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La Veuve: The Guillotine in French Culture. Le Triomphe de la Guillotine en Enfer Nicolas Antoine Taunay. Pre-Guillotine Forms 0f Execution. Hanging. Reserved for the lower classes Resulted in a slow strangulation Neck breaking techniques had not been developed yet. Burned at the Stake.

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la veuve the guillotine in french culture
La Veuve:The Guillotine in French Culture

Le Triomphe de la Guillotine en Enfer

Nicolas Antoine Taunay


Reserved for the lower classes

Resulted in a slow strangulation

Neck breaking techniques had not been developed yet

burned at the stake
Burned at the Stake

All religious heretics were burned at the stake

A merciful executioner would strangle the condemned before the flames engulfed them

broken on the wheel
Broken on the Wheel

Condemned would be strapped to the wheel and tortured or put to the “Question”

Used on murderers and bandits to determine whether or not they acted alone

drawn and quartered
Drawn and Quartered

Used for criminals convicted of assaulting the King or a member of the clergy

It was the final blow in the condemned’s execution

They were first put to the question

Then hanged till near death

When near death they were drawn and quartered as a final insult

Often required the executioner to sever the victims tendons before the horses could accomplish the task


Reserved only for nobility

Performed with either a sword or an axe

Often took multiple swings resulting in a gruesome and painful experience for all involved

dr joseph ignace guillotin
Dr. Joseph Ignace Guillotin

Born 28 May 1738 in Saintes

There is a popular story regarding the circumstances of his birth

His mother inadvertently bore witness to a man being broken on the wheel. She was so distressed by what she had witnessed that she went into premature labor

This is said to be the reason for his drive to reform the French penal code and bring equality to capital punishment

He left the Jesuit order in 1763 to pursue the study of medicine

In 1770 he received his doctorate

guillotin addresses the king
Guillotin Addresses the King
  • In 1788 Dr. Guillotin put the Pétition des Six-Corps des Marchands de Paris before the King
    • This was the first ever petition to directly address the King
    • The petition made four demands
      • The number of representatives from the Third Estate should be at least equal to the total number of representatives of the other two estates
      • Votes were to be counted by heads
      • The deputies of the Third Estate should be chosen from this Order
      • The representatives of the Third Estate will be in proportion to the franchise
  • This led to Guillotin being elected to the Constituent Assembly as a deputy of the Third Estate
guillotin s six articles
Guillotin's Six Articles
  • Article 1. Crimes of the same kind shall be punished by the same kinds of punishment, whatever the rank or estate of the criminal.
  • Article 2. Offenses and crimes are personal, and no stain shall attach to the family from the criminal’s execution or loss of civil rights. The members of the family are in no way dishonored and remain, without exception, eligible for all kinds of profession, employment and civic dignity.
  • Article 3. Under no circumstances whatever may order be made of the confiscation of the goods of a condemned man.
  • Article 4. The body of the executed man shall be returned to the family, should the family so request. Normal burial shall in all cases be permitted and the register shall not specify the circumstances of the death.
  • Article 5. No one may reproach a citizen with the execution or loss of civil rights incurred by a relative. Should anyone dare to do so, he shall be reprimanded by a judge.
  • Article 6. The method of punishment shall be the same for all persons on whom the law shall pronounce a sentence of death, whatever the crime of which they are guilty. The criminal shall be decapitated. Decapitation is to be effected by a simple mechanism.
birth of the guillotine
Birth of the Guillotine
  • Guillotin’s sixth article was passed 3 June 1791
    • Despite passing it would be nearly a year before the guillotine would take its place as France’s official method of execution
  • After much delay, Dr. Antoine Louis, the permanent secretary of the Academy of Surgery, was enlisted to design the simple mechanism
  • Design was given to Tobias Schmidt a German harpsichord maker
  • Guillotine was first tested on three corpses at Bicêtre Hospital on 17 April 1792
    • It failed to sever the neck of the last corpse a particularly large man due to the convex shape of the blade
  • There is an ironic story that says Louis XVI suggested that the blade should be oblique
    • Story was told by Clément-Henri Sanson and later it is included in Alexandre Dumas’ book, The Tragedies of 1793
guillotine 1792
Guillotine 1792

Designed by Dr. Antoine Louis

Permanent Secretary of the Academy of Surgery

Machine was originally called louison or louisette in his honor

Based on the Halifax Gibbet

Built by Tobias Schmidt

German Harpsichord Maker

Painted red to hide the blood

Was placed on a tall scaffold in order for crowd to have a better view

the last day of the condemned
The Last Day of the Condemned

The condemned is not told ahead of time and instead are dragged from their cell the morning of while still asleep

They are allowed a final meal and a chance to write a letter to loved ones

Next they are given the toilette du condamne

The collar of the shirt is removed and their hair is cut above the neck

Loaded in cart and paraded through Paris on their way to the Guillotine

Once there it takes only seconds from the moment they step on the stairs

the spectacle
25 April 1792 the guillotine takes its’ first live victim, Nicolas Jacques Pelletier, an armed robber

At the guillotines first appearance a massive crowd gathered to witness the event

From the time the condemned mounted the scaffold till his death was less than a minute

Crowd was disappointed by this.

