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Public guillotining in ,
Public guillotining in Lons-le-Saunier, 1878

The guillotine is a machine used for the application of capital punishment by decapitation.

It consists of a tall upright frame (approx 4m high) from which is suspended a heavy triangular blade (approx 40kg). The blade is hauled to the top of the frame on a stout cord and held in place while the victim has his/her head placed in a restraining bar. The cord is released and the heavy blade falls a distance of 2.3m, severing the neck. (Heights and weights are the French standards.)

Guillotine-like devices (gibbets) existed and were used for executions in Britain before the French Revolution but the French developed the machine further and became the first nation to use it as a standard execution method. On April 25 1792 highwayman Nicolas J. Pelletier became the first person executed by guillotine.

Antoine Louis, member of Académie Chirurgical, took the first practical steps towards the creation of the guillotine. It was from his design that the first guillotine was build. The guillotine was first called "Louison" or "Louisette", but the press preferred Guillotine as it had a nicer ring to it. Antoine Louis was born in Metz 1723, and he died in Paris in 1792.

It takes its name from Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a French doctor and member of the Revolutionary National Assembly, on whose suggestion it was introduced. Dr. Guillotin proposed the use of a mechanical device to carry out the death penalty. The descendants of Dr. Guillotin have since changed their surname because of the association with a method of execution. Guillotin died on the 26th of May in 1814, not on the guillotine, but of a carbuncle in his shoulder. On October the 8th 1795 a warrant for an arrest was issued against Dr Guillotin. (This warrant is on display at Le Musée de la Préfecture de Police in Paris)

The basis for his recommendation is believed to have been his perception that it was a humane form of execution, contrasting with the methods used in pre-revolutionary, ancien régime France. In France, before the guillotine, members of the nobility were beheaded with a sword or axe, while commoners were usually hanged, or more gruesome methods of executions were used (the wheel, burning at the stake...). In case of decapitation, sometimes it took repeated blows to completely sever the head. The family of the victim or the victim themselves would sometimes pay the executioner to ensure that the blade was sharp in order for a quick and relatively painless death. The guillotine was thus perceived to deliver an instantaneous death without risk of misses. There is however some debate as to the humane nature of the guillotine, as some authorities believe that the victim can remain conscious for up to 30 seconds after decapitation. Furthermore, having only one method of execution was seen as enforcing the value of equality between citizens.

The guillotine was from then on the only legal execution method in France until the abolition of the death penalty in 1981, apart from certain crimes against the security of the state, which entailed execution by firing squad. The last execution was of Hamida Djandoubi and took place on September 10, 1977.

In France, executions by guillotine were also regarded as a public entertainment that attracted great crowds of spectators. The last public execution was of Eugene Weidmann, who was convicted for six murders. It took place on September 10, 1939 at 4:32 in the afternoon outside the prison Saint Pierre rue Georges Clemenceau 5 at Versailles, which is now the Palais de Justice. The scandalous behaviour of some of the onlookers on this occasion caused the authorities to decide that executions in the future were to take place in the prison courtyard.

From Napoleonic times, the guillotine was used in many places in Germany. The Nazis employed it extensively: twenty guillotines were in use in Germany and (from 1938) in Austria. They added a unique twist: the condemned persons were executed face up, with their eyes forced open to watch the blade descend. This is similar to how French revolutionary leader Maximilien Robespierre was said to have been executed at the guillotine during the French Revolution. As many as 20,000 people may have been executed; for an example see White Rose.

The guillotine was not, however, a French invention—although Guillotin is often named as its inventor, similar devices have been used in Scotland (see: maiden (beheading)), Italy and Switzerland before 1600. This type of device also has had a history as a farm implement used for killing poultry in Germany, England, and Persia before being introduced as a method of capital punishment. Interestingly, a derivative of the guillotine known as a "Bagel Biter" (the name is a trademark) is commonly used for slicing bagels and other difficult-to-slice breads, and is often known colloquially as a guillotine. However, it uses a wedge-shaped blade instead of the trapezoidal blade used by the real thing.

Pronunciation note

There is some conflict as to how the word guillotine should be pronounced. The word entered English from French in 1793, and since then authorities on pronunciation have debated, not whether guillotine should be pronounced GIL-uh-TEEN or GEE-yuh-TEEN, but whether it should be pronounced with a stress on the third syllable (GIL-uh-TEEN) or on the first.

Since, for several decades, stressing of the word's first syllable has held sway over stressing of the third, one question remains: is it the long-established GIL-uh-TEEN or the recently popular GEE-yuh-TEEN which should be said? Pronunciation pronunciator Charles Harrington Elster , in his Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations, calls GEE-yuh-TEEN "a pseudo-French affectation." He continues: "Careful speakers are expected to help hold the line on this one—on pain of beheading!"

Of course, Elster's prescription is not universally accepted. See also list of words of disputed pronunciation.

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