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The Maiden, an older Scottish design. This example is an exhibit at the Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh
The Maiden, an older Scottish design. This example is an exhibit at the Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh

The guillotine is a device used for carrying out executions by decapitation. It consists of a tall upright frame from which is suspended a heavy blade. This blade is raised with a rope and then allowed to drop, severing the victim's head. The device is noted for long being the main method of execution in France and, more particularly, for its use during the French Revolution.


The guillotine became infamous (and acquired its name) in France at the time of the French Revolution. However, guillotine-like devices, such as the Halifax Gibbet and Scottish Maiden seen on the right, existed and were used for executions in several European countries long before the French Revolution. The first documented use of The Maiden was in 1307 in Ireland[1], and there are accounts of similar devices in Italy and Switzerland dating back to the 15th century. However, the French developed the machine further and became the first nation to use it as a standard execution method.

Portrait of Dr. Guillotin
Portrait of Dr. Guillotin

The device derives its name from Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a French doctor and member of the Revolutionary National Assembly, on whose suggestion it was introduced. Dr. Guillotin proposed the use of a mechanical device to carry out the death penalty. The basis for his recommendation is believed to have been his perception that it was a humane form of execution, contrasting with the methods used in pre-revolutionary, ancien regime (old regime) France. In France, before the guillotine, members of the nobility were beheaded with a sword or axe, while commoners were usually hanged, or more gruesome methods of executions were used (the wheel, burning at the stake, etc.). In the case of decapitation, it sometimes took repeated blows to sever the head completely. The condemned or the family of the condemned would sometimes pay the executioner to ensure that the blade was sharp in order to provide for a quick and relatively painless death. The guillotine was thus perceived to deliver an immediate death without risk of misses. Furthermore, having only one method of execution was seen as an expression of equality among citizens. The guillotine was adopted as the official means of execution on 20 March 1792. The guillotine was from then on the only legal execution method in France until the abolition of the death penalty in 1981, apart from certain crimes against the security of the state, which entailed execution by firing squad.

Historic replicas (1:6 scale) of the two main types of French guillotines: Model 1792, left, and Model 1872 (state as of 1907), right
Historic replicas (1:6 scale) of the two main types of French guillotines: Model 1792, left, and Model 1872 (state as of 1907), right

Antoine Louis (1723-1792), member of the Acadamie Chirurgicale, developed the concept put forward by Guillotin, and it was from his design that the first guillotine was built. The guillotine was first called louison or louisette, but the press preferred guillotine as it had a nicer ring to it. Antoine Louis (and perhaps others) introduced several improvements over the guillotine's ancestors, notably the characteristic angled blade and the lunette the two-part circular collar that held the victim's head in place. On April 25, 1792, highwayman Nicolas J. Pelletier became the first person executed by guillotine.

When Guillotin himself died it wasn't on his invention as myth would have it, but instead of natural causes on May 26, 1814. The descendants of Dr. Guillotin have since changed their surname because of the association with a method of execution.

The guillotine in France

The Reign of Terror

The period from June 1793 to July 1794 in France is known as the Reign of Terror or simply "the Terror". The upheaval following the overthrow of the monarchy, fear of invasion by foreign monarchist powers and fear of counterrevolution from pro-monarchy parties within France all combined to throw the nation into chaos and the government into frenzied paranoia. Most of the democratic reforms of the revolution were suspended and wholesale executions by guillotine began. Former King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette were executed in 1793. Maximilien Robespierre became one of the most powerful men in the government, and the figure most associated with the Terror. The Revolutionary Tribunal sentenced thousands to the guillotine. Nobility and commoners, intellectuals, politicians and prostitutes, all were liable to be executed on little or no grounds; suspicion of "crimes against liberty" was enough to earn one an appointment with "Madame Guillotine" (also referred to as "The National Razor"). Estimates of the death toll range between 15,000 and 40,000. In July 1794, Robespierre himself was guillotined.

At this time, Paris executions were carried out in the Place de la Revolution (former Place Louis XV and current Place de la Concorde) (near the Louvre); the guillotine stood in the corner near the Hôtel Crillon where the statue of Brest can be found today.

Public guillotining in Lons-le-Saunier, 1897
Public guillotining in Lons-le-Saunier, 1897

For a time, executions by guillotine were a popular entertainment that attracted great crowds of spectators. Vendors would sell programs listing the names of those scheduled to die. Regulars would come day after day and vie for the best seats. Parents would bring their children. By the end of the Terror the crowds had thinned drastically. Excessive repetition had staled even this most grisly of entertainments, and audiences grew bored.

The guillotine retired

The last public guillotining was of Eugen Weidmann, who was convicted of six murders. He was beheaded on June 17, 1939, outside the prison Saint-Pierre rue Georges Clemenceau 5 at Versailles, which is now the Palais de Justice. The allegedly scandalous behaviour of some of the onlookers on this occasion, and an incorrect assembly of the apparatus, as well as the fact it was secretly filmed, caused the authorities to decide that executions in the future were to take place in the prison courtyard. Jules-Henri Desfourneaux, the presiding "number one" executioner at this time was variously reported as slow, possibly drunk and indecisive, certainly a far cry from his well regarded immediate predecessor Anatole Deibler. He was also prone to arguing with his cousin and "number two" Andre Obrecht which led to the latters' resignation on two separate occasions, the last involving a fist-fight between the pair after an execution. The last execution in France was of Hamida Djandoubi and took place on September 10, 1977. The death penalty in France was abolished in 1981.

