Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Off With Their Heads

The guillotine. 

Most people know a handful of things about this particular device, mostly (I'm guessing) because of its shock value. It's not exactly something one encounters every day.

Most people are able to confidently tell you that: 

1)  It got its name from its inventor, Mr. Guillotine.

2) It's how the French killed people during the French Revolution, after which it fell out of used because of its Revolution connections. 

Well, zero out of two isn't too bad... 

 It got its name from the its inventor, Mr. Guillotine.

There's some argument over who deserves the credit for inventing the guillotine, but it's certain that "Mr. Guillotine" himself didn't invent it . There were guillotine-like devices in England as early as the 1200s -- called the Halifax Gibbet.We don't know who invented it, but we do know that there were 94 of them in England in 1278.[*]

How, then, did it end up with then name guillotine? Politics.There was, in fact, no man named "Guillotine", but there was a Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin. Dr. Guillotin proposed the use of decapitation done via machine for executions as opposed to the methods of the time such as decapitation-via-axe or sword (which varied in duration by the skill of the executioner), hanging,  burning, or being quartered (tying the victim to four horses and forcing these to gallop in different directions).  As a general rule, the richer and more powerful you were, the less agonizing death you got. Dr Guillotin proposed leveling the playing field, and that all executed persons were to have as painless of death as possible -- he also petitioned that the execution happen in private and no longer be a public spectacle.

You can see how well that last bit worked.  

Dr. Guillotin also proposed that other reforms, such as a national standardization in punishments for crimes, respectful treatment of the criminals family, property rights of the condemned, and the return of the condemned's body to the family for burial instead of being displayed as a deterrent to other would-be-criminals. 

Execution of King Louis XVI (Citoyen Louis Capet)

It's how the French killed people during the French Revolution, after which it fell out of used because of its Revolution connections.

The French executed a lot of people during the French Revolution. How many? We're not really sure, they didn't keep very good records. At least 16,594 people were executed by guillotine alone.[**] But after the end of the Revolution they certainly didn't stop using the guillotine. Now that it was known to work so well, it was kept in use well into the 20th century. France's last execution via guillotine was in 1977. It was the legal form of execution until France abolished the death penalty, in 1981. [***] (Link is in French)

Though Dr. Guillotin finally got his wish. Guillotine executions were made private and away from the public .... in 1939. They put an end to public executions because people were showing up and filming them (trigger warning: that is a link to the video of the 1939 execution of Eugen Weidmann via guillotine).  To add emphasis on how recent this was, Sir Christopher Lee was present at this execution. He was 17.

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