Some of the executioner’s interesting tools of the 1700 and 1800s were the axe and block, sword, wheel, gallows, and the guillotine. The axe was one of the first tools used by English executioners and was originally called the “heading axe.” One of these axes displayed at the Tower of London had a convex blade that was 16-½-inches long, black, and rough. It weighed nearly 8 pounds and possessed an overall length of 36 inches. A more in-depth description of the heading axe states:
“The execution axe itself was not unlike the battleaxes used in combat which, far from being finely honed and balanced weapons, were designed solely to batter through armour and cleave through helmets. Likewise, the ‘heading axe’ … was little more than a blunt, primitive chopper which crushed its way through the flesh and vertebrae of the victim as he, or she, knelt over the block.”
Beheading someone with an axe was not easy. The axe twisted and turned as it fell from the executioner’s hands, thereby crushing the condemned person’s vertebrae rather than creating a clean cut. Mistakes were also bound to happen, and it was exhausting work that required executioners to be in shape, particularly if they had to do several beheadings in a row.
Besides the axe, the success of an executioner’s cut was also determined by the block where the condemned person’s head rested. For executioners to achieve a proper beheading, they had to ensure that the block would not topple over. Therefore, it was determined that the block needed to be the right size, shape and weight. Thus, the ideal block was soon designed:
“Rectangular in shape and wide enough to support the kneeling victim, it stood about two feet high, though some were lower, forcing the condemned person to lie down in an undignified position. Midway along each of the longer sides, at the upper edges, the wood was scooped out, wider at one side of the block than the other, so that the victim could push his or her shoulders in as far as possible. This positioned the throat, and therefore the neck, immediately above the flat area between the two hollows, with the chin resting in the narrower scoop and the head poised above the waiting basket of sawdust.”
In England, the last live execution with an axe occurred in 1735 and was accomplished by the hangman John Thrift, but the last beheading with an axe after death occurred in 1820. That infamous privilege went to the Cato Street Conspirators, led by Arthur Thistlewood who had plotted to murder all the British cabinet ministers and Prime Minister Lord Liverpool. The sentence of beheading was carried out by some unknown individual wearing a black mask. Each body was lowered individually and decapitated with a small knife as the person’s head rested on an angled block.
Beheadings were also accomplished by swords, and those used to accomplish these executions were specifically designed for decapitation and were intended for two-handed use by executioners. They had no point and were like a one-handed sword, the cross-guards or quillions were short and the pommel was often pear-shaped or faceted. An executioner’s sword was also often decorated on the blade with some sort of design, such as instruments of torture, moralistic inscriptions, or symbols of judicial power.
The proponent of France’s guillotine, Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, stated the following when talking about executions performed with swords:
“In order to accomplish the execution in accordance with the intention of the law it is necessary, even without any opposition on the part of the prisoner, that the executioner should be very skillful and the condemned man very steady, otherwise it would be impossible to accomplish an execution with the sword. After each execution the sword is no longer in a condition to perform another, being likely to break in two; it is absolutely necessary that it should be ground and sharpened afresh if there be several prisoners to execute at the same time. It would be needful therefore to have a sufficient number of swords all ready … It must also be taken into account that, when there are several condemned persons to be executed at the same time, the terror produced by this method of execution … creates fear and weakness in the hearts of those who are waiting to die. An attack of faintness forms an invincible obstacle to an execution. If prisoners cannot hold themselves up … the execution becomes a struggle and a massacre”.
Swords had been used for beheadings throughout the seventeenth century, but they suddenly fell out of use in the eighteenth century. The last sword execution in England occurred in 1747 to Simon Lord Lovatt. Throughout Europe, sword executions continued for some time as the last sword executions in Europe happened in Switzerland in 1867 and 1868, when Niklaus Emmenegger in Lucerne and Héli Freymond in Moudon were respectively beheaded for murder.
Another means of public execution was being broken on the wheel, and the last known execution of this type happened in Prussia in 1841. Being broken on the wheel was considered a torturous way to die because the primary goal was to mutilate or break a person’s bones rather than cause immediate death. The wheel used throughout most of Europe to achieve this punishment was typically a large wooden spoked wheel, like the ones used on carts or carriages, although they were also sometimes modified.
