Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Guillotine's First Cut

Execution of Louis XVI
The democratic way to die.
As the spirit of liberté, égalité and fraternité swirled through Paris in the early days of the French Revolution, Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin rose before the National Assembly in 1789 to lobby for equality in a most unlikely area: capital punishment. The Parisian deputy and anatomy professor argued that it was unfair for common criminals in France to be executed by tortuous methods such as hanging, burning at the stake and breaking on the wheel while aristocratic felons had the privilege of quick decapitations, particularly if they tipped their executioners to ensure swift sword chops.

Guillotin beseeched his fellow lawmakers to follow their egalitarian principles and adopt a more humanitarian and equitable system of capital punishment whereby all criminals, irrespective of class, would be beheaded. In 1791 the National Assembly made decapitation the only legal form of capital punishment in France, but the state executioner, Charles-Henri Sanson, knew this presented practical problems. A fourth-generation executioner for whom capital punishment was the family business, Sanson warned the National Assembly that beheading by sword was an inexact science that would require dozens of skilled executioners, scores of fresh swords and a means of securing felons to guarantee quick cuts. “Swords have very often broken in the performance of such executions, and the Paris executioner possesses only two,” he wrote.

The solution was found in another of Guillotin’s ideas: a beheading machine that ensured a rapid and merciful death. “The mechanism falls like lightning; the head flies off; the blood spurts; the man no longer exists,” Guillotin told his colleagues. (Read entire article.)

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