From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"The defining image of the moment was provided by an iconic ink sketch by Félix Vallotton for the Revue Blanche, which depicted Ravachol in a muscular refusal to submit to his tormenters, his hair wild and eyes staring, white shirt stripped from his shoulders as the prison guards force his straining neck down towards the board of the guillotine: the anarchists’ answer to a meek Jesus stumbling under the weight of his cross, on the way to Calvary."--The World That Never Was (2010) by Alex Butterworth
The guillotine is a device used for carrying out executions by decapitation. It consists of a tall upright frame from which is suspended a heavy blade. This blade is raised with a rope and then allowed to drop, severing the victim's head. The device is noted for long being the main method of execution in France and, more particularly, for its use during the French Revolution.
Sensing the growing discontent, Louis XVI banned the use of the breaking wheel. In 1791, as the French Revolution progressed, the National Assembly researched a new method to be used on all condemned people regardless of class. Their concerns contributed to the idea that capital punishment's purpose was the ending of life instead of the infliction of pain.
A committee was formed under Antoine Louis, physician to the King and Secretary to the Academy of Surgery. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a professor of anatomy at the facility of medicine in Paris, was also on the committee. The group was influenced by the Italian Mannaia (or Mannaja), the Scottish Maiden, and the Halifax Gibbet. While these prior instruments usually crushed the neck or used blunt force to take off a head, device also usually used a crescent blade and a lunette (a hinged two part yoke to immobilize the victim's neck).
Laquiante, an officer of the Strasbourg criminal court, made a design for a beheading machine and employed Tobias Schmidt, a German engineer and harpsichord maker, to construct a prototype. Antoine Louis is also credited with the design of the prototype. An apocryphal story claims that King Louis XVI (an amateur locksmith) recommended a triangular blade with a beveled edge be used instead of a crescent blade, but it was Schmidt who suggested placing the blade at an oblique 45-degree angle and changing it from the curved blade. The first execution-by-guillotine was performed on highwayman Nicolas Jacques Pelletier on April 25, 1792.
The basis for the machine's success was the belief that it was a humane form of execution, contrasting with the methods used in pre-revolutionary, Ancien Régime France. In France, before the guillotine, members of the nobility were beheaded with a sword or axe, while commoners were usually hanged, a form of death that could take minutes or longer. Other more gruesome methods of executions were also used, such as the wheel, burning at the stake, etc. In the case of decapitation, it also sometimes took repeated blows to sever the head completely, and it was also very likely for the condemned to slowly bleed to death from their wounds before the head could be severed. The condemned or the family of the condemned would sometimes pay the executioner to ensure that the blade was sharp in order to provide for a quick and relatively painless death.
The guillotine was thus perceived to deliver an immediate death without risk of suffocation. Furthermore, having only one method of execution was seen as an expression of equality among citizens. The guillotine was then the only legal execution method in France until the abolition of the death penalty in 1981
Reign of Terror
The period from June 1793 to July 1794 in France is known as the Reign of Terror or simply "the Terror". The upheaval following the overthrow of the monarchy, invasion by foreign monarchist powers and the Revolt in the Vendée combined to throw the nation into chaos and the government into frenzied paranoia. Most of the democratic reforms of the revolution were suspended and large-scale executions by guillotine began. The first political prisoner to be executed was Collenot d'Angremont of the National Guard, followed soon after by the King's trusted collaborator in his ill-fated attempt to moderate the Revolution, Arnaud de Laporte, both in 1792. Former King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette were executed in 1793. Maximilien Robespierre became one of the most powerful men in the government, and the figure most associated with the Terror. The Revolutionary Tribunal sentenced thousands to the guillotine. Nobility and commoners, intellectuals, politicians and prostitutes, all were liable to be executed on little or no grounds; suspicion of "crimes against liberty" was enough to earn one an appointment with "Madame Guillotine" (also referred to as "The National Razor"). Estimates of the death toll range between 16,000 and 40,000.
At this time, Paris executions were carried out in the Place de la Revolution (former Place Louis XV and current Place de la Concorde) (near the Louvre); the guillotine stood in the corner near the Hôtel Crillon where the statue of Brest can be found today.
For a time, executions by guillotine were a popular entertainment that attracted great crowds of spectators. Vendors would sell programs listing the names of those scheduled to die. Many people would come day after day and vie for the best seats; knitting female citizens (tricoteuses) formed a cadre of hardcore regulars, inciting the crowd as a kind of anachronistic cheerleaders. Parents would bring their children. By the end of the Terror the crowds had thinned drastically. Excessive repetition had staled even this most grisly of entertainments, and audiences grew bored.
Eventually, the National Convention had enough of the Terror, partially fearing for their own lives, and turned against Maximilien Robespierre. In July 1794 he was arrested and executed in the same fashion as those whom he had condemned. This arguably ended the Terror, as the French expressed their discontent with Robespierre's policy by guillotining him.
The last public guillotining was of Eugen Weidmann, who was convicted of six murders. He was beheaded on 17 June 1939, outside the prison Saint-Pierre rue Georges Clémenceau 5 at Versailles, which is now the Palais de Justice. The allegedly scandalous behaviour of some of the onlookers on this occasion, and an incorrect assembly of the apparatus, as well as the fact it was secretly filmed, caused the authorities to decide that executions in the future were to take place in the prison courtyard.
The guillotine remained the official method of execution in France until France abolished the death penalty in 1981. The last guillotining in France was that of torture-murderer Hamida Djandoubi on September 10, 1977.