21 Facts About the Guillotine in the 1700s

Not the Guillotine but the Halifax Gibbet
Halifax Gibbet, Early Example of a Decapitating Machine, Courtesy of Wikipedia

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-Ignance 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.

Charles Henri Sanson, Courtesy of Wikipedia
Charles-Henri Sanson, Courtesy of Wikipedia
  1. 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.
  2. Initially, the guillotine was not a permanent structure. Rather it was erected early in the morning and disassembled after executions.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Before the first execution by guillotine occurred, Sanson tried it out on several dead bodies.
  6. The first person executed by the guillotine was Nicolas-Jacques Pelletier. Pelletier was a highwayman convicted of murder and robbery. His execution occurred on 25 April 1792 at 3:30pm. Pelletier 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!”
  7. 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.
  8. 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).
  9. 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.
  10. Nicknames for the guillotine included the “national razor” or “Madame Guillotine.”
  11. Pierre Gaspard Chaumette, Courtesy of Wikipedia
    Pierre Gaspard Chaumette, Courtesy of Wikipedia
    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.
  12. 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).
  13. 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.
  14. During the French Revolution it is has been estimated between 10,000 to 40,000 people were executed by guillotine.
  15. Anne Leclerc was the first female victim of the guillotine. She was executed on 3 July 1792 for having received stolen goods.
  16. One complaint about the guillotine was that after executions, pools of blood would remain and dogs would come to lap up the blood.
  17. 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.”
  18. The youngest victim of the guillotine was 14 years old.
  19. During the Reign of Terror lists were published ahead of time about those slated to die by guillotine. 
  20. Charlotte Corday, Courtesy of Wikipedia
    Charlotte Corday, Courtesy of Wikipedia
    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.” 
  21.  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, “after 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!”

References:

  • Abbott, Geoffrey, Execution, 2012
  • All the Year Round, 1876
  • Croker, John Wilson, History of the Guillotine, 1853
  • Chambers Journal, Volumes 1-2, 1844
  • The London Quarterly Review, 1843
  • The London Quarterly Review, Volumes 73-74, 1844

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