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25 April 2008

On this day in history: Guillotine used for first time, 1792

On 25th April 1792, a highwayman called Nicolas-Jacques Pelletier receives the dubious honour of being the first person executed using the guillotine. The device was named after Joseph-Ignace Guillotin who was not - as is often thought - the inventor of the machine, but was in fact a physician who petitioned the National Assembly in October 1789 with six articles of penal reform. The second of which read:

In all cases where the law imposes the death penalty on an accused person, the punishment shall be the same, whatever the nature of the offence of which he is guilty; the criminal shall be decapitated; this will be done solely by means of a simple mechanism.

The guillotine was not the first mechanism to employ a falling blade to decapitate criminals. Records exist of similar devices being used in the fifteenth-century at Halifax in England ('The Halifax Gibbet') and from 1564 in Scotland ('The Maiden'). According to tradition 'the Halifax Gibbet' had been in use since the thirteenth-century.

Despite being seen as a more humane method of execution, the guillotine became a symbol of Revolutionary Terror. Thousands of victims went to "look through the Republican Window" (as it was called), including King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette. Many Revolutionaries were also sent to the 'National Razor' (as it was also known): George Danton, Camille Desmoulin, Jacques Hébert, and the man most commonly blamed for the Terror, Maximilien Robespierre. The guillotine continued to be used in France until 1977.

Visit Jørn Fabricius' excellent web site The Guillotine Headquarters to learn more about this iconic machine.


n*tranced said...

OMG. I had no idea it used as late as the 1970s. That's quite frightening. Though when you think about terms of environmentally sound death practices, it is much greener and energy efficient then gas, lethal injection,or electric chairs.

Anonymous said...

The idea of a "humane" way of killing people suggests a certain lack of a sense of "Irony" which seems to afflict people of the "legalistic" persuasion with alarming regularity :-)

or should I say "medical" ...

felinesopher said...'s scary though....

Stepterix said...


This rather suggests the question - 'more humane for whom?'

The executioner maybe ;)


Stepterix said...

Apologies for the number of spelling mistakes in the original post. I have tidied it up now. My excitement with the subject must have resulted in me missing them.