Saturday, May 6, 2017

Invention of the Guillotine

From Shannon Selin:
Although named after Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin (1738-1814), the guillotine was not invented by him. Other decapitation devices – the Diele in medieval Germany, the mannaia in 16th C Italy, the “Maiden” in Scotland, the Halifax gibbet in England – had existed for centuries.

Dr. Guillotin actually opposed capital punishment and wanted to make executions more humane. In 1789, as a deputy to France’s National Assembly, Guillotin argued that all capital criminals should be killed in the same fashion, and as swiftly and painlessly as possible. At the time, commoners were hanged, burned at the stake, or broken on the wheel, while nobles had the luxury of having their head chopped off by a sword. Guillotin proposed that where the death penalty was imposed, the punishment should be decapitation by means of “a simple mechanism.” In 1791, the National Assembly adopted a change to the penal code in which every person condemned to death was to have their head cut off.

It was left to Dr. Antoine Louis, secretary of the Royal Academy of Surgeons, to design a machine that would make beheadings fast and simple. The first model of what was initially nicknamed the “petit louison” or “louisette” was built by a German harpsichord maker named Tobias Schmidt. He tested it out on sheep, calves and corpses. The first guillotine execution – of highwayman Nicolas Jacques Pelletier –  took place on April 25, 1792 at the Place de Grève in Paris. The official executioner, Charles-Louis Sanson, said:
Today the machine invented for the purpose of decapitating criminals sentenced to death will be put to work for the first time. Relative to the methods of execution practised heretofore, this machine has several advantages. It is less repugnant: no man’s hands will be tainted with the blood of his fellow being, and the worst of the ordeal for the condemned man will be his own fear of death, a fear more painful to him than the stroke which deprives him of life. (1)
Both Dr. Louis (who died later that year) and Dr. Guillotin greatly regretted that their names were attached to the device.

In 1795, after the death of over 16,000 people during the Reign of Terror, the National Convention passed an act that promised abolition of the death penalty when “general peace” arrived in France. But peace didn’t come. The French Revolutionary Wars turned into the Napoleonic Wars. In 1810 Napoleon Bonaparte issued a new criminal code that eradicated the eventual abolition of the death penalty. The new code affirmed that anyone condemned to death should be decapitated. Napoleon’s successors, the Bourbon Kings Louis XVIII and Charles X, also retained the guillotine, even though it had taken the lives of their brother King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette. (Read more.)

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