Joseph Ignace Guillotin

Born 1738
Died 1814

Related eponyms

French physician and politician, born May 28, 1738, Saintes (Charente-Inférieure); died March 26, 1814.

Biography of Joseph Ignace Guillotin

Joseph Ignace Guillotin initially was interested in the Arts and became professor of literature at the Irisnah College at Bordeaux. Later he studied medicine at Reims where he graduated in 1768 and two years later graduated from the university of Paris. In 1784 he was appointed to the government committee to examine the exhibitions of "animal magnetism" then being undertaken by Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815) and by many considered to be an offence to public moral.

He became one of the 10 deputies of Paris in the Assemblée Constituante on May 2, 1789, and was secretary to the assembly from June 1789 to October 1791.

Guillotin belonged to a small reform movement that sought to banish the death penalty completely. On October 10th 1789 – the second day of the debate about France's penal code – Guillotin proposed six articles to the new Legislative Assembly. In one of them he proposed that "the criminal shall be decapitated; this will be done solely by means of a simple mechanism." This was defined as a "machine that beheads painlessly". This uniform method of executing was to replace the inhumane methods such as burning, mutilation, drowning, and hanging. An easy death – so to speak – was no longer to be the prerogative of nobles. Guillotin also wanted the machine to be hidden from the view of large crowds, in accord with his view that the execution should be private and dignified.

At that time, executions in France were public events held in town squares. The poor were usually hanged, but at times the entire town would gather to watch a quartering, where the prisoner's limbs were tied to four oxen and the animals were driven in four different directions. Upper-class criminals bought their way into a less painful death, usually by sword or axe. However, such traditional methods could prove messy and difficult, especially if the executioner missed or the prisoner struggled

Dr. Guillotin and his machine
Guillotin argued for a painless and private capital punishment method equal for all the classes, as an interim step towards completely banning the death penalty. His colleagues, however, laughed when he claimed that a machine he had designed could cause immediate and painless separation of the head from the trunk. It was not until 1791 that a law was passed that everyone condemned to death in France should be decapitated.

Now the experts went to work, designing, building and revising the machine. Generally, the surgeon Antoine Louis who was the secretary of the surgical academy, is credited the design of the prototype together with the German harpsichord maker Tobias Schmidt and France's main executioner, Charles-Henri Sanson (1739-1806). It was Schmidt who built the machine. Schmidt suggested placing the blade at an oblique 45-degree angle and changing it from the round blade.

The original design was two fourteen-foot upright planks of wood joined by a crossbeam at the top. The interior edges of the planks were grooved and greased to guide the falling blade, which was weighted and operated through a pulley system. The entire contraption sat upon a platform reached by twenty-four steps. Although similar devices had existed for hundreds of years, none was built with the attention and care of the French machine.

Additional improvements to the guillotine machine were made in 1890 by Leon Berger, an assistant executioner and carpenter. Berger added a spring system, which stopped the mouton at the bottom of the groves, a lock/blocking device at the lunette and a new release mechanism for the blade. All guillotines built after 1890 are made according to Berger's construction.

Royal blood - bucketwise
After a series of experiments on cadavers taken from a public hospital, the first of these machines was put up in the Place de Grève in Paris on April 4, 1792. On April 25, 1792, The official executioner of the French Revolution, Charles-Louis Sanson, said:

    "Today the machine invented for the purpose of decapitating criminals sentenced to death will be put to work for the first time. Relative to the methods of execution practised heretofore, this machine has several advantages. It is less repugnant: no man's hands will be tainted with the blood of his fellow being, and the worst of the ordeal for the condemned man will be his own fear of death, a fear more painful to him than the stroke which deprives him of life."
The first to be so executed was a highwayman, Jacques Nicolas Pelletier. An easy death was no longer the prerogative of nobles.

Political offenders were executed in the Place de Carrousel. On the 21st January 1793 it was erected for the first time in the Place de la Révolution for the execution of King Louis XVI, its most famous victim. Before the Revolution this square was named place Louis XV, and in 1795 it got its present name, Place de la Concorde. Queen Marie Antoinette followed her husband to the guillotine on October 16, 1793.

Soon this invention was to become the hallmark of "The Reign of Terror", 1793 and 1794, when the "humane and egalitarian" decapitation machine worked full throttle.