This attitude would quickly change as the number of executions rapidly grew

During the revolution it is estimated that nearly 40,000 people were executed by the guillotine

The Spectacle
madame du barry
Madame Du Barry

Most faced the guillotine with stoicism

She became hysterical begging for her life and struggling with the executioners

She appeared so pitiful that the masses began to feel sorry for her and even wished for her to be spared

It was speculated by many that if all would have acted in this manner the guillotine would not have taken a central role in the revolution

the end of the grand show
The End of the Grand Show
  • The Guillotine would remain a public spectacle well into the 20th century
    • The government tried to reduce the visibility of public executions
      • First by removing the guillotine from atop the scaffold
      • Painting it a dark brown instead of the bright red of revolutionary times
      • Executions began to take place in the early morning in an attempt to lessen the crowds
      • In 1939 the government finally put a halt to public executions and moved the guillotine inside the walls of the prison
  • The guillotine would remain in use until capital punishment was abolished in 1981
    • The last execution took place on 10 September 1977
the reign of terror
The Reign of Terror
  • The Reign of Terror began in June of 1793
    • It would transform the guillotine, which had been derived from humanitarian intentions, from a machine of justice into a tool the revolutionaries would use to spread fear
  • The revolutionary tribunal would use the guillotine to dispatch all enemies of the revolution including:
    • Nobility
    • Clergy
    • Anyone not sharing their views
  • The Terror would witness the rise and fall of many prominent French revolutionaries and ultimately their death beneath the blade
  • It would end with the execution of Maximillien Robespierre, the architect of the Terror
georges danton
Georges Danton

A leading member of the revolution and the first president of the Committee of Public Safety

He played an large role in the overthrow of the monarchy

When Robespierre grew threatened by Danton he deemed him a moderate and had him executed

Executed on 5 April 1794

Once atop the scaffold he told Sanson, “Show my head to the people, it’s worth looking at!”

maximilien robespierre
Maximilien Robespierre

Born in Arras in 1758

He was a prominent lawyer and orator

Originally argued to abolish capital punishment

During the Revolution he rapidly put himself in a prominent position as the leader of the Jacobins

During the Reign of Terror he acted as a de-facto emperor

Used the guillotine to eliminate anyone he saw as an enemy of the revolution

After the fall of the Jacobins he too fell to the guillotine on 27 July 1794

charlotte corday
Charlotte Corday

She killed Jean-Paul Marat

He was known for his radical journal “The Peoples Journal”

A leading member of the revolutionaries who was loved by the people

She was taken to the guillotine dressed in red, which was normally reserved for those who commit regicide

After being beheaded the assistant executioner lifted her head from the basket and slapped it

It is said that her face blushed and became filled with indignation

This led to the belief that the head survives for some time after decapitation

tales of living heads
Tales of Living Heads
  • Allegedly from an account of Sanson
    • Two opposing members of the National Assembly were executed on the same day. Their heads were placed in the same sack at which point one bit the other so hard that their heads could not be separated
  • In 1880 Dr. Dassy de Ligniéres went as far as to pump blood from a living dog into the severed head of Louis Menesclou
    • He witness the face redden and the lips swell at which point he announced, “This head is about to speak”
  • In 1905 Dr. Beaurieux addressed a recently severed head by calling his name
    • On the first time he witnessed the eyelids open and the pupils focus on him
    • He called out a second time and again the eyelids opened and the head looked at him with “unmistakably alive eyes”
    • The doctor attempted a third time but received no reaction
  • As late as 1956 similar experiments were being carried out on recently severed heads
victim s ball
Victim's Ball

In order to attend one had to prove they had a family member that was guillotined

People would forge documentation

Guests dressed à la victime

Women wore dresses with large red x’s across their upper back

Both women and men would were red ribbon or red thread around there neck

They also cut there hair to imitate the toilette du condamne

They would greet each other by abruptly dropping their head- as if it had just been cut off

victor hugo
Victor Hugo

In 1820 he wrote “The Last Day of a Condemned Man”

It is written as if it was a manuscript written by a condemned man and left behind in his cell

It describes what he felt would be a truly nightmarish ordeal

It also plays an ominous role in Hugo’s “Les Miserables”

alexandre dumas
Alexandre Dumas

Wrote “The Tragedies of 1793”

“The Woman With the Velvet Collar”

In which a man falls in love with a beautiful stranger wearing a velvet collar

He spends the night with her and in the middle of lovemaking her head falls off

It was only held on by the collar

villiers de l isle adam
Villiers de L'Isle Adam

He wrote the “Eleventh Hour Guest”

A story in which a guillotine enthusiast pays to perform the duties of the executioner

Took a contrasting position to Hugo and Dumas

Believed that by removing the guillotine from the scaffold you cheapened the condemned’s death and robbed them of their stage

work cited

Work Cited

Arasse, Daniel. The Guillotine and the Terror. Trans. Christopher Miller. London: The Penguin Press, 1989.

"Axe, Wheel, Guillotine: Seven Generations of Executioners." New York Times 4 June 1876: 10.

Fife, Graeme. The Terror: Under the Shadow of the Guillotine. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2004.

Gerould, Daniel. Guillotine: It's Legend and Lore. New York: Blast Books Inc., 1992.

Opie, Robert Frederick. Guillotine. Phoenix Mill: Sutton Publishing Limited, 2003.

Soubiran, André. The Good Dr. Guillotin and His Strange Device. Trans. Malcolm MacCraw. London: Souvenir Press, 1964.