Thomas Hollowell - Author, Athlete, Entrepreneur, World Traveler

La Guillotine - Terror Indeed!

Appeared in Learning Through History V3N5
*Written for young learners.

Imagine yourself back a long time ago, over two hundred years ago. Now, imagine that you didn’t speak English, but were living in France, in Paris perhaps, speaking the beautiful French tongue. Now, stretch your mind even more and think for a moment what it would be like to be accused of being a criminal. Maybe you’re innocent; maybe you’re not. This would all be strange indeed!

You better hide. You better run faster than horses through the dimly lit Paris night. Because, if you’re caught, no matter what you do or say, you might not live to see tomorrow! That’s how it was way back then, over two hundred years ago. France was using its new death machine—in a time called “The Terror” they used “La Guillotine”.

During the French Revolution, which you’ve been reading about, the people in France were in a ruckus. There were different groups. They all wanted to control the government. The citizens of France wanted a new government to help them.

And, during this crazy time, the government was executing people who they thought were against them. Sometimes, even innocent people were put to death for crimes they didn’t commit. Before “La Guillotine,” people were put to death by all sorts of ways. Sometimes they were burned at the stake or hanged by a rope.

They were even pulled apart by horses or oxen! If you were to be put to death, it would be a painful experience. So, Dr. Joseph Guillotin, who worked with a small section of the French government, didn’t agree with the death penalty. He believed that it wasn’t right for the government to put people to death. However, he knew that he’d have to work slowly at telling others about his beliefs in hopes that one-day the death penalty would be banned.

So, in a meeting covering the Declaration of The Rights of Man and Citizen in 1789, he brought the idea forth that decapitation would be the quickest and least painful way to end a criminal’s life. After trying for two years, the government finally took to his ideas. Beheading would now be the official way to carry out the death sentence.

Beheading had been used in other countries before. To say it was Dr. Guillotin’s invention would be false. Executions by beheading had been done in Germany, Scotland, and other countries for a long time. There are even records that death by decapitation was used over seven hundred years before this time in France. Nevertheless, the machine and methods they once used, before the French Revolution, were not 100% effective.

Criminals and others were tortured because they were not killed instantly. Now, Dr. Guillotin knew that he’d have to design a machine that would do the job effectively.

Another man by the name of Pierre-Louis Roederer, also wanted to make sure that the design of the new machine would be flawless. So, he thought about it and finally asked a surgeon, by the name of Dr. Antoine Louis from The Academy of Surgery, for his thoughts.

Dr. Louis agreed with everyone that the new machine would have to be designed a whole lot bet ter than it had been in the past. It would be a difficult task. Dr. Louis used ideas from other parts of Europe and came up with a bet ter design. It was accepted and the building of the new beheading machine, “La Guillotine” (as it was called later) began.

Doctor Guillotin and a German man named Tobias Schmidt, who was an engineer and harpsichord maker, also helped design the new machine. They built the first model made of wood, with a blade held by a rope. The rope would then be released and swoop down through the criminal’s neck. Schmidt thought it’d be better to use a diagonal blade rather than a round one. Then, the blade would drop with greater accuracy and at a better angle, cut ting smoothly through the victim’s nape, or back of the neck. Instead of using real humans to test their new machine, they used sheep and other animals. Before it was used in public, dead bodies (or cadavers) from hospitals were also used to test its speed and accuracy.

On April 25, 1792, the first criminal was to be publicly executed by the new machine. His name was Nicolas-Jacques Pelletier and he was killed at Place de Grève. As the crowd watched, the scene Guillotine horrified them as the blade was released from above the body. It chopped the victim’s head clean off. Blood poured out from his neck. It fell into a leather bag below. The crowd screamed and protested that they wanted the old styles of execution back into law. They screamed, “Back to the gallows”! They believed hanging was the best form of execution.

While there were other changes to the design of the “Death Machine” over the years, the Guillotine became the common way to end a criminal’s life. It was a time when everyone was scared for his or her life. During this time, it was believed that the Guillotine alone killed over 40,000 people.

Even being accused of small crimes, such as stealing food and saying something against the government could get you killed. Even kings and queens, such as King Louis XVI in January of 1793, and Queen Marie Antoinette (and their families) were killed. “The Terror” was a scary time to live as death was commonplace. Hundreds were killed everyday—ironically, something that Dr. Guillotin had been hoping and praying against. The Guillotine was used for two hundred years after Dr. Guillotin’s death. Only in 1981, when the death penalty was voted out of French Law, was the Guillotine no longer used. So, you can see what it was like for those living in France during the French Revolution. It was a chaotic time when almost everyone was scared for her or his life, along with the lives of their family. If you were thought to be a criminal back then, in the beautiful city of Paris, speaking the wonderful French Tongue, you would’ve had to be quite careful indeed!

Fun Guillotine Facts:
• The whole thing weights around 1278 lbs., about the weight of a small car
• The Guillotine metal blade weighs 88.2 lbs, about the weight of one of your classmates.
• The height of Guillotine is around 14 feet, or about the top of a basketball backboard
• The falling blade has a rate of speed of about 21 feet/second, faster than a fastball in baseball
• The beheading takes 2/100 of a second, quicker than you blink
• The time for the Guillotine blade to fall down to the victim takes a 70th of a second, quicker than
you can say “Guillotine”