aura la tête tranchée.

Art. 31. Le crime étant personnel, le supplice d'un coupable n'imprimera aucune flétrissure à sa famille. L'honneur de ceux qui lui appartiennent ne sera nullement entaché, et tous continueront d'être également admissibles à toutes sortes de professions, d'emplois et dignités.

Art. 32. Quiconque osera reprocher à un citoyen le supplice d'un de ses proches, sera puni de . . .

Art. 33. La confiscation des biens des condamnés ne pourra jamais avoir lien, ni être prononcée en aucun cas.

Art. 34. Le corps d'un homme supplicié sera délivré à sa famille, si elle le demande; dans tous les cas, il sera admis à la sépulture ordinaire, et il ne sera fait sur le registre aucune mention du genre de mort.


At the session of December 1, 1789, Guillotin gave a long speech in which he again suggested that there should be only one kind of punishment for capital crimes. But this time, he also proposed to replace the executioner's arm with the action of a machine.

"With this machine," he explained, "I'll take off your head in the blink of an eye and you don't suffer."

The Assembly had a nervous giggle and took down his amended suggestions. Here is an excerpt:

Art. II. Dans tous les cas où la loi prononcera la peine de mort contre un accusé, le supplice sera le même, quelle que soit la nature de délit dont il se sera rendu coupable: le criminel sera décapité. Il le sera par l'effet d'un simple mécanisme.

Or in other words:

Art. II. In all cases in which the law pronounces the death penalty against a defendant, the punishment will be the same, regardless of the nature of the offense of which he is guilty: the criminal will be beheaded. It will be by means of a simple mechanism.


Guillotin's proposals were discussed right after his speech, and some felt that by using his machine, the people could get accustomed to bloodshed, whereas the use of fire or the rope would prevent that.

But it had been a long day, and Guillotin didn't have a prototype or a description of his "machine" in his pocket. So the debate got shelved for the moment.


Agreeing on Beheading

In mid-1791, the discussion to reform the Penal Code was in full swing. So far, the Assembly only decreed equality of punishment.

On June 3, 1791, the decapitation for the death penalty was demanded by Félix Le Pelletier, which was basically a repetition of Guillotin's proposition. This time, the Assembly adopted it.


On September 25, 1791, the new Penal Code was adopted.

The Penal Code

The Penal Code, or in French Code Pénal, was a set of rules governing violations and criminal responsibility. Its first version was adopted in France on September 25, 1791.

:: Background
In the second half of the 18th century appeared a current against the justice of the Ancien Régime, which implemented cruel, unorganized, and arbitrary punishments. In addition, the perpetrators received different penalties depending on their status.

In 1764, the Italian Cesare Beccaria wrote on Des délits et des peines, or On Crimes and Punishments.

Beccaria said that a sentence must be "proportionate to the offense and determined by the law," and it should not be unnecessary or cruel. He rejected torture and the death penalty.

His work was translated into French in 1765, and French philosophers were delighted.

Cesare Beccaria 1738-1794 Dei delitti e delle pene / On Crimes and Punishment
Cesare Beccaria
Dei delitti e delle pene
Crimes and Punishment


:: The New Penal Code
In September 1789, the Constituent Assembly created a Comité pour la réforme de la jurisprudence criminelle, or Committee for the reform of criminal jurisprudence, which developed a Penal Code, supplementing the law of January 21, 1790, on offenses and crimes.

The Penal Code was adopted by the deputies on September 25, 1791. Now,

same crimes were punishable by same penalties regardless of rank or status.

regardless of the nature of the offense, the death penalty will only be given in one form: by decapitation and without torture.

the crime is personal, the offender's family will not be given infamy.

heresy, magic, and suicide, for which one did a trial in memory of the deceased, all these "imaginary crimes" are done with.

The Penal Code was in effect until Napoleon made some amendments in 1810. (He gave the judge the option to rule between a minimum and a maximum sentence, for example.)

The National Constituent Assembly was the French Government until September 30, 1791. On October 1, 1791, the
Legislative Assembly, became its successor.


Agreeing on the Guillotine

The method of decapitation was not yet adopted and the death row had to wait until the administration got their paper work together.

At the end of 1791, the Legislative Assembly charged a committee with the task of studying and building a machine that cut heads.

The committee, in turn, approached Doctor Antoine Louis of the Academy de Chirurgie, asking for his recommendation on the method of beheading.

On March 7, 1792, Louis' advice was forwarded to the committee.

