Madame la Guillotine

The execution of Marie Antonette 1793 – Unknown –

In Paris, 225 years ago today, the guillotine claimed its first victim. The guillotine was not the first device of execution of this type. However previous devices,  such as the Scottish Maiden and the Halifax Gibbet usually killed by crushing the neck or just by blunt force trauma.

Scottish Maiden. By David Monniaux – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Joseph-Ignace Guillotin after whom the device was named was not, in fact, it’s designer. Guillotin was a member of the French National Assembly who laid down a motion in 1789 that capital punishment should be by decapitation ‘by means of a simple mechanism’.

The guillotine was designed by a Monsieur Laquite, an officer of the Strasbourg criminal court and was considered more humane than the of its predecessors or the use of an axe or a sword.

Guillotine from the city of Luxembourg. Photo by Christian Ries via Wikimedia Commons

The first person to be executed by guillotine was Nicolas-Jacques Pelletier, who had been found guilty of a brutal attack on another man and sentenced to death. He was taken to the Square outside of the hotel de Ville in Paris. It seems as though this may have been the first time that he realised exactly how he was going to be executed and it is reported that he fainted at least once on seeing the guillotine. He was quickly executed and although the authorities found this an efficient and reliable way of execution, it is reported that an element in the crowd were deeply upset with the lack of spectacle.

The guillotine became synonymous with the French Revolution but in fact, it remained the method of execution in France until capital punishment was abolished in 1981. The last person to be executed was Hamida Djandoubi, a murderer, in September 1977.

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