Executioners usually started with the condemned person’s legs and moved to the arms. To increase the pain, sharp-edged timbers were placed under a prisoner’s joints. After the body was broken, the broken limbs could then be easily braided or threaded into another wooden spoked wheel. The executioner could then, if desired, decapitate or garrote the prisoner. Those condemned to this form of execution often suffered intense pain for hours or even days before they died, and after their death, their body was usually left on the wheel to decay or to be scavenged by animals or birds.
In France, the condemned were placed on a cartwheel with their limbs stretched out along the spokes over two sturdy wooden beams. The wheel was made to revolve slowly, and a large hammer or an iron bar was then applied to the limb over the gap between the beams, breaking the bones. This process was repeated several times per limb. Blows known as coups de grâce (blows of mercy) caused the fatal injuries, and were often welcomed because without those, a condemned prisoner might suffer unmercifully before dying of shock or dehydration. (If you are interested in learning more about this type of execution in France, here is an eyewitnesses account given at an execution in Paris in in 1788.)
Another well-known tool of the executioner was the gallows, and those eligible for it in England included anyone who committed such crimes as theft, shoplifting, or stealing sheep, cattle, and horses. In England, “until 1571 gallows were quite basic, consisting of two uprights and a cross-piece, but on 1 June of that year a much improved design was introduced. This was the Triple Tree which, having three uprights and cross-beams, could accommodate up to twenty-four occupants simultaneously.”
For many years when a person was hanged, the person was placed on a ladder or horse. When the ladder or horse was removed the condemned person strangled as they dangled. Later scaffolds were supplied with trapped doors so that when a prisoner dropped, he or she died quickly from a broken neck rather than strangulation. The “New Drop” gallows with trapped doors were first used in 1783 at London’s Newgate Prison. Traps doors on gallows eventually varied and there were several versions of them, which William Marwood an English executioner for eleven years (from 1872 to 1883), noted when he stated:
“[T]here’s the single trap, the double trap, and the side trap, and the stage trap; but the double trap’s far and away the best of the lot, provided there is plenty of fall down below. The side trap’s what they’ve got at Manchester, where the whole thing lets down from the side of the wall, and we all stand on a sort of hanging platform. He, you know, stands on the edge, which gives way from under his feet when I pull the bolt. It’s much the same with the single trap; only that’s fixed over a kind of well. So’s the stage trap, where the man stands on a platform which slides down straight under his feet. It might clog and catch, and that’s why I don’t like it. But the double trap’s what I like best. There the man stands upon a platform in two halves, which are kept in their place by bolts. I withdraw these bolts by one turn of a lever; the divisions open all at once, falling away to either side, and he drops through.”
Executioners using the gallows also began to consider such things as the drop. The standard drop involved a drop between 4 to 6 feet and came into use in 1866. It was replaced with the long drop in 1872 that relied on the condemned person’s weight and height to determine how much slack was needed in the rope, thereby causing the executioner to consider careful placement of the noose’s knot so that the condemned person’s neck was broken and not decapitated.
The executioner also needed a rope for the gallows, which he was obliged to purchase himself. He usually carried it from gaol to gaol or from execution to execution in a small black bag. James Berry, an English executioner of the late 1800s, talked of the type of ropes he used stating:
“Instead of using a manilla hemp rope of varying thickness as Marwood did, I use one made of Italian silk, a little over five-eights of an inch in diameter, while the ring on any rope I use is but half the size of that used by Marwood. Another idea of mine, and one which prevents all chance of the rope catching in the culprit’s arm, is tying with thread the slack of the rope in a coil just under the beam. It also has a swivel attached to the rope, which takes any twists out of it that may occur, and allows the body when it descends to remain quite stationary.”
Another infamous tool of the executioner was the guillotine that appeared in the late 1700s. It was initially called a Louison or Louisette after the secretary of the College of Surgeons named Antoine Louis as he designed the prototype and presided over its construction.. However, after Dr. Guillotin became a supporter of it and said, “Now, with my machine, I cut off your head in the twinkling of an eye, and you never feel it!” his statement 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.
The guillotine officially dispatched its first victim, a French highwayman named Nicolas Jacques Pelletier, in Paris on 25 April 1792. It was a tall device in an upright frame with a weighted and angled blade suspended from the top. The condemned person was positioned so that his or her neck was directly beneath the blade, and, when the blade was released, it fell quickly and forcefully, thereby decapitating the victim with a single stroke. It also caused the person’s severed head to fall into what was termed the “family picnic basket.”
