Doctor Joseph-Ignace Guillotin advocated fairness.
While he campaigned for years against the death penalty – arguing that prisoners should instead undergo medical experiments – he believed that if executions were to take place, the deaths should be quick and relatively painless.
The French Revolution was meant to be a matter of equality, and the famous physician also felt it was unfair as the upper classes were usually beheaded with an ax or sword – quite often in disarray, with the executioner requiring a number of efforts – more ordinary people were usually hanged, burned at the stake, boiled to death or dismembered.
The idea was to make their deaths as painful as possible to show other commoners that crime doesn’t pay off.
The doctor had a solution, that all executions should be carried out with the device that now bears his name – the guillotine.
In this system, the condemned place their head on a block above a frame. This contains a heavy and sharp angular blade inserted into tracks. When a pin is removed, the blade falls and, in a seventieth of a second, beheads the condemned.
After experiments on certain corpses to verify its proper functioning, it was first used in 1792 to execute a highwayman. The crowd watching them actually booed because it was so quick and efficient, and chanted “bring back the gallows”.
And as the French Revolution gathered momentum, the machines were certainly busy, with over 16,000 people executed.
Ironically, Dr. Guillotin never invented the device – other versions of it had been in use for centuries before.
In England, a similar device – the Halifax gallows – had been in use in the city since the 16th century.
It was said that if the convicted person could move their head quickly enough after the pin was pulled out, they could try to escape. If the executioner did not catch them before they reached a nearby river, they would be spared. Apparently a man succeeded.
As for Dr. Guillotin, after years of fighting against the death penalty, he went to his grave regretting that the machine was named after him.
But the medical world was not yet done with the guillotine, as many experts began to wonder how long people “live” after being beheaded. This has led to a number of gruesome experiments going on.
The investigations were in part prompted by the case of Charlotte Corday, who stabbed a revolutionary to death while taking a bath. When her head was cut off, the executioner’s assistant pulled her out of the basket by the hair and slapped her cheek. Witnesses said her eyes were looking in his direction and she was glaring at him. Some have even said that her lips move as if she is trying to speak.
Doctors then began asking convicts to try to blink or keep one eye open after their execution to prove that they had not died instantly. Other doctors screamed at their heads or burned them with candles to see if they would react.
One victim, the famous chemist Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier, accepted as a last service to science to try to blink as long as possible. It is said to have done this about 30 times.
In 1880, a doctor named Dassy de Lignières even took the head of a child murderer and pumped blood into it to see if he would come back to life and speak.
Modern science has now proven blinking and other such movements are simply due to nervous reactions.
As for the guillotine, it has remained in use in countless countries around the world.
The Nazis used him to execute more than 15,000 people and their chief executioner, Johann Reichhart, became known as “the headhunter” after killing 32 people in one day. He used a lighter, more mobile guillotine that he had personally invented.
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In France, the murderer Hamida Djandoubi was the last person to be killed by the “national razor” after being executed in 1977 for having tortured and strangled a woman.
France definitively abolished the death penalty in 1981.