The Ominous Tool of the French Revolution: The Guillotine

The Ominous Tool of the French Revolution:  The Guillotine

The French Revolution evokes a bloody historical era with one tool that still morbidly fascinates the masses: the guillotine.

To carry out a death sentence, it’s gruesomely efficient, almost diabolical in design. It never misses, unlike the electric chair or the noose. Death is quick, economical, bloody. And surprisingly, the apparatus is not that big.


Pre-Revolution, death executions followed a societal order in France. Thieves were hanged, witches were burned, fraudsters were boiled, murderers were broken on the wheel, regicide were dismembered and nobles were decapitated. On October 10th, 1789, Dr. Joseph Ignace Guillotin addressed the National Assembly and appealed to the idealists of equality: every condemned men and women should have a quick and painless death.

The legal process was not hinged on finding the truth and no accused was considered innocent. In absence of proof, the preparatory question, or torture, was applied by the executioner to force a confession of guilt. Once guilt was established, the preliminary question (more torture) forced the accused to reveal his or her accomplices.

King Louis XVI repealed both the preparatory and the preliminary questions May 1st, 1788, and advised against a French judiciary based on traditional procedures. It was the same king who would be executed on the guillotine in January 1793.

In October 1791, the penal code was modified in these terms:

  1. The death penalty will consist to end life, without torture
  2. All condemned will have their head chopped off.

All was needed was the apparatus.


After modifications to the legal code were voted on, the legislative committee, spurred by Dr. Guillotin, consulted with Antoine Louis to determine the efficiency of a machine that would sever heads without too much human intervention. Louis wanted the blade to fall from high enough to get a clean cut, but if the blade wasn’t sharpened enough, death would come from crushing instead of cutting.

Trials were done on cadavers. The blade ended up oblique instead of a crescent shape, falling from a height of 14 feet. The condemned was placed against a board, face forward, hands tied behind the back. The board flipped down horizontally with the condemned looking down. A “lunette”, two planks with a half moon carved out of the middle, held the victim’s neck in place. A release of the level, the blade fell down and death was quick.

Interesting historical note: Charles-Henri Sanson, official executioner of the kingdom, wrote in his memoirs he attended a meeting where King Louis, fan of mechanical engineering, suggested for the blade to be oblique. Is it true? If yes, the historical irony is sharp. A year or so later, King Louis would step up to the gallows and become victim to “la veuve”, or widow maker.

The guillotine’s name came from Antoine Guillotin because he was the one who suggested a more humane death penalty. In those first few years, it was also named “Louison”, after Antoine Louis, the inventor of the machine. It became the permanent means of death execution on August 21st, 1792.


During the Reign of Terror in France, from September 1793 to July 1794, more than 15,000 people were executed by guillotine in France. The guillotine remained the death penalty method until its abolition in 1981, with the last execution in 1977.

The era is a great backdrop for intrigue, treason and romance and I hope I’ll get the opportunity to write more stories in that period.


  1. How far criminology and investigative methods have come, detection as a means of finding out the truth, rather than eliciting confessions through torture. Truth, what truth, so long as you have a neck to stretch on the gallows?

    Interesting that different executions were applied to different crimes, almost like remedies to treat a symptom.

    Interesting, too, that at such a barbaric period in our history, humanity struggled to find its way.

    • Very interesting, indeed. The French Revolution and its declaration of rights of men and citizens (1789) inspired the American Declaration of Independence, which states, in the second sentence:

      “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

  2. I remember when France ended the death penality, but I did not know Madam la Guillotine had been used as recently as 1977.

    Wonderful post. I tweeted.

    • And if you google guillotine last execution, you can find a clip. Nothing is much seen, but just the thought…


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