I figured we’d talk about a contraption that’s a cut above the rest… the guillotine!
The guillotine became a popular method of execution during the French Revolution and became an iconic symbol of what was known as the ‘Reign of Terror ‘.
Initially it was known as the louisette but was later renamed the guillotine after Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin. Guillotin was a physician who, in 1789, suggested to the National Assembly that capital punishments should always be carried out by decapitation “by means of a simple mechanism”.
Interestingly though, Guillotin was ANTI death penalty! He loathed the fact that the contraption was named after him. He thought that the guillotine would make it a more swift and painless death than the other (somewhat less successful) methods of execution.
The actual inventor of the prototype was a man named Tobias Schmidt working with the king’s physician, Antoine Louis.
The history of guillotine style machines stretches a long way back before the 1700’s though! The earliest known mention of this sort of device was in the High History of the Holy Grail, dated to about 1210. The passage reads:
Within these three openings are the hallows set for them. And behold what I would do to them if their three heads were therein … She setteth her hand toward the openings and draweth forth a pin that was fastened into the wall, and a cutting blade of steel droppeth down, of steel sharper than any razor, and closeth up the three openings. “Even thus will I cut off their heads when they shall set them into those three openings thinking to adore the hallows that are beyond.”
Surprisingly, the guillotine’s last use was quite recent – it was the official method of capital punishment in France up until 1981! The last person to fall victim to it’s blade was torture-murderer Hamida Djandoubi, on 10 September 1977.
The Museum holds it’s own execution victim – Louis LeFevre. A French bank robber who murdered his own gang – including his wife!