Before the guillotine, there were other beheading devices. One early one used in the town of Halifax, West Yorkshire, England, in the sixteenth century was an alternative to beheading by axe or sword and called the Halifax Gibbet. Yet, the decapitation machine that would become the most well-known was the French guillotine, named for Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin.
Interestingly, Dr. Guillotin was opposed to the death penalty and hoped it would be abolished. As that seemed unlikely, he gave a speech and proposed a decapitation machine he thought less painful and more humane. He said, “Now, with my machine, I cut off your head in the twinkling of an eye, and you never feel it!” His statement quickly became a joke and resulted in the circulation of a humorous song that thereafter tied his name to the machine and caused many people to believe he invented it.
Besides the guillotine not being the first decapitation device and Dr. Guillotin not being the inventor of the guillotine, there are 21 other interesting facts about the guillotine.
NUMBER ONE: The guillotine was initially called a Louison or Louisette after the secretary of the College of Surgeons. His name was Antoine Louis, and he presided over the construction of the machine and is credited with designing the prototype of the guillotine.
NUMBER TWO: Initially, the guillotine was not a permanent structure. Rather it was erected early in the morning and disassembled after executions.
NUMBER THREE: Louis XVI was guillotined by Charles-Henri Sanson, who was the Royal Executioner of France during the reign of King Louis XVI and High Executioner of the First French Republic.
NUMBER FOUR: Near the guillotine, severed heads tumbled into a basket before they were held up by the executioner for spectators to see. Supposedly, faces on these severed head were sometimes contorted or the eyes or mouths of the victims wide open. As to a description of the guillotine, one appeared in the Northampton Mercury in February of 1793, a few weeks after Louis XVI’s execution. Of the guillotine it was stated:
“It is in form of a painter’s easel, and about ten feet high; at four feet from the bottom is a cross bar, on which the sufferer lays his head, which is kept down by another bar placed above. In the inner edges of the frame are grooves, in which is placed a sharp axe, with a weight of lead, supported at the summit by a peg, to which is fastened a cord, which the executioner cutting, the axe falls, and beheads the prisoner. The sufferer is first tied to a plan, of about 18 inches broad and an inch thick, standing upright, fastened with cords about the arms, belly, and legs; this plank is about four feet long, and comes almost up to the chin; the executioner then lays him on his belly on the bench, lifts up the upper part of the board, which receives his neck, adjusts his head, then shuts the board, and pulls the string fastened to the peg at the top of the machine, which lifts up a catch. The axe falls down; and the head, which is off in a moment, is received in a basket ready for the purpose, as is the body in another basket.”
NUMBER FIVE: Before the first execution by guillotine occurred, Sanson tried it out on several dead bodies.
NUMBER SIX: The first person executed by the guillotine was Nicolas-Jacques Pelletier. He was a highwayman convicted of murder and robbery. His execution occurred on 25 April 1792 at 3:30pm. He was wearing a red shirt, and the guillotine, which had been prepared earlier, was draped red in color. The execution took minutes and was so efficient and effective, the assembled crowd was dissatisfied and yelled, “Bring back our wooden gallows!”
NUMBER SEVEN: Sanson’s oldest son, Gabriel, was his heir apparent and he assisted his father during executions. In 1792, however, while showing a guillotined head to the crowd, Gabriel died when he fell off the scaffolding.
NUMBER EIGHT: Initially, the guillotine was set up at the Place du Carrousel, but as the National Convention could look out its windows and see beheadings occurring, they had it moved to the Place de la Révolution (previously the Place Louis XV).
NUMBER NINE: A short time after the guillotine began to be used, it became a popular model for jewelry and ornaments for women. It also resulted in toy sellers selling a decapitation machine for children that included live sparrows.
NUMBER TEN: Supposedly, Pierre Gaspard Chaumette, a politician of the French Revolution, gave Louis XVII one of these guillotine toys a few months before he (Chaumette) died by the same instrument.
NUMBER ELEVEN: Nicknames for the guillotine included the “national razor” or “Madame Guillotine.”
NUMBER TWELVE: While Pelletier may have been the first person executed by guillotine, some of the first political victims of the guillotine were Monsieur Dangremont (a clerk in a public office alleged to have employed people who distributed Royalist publications), Monsieur La Porte (superintendent of the civil list convicted of complicity in counter-revolutionary conspiracies), and Monsieur Durosoi (editor of the Gazette de Paris and Le Royalisme, convicted of conspiracy).
NUMBER THIRTEEN: On the 27th of July 1792, the first problem with the guillotine was discovered. The blade began to fall improperly because the grooves on the side of the blade were made of wood. This was corrected by making the grooves from metal.
NUMBER FOURTEEN: During the French Revolution it is has been estimated between 10,000 to 40,000 people were executed by guillotine, including Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and Louis’ youngest sister, Madame Elisabeth.
NUMBER FIFTEEN: Anne Leclerc was the first female victim of the guillotine. She was executed on 3 July 1792 for having received stolen goods.
NUMBER SIXTEEN: One complaint about the guillotine was that after executions, pools of blood would remain and dogs would come to lap up the blood.
NUMBER SEVENTEEN: The Place de la Nation (formerly Place du Trône, subsequently Place du Trône-Renversé) was said to be the spot where the most guillotine executions occurred. Over a 49 day period, the guillotine was said to have “despatched 1270 persons of both sexes and of all ages and ranks, and it became necessary to build a kind of sanguiduct, to carry off the streams of blood.”
NUMBER EIGHTEEN: The youngest victim of the guillotine was 14 years old.
NUMBER NINETEEN: During the Reign of Terror lists were published ahead of time about those slated to die by guillotine.
NUMBER TWENTY: Spectators of guillotine executions often related stories about guillotined heads blinking, moving their eyes or mouths, or speaking. For instance, spectators reported that after Charlotte Corday was guillotined, her cheek was slapped and she blushed and “expressed the most unequivocal marks of indignation.” A Dr. Sue looked at the evidence, and he and other physicians concluded that “there does indubitably remain in the brain of a decollated head some degree (un reste) of thought, and in the nerves something of sensibility.” For more on Charlotte Corday’s head, click here.
NUMBER TWENTY-ONE: A morbid game associated with the guillotine was played by aristocrats and Royalists during the revolution. Dolls or puppets were made to resemble popular revolution leaders. Then, according to one report:
“[A]fter dinner, during dessert, a small mahogany guillotine was introduced, and wheeled along the table from guest to guest; one by one the puppets were placed under the knife, and their heads chopped off. Inside the trunk or body of the puppet was a liquid, vinous and fragrant enough to be tasteful to the palate, but blood-red; this flowed out onto the table; and the guest, including ladies, dipped their handkerchiefs into it, and applied it to their lips!”
-  “Guillotine,” in Northampton Mercury, 9 February 1793, p. 2.
-  Abbott, Geoffrey, Execution, 2012
-  Literary Museum, 1844, p. 124.
-  The London Quarterly Review, 1844, p. 147.
-  Ibid.
-  All the Year Round, Vol. 16, 1876, p. 8.