40 Interesting Guillotine Facts

Looking for guillotine facts huh? Well, before we start, let us tell you something about beheading or decapitating. Beheading a human is by far one of the most tempting and fascinating methods of killing someone. Why so? Because the human head has always been the prized trophy because the head is not only a visual delight but is also a biological powerhouse that hosts 4 out of our 5 sense – taste, hearing, smell and sight. Whether we accept it or not, we are kind of fascinated by decapitation no matter how grisly and bloody the sight be. Interestingly, human head is comparatively easier to decapitate compared to animals. This is because human head sits on top of a flimsy neck while for animals, the head is held in front of the body, requiring a thicker neck to support it weight. Despite this fact the human head does not lend itself to be an easy trophy and severing the head requires skills.

Many tools have been used till date to decapitate humans. The two most popular ones being swords and axes but it often turned out that the executioner had to deliver 3 or more blows to separate the head of the victim from his/her body. Instances of the head being separated from the body by a single swift swing of the blade (axe or sword) are rare. This raised questions about humane aspect of decapitating someone.

Luckily, the French people got it right and they ended up creating the guillotine that till today remains the fastest methods of execution (though it is not really in use any longer). It is also considered the most humane method of killing because it decapitates in a fraction of a second and requires just one clean drop. So, let us learn 40 interesting guillotine facts. Some of these facts may be quite surprising.

Quick Facts:

  • Guillotine Total Weight: 579 kilograms.
  • Guillotine Blade Weight: 40 kilograms.
  • Guillotine Post Height: 4.3 meters.
  • Guillotine Blade Dropping Height: ~ 7.42 feet or ~2.26 meters.
  • Guillotine Blade Drop Speed: ~ 6.4 meters per second.
  • Guillotine Blade Total Drop Time: One seventieth of a second (1/70 second).
  • Guillotine Beheading Time: 0.005 seconds.

Interesting Guillotine Facts: 1-5

1. Guillotine – the name of the decapitation device can be traced back to France during the 1790s and the name became a household word during the French Revolution.

2. Though we believe that France gave the world the guillotine, it is not absolutely true. Guillotine was actually a borrowed concept because similar devices for execution were already in use hundreds of years earlier during the Middle Ages.

3. During the Middle Ages there was a device named ‘Planke’ that was used in Flanders and Germany. Again, there was Halifax Gibbet – a sliding axe that was put to use by the English.

4. However, the inspiration for the guillotine possibly came from Scottish Maiden that was extensively used between 16th century and the 18th century.

5. Some believe that guillotine’s concept came from another Italian device from the Renaissance era that went by the name ‘mannaia’.

Interesting Guillotine Facts: 6-10

6. Historical evidences actually put forward some baffling stuff. Historians say that the French people actually used primitive devices similar to guillotine way before the French Revolution actually started.

7. Though primitive guillotine-like devices were already in use in France, the most used tools for beheading (which was actually a capital punishment) were the axe and the sword, both of which were often very clumsy.

8. Since the sword and the axe turned out to be ineffective tools for smooth beheading, Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin – a freemason as well as a French physician came to the government in late 1789 and asked for replacing the sword and the axe with a tool that would be lightning fast and neatly decapitate a person.

9. Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin was very much against capital punishment but since he was in no position of putting an end to it once and for all, he wanted that the beheadings be done in a more humane fashion.

10. Unfortunately, the members of National Assembly declined Dr. Guillotin’s request. Not only was the request rejected, the members of the Assembly actually made fun of Dr. Guillotin and laughed at his proposal.

Interesting Guillotine Facts: 11-15

11. The idea of such tool was once again revived in 1792 but this time it was Charles-Henri Sanson – a public executioner who made the request.

12. Sanson’s request was backed by Academy of Surgeons’ secretary, Dr. Antoine Louis. This time, the request was sanctioned.

13. Once the sanction was in place, Dr. Louis came up with the design of the machine. The first prototype of the machine was then created by Tobias Schmidt – a harpsichord maker of German origin.

14. Tobias started working on the prototype in April 1792 and completed the machine in under 1 week. Once the prototype of ready, the executioner was asked to test it by calves, sheep, corpses etc. The first test run took place on April 17, 1792.

15. It was then time for first human victim. A notorious thief named Nicolas Pelletier was the one selected for live human beheading. Pelletier was known for viciously assaulting his victims. The authorities fed Pelletier to the machine on April 25, 1792.

Interesting Guillotine Facts: 16-20

16. Since the machine was designed by Dr. Antoine Louis, it was named as Louisette and some called it Louison. Later the name was changed to guillotine because the idea was initially proposed by Dr. Guillotin.

17. This change in name was completely unexpected for Dr. Guillotin and he never wanted to get his name associated with the killing machine.

