Guillotine type beheading machines were used well before the French Revolution, when they were arguably at their most popular, but nobody can say for definite when or where they were first introduced. It is widely believed that very similar machines were used in Germany, Britain and Italy long before the turn of the 14th century but there is no documented evidence to support this theory.
First proven evidence of a guillotine type machine was on April 1st 1307, with a beheading in Ireland when the beheading machine was thought to have taken the place of the sword. The Halifax Gibbet was the first regularly used machine in Great Britain and was introduced from 1400.
In 1564 the Maiden, which was strongly based on the Halifax Gibbet, was built and put into use in Scotland. It wasn’t until 1789 until the true guillotine was introduced in France, but it took very little time to go from planning to full use once the idea was born.
Dr Joseph Ignace Guillotine
The Assembly Debate on penal code began on 9th October 1789 and 2 days into this debate, Dr Joseph Ignace Guillotine presented 6 articles which, amongst other things, outlined his recommendations for the improved humanity of capital punishment. He believed that the present system was torturous and that a swift decapitation was the most humane answer to stop the unnecessary suffering of the victims and their families.
Even though the guillotine was named after Dr Guillotine, he did not invent it and contrary to popular folklore he was not executed by it either. He died of natural causes in 1821. Even though he didn’t invent the guillotine, his name will remain attached to it forever. It should always be remembered that he intended the guillotine to be a more humane form of capital punishment, dispensing with torturous methods used previously.
The introduction of the guillotine
On 3rd June 1971, after Guillotine had resubmitted his articles to the debate, they aged that ‘Every person condemned to the death penalty shall have his head severed’. In april 1792 the first guillotine was produced and tested on livestock. Four days later it was tested on 3 dead bodies and the success of these tests meant that within a week the first guillotine was used for a live beheading. It was not well received, the public booing and demanding a return to the gallows.
The French Revolution
During the French Revolution, while earning the nickname of the death machine, the guillotine became synonymous with tyranny despite Guillotine’s humane intentions. A leader of the Revolution, George J Danton who led the uprising against the king in 1972 was executed by guillotine in April 1794.
Louis XVI, The king of France was beheaded by the radicals using the guillotine in January 1793 and his wife Marie Antoinette followed in October 1793.
The guillotine took just 2/100 of a second to behead a person, although people said that the person continued to hear and see for fifteen minutes after. Guillotines were very large and imposing weighing in at approximately 580kg and standing 14ft tall.
The death machine was used for many centuries after this, the last public use being on June 17th 1939. It was still used until September 10th 1977 when the guillotine was used officially for the last time and eventually the death penalty was abolished in France in 1981. There was another planned execution in 1981 but the accused received a stay of execution and so it was never used again.
By this time, though, it had been officially used in many countries, including Belgium, Greece, Switzerland, Sweden and parts of France.
The bottom line
The original idea behind the guillotine was to provide a form of execution that was quicker and more humane than methods used until its inception but because of it’s widespread use during the French revolution it became known as the death machine and was synonymous with tyranny and oppression.