The Place de la Revolution also saw the execution of Charlotte Corday, who was condemned after a brief trial for stabbing to death Jean-Paul Marat (1743), one of the revolution's leaders, on July 13, 1793. She was executed on the evening of 17th July 1793 and upon arrival at the Place de la Révolution in the usual tumbrel (horse drawn cart) asked Sanson, the executioner, to be allowed to look at the guillotine as she hadn't seen one before and felt that it was of interest to someone in her position! She was an attractive and brave 24 year old who was seen as something of a martyr by many.

The probably brightest head to fall into the basket was that of the chemist Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, 1743-1794). A noted mathematician, Joseph-Louis Lagrange, remarked of this event, "It took them only an instant to cut off that head, and a hundred years may not produce another like it."

The guillotine was later moved temporarily to Place St. Antoine and from there to the Barrière Ranverse, but was returned to the Place de la Révolution for the execution of the famous revolutionary, Maximilien Marie Isidore de Robespierre (born 1758) and 21 of his followers on the July 28, 1794. Georges-Jacques Danton (born 1759) had been executed on April 5. The execution of Robespierre marked the end of the period known as "the reign of terror".

As the French nobility was largely exterminated and heads kept on rolling at an ever increasing pace during the years of terror, science discovered a new and surprising fact, later confirmed by modern neurophysiology: a head cut off by a swift slash of axe or guillotine knows that it is a beheaded head whilst it rolls along the ground or into the basket – consciousness survives long enough for such a perception.

The guillotine was also being used in all the other French cities with great frequency at this time and many thousands of people fell victim to it.

By 1799 the Guillotine had decapitated more than 15.000 heads. Altogether about 40.000 people were killed during the Terror. Contrary to common belief, an estimated 80-85 percent of them were commoners.

From machine to louisette to guillotine to Nazi Germany
After the execution of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette "the machine" became known as "la louisette” or “le louison”. However, it is difficult to decide whether this refers to Antoine Louis, or the king. The term “la guillotine” first came into use some time after 1800. It is virtually impossible to say who actually invented the guillotine. A slang term for the guillotine has "La Veuve" – the widow.

Although indelibly associated with the French Revolution, and with the death penalty in France, the Guillotine was not basically a new invention. Small primitive versions were used for the execution of aristocratic criminals in Germany, Italy, Scotland and Persia, and its use has been known as early as the fourteenth century, especially in Scotland. A similar device known as the Halifax Gibbet had been in use in that Yorkshire town since 1286 and continued until 1650. It was noticed by a Scotsman, James Douglas Earl of Morton, who had one built in Edinburgh in 1556 which became known as the Maiden and lasted until 1710. In Ireland, a guillotine-like instrument was used in 1307. There is a credible recording of an execution by a similar machine in Milan in 1702 and there are paintings of a guillotine like machine used in Nuremberg in the mid 1500's.

From 1871 German law stated that all condemned criminals must be decapitated but allowed both the axe and the guillotine. The guillotine was also used in Greece, Switzerland and Sweden. Sweden used the guillotine once, in 1910, when Alfred Ander was executed for armed robbery. It was to be Sweden's last execution. During the Nazi period, 1933-1945, 20 guillotines were used in Germany and Austria (from 1938). Hitler considered it a demeaning form of punishment and used it for political executions. 20,000 had a date with Madame la Guillotine in 1942 and 1943.

It has been estimated that 16.000 persons, maybe as many as 20.000, were guillotined by the Nazis, more than were killed by the guillotine in France during the revolution. After the war, the guillotine was last used in the Bundesrepublik Deutschland (West Germany) on May 11, 1949, when the murderer Berthold Wehmeyer was beheaded.

East Germany continued to use the guillotine for a few more years afterwards. The last execution by guillotine took place in Marseilles, France on September 10, 1977, when Hamida Djandoubi was beheaded for torture and murder. France outlawed capital punishment in 1981.

Dr. Guillotin
Guillotine was one of the first French doctors to support Edward Jenner’s (1749-1823) discovery and in 1805 was the president of the Committee for vaccination in Paris. Guillotine was imprisoned because a letter from Count Mere, who was about to be executed, commended his wife and children to the doctor’s care. When Robespierre fell from power, he was released and died with a carbuncle on the left shoulder, in 1814.

The association with the machine of death so embarrassed Dr. Guillotin's family that they begged the government to rename it; when the government refused, they changed their own family name.

Guillotine published no medical works.

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