Q: I was watching a movie, and someone was being executed with the guillotine. Why did the French use the guillotine instead of hanging or firing squad?
T.M., of Collinsville
A: Humane execution.
For many, it’s still an abhorrent contradiction in terms. But for Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, it was at the heart of his plea to France’s National Assembly in 1789 for a cleaner method of killing the condemned.
Ironically, the instrument to achieve that goal — the guillotine — now carries the name of a man who was opposed to capital punishment.
So, no, Guillotin did not invent the fearsome instrument that can separate head from body in an instant. Far from it. Similar contraptions had begun popping up in Europe centuries before, at least in thought if not reality. As early as 1210, “The High History of the Holy Grail,” an old French Arthurian romance novel, described a device with not one, but three openings.
“And behold what I would do to them if their heads were therein ... a cutting blade of steel droppeth down, of steel sharper than any razor, and closeth up the three openings.”
It didn’t take long for imagination to turn into reality. Near Merton, Ireland, Murcod Ballagh was executed with a similar device in 1307. In England at least 56 prisoners were killed with the Halifax Gibbet from 1286 to 1650, when beheadings were stopped there. The Maiden was reportedly built for the authorities in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1564 and was used to dispatch those found guilty from 1565 to 1710. But it wasn’t until nearly a century later that the efficient killing machine gained its lasting name when it had its heyday in France.
Born in 1738, Guillotin seemed to excel in whatever he tried. In earning a degree from the University of Bordeaux, his essay so impressed the Jesuits that he became a professor of literature. But a few years later he went off to Paris to study medicine, earning a prize from the faculty at Reims.
So after he earned a spot in the National Assembly, his colleagues listened intently when, on Oct. 10, 1789, he argued that criminals should be decapitated by a “simple machine ... that beheads painlessly.” At the time, beheading in France was done by ax or sword, which could be messy because incompetent executioners sometimes needed two or more strokes. Moreover, beheading was reserved for the upper class. Commoners were typically hanged, which could take several minutes.
Guillotin thought his idea would make executions not only swift and certain but more egalitarian as well, one of the cornerstones of the popular French motto, “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite.” But he also hoped it would be the first step in eliminating capital punishment entirely, a hope that would not be achieved for 200 more years.
So as the French Revolution continued in 1791, Dr. Antoine Louis, secretary to the Academy of Surgery, headed a committee (which included Guillotin) to develop such a device. Impressed by the Maiden and Gibbet, the group came up with an “improved” design that employed an oblique blade rather than the former models, which tended to crush the neck or otherwise mutilate the body.
On April 25, 1792, in front of what is now the Paris City Hall, highwayman Nicholas Jacques Pelletier became the first man to die in the new device.
“It is less repugnant: No man’s hands will be tainted with the blood of his fellow being,” Charles-Louis Sanson, the official executioner of the French Revolution, said in describing the machine’s advantages just before the execution. “And the worst of the ordeal for the condemned man will be his own fear of death, a fear more painful to him than the stroke which deprives him of life.”
Deemed a success, the blade soon was coming down on thousands during the Reign of Terror from June 1793 to July 1794, including, of course, King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie “Let-Them-Eat-Cake” Antoinette (although there’s no proof she ever said that).
You might think the French would have been repulsed by the Jacobins’ bloodletting, but you’d be wrong. After the revolution, the guillotine remained France’s official method of execution until September 1981, when Guillotin’s dream of abolishing the death penalty became law.
Elsewhere, people also were losing their heads to this machine well into the 20th century. According to the History Channel, Adolf Hitler had 20 of the machines placed around Nazi Germany, resulting in approximately 16,500 killings from 1933 to 1945. Switzerland used it until 1940, and East Germany secretly killed countless state residents with it until at least 1966. It is thought that on Sept. 10, 1977, Tunisian native Hamida Djandoubi became the last man in the Western world to be beheaded after being convicted of killing his French girlfriend.
More facts about the guillotine, courtesy of the History Channel (stop here if you have a queasy stomach):
In 1790s France, executions were a major spectator event. People could buy souvenirs, grab a program listing the names of the condemned and order a cappuccino at the nearby Cabaret de la Guillotine. There reportedly was even a group of women who attended on a daily basis, busily knitting in between the blade’s descents.
Executioners reportedly became rock stars, judged on how quickly and precisely they could accomplish multiple beheadings. It often became a family business in France — the Sansons from 1792 to 1847 before the father-son team of Louis and Anatole Deibler took over from 1879 to 1939. In fact, what they wore on the scaffold often became a fashion trend.
And, yes, there were attempts to see how long a person remained conscious after an execution by subjecting the head to fire and ammonia. (One witness swore he saw a head’s cheek turn red after it was slapped.) In 1880, Dr. Dassy de Lignieres went so far as to pump blood into the head of a child murderer to see if it could speak. These ghoulish experiments stopped in the 20th century, but studies on rats found that brain activity may continue for up to four seconds after decapitation.
Although “In God We Trust” began showing up on U.S. coins in 1864 as a response to the Civil War, it was not adopted as the official national motto until 1956. Ironically, what Southern state had adopted it as its motto nearly a century earlier?
Answer to Saturday’s trivia: No, it isn’t the word Disneyland that means “Mouth of the Mouse” in Florida. It’s actually the literal translation of the Spanish Boca Raton. According to one explanation, “boca” is a mouth or inlet to a waterway while “ratón” was used by Spanish sailors to describe rocks in the inlet that, like mice, gnawed at their ship’s ropes. However, another theory is that it refers to a pirate’s cove. Maybe that’s why you’ll often find it incorrectly translated as “Rats’ Mouth.”