On this date in 1869, an impressive crowd packed Arras’s Grande Place for the beheading of Charles Carpentier.*
According to Bois de Justice, whose collection of guillotine arcana is second to none, this is one of the rare photographs extant of the guillotine in its more classically inspired public-scaffold setup.
… a square-shaped scaffold, thirteen feet long by about twelve feet six inches wide, supported on four posts six feet in height, and reached by a flight of ten steps. This scaffold is railed in on all sides, with an open balustrade, and at two-thirds of its length are fixed two upright parallel posts, surmounted by a cross-beam which goes by the name of the “chapeau.” They are thirteen feet high, and have a space of about fifteen inches between them. The knife, which is attached to the chapeau, is composed of a triangular blade of steel, fixed by means of three iron pins into a leaden haft, called the “mouton,” which gives it great weight. This mouton is nearly fourteen inches broad and the blade at its greatest width hardly a foot … The criminal, having mounted the scaffold, finds himself in front of the vertical bascule, which extends from just above his ankles to the middle of his breat, and facing him also is the lunette, with its movable portion raised. The executioner pushes the bascule, which falls into the horizontal position, and then pushes it along the table; the head of the victim seems, as it were, to throw itself into the semi-circular opening of the lunette, and an assistant immediately seizes hold of the hair. Two things now remain to be done — one is to press the button which acts upon the mechanism of the upper portion of the lunette, causing it to fall and secure the head of the criminal — the other is to set loose the knife which is to cut the head off. On decapitation taking place the head is thrown into the basket while the executioner, by a single motion slides the body down the inclined plane. The rapidity of the motion is almost inconceivable …
With the best part of a century under its lunette, the guillotine at this point had been improved from the revolutionary original that Marie Antoinette or Robespierre died upon. But it had the same theatrical concept.
However, an assistant executioner and carpenter by the name of Leon Berger was even then in the process of designing a more compact, less monumental version of the device. This technical advance met evolving French social mores with the 1870 abolition of the scaffold and its towering thirteen-foot chapeau in favor of “the Algerian model.”
From then on, the business was to be conducted by a traveling executioner with a portable guillotine at ground level, meant to reduce the carnival atmosphere and centralize administration of justice.
The upshot was that the French public beheading — sans scaffold — would persist for seven more decades, long enough not only for photography but for film.
* For murder and robbery on the highway, as reported by the September 16, 1869 Le Figaro. Noting the contrast with some recent acquittals of other criminals, the paper remarked apropos its skeptical stand on the death penalty that “though Carpentier is very unattractive at least from what we know of his case, we confess sincerely that his conviction was not sufficient to convince us [of capital punishment], because it proves once again how juries in different places arrive at different verdicts for the same types of crimes.” Le Figaro anticipated that regional inconsistencies in sentencing would contribute to ending the death penalty.