Month of Macabre: A History of the Guillotine


What is it about the guillotine that sends shivers down the spine? When it comes to execution, the guillotine was more humane and effective than beheading by axe or sword. This symbol of the French Revolution made beheading a quick and painless endeavour. Is it the size of the blade? The quick succession of deaths that occurred during the bloodiest parts of the French Revolution?

800px-Joseph-Ignace_Guillotin_croppedAlthough there were previous versions of the guillotine used in England as far back as 1280, the guillotine used during the French Revolution was introduced by French physician Joseph-Ignace Guillotin in October 1789.

He discussed the process, features of the machine and why it should be used during a meeting of the National Assembly, the government that was formed during the Revolution.

That same month, a mob of hungry and angry women stormed the Palace of Versailles (13 miles from central Paris), Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and their children were moved from Versailles to the Tuileries Palace in Paris. They would never see their beloved Versailles again.

MTIwNjA4NjMzNTQ5MzI1ODM2Testing of the guillotine began in April 1792 with farm animals before moving on to human cadavers. It was tested on recently deceased military men-men who died of their wounds and not an illness that would make them grow thin. They wanted to test the blade’s ability to go through tougher muscle.

The first person to be executed in earnest by guillotine was Nicolas Jacques Pelletier, a highwayman, in April 1792.

In September of that year, King Louis XVI was stripped of his title and the monarchy was officially abolished. From then on, he was known as Louis Capet. The guillotine blade came down on his neck on January 21, 1973. His wife, Marie Antoinette, was kept in prison for several months. She was executed via guillotine on October 16, 1793.

Another Versailles resident, Madame du Barry, was also guillotined in 1793. Du Barry was known as the mistress of Louis XV. She lost her head that December.

RobespierreAnyone who spoke out against the Revolution was executed. Spies lived among the people, listening for any sort of anti-Revolution or pro-monarchy whispers. This time was called the Reign of Terror (or “The Terror”). It is estimated around 40,000 were guillotined between 1793 and 1794.

Even one of the guillotine’s biggest supporters and, at one point, the leader of the Revolution, Maximilien Robespierre, met the guillotine in July 1794. He was executed after the people knew he had gained too much power and his rule seemed just a touch too monarchist for them. He also had tried to institute a new religion, the Cult of the Supreme Being.

The French Revolution wrapped up as ambitious young upstart Napoleon Boneparte showed up on the scene. However, the guillotine continued to be used as an official means of execution in France until 1977.

Dudes. That was less than forty years ago. The death penalty was abolished in France in 1981.

jillianne hamilton headshotJillianne Hamilton is an author, history enthusiast, book lover, and graphic designer. Her debut novel, Molly Miranda: Thief for Hire, was shortlisted for the 2016 Prince Edward Island Book Award. Her debut non-fiction book, The Lazy Historian's Guide to the Wives of Henry VIII is now available. She lives in Charlottetown on Canada's beautiful east coast and is working on her debut historical fiction novel.
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