Guillotine as used in Baden, Germany (reconstruction, museum at Bruchsal)
Guillotine as used in Baden, Germany (reconstruction, museum at Bruchsal)

The guillotine outside of France

Just as there were guillotine-like devices in countries other than France before 1792, similarly other countries, especially in Europe, employed this method of execution into modern times.

A notable example is Germany, where the guillotine is known in German as Fallbeil ("falling axe"). It has been used in various German states since the 17th century, becoming the usual method of execution in Napoleonic times in many parts of Germany. Guillotine and firing squad were the legal methods of execution in German Empire (1871-1918) and Weimar Republic (1919-1933).

The original German guillotines resembled the French Berger 1872 model but eventually evolved into more specialised machines largely built of metal with a much heavier blade enabling shorter uprights to be utilized. Accompanied by a more efficient blade recovery system and the eventual removal of the tilting board (or bascule) this allowed a quicker turn-around time between executions, the victim being decapitated either face up or down depending on how the executioner predicted they would react to the sight of the machine. Those deemed likely to struggle were backed up from behind a curtain to shield their view of the device.

The Nazi Party employed it extensively: twenty guillotines were in use in Germany which, from 1938, included Austria. In Nazi Germany beheading by guillotine was the usual method of executing convicted criminals as opposed to political enemies, who were usually either hanged or shot. An exception would be the six members of the White Rose anti-Nazi resistance organization, who were beheaded on February 22, 1943. The Nazis have been estimated to have guillotined some 40,000 people in Germany and Austria; possibly more than were beheaded during the French Revolution.[citation needed] The last execution in German Federal Republic occurred on 11 May 1949, when 24 year old Berthold Wehmeyer was beheaded for murder and robbery in Moabit prison in West Berlin. West Germany abolished the death penalty in 1949, East Germany in 1987 and Austria in 1968. In Sweden, where beheading was the mandatory method of execution, the guillotine was used for its last execution in 1910 in Långholmen prison, Stockholm.

Although the guillotine has never been used in the United States as a legal method of execution (it had been considered in the 19th century before introduction of the electric chair), in 1996 Georgia state legislator Doug Teper proposed the guillotine as a replacement for the electric chair as the state's method of execution to enable the convicts to act as organ donors. The proposal was not adopted.

Living heads

From its first use, there has been debate as to whether the guillotine always provided as swift a death as Dr Guillotin hoped. With previous methods of execution, there was little concern about the suffering inflicted. But where the guillotine was invented specifically to be "humane", the issue was seriously considered. Furthermore, there is the possibility that the very swiftness of the guillotine only prolonged the victim's suffering. The blade cuts quickly enough that there is relatively little impact on the brain case, and perhaps less likelihood of immediate unconsciousness than with a more violent decapitation, or long-drop hanging.

Audiences to guillotinings told numerous stories of blinking eyelids, moving eyes, movement of the mouth, even an expression of "unequivocal indignation" on the face of the decapitated Charlotte Corday when her cheek was slapped. Anatomists and other scientists in several countries have tried to perform more definitive experiments on severed human heads as recently as 1956. Inevitably the evidence is only anecdotal. What appears to be a head responding to the sound of its name, or to the pain of a pinprick, may be only random muscle twitching or automatic reflex action, with no awareness involved. At worst, it seems that the massive drop in cerebral blood pressure would cause a victim to lose consciousness in several seconds.[2]

The following report was written by a Dr. Beaurieux, who experimented with the head of a condemned prisoner by the name of Henri Languille, on June 28, 1905:[1]

"Here, then, is what I was able to note immediately after the decapitation: the eyelids and lips of the guillotined man worked in irregularly rhythmic contractions for about five or six seconds. This phenomenon has been remarked by all those finding themselves in the same conditions as myself for observing what happens after the severing of the neck...

"I waited for several seconds. The spasmodic movements ceased. [...] It was then that I called in a strong, sharp voice: 'Languille!' I saw the eyelids slowly lift up, without any spasmodic contractions – I insist advisedly on this peculiarity – but with an even movement, quite distinct and normal, such as happens in everyday life, with people awakened or torn from their thoughts.

"Next Languille's eyes very definitely fixed themselves on mine and the pupils focused themselves. I was not, then, dealing with the sort of vague dull look without any expression, that can be observed any day in dying people to whom one speaks: I was dealing with undeniably living eyes which were looking at me. After several seconds, the eyelids closed again, slowly and evenly, and the head took on the same appearance as it had had before I called out.

"It was at that point that I called out again and, once more, without any spasm, slowly, the eyelids lifted and undeniably living eyes fixed themselves on mine with perhaps even more penetration than the first time. Then there was a further closing of the eyelids, but now less complete. I attempted the effect of a third call; there was no further movement – and the eyes took on the glazed look which they have in the dead.''


  • Gerould, Daniel (1992). Guillotine; Its Legend and Lore. Blast Books. ISBN 0-922233-02-0.


  1. Robertson, Patrick The Book of Firsts Clarkson Potter, 1974.
  2. Excerpt from British Medical Journal, Vol 294: February, 1987, quoting Proges Medical of July 9, 1886, on the subject of research into "living heads".

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