Guillotine: 10 Lesser-Known Facts

Execution of Marie Antoinette on October 16, 1793

You’re familiar with the guillotine as an 18th-century beheading device, maybe from history books. But do you know who invented it or how long it was used? If not, get ready to discover 10 fascinating facts about the guillotine.

1. It Dates Back to the French Revolution

The French guillotine came into existence in the late 18th century when Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin (who was actually against the death penalty) proposed its development. He collaborated with a French surgeon, Dr. Antoine Louis, and a German harpsichord manufacturer, Tobias Schmidt, to create the prototype.

Guillotin proposed the machine that would eventually bear his name as a means to bring equality to those being punished for their crimes. Before the guillotine, peasants were subjected to more gruesome and painful execution methods than aristocrats— a fact that didn’t sit well with the doctor and staunch humanist.

2. It Was Inspired by German, English, Italian, and Scottish Machines

Although it’s arguably the most famous, the guillotine was not the first beheading machine to arrive on the scene.

Historians believe the guillotine was inspired by other inventions, including the “planke,” which was used in Germany during the Middle Ages, and the “Halifax Gibbet,” which was used in England, as well as Renaissance-era Italy’s “mannaia,” and the “Scottish Maiden.”

3. It Was Developed for More Humane Executions

In addition to being developed as an “equalizer” for executing wrongdoers, the guillotine was also proposed as a more humane execution device.

Dr. Joseph Guillotin would have preferred no capital punishment at all, but when he realized he was fighting a losing battle, he argued for a quick and painless method that would be used for anyone being punished by law, regardless of their social status.

As someone who was vehemently opposed to the death penalty, Guillotin was horrified when he learned that the device had been named after him. His family was embarrassed as well and tried to lobby the French government to change the name (to no avail).

4. Guillotine Executions Were Group Events

In the early 1790s, there wasn’t much for people to do in terms of entertainment. As a result, guillotine executions quickly became popular public events.

Particularly during the Reign of Terror (September 5, 1793 – July 27, 1794), thousands of people were executed via the guillotine because they were deemed “enemies of the French Revolution.”

Surprisingly, the public was disturbed by the process because it was too fast and didn’t cause enough suffering. However, that didn’t prevent them from creating songs, poems, and jokes about the guillotine or dining at a restaurant named “Cabaret de la Guillotine.”

5. Children Played with Miniature Guillotines

Not even children were shielded from the influence of the guillotine. In fact, they were given miniature guillotines to play with!

For years, youngsters used their toy guillotines to decapitate dolls and even rodents. Eventually, though, the government decided these playthings were too gruesome and banned them.

6. Scientists Studied the Heads of Guillotine Victims

Physicians and scientists were fascinated by the heads of guillotine victims. They conducted a variety of studies on them to see if victims remained conscious after their skulls were separated from their bodies.

Doctors regularly asked victims to blink or leave an eye open after their execution to see if they could still move. Others would call out the deceased’s name or use candle flames to burn their heads in an attempt to elicit a reaction.

7. It Was a Staple Among Nazi Soldiers During World War II

Although the guillotine is most famous as a French device, it also played a significant role in World War II and was frequently favored by the Nazis.

Nazi records state that soldiers used the guillotine to execute approximately 16,500 people from 1933 to 1945. Many of the victims were protesters and resistance fighters.

8. It Was Temporarily Banned in the Early 1900s

From 1906 to 1909, the guillotine was banned by President Armand Fallières. He was adamantly against capital punishment and went on to pardon all those who had been sentenced to death.

France’s citizens weren’t happy with Fallières’ decision. At the time, a newspaper called “Le Petit Parisien” polled readers and found that 77 percent were in favor of the guillotine.

This information helped those who opposed its abolition to fight back and restore the guillotine as the country’s preferred execution method.

9. Death by Guillotine Was Not Instant

When it was originally invented, the guillotine was proposed as an instant and painless method of carrying out the death penalty. However, in the 1950s, two French doctors, Piedelievre and Fournier, disproved this assumption.

The doctors determined that it takes about seven seconds before the brain stops functioning as a result of oxygen and blood deprivation. They wrote that “every vital element survives decapitation,” leaving the doctors with an “impression of a horrible experience…followed by a premature burial.

10. It Was Last Used in the 1970s

Except for a brief ban in the early 1900s, the guillotine remained in use—and remained the French state’s method of capital punishment—until 1977. During this year (the same year Apple released its first mass-produced computer), a convicted murderer named Hamida Djandoubi became the last person to be executed by guillotine.

In September 1981, France officially abolished capital punishment, which marked the end of the guillotine’s reign.