Surprising facts about the execution device once dubbed France’s “national razor”, the guillotine.
Its origins date back to the Middle Ages.
The name “guillotine” dates back to the 1790s and the French Revolution, but similar execution machines have been around for centuries.
A beheading device called a “planke” was used in Germany and Flanders during the Middle Ages, and the English had a slip ax known as the Halifax Gibbet, which may have been lopping off heads since ancient times.
The French guillotine was probably inspired by two earlier machines: the Italian Renaissance-era “mannaia” and the famous “Scottish maiden,” which claimed the lives of some 120 people between the 16th and 18th centuries. Evidence also shows that primitive guillotines may have been in use in France long before the days of the French Revolution.
It was originally developed as a more humane method of execution.
The origins of the French guillotine date back to late 1789, when Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin proposed that the French government adopt a gentler method of execution. Although he personally opposed capital punishment, Guillotin argued that beheading by a lightning-fast machine would be more humane and egalitarian than beheadings by sword and axe, which often failed.
He later helped oversee the development of the first prototype, an imposing machine designed by the French physician Antoine Louis and built by a German harpsichord maker named Tobias Schmidt.
The device claimed its first official victim in April 1792 and quickly became known as the “guillotine,” much to the horror of its supposed inventor. Guillotin tried to distance himself from the machine during the guillotine hysteria of the 1790s.
Guillotine executions were major events for viewers
During the Reign of Terror of the mid-1790s, thousands of “enemies of the French Revolution” met their end at the guillotine blade.
Some members of the public initially complained that the machine was too fast and clinical, but before long the process turned into great entertainment. People flocked to the Plaza de la Revolución to watch the guillotine do its gruesome work, and the machine was honored with countless songs, jokes, and poems.
Spectators could buy souvenirs, read a program with the names of the victims, or even grab a quick bite at a nearby restaurant called “Cabaret de la Guillotine.” Some people attended daily, the most famous being the “Tricoteuses”, a group of morbid women who supposedly sat by the scaffolding and knitted between beheadings.
Theatrics extended even to the condemned, many offering sarcastic jokes or defiant last words before being executed, and others dancing up the steps of the scaffold. The fascination with the guillotine faded at the end of the 18th century, but public beheadings continued in France until 1939.