1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Guillotine

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GUILLOTINE, the instrument for inflicting capital punishment by decapitation, introduced into France at the period of the Revolution. It consists of two upright posts surmounted by a cross beam, and grooved so as to guide an oblique-edged knife, the back of which is heavily weighted to make it fall swiftly and with force when the cord by which it is held aloft is let go. Some ascribe the invention of the machine to the Persians; and previous to the period when it obtained notoriety under its present name it had been in use in Scotland, England and various parts of the continent. There is still preserved in the antiquarian museum of Edinburgh the rude guillotine called the “maiden” by which the regent Morton was decapitated in 1581. The last persons decapitated by the Scottish “maiden” were the marquis of Argyll in 1661 and his son the earl of Argyll in 1685. It would appear that no similar machine was ever in general use in England; but until 1650 there existed in the forest of Hardwick, which was coextensive with the parish of Halifax, West Riding, Yorkshire, a mode of trial and execution called the gibbet law, by which a felon convicted of theft within the liberty was sentenced to be decapitated by a machine called the Halifax gibbet. A print of it is contained in a small book called Halifax and its Gibbet Law (1708), and in Gibson’s edition of Camden’s Britannia (1722). In Germany the machine was in general use during the middle ages, under the name of the Diele, the Hobel or the Dolabra. Two old German engravings, the one by George Penez, who died in 1550, and the other by Heinrich Aldegrever, with the date 1553, represent the death of a son of Titus Manlius by a similar instrument, and its employment for the execution of a Spartan is the subject of the engraving of the eighteenth symbol in the volume entitled Symbolicae quaestiones de universo genere, by Achilles Bocchi (1555). From the 13th century it was used in Italy under the name of Mannaia for the execution of criminals of noble birth. The Chronique de Jean d’Anton, first published in 1835, gives minute details of an execution in which it was employed at Genoa in 1507; and it is elaborately described by Père Jean Baptiste Labat in his Voyage en Espagne et en Italie en 1730. It is mentioned by Jacques, viscomte de Puységur, in his Mémoires as in use in the south of France, and he describes the execution by it of Marshal Montmorency at Toulouse in 1632. For about a century it had, however, fallen into general disuse on the continent; and Dr Guillotine, who first suggested its use in modern times, is said to have obtained his information regarding it from the description of an execution that took place at Milan in 1702, contained in an anonymous work entitled Voyage historique et politique de Suisse, d’Italie, et d’Allemagne.

Guillotine, who was born at Saintes, May 28, 1738, and elected to the Constituent Assembly in 1789, brought forward on the 1st December of that year two propositions regarding capital punishment, the second of which was that, “in all cases of capital punishment it shall be of the same kind—that is, decapitation—and it shall be executed by means of a machine.” The reasons urged in support of this proposition were that in cases of capital punishment the privilege of execution by decapitation should no longer be confined to the nobles, and that it was desirable to render the process of execution as swift and painless as possible. The debate was brought to a sudden termination in peals of laughter caused by an indiscreet reference of Dr Guillotine to his machine, but his ideas seem gradually to have leavened the minds of the Assembly, and after various debates decapitation was adopted as the method of execution in the penal code which became law on the 6th October 1791. At first it was intended that decapitation should be by the sword, but on account of a memorandum by M. Sanson, the executioner, pointing out the expense and certain other inconveniences attending that method, the Assembly referred the question to a committee, at whose request Dr Antoine Louis, secretary to the Academy of Surgeons, prepared a memorandum on the subject. Without mentioning the name of Guillotine, it recommended the adoption of an instrument similar to that which was formerly suggested by him. The Assembly decided in favour of the report, and the contract was offered to the person who usually provided the instruments of justice; but, as his terms were considered exorbitant, an agreement was ultimately come to with a German of the name of Schmidt, who, under the direction of M. Louis, furnished a machine for each of the French departments. After satisfactory experiments had been made with the machine on several dead bodies in the hospital of Bicêtre, it was erected on the Place de Grève for the execution of the highwayman Pelletier on the 25th April 1792. While the experiments regarding the machine were being carried on, it received the name Louisette or La Petite Louison, but the mind of the nation seems soon to have reverted to Guillotine, who first suggested its use; and in the Journal des révolutions de Paris for 28th April 1792 it is mentioned as la guillotine, a name which it thenceforth bore both popularly and officially. In 1795 the question was much debated as to whether or not death by the guillotine was instantaneous, and in support of the negative side the case of Charlotte Corday was adduced whose countenance, it is said, blushed as if with indignation when the executioner, holding up the head to the public gaze, struck it with his fist. The connexion of the instrument with the horrors of the Revolution has hindered its introduction into other countries, but in 1853 it was adopted under the name of Fallschwert or Fallbeil by the kingdom of Saxony; and it is used for the execution of sentences of death in France, Belgium and some parts of Germany. It has often been stated that Dr Guillotine perished by the instrument which bears his name, but it is beyond question that he survived the Revolution and died a natural death in 1814.

See Sédillot, Réflexions historiques et physiologiques sur le supplice de la guillotine (1795); Sue, Opinion sur le supplice de la guillotine, (1796); Réveillé-Parise, Étude biographique sur Guillotine (Paris, 1851); Notice historique et physiologique sur le supplice de la guillotine (Paris, 1830); Louis Dubois, Recherches historiques et physiologiques sur la guillotine et détails sur Sanson (Paris, 1843); and a paper by J. W. Croker in the Quarterly Review for December 1843, reprinted separately in 1850 under the title The Guillotine, a historical Essay.