The guillotine at the Revolution Square, Paris
Guillotine comes from Joseph Ignace Guillotin, a French surgeon who was a deputy of the National Constituent Assembly. As the French revolutionaries decided not to abolish death penalty, Guillotin recommended a more “humanitarian” way of executing people. Since that moment, the nobles were executed with an ax or a sword and the poor people were hung at the gallows or tortured to death at the wheel. Guillotin proposed decapitating people with a device with a cross-cutting blade, which would make death faster. But Guillotin didn´t invent this device. Similar machines had been used in other places since the 12th century.
The designers of the French device known as guillotine were three people: Laquiante, an officer of the Strasbourg criminal court, Tobias Schmidt, a German engineer, and Antoine Louis, Louis XVI´s physician and Secretary to the Academy of Surgery. They designed the guillotine drawing inspiration from other devices used in different places: the Mannaia (used in Italy), the Scottish Maiden (used in Edinburg) and the Halifax Gibbet (used in England).
The Legislative Assembly decided to adopt the guillotine as execution method on the 23th April 1792. People called it The National Razor or Madame Guillotine. The first executed by guillotine in France was a highwayman called Nicolas Jacques Pelletier, accused from robbery and murder. He was beheaded on the 25th April 1792 at 3:30 in the afternoon at the Hôtel the Ville Square, the traditional place for public executions. A large crowd attended to his beheading to see the new method of execution and they were deceived by his quick death and shouted “Bring back our wooden gallows!”
On August 1792 the guillotine was moved to the Tuileries Palace and executions took place at the Carrousel Square. The first executed were people who had committed violent crimes, but during the Reign of Terror many suspects of being counter-revolutionary were sentenced to die on the guillotine. That´s why this device has been always related to this historical period. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were among the most illustrious sentenced to death. But also Antoine Lavoisier, the father of modern chemistry, and most of the leaders of the revolution, such as Danton, Desmoulins, Robespierre or Saint-Just died guillotined. The amount of people executed in Paris until July 1794 was 2,639 (1,515 of them between June and July 1794). Other regions in France were more severe: for example the Revolutionary Tribunal in Nantes (in the Vendée Region) ordered the execution of 8,000 people in three months. In France there were around 17,000 executed (16, 594). Eight per cent of them were nobles, 6% were members of the clergy, 14% belonged to the bourgeoisie and around 70% were workers or peasants, accused of escaping conscription, hoarding, desertion from the army or rebellion.
The guillotine continued to be the execution method in France until 1981, when death penalty was abolished. The last public execution took place in 1939 and the last person executed by guillotine died in 1977.