Saturday November 22, 2014
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15-080 Science Matters The Guillotine

Saturday Nov 22, 2014

Lead: One of the most fearsome and famous methods of capital punishment was actually developed as a more humane and democratic way of execution. It is named for an obscure member of the French National Assembly, a young physician, Joseph-Ignace Guillotine.

Intro: A Moment in Time with Dan Roberts.

Content: Decapitation as a means of execution has been a part of the human experience since the dawn of time. The quick easy removal of the victim’s head brought a swift conclusion to their earthly journey; a sharp blade, a heavy well-placed blow brought matters to a timely end. Mechanical devices for execution may have used in various European countries before 1300, but there is no written evidence for this prior to the execution of Murcod Ballagh near Merton, Ireland in 1307.

By 1564 in Scotland such a mechanism was in common use. It was called “The Maiden,” and consisted of two grooved upright posts held together at the top by a cross-member and at the bottom by a diagonal support. The person to be killed was trussed-up, laid faced down with his neck lined up with the grooves. At the moment of execution a very heavy oblique, steel-clad, iron blade held in a lead-lined wood casing would be released--and the victim’s head would be quickly and painlessly severed from his torso.

For the most part, decapitation--mechanical or otherwise--was reserved for the nobility and the upper classes. Lower class offenders, as a measure of social control, were treated to public hanging and even more gruesome forms of execution, such as drawing and quartering. During this exquisite torture an offender would be kept fully alive in terrible agony while his body was chopped up, stomach cut open and entrails placed--still steaming--on his chest while the rest of the body was stretched and then hacked to pieces.

Now one of the goals of the French Revolution that began in 1789 was to establish equality between citizens and eliminate many of the privileges of the nobility and clergy. This extended even to the practice of execution. On January 12, 1790, an obscure member of the French National Assembly, a young physician, Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotine, in the second day of debate on the new Penal Code, made a series of motions that regulated capital punishment in order to advance the leveling cause of democracy. Torture was banned and decapitation was deemed to be the sole means of execution in France, and it was to be accomplished by a, quote, “simple mechanism.”

At first called the Louisette or Louison, the guillotine was later known in the French underworld as "The Widow," after its first use in April 1792 to execute a robber in Paris’ Place de Grève. The guillotine continued to be France’s means of execution until well into the 20th century. In 1980 France abandoned the death penalty, but before doing so it terminated the last person to die by guillotine in 1977.

Research assistance by Christina Smith, at the University of Richmond, this is Dan Roberts.


Huet, Marie Helene. Mourning Glory: the Will of the French Revolution. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.

Jordan, David P. The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre. New York: Free Press, 1985.

Loomis, Stanley. Paris in the Terror: June 1793-July 1794. Philadelphia: Lippincott Publishing Company, 1964.

Soboul, Albert. A Short History of the French Revolution, 1789-1799. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.

Copyright 2014 by Dan Roberts Enterprises, Inc.


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