The guillotine is a gruesomely efficient tool of execution and a notorious symbol of the French Revolution. Nicknamed ‘France’s Razor’, over the course of the Reign of Terror between in 1793 and 1794, about 17,000 people had their heads chopped off by the guillotine’s lethal blade. Those killed included the former King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, both of whom were convicted of treason and met their ends in front of baying crowds.
The history of the killing machine is surprising. Invented by an anti-death penalty campaigner, Doctor Joseph Ignace Guillotin, the guillotine became internationally famous and was used right up to 1977. Children in revolutionary France played with guillotine toys, restaurants around execution sites fought for space and executioners became major celebrities who inspired fashion trends.
Like a bit of morbid history? Hold onto your stomachs – and necks – to learn about the invention and eventual abolition of the guillotine.
Different versions have existed for a long time
The name ‘guillotine’ dates to the French Revolution. However, similar execution machines had been in existence for centuries. A beheading device called the ‘Planke’ was used in Germany and Flanders in the Middle Ages, while the English used a ‘Halifax Gibbet’, a sliding axe, since antiquity.
It’s likely that the French guillotine was inspired by two machines: the Renaissance-era ‘mannaia’ from Italy as well as Scotland’s ‘Scottish Maiden’. There’s also some evidence that earlier guillotines had been used in France long before the French Revolution.
It was named after its inventor
The guillotine was invented by Doctor Joseph Ignace Guillotin. Elected to the French National Assembly in 1789, he belonged to a small political reform movement that advocated for the ban of the death penalty.
He argued for a painless and private capital punishment method for all classes as a step towards banning the death penalty entirely. This was because the wealthy could pay for a less painful death than the traditional breaking on the wheel or being pulled apart that was reserved for commoners.
In 1789, Guillotin got together with German engineer and harpsichord maker Tobias Schmidt. Together, they built the prototype for the decapitation machine, and in 1792, it claimed its first victim. It became known for its ruthless efficiency since it was able to decapitate its victim in well under a second.
The device quickly became known as the ‘guillotine’, with the extra ‘e’ at the end of the word being added by an unknown English poet who wanted to make the word rhyme more easily. Guillotin was horrified at his name being associated with a method of killing and tried to distance himself from the machine during the hysteria of the 1790s. Later, his family unsuccessfully petitioned the French government to change the machine’s name.
Public reactions to it were initially anticlimactic
To a public used to prolonged, painful and theatrical executions, the efficiency of the guillotine dampened the entertainment of a public execution. To anti-death penalty campaigners, this was encouraging, since they hoped that executions would cease to be a source of entertainment.
However, the sheer quantity of executions that a guillotine could process quickly turned public guillotine executions into high art. Furthermore, it was seen as the ultimate symbol of justice to those in favour of the Revolution. People flocked to the Place de la Revolution and honoured the machine in endless songs, poems and jokes. Spectators could buy souvenirs, read a program listing the names and crimes of the victims or even dine at the nearby ‘Cabaret de la Guillotine’.
During the guillotine mania in the 1790s, two-foot-tall, replica blades and timbers were a popular toy used by children to decapitate dolls or even small rodents. Novelty guillotines were even enjoyed by the upper classes as a means of slicing bread and vegetables.
Some attended guillotine executions on a daily basis, with the most famous – a group of morbid women called the ‘Tricoteuses’ – sitting beside the scaffold and knitting between beheadings. Even the condemned would add to the show, offering defiant last words, short dances up the stairs to the scaffold or sarcastic quips or songs before they were put under the blade.
Executioners who used it effectively were famous
Executioners derived fame from how quickly and precisely they could orchestrate multiple beheadings. Multiple generations of the famous – or infamous – Sanson family served as state executioners from 1792 to 1847, and were responsible for executing King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette amongst thousands of others.
The Sansons were nicknamed the ‘avengers of the people’, and their uniform of striped trousers, a three-cornered hat and a green overcoat was adopted as men’s street fashion. Women also wore tiny guillotine-shaped earrings and brooches.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, the role fell to father and son duo Louis and Anatole Deibler, whose combined tenure was between 1879 to 1939. Their names were chanted in the streets, and criminals in the underworld were tattooed with morbid phrases such as ‘my head goes to Deibler’.
The Nazis made it their state method of execution
Though the guillotine is associated with revolutionary France, many lives were claimed by the guillotine during the Third Reich. Hitler made the guillotine the state method of execution in the 1930s, with 20 machines placed across German cities ultimately executing some 16,500 people between 1933 and 1945.
In contrast, it is estimated that around 17,000 people lost their lives to the guillotine during the French Revolution.
It was used until the 1970s
The guillotine was used as France’s state method of capital punishment well into the late 20th century. Murderer Hamida Djandoubi met his end via guillotine in Marseilles in 1977. He was the last person to be executed by guillotine by any government in the world.
In September 1981, France abolished capital punishment entirely. The guillotine’s bloody reign of terror was over.