18. When in 1790s guillotine hysteria swept through France, Dr. Guillotin tried his best to get as far as possible from the machine. In early 19th century, Dr. Guillotin’s family sent a petition to French government to change the name of the machine. However, this was not accepted and the name continued to be in use.

19. In 1790s France was under the infamous Reign of Terror and many thousands of people who were against the French Revolution found their necks right under the blade of the guillotine.

20. Gradually guillotine beheadings became a public spectacle. Hundreds of people gathered around the stage of execution to watch public beheading using the guillotine. The machine became so popular that songs and poems and even jokes were written on its name.

Interesting Guillotine Facts: 21-25

21. That was not all! There was actually a restaurant named Cabaret de la Guillotine which was in business mostly because of the spectators who would grab a bite after watching a public beheading. Apart from that there were souvenirs made available for purchase and there was even a program that would read out the list of guillotine victims.

22. Watching guillotine beheadings actually became a daily habit of many people. There was a particular group of women who were known as Tricoteuses (knitting women), who would actually occupy seats right next to the scaffold and watch beheading after beheading and in the time between two consecutive decapitations, they would just sit there and knit.

23. Not just the adults, even the children were so fascinated by guillotine that they actually had miniature guillotines as toys. These toys would be about 2-foot in height with a real blade.

24. These miniature guillotines were fully operational and though they were not big enough to decapitate a human, they were good enough for decapitating dolls and live rodents. Children actually did get involved in such grisly acts as their favorite game. Luckily the toys were later banned in several cities of France to eliminate the possibilities of vicious influence on children.

25. Not just toy guillotines, there were something known as Novelty guillotines. These too were small but instead of being used as toys, they were actually place on dinner tables of upper class people. The only grisly act these guillotines were involved in was chopping down vegetable and breads.

Interesting Guillotine Facts: 26-30

26. People who operated the guillotines enjoyed celebrity status nationwide. They actually had quite some reputation to defend during the French Revolution as the fame of many of these operators actually depended on how quickly they would behead multiple victims and that too pretty neatly.

27. Some executioners actually made guillotine operation a family business. One of the most famous was the Sanson family (see #11). Several generations of the family actually worked as state executioner between the years 1792 and 1847. Two of the most famous victims of the Sanson family were Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI.

28. There was yet another popular family – the Deibler family. Only the father and son duo were in business since 1879 to 1939. The Deibler family was well-known for their clothing choices while appearing on the scaffold. In fact so popular was their clothing choices that they actually created fashion trends!

29. Not just general public. Even the criminals were pretty much fascinated by guillotine to such an extent that they often had tattoos craved on their bodies with slogans etched on skin that would say which executioner family their heads belonged to.

30. France wasn’t the only country to make use of guillotine. Even Germany under Nazi rule made use of the guillotines to execute people during 1930s and 1940s.

Interesting Guillotine Facts: 31-35

31. The Nazi installed 20 guillotines across the country and used them to execute around 16,500 men and women during the period extending from 1933 to 1945. Most of the people who were executed by the Nazis using guillotines were either political dissidents or resistance fighters.

32. The French gave the guillotine a nice name. They used to call it as National Razor because it was used for capital punishment.

33. France kept using guillotine till late 1970s. The last person who was put under the National Razor was Hamida Djandoubi – a person convicted of murder. This guy was executed in 1977. That was the last time guillotine was ever used in this world. Its usage stopped because in 1981, France decided to abolish capital punishment forever.

34. Guillotine was definitely an effective killing machine because it severed the head of a victim in just 0.005 seconds.

35. The primary reason for such swift action was the razor sharp blade that was dropped from a height of 226 centimeters or 89 inches. The blade itself was pretty heavy but to make it even heavier, a separate metal weight known as the mouton was added.

Interesting Guillotine Facts: 36-40

36. A single person was not actually in charge of making a guillotine. In fact different parts of the machine were manufactured separately by different people like blacksmiths, carpenters, craftsmen and metal workers. The different parts were then carried to the execution site and assembled.

37. Guillotines were never put into mass production. Only a handful of them were produced and installed in key places. Interestingly, the guillotines were actually properties of the executioners and they were put in charge of maintaining the quality of the machines. Each executioner had multiple guillotines that they would cycle between use and maintenance.

38. Since the guillotine was extremely swift, several people asked whether the severed heads retained consciousness or not. Many attempts were made by experts and scientists to figure this out. The debate about severed heads retaining consciousness reached its maximum popularity during 1793.

39. That was the year when an assistant to the head executioner picked the severed head of one of the victims and slapped hard on the face. Claims were made by many spectators that the cheeks of the severed head actually flushed in anger.

40. Many other experiments were conducted the name of the decapitated person was called out loud to see if the eyes of the severed head reacted. Other would simply put the severed head in ammonia or on a candle flame to see if there were any reactions. Some doctors even asked many victims to either blink or keep one of their eyes opened after the execution took place.

Sources: 1, 2, 3

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