The Revolutionary First Guillotine Execution
Originally touted as a humane execution, the guillotine used to kill thousands
Like the gas chamber, the guillotine was first introduced to the world as a humane form of execution. Evan Andrews at History notes the guillotine was named after Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin in late 1789. Guillotin personally didn’t agree with the whole idea of capital punishment, but he argued that decapitation by machine would be much more humane than decapitation Game of Thrones style with a sword or ax. At the time, sword or ax beheadings were frequently botched and, in essence, inhumane.
The first guillotine execution was revolutionary not only as a new method of execution. The method was first used during the French Revolution, which was notorious for having at least 40,000 people killed by guillotine. Some of those executed famously included King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Maximilien Robespierre, one of the initial leaders of the French Revolution and the catalyst behind the Reign of Terror, was also executed by guillotine. Between June and July of 1794, 1,400 enemies of the French Revolution were killed by the guillotine.
But the first person killed by guillotine wasn’t a member of a royal family or anyone remotely famous. It was a common criminal and highwayman named Nicolas Jacques Pelletier. Pelletier, according to Marc Estier in The Good Doctor Guillotin, was convicted for attacking a traveler and killing him.
This is the story of the first execution by guillotine, and the precedent it set for the guillotine throughout history.
The origins of the guillotine
According to the Guillotine Headquarters, the guillotine was first introduced as an idea in 1307, when a guillotine-like machine was used to kill a man named Murcod Ballagh in Ireland. In 1400, a machine known as the Halifax Gibbet was used to kill people by beheading, and it was also a beheading machine in England. Scotland later made a version of the Halifax Gibbet called The Maiden.
Dr. Guillotin, again, personally opposed the death penalty and sought the most humane form of punishment. He saw the guillotine as a punishment that didn’t involve dishonor to a family and a way for the victim to be “in no way soiled.” He advocated against any confiscation of a condemned person’s property, and he wanted the corpse of the deceased to be handed over to the family of the victim. The deceased would also be entitled to a normal burial. In his appeal to the General Assembly, Guillotin said:
“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.”
Guillotin, however, very much supported the actual beheading device:
“The mechanism falls like lightning; the head flies off; the blood spurts; the man no longer exists.”
The General Assembly approved the measure two years later to have the only punishment for the death penalty the severing of someone’s head. In 1792, Dr. Antoine Louis is credited with creating the first guillotine. He commissioned a carpenter named Guidon to build the scaffolds, and a man named Tobias Schmidt actually designed the machine.
For a long time, the guillotine was called a louisette after Louis. The name would have fit considering Louis XVI was one of the most famous decapitations by guillotine. However, since Guillotin advocated for the more humane form of punishment, the machine was named after him.
The first guillotine was set up on April 11, 1792. It was first tested on sheep and calves. They made sure the blade was curved like an axe to ensure maximum efficiency. The next day, Louis told a friend:
“That the beheading machine will not be ready for a test on human cadavres until Tuesday.”
Five days later, the guillotine was tested on cadavers and corpses. But male beheadings did not go so well with the blade. At this point, Louis and others decided the blade would be better as an oblique, which meant it should curve at a triangular, sloping shape. The new and improved guillotine was ready to be tested.
Pelletier was sentenced to death after his crime by a judge, but his execution was stayed since the state didn’t know how to execute him. The judge, however, urged execution by guillotine as the most humane method of punishment. The judge saw each moment living as punishment:
“[Pelletier is an] unfortunate man condemned to death, who realizes his fate and for whom each moment that prolongs his life must be a death for him.”
The state’s executioner’s name was Charles-Henri Sanson, a professional executioner who entered the trade as a family business. Sanson was unsure of how well the execution would go, but he was very wary of the old method of executions by sword. He knew executions by sword often required many skilled executioners, and swords often broke when executing someone.
Sanson was responsible for testing out the guillotine on corpses and animals. He was then tasked with beheading Pelletier. A crowd gathered to watch the scene. Pelletier’s head was put into the guillotine, and a blade dropped. Pelletier’s head went into the boards with no problem. In the words of Christopher Klein at History, the killing was anticlimatic and had frankly gone too well, and the crowd was displeased at the entertainment.
Pelletier’s execution was a success. And it set a precedent too. Beheading was usually reserved for nobles and rich people since it was seen as a more humane execution than hanging. With Pelletier, it was used for common criminals. Guillotines were often also spectator events. Although many saw Pelletier’s execution as boring, the events navigated themselves around the actual execution, with souvenirs being bought at guillotine executions, bards singing songs, and women attending guillotine executions every day.
In 1939, France stopped making guillotine executions public. In 1977, the last guillotine execution was used for a Tunisian man named Hamida Djanoubi, the last person beheaded in the western world.
Klein notes the manufacturing of guillotines sped up rapidly, but despite being a more humane form of execution, it was also a more efficient and expedient form of execution. That meant it could be used for a lot more people than originally intended, making all of the French Revolution’s enemies a “slaughterhouse assembly line.” Klein says Sanson was capable of beheading 12 people in 13 minutes. In three days during the Reign of Terror, 300 people were decapitated, an efficiency that would have been impossible with previous forms of execution.
Guillotin himself was horrified at the use of the machine and especially appalled it was named after him. Guillotin called the machine “the involuntary stain of [my] life.” Perhaps we should feel sorry for Guillotin. He couldn’t have seen far into the future, but I give him credit for staying true to his convictions about the death penalty, in general, being humane, especially after he saw the carnage of the machine.
Like the gas chamber’s use for genocide in Nazi Germany, making execution more humane is a band-aid measure, especially since making it more humane and expedient just makes executing people easier. To some degree, taking another person’s life should be difficult on society’s conscience, and if it isn’t, there’s something deeply wrong with our casual disregard for human life.
“Some men are unfortunate…Christopher Columbus is unable to attach his name to his discovery; Guillotin is unable to detach his from his invention,” author Victor Hugo said.