Everything I Learned About the Guillotine

The guillotine probably springs to mind as soon as the French Revolution is mentioned. With good reason, since the ‘National Razor’ was well-used during the revolution, particularly at the height of the Terror. It’s estimated that at least 40,000 people were executed this way, including, of course, Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI. I found it to be an interesting challenge to write about the guillotine in The Wardrobe MistressFrom a modern perspective, the brutal number of executions is fairly disturbing, but at the time, a lot of people viewed it was a fascinating new invention, including some of my characters.

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A few notable people executed by guillotine during the French Revolution, with the date of their death.

While other execution devices had been in use for centuries, including the “planke” in medieval Germany and Flanders, the guillotine was the first machine designed to improve on speed and precision. The resulting deadly efficiency was certainly put to zealous use during the French Revolution. However, the idea for the guillotine originally came about when a French doctor named Joseph-Ignace Guillotin proposed to the National Assembly in 1789 that a more humane and painless method for execution should be developed. Guillotin himself was a vocal opponent of capital punishment, and since it seemed unlikely that capital punishment would be discontinued, sought to at least improve it by finding a better method than hangings or axe beheadings, both of which sometimes went wrong and caused slow, painful deaths. Anne Boleyn’s famous execution by French swordsman instead of English axeman is an example of this. Execution by sword was believed to be quicker and less painful, and Henry VIII at least granted this mercy to Anne. Years later, he was decidedly less generous with Margaret Pole. The Countess of Salisbury’s executioner was young and inexperienced, and clumsily wielded his axe. He wasn’t aided by the crazily defiant countess, who refused to lay her head on the block and twisted her neck out of reach. It was a messy execution, to say the least.

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This drawing shows how the guillotine worked – note the handy – and macabre –  basket to catch the head.

The plans for the guillotine were actually drawn by Antoine Louis, a surgeon, and were based on similar primitive machines used in Scotland and Italy. The first prototype was built by a German named Tobias Schmidt, and approved by the French government for use. Guillotin had nothing to do with the design or construction, only the idea that executions should be as humane as possible, if not stopped altogether. Nevertheless, the machine ended up being named after him. Horrified by the bloodthirsty enthusiasm for the invention, he tried to distance himself from the guillotine. In the 19th century, his descendants petitioned the French government to change its name, but were not successful. It was too late for poor Monsieur Guillotin by then. The name was ingrained in history.

During the height of the French Revolution, executions by guillotine were popular spectator events, and thousands of people crowded at the Place de la Revolution to witness notable beheadings. When Louis XVI was executed, bystanders ran forward to dip their handkerchiefs in his blood. The fact that such a grisly item was deemed a desirable souvenir tells a lot about the mindset of the time surrounding the guillotine. Tricoteuses, particularly guillotine-happy women who would knit between watching daily executions, eventually became a hassle because they were too enthusiastic and got in the way. Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities features a tricoteuse in the form of Madame Defarge, and in The Scarlet Pimpernel, the foppishly heroic title character rescues some aristocrats while in disguise as a tricoteuse driving a cart.

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Guillotine fervour didn’t just perpetrate the Place de la Revolution. It reached the home, too. One of the most popular children’s toys of the 1790s was a replica guillotine, often standing about 2 feet tall. Shockingly, it was fully operational and children could use it decapitate dolls, or even small rodents. Thankfully, some towns deemed the small guillotines a violent influence, and banned them.  Smaller versions of the guillotine still found a place on dining room tables though, used for slicing bread or vegetables. While I suspect using a small guillotine to chop several carrots would be pretty inefficient, at least it’s less creepy than the ones used as children’s toys.

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Clearly, we’re not really in a position to decry the historical use of a mini guillotine as a food slicing implement.

Sometimes the rabid guillotine audience would notice that the face of a recently disconnected head would move a little. This prompted speculation as to the possibility of the victim’s heads remaining conscious after being severed from the body. Seeking answers, doctors would sometimes ask the condemned to try to blink or leave one eye open after their execution, as proof. I suspect most people facing immediate execution weren’t much inclined to grant this last favour, and it must have been unsuccessful in answering any of the speculation, because more distressing tests were also tried out. One of these was to thrust a lit candle into the face of the newly dead, to see if they reacted. Since more recent studies on rats have found that brain activity may continue for up to four seconds after decapitation, it’s possible some of the people subjected to this test after execution were aware of it, very briefly, adding a new level of horror.

Continuing that uncomfortable note, the guillotine was not only used during the French Revolution. In fact, the last execution by guillotine happened in 1977, a few years prior to France abolishing capital punishment in 1981. The guillotine was also used in Germany during the Third Reich. Hitler approved of its efficiency and made it the method of execution in the 1930s. He even ordered an excessive twenty guillotines built and placed in cities across Germany, and eventually around 16,500 people were executed this way between 1933 and 1945. I have to admit, I had no idea about these particular facts until I made a point of researching the guillotine, and I was rather shocked. The guillotine seems like a barbaric practice from the past, but it turns out it’s not very far in the past at all. History certainly isn’t always comforting.

And now you’re suitably armed to be a gruesome know-it-all at any upcoming Halloween parties. See? I’m just trying to help!

 

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I’m of the opinion that there’s no such thing as a useless fact, but it’s true that it wouldn’t exactly be easy to bring up these guillotine facts in a conversation!

 

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