Bust of Antoine Louis 1723-1792
Bust of Antoine Louis 1723-1792
Copyright Académie nationale de médecine

On March 20, 1792, the Legislative Assembly rendered a decree. The new instrument was adopted.

On March 25, 1792, it was sanctioned by the King.


So far so good.

But the machine had yet to be built and perhaps perfected.

At the time had settled at Paris a German, a man from Strasbourg, now France. His name was Tobias Schmidt. A piano maker by trade, Schmidt agreed to be the carpenter Louis needed. Based on Louis' instructions, Schmidt crafted the guillotine and received 824 livres for the job.


Dress Rehearsal

The first guillotine was taken to the Bicêtre hospital and three corpses were decapitated. Apparently, some live sheep had been previously practiced upon as well.

The experiments turned out satisfactory.


The First Cut

The new instrument worked for the first time on April 25, 1792.

It was erected on the Place de Grève in Paris for the execution of a robber, Nicolas Jacques Pelletier, who had attacked a person on October 14, 1791, with several hits of the stick which resulted in the victim's death.

The first political guillotinade took place after the fall of the monarchy on August 10, 1792.

See First Terror.


The Dramatic Guillotine

Contrary to earlier concern that people could get accustomed to too much bloodshed, it was felt that the quickness of the execution and the lack of visibility took away from the demonstrative character of restorative punishment reserved for the enemies of the revolution.

Thus, the revolutionaries decided to make a show of it, a theatrical ritual with a permanent exhibition of the scaffold, slow arrival of the cart with the prisoners (usually a two-wheeled cart called the tumbrel), display of the severed head etc.

Besides the one that was installed in the market places, portable guillotines were available that could be brought into the chambers of sentenced sick offenders.

With the serial executions of the
Great Terror in June 1794, the guillotine earned its dire reputation by producing endless streams of blood, cheered by hysterical spectators.

After the Revolution of 9 Thermidor on July 27, 1794, which ended the Reign of Terror, the guillotine became a symbol of the barbaric terror of the Republic.


The Unpretentious Guillotine

Subsequently, the instrument was gradually withdrawn from the public eye, away from the center of the capital.

In 1832, it was placed at the city gates.

In 1851, before the entrance of the prison.

In 1872, the scaffold on which it was perched was abolished.

From 1939, it was only used indoors of detention places.


The End of a Performance

The guillotine was used in France well into the 20th century. But only eight executions took place between 1965 and, the last one, in 1977.

France outlawed capital punishment and abandoned the use of the guillotine on October 9, 1981. Here is the law:

Abolition of the Death Penalty in France, 1981 - PDF
Abolition of the Death Penalty in France, 1981 - PDF
9 Octobre 1981 : Abolition de la peine de mort



Famous People on the Guillotine — Chronologically

French King Louis XVI was guillotined on January 21, 1793.

Execution of King Louis XVI of France on the guillotine, Paris, 1793
Execution of King Louis XVI at Paris, 1793
Print by unknown artist
Bibliothèque nationale de France


Adam Philippe de Custine (French general) was guillotined on August 27, 1793.

Queen Marie Antoinette was guillotined on October 16, 1793.

Execution of Queen Marie-Antoinette, Paris, 1793
Execution of Queen Marie-Antoinette at Paris, 1793
Engraving by Isidore-Stanislas Helman
© Bibliothèque municipale de Versailles



Jacques Pierre Brissot (leader of the Girondins) was guillotined on October 31, 1793.

Jean Nicolas Houchard (French general) was guillotined on November 17, 1793.

Armand Louis de Gontaut, duc de Biron (French general) was guillotined on December 31, 1793.

Jacques René Hébert (main man of the sansculottes, supporter of the  Reign of Terror) was guillotined on March 24, 1794.

Georges Danton (First President of the Committee of Public Safety) was guillotined on April 5, 1794.

Camille Desmoulins (supported the storming of the bastille, the abolition of the monarchy, but dared to criticize the Committee of Public Safety) was guillotined on April 5, 1794.

Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (French chemist and tax farmer) was guillotined on May 8, 1794.

Princess Elizabeth of France (Louis XVI's baby sister) was guillotined on May 10, 1794.

Maximilien de Robespierre (major contributor of guillotine candidates) was guillotined on July 28, 1794.

Antoine Quentin Fouquier-Tinville (public prosecuter of the Revolutioanry Tribunal who put Marie-Antoinette, Brissot, Desmoulins, and Hébert on the guillotine) was guillotined on May 7, 1795.

François Noël Babeuf (communist revolutionary) was guillotined on May 27, 1797.


Voilà, the history of the guillotine.


Tiny Guillotine




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