Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The gruesome history of the guillotine

A victim undergoes execution by guillotine during the French Revolution, circa 1793. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Contrary to myth, Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin did not invent the decapitation instrument that bears his name. Decapitation machines were used long before he was born. There are reports of such instruments used to execute people in Ireland, England, and Scotland back in the 14th through 16th Centuries.

However, Guillotin was responsible for the use of decapitation machines in France. He opposed capital punishment but since France had capital punishment, he urged decapitation by a mechanism because he believed such executions would be quick and relatively painless. On March 16, 1791, the French Assembly approved Guillotin’s proposal that the condemned have the “head severed.” Louis XVI, still France’s King, signed this into law.

French National Academy of Surgery Secretary Dr. Antoine Louis was assigned to create a decapitation instrument. He designed one and hired German harpsichord maker Tobias Schmidt to build it. It was tested on animals and human cadavers.

The first use of the guillotine for executions was when it severed the head of murderer Nicolas Pelletier on April 25, 1792.

The guillotine did a notoriously brisk business during the Reign of Terror 1793-1794. According to guillotine replica site Bois de Justice, “It is estimated that over 10,000 people lost their heads to the slanted blade in those two years. Lesser and lesser crimes became punishable by death as the struggling Revolutionary Government attempted to quell internal unrest while fighting a war against all the other European nations.”

After losing his crown, Louis XVI lost his head to the instrument he had approved for use on January 21, 1793. His widow Marie Antoinette followed him to the guillotine on October 16, 1793.

French revolutionary leader Robespierre being put to the guillotine in 1794. Photo: Rischgitz/Getty Images

Perhaps most ironically and fittingly, Maximilien de Robespierre, who had been responsible for sending many to the guillotine, was guillotined on July 1794.

There is a legend that Dr. Guillotin was guillotined. Toward the end of the Terror, Dr. Guillotin was briefly imprisoned. However, Dr. Guillotin was freed after Robespierre’s fall. Dr. Guillotin died of natural causes in 1814.

With the turn of the century, the guillotine continued to be used to execute criminals in France.

In 1854, Joseph Tussaud purchased a guillotine from former French executioner Clément Sanson so it could become part of the famous Tussauds Waxworks. It stood in that museum until a 1925 fire destroyed it, leaving only the blade and mouton (metal weight at its bottom).

In 1872, French carpenter and assistant executioner Leon Berger presented an improved guillotine that he had developed. According to Guillotine Headquarters, “Among the improvements are the spring system, which stops the mouton at the bottom of the grooves.” It also boasted a new blade release mechanism. All French guillotines built after Berger introduced his prototype were patterned after it.

Executioner Nicolas Roch introduced a wooden shield at the top of the guillotine to spare the condemned from the sight of the blade in 1878. In 1879, Louis Deibler succeeded Roch as executioner. Deibler removed that wooden shield.

The last public execution in France took place on June 17, 1939 when serial murder Eugen Weidmann was guillotined outside the Prison St. Pierre in Versailles.

The 1939 execution of Eugene Weidmann.

Seven days later, on June 24, 1939, France passed a law requiring executions be performed privately. The last French guillotining was on September 10, 1977 when torture-murderer Hamida Djandoubi was executed.

France abolished the death penalty in 1981.

Hamida Djanoubi.

In 1864, a penal colony was established in the French territory of New Caledonia. Bois de Justice writes, “Two large groups populated the penal colony: survivors of the Paris Commune Insurrection of 1871 to 1874, and the survivors from the Algerian Kabyle Insurrection of 1871.” Inmates who committed new offenses might find their heads severed by a guillotine.

The guillotine was used only once in North America. On August 24, 1889 convicted murderer Auguste Neel was guillotined in the French town of Saint-Pierre that is a few miles from the Newfoundland coast. Neel was a fisherman and had murdered another fisherman. These events inspired the 2000 film La Veuve de Saint Pierre (The Widow of Saint-Pierre).

According to Bois de Justice, “French Guyana was used as a deportation site for undesirables as early as the 1760s. During the French Revolution a number of royalists, disgraced republican politicians, and priests were also deported to Guyana.” Deportations continued until the first half of the 19th Century. As was true in New Caledonia, deportees who committed serious crimes while held in French Guyana were subject to being guillotined. Those who lost their lives this way had often murdered guards or fellow inmates.