Beheading machines, such as the Halifax, had long predated the guillotine, but for various reasons they were never as popular as the guillotine and fell out of use. The Halifax was a wooden structure mounted on a large square platform. It consisted of two six-inch wooden uprights, secured by a horizontal beam, 15 feet high with blade at the top. The blade ran down inch-deep grooved channels on each upright and was weighted down by a large block of wood so that when the rope was cut, the blade fell. However, there were some important differences between the Halifax and the guillotine:
“The Halifax gibbet required the felon to kneel down, an awkward position for one who could be half-fainting with fear and on the point of collapse. The guillotine neatly solved this by having a narrow bench extending from the neck block at right angles to the uprights, and at its free end was hinged to a plank to which the victim was quickly strapped while standing facing the guillotine, the chief executioner securing his left arm, one assistant his right arm, and the other assistant his legs. This plank was then pivoted into a horizontal position, slid forward to place the victim’s neck between the two uprights, and the iron crescent was dropped into place. … Upon the release of the two ropes, the blade would fall, the severed head then dropp[ed] into a basket lined with oil-cloth.”
The description of how the guillotine operated took longer to describe than the executioner took to exact the condemned person’s punishment. When it first appeared, some people thought of it as a quick way to mete out sentences without being cruel, but there were others unhappy that the execution was over so quickly and demanded the gallows be brought back. Nevertheless, despite critics, the guillotine caught on and was soon known by numerous nicknames: the La Veuve (The Widow), Le Rasoir National (The National Razor), La Bécane (The Machine), Madame La Guillotine (Madame Guillotine), or La Cravate à Capet (Capet’s Necktie, Capet referring to Louis XVI).
Among the more well-known people beheaded by the guillotine was Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette. Other well-known figures of the eighteenth century that fell under the guillotine’s blade were Maximilien Robespierre, Georges Danton, Madame du Barry, Charlotte Corday, Antoine Quentin Fouquier-Tinville, Madame Roland, and Olympe de Gouges. During the first French Republic Giuseppe Ceracchi was guillotined by Napoleon for his role in the Conspiration des poignards, and during the restoration the Four Sergeants of La Rochelle were beheaded for treason by Louis XVIII. Guisepee Marco Fieschi was also executed in 1836 for attempting to assassinate King Louis-Philippe. In the 1890s, François Claudius Koenigstein, known as Ravachol was guillotined in 1892 for murder and anarchy and Sante Geronimo Caserio was beheaded in 1894 for assassination of president Marie François Sadi Carnot.
The close of the nineteenth century did not stop executions. Both the gallows and the guillotine were maintained into the twentieth century. The last gallows victim in Britain was a spy named Theodore Schurch who was hanged on 4 January 1946 at HM Prison Pentonville. In France, the last victim of the guillotine was Hamida Djandoubi. He was a Tunisian agricultural worker who moved to Marseille and was convicted of murderer. He was beheaded at Baumettes Prison in Marseille on 10 September 1977, making him the last person executed in Western Europe and the last person legally executed by beheading in the Western world.
Both Britain and France eventually did away with capital punishment. In 1965, Parliament passed the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act that temporarily abolished capital punishment for murder for 5 years. The Act was renewed in 1969 and thereby made the Act permanent. As to France, the guillotine remained its official method of execution until the death penalty was abolished in 1982.
-  Geoffrey Abbott, “Execution,” The New York Times, July 30, 2006
-  Geoffrey Abbott, Lords of the Scaffold (Great Britain: Eric Dobby Publishing, 1991), p. 20.
-  G. Lenotre, The Guillotine and Its Servants (London: Hutchinson & Company, 1929), p. 149.
-  G. Abbott, 29
-  Cambridge Independent press, “A Talk with the Common Hangman,” May 3, 1879, p. 3.
-  Freeman’s Journal, “The Common Hangman,” January 23, 1885, p. 5.
-  T. P. O’Connor and H. Jackson, T. P.’s Weekly v. 13 (Walbrook & Company, 1909), p. 101.
-  G. Abbott,1993, p. 83.