In both New Caledonia and French Guyana, the executioners were recruited from among the inmates. The most well known prisoner-executioner was Isidore Hespel. He decapitated 50 fellow inmates between 1898 and 1921.

The guillotine in French Guyana.

Hespel was set free. He murdered and was deported a second time to the French Guyana penitentiary where the man who had formerly been his assistant guillotined Hespel.

The New Caledonia penal colony was closed in 1946. The guillotine was turned over to authorities at a regular prison but not used.

From 1900 to 1952, French authorities executed with guillotines in what was then called “Indochina” and are today the independent countries of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Those executed in the 1900-1952 period included both common criminals and political prisoners.

Dr. Guillotin championed decapitation because he believed, as did many others, that it was humane. Cecil Adams writes that some people have asserted that the guillotine, “far from being quick and painless, was an instrument of the most profound and horrible torture” because those executed might “be aware of having been beheaded.”

Could this be true? After Charlotte Corday, the murderer of radical Jacobin Jean-Paul Marat, was guillotined on July 17, 1793, her executioner held up her head and slapped a cheek. Witnesses said her cheek reddened and her face displayed an unmistakable look of indignation.

There are other many other reports of severed heads seeming to try to speak and of their eyes opening and closing.

One of the most colorful, but probably fictional, stories is that two rivals were guillotined one after another during the Reign of Terror. When their heads were tossed into the same bag, it is said that one head viciously bit the other.

Charlotte Corday after killing the revolutionary Marat. Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry, 1860.

To address the question of possible head survival after decapitation, a Dr. Beaurieux experimented with murderer Henri Languille who was guillotined on June 28, 1905. Dr. Beaurieux reported that “immediately after decapitation,” Languille’s “eyelids and lips” clearly “worked in irregularly rhythmic contractions for about five or six seconds.”

Dr. Beaurieux continues, “I waited for several seconds. The spasmodic movements ceased. The face relaxed, the lids half closed on the eyeballs, leaving only the white of the conjunctiva visible, exactly as in the dying whom we have occasion to see every day in the exercise of our profession, or as in those just dead. 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.” Dr. Beaurieux writes that these were “undeniably living eyes which were looking at me.” After a few seconds, the eyes closed. Dr. Beaurieux called out a second time. He writes, “Once more, without any spasm, slowly, the eyelids lifted and undeniably living eyes fixed themselves on mine with perhaps even more penetration that the first time.” The eyes shut again. Dr. Beaurieux called a third time but received no response. He estimated this lasted 25-30 seconds.

Henri Languille.

The above account may well be factual. Robert Wilde, writing about the human head after decapitation, reports, “The current medical consensus is that life does survive, for a period of roughly thirteen seconds, varying slightly depending on the victim’s build, health and the immediate circumstances of the decapitation. The simple act of removing a head from a body is not what kills the brain, rather it is the lack of oxygen and other important chemicals provided in the bloodstream.” Wilde continues, “The precise post-execution lifespan will depend on how much oxygen, and other chemicals, were in the brain at the point of decapitation; however, eyes could certainly move and blink.” Wilde notes that the question of “solely technical survival” is only part of the even more important question about the decapitated head. Wilde writes, “While the brain remains chemically alive, consciousness can cease immediately, caused by the loss of blood pressure if the victim is knocked unconscious by the decapitating blow. If that weren’t to happen immediately, an individual could in theory remain self-aware for part of the thirteen-second period.”

Dr. Beaurieux’s report that a head was alive for over twice thirteen seconds cannot be dismissed. Languille’s health and build may have facilitated an unusually long survival and awareness period. It is also possible that Dr. Beaurieux witnessed indisputable proof of the head’s continued survival and made a small mistake in the time.

Upset by the association of their surname with an instrument of death, Dr. Guillotin’s family petitioned to the French government to re-name the decapitation machine. When the government refused their plea, they changed their last name.

Originally Published 02/12/2013. 

Sources on following page.

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