Tag Archives: death tech

1792: Three cadavers, to test the first guillotine

On this date in 1792, the French Revolution’s iconic execution machine made its quiet experimental debut on the grounds of a suburban Paris hospital.

For all the long and terrible shadow it would cast, the first guillotine was a ridiculous rush job — courtesy of a legislature too squeamish to deal in the particulars of the humane head-chopper it had insisted upon. A ghastly farce ensued, as detailed by Paul Friedland in his Seeing Justice Done: The Age of Spectacular Capital Punishment in France,* wherein during a matter of weeks in the spring of 1792 the thing was practically willed into existence by French physician Antoine Louis by virtue of being the one guy who was willing to get into the technical journals on the matter of crunching a heavy blade through a man’s spine.**

The invention would initially be known as a louisette or louison in his honor, before that moniker was supplanted by the surname of a different physician who had become known (derisively, at first) for proposing a mechanical beheading device: Joseph-Ignace Guillotin.

Lawmakers’ shyness stems as Friedland sees it from their ambivalence about the entire project of public executions with their unruly rabble, pornographically agape: in this courtly sketch of the proposed machine, even the executioner — and this behavior is explicit in its original caption — coyly averts his eyes as his sword-arm releases the blade.

It was on March 20, 1792 that Assembly’s Committee on Legislation authorized deploying the as-yet uninvented device and “almost immediately, there followed an urgent, almost frenzied effort to build a decapitating machine as quickly as possible.” Executions remained suspended in the interim but Louis worked with dispatch, and an efficient carpenter named Guidon,† and the device performed its first real execution a mere five weeks after the enabling legislation, on April 25.

This date was its dry run, courtesy of a few fresh cadavers at the BicĂȘtre Hospital. That facility’s chief surgeon, one Cullerier, was very happy to make Dr. Louis’s arrangements.

Sir,

You will find at Bicetre all the facilities that you desire for the trial of a machine that humanity cannot see without shuddering, but which justice and the welfare of society make necessary. I will keep the corpses of those unfortunates who die between today and Monday. I will arrange the amphitheater … [and if] the ceiling does not accommodate the height of the machine, I can make use of a little isolated courtyard situated next to the amphitheater. The honor that you are bestowing on the House of Bicetre, Sir, is a very nice gift that you are giving me, but it would be even more so if you wished to accept a simple and frugal meal, such as a bachelor can offer.

Several more VIPs multiplied the honor. Rejoining Friedland’s narrative,

On April 17 the first trial of the guillotine took place. On hand to witness the event were: Sanson, the executioner of Paris, along with his son and an aide; the carpenter who built the machine and his aides; and several members of the medical establishment including Drs. Louis, Cullerier, and Pierre Jean George Cabanis, the prominent physician and friend of Mirabeau. Reportedly also in attendance that day were several members of the National Assembly and last, but certainly not least, an individual who was both a politician and a physician: Dr. Guillotin himself. By all accounts the trial was a wonderful success. As Dr. Louis enthused in his report to [politician and intellectual Pierre-Louis] Roederer, the machine decapitated three cadavers “so neatly that one was astonished by the force and celerity of its action.” Dr. Cabanis would later describe the blade’s descent as having “severed the heads faster than one could see, and the bones were cleanly cut.”

The reports ring with awe, and well they might. For an Enlightenment audience that theretofore had known beheadings only via the error-prone action of an executioner’s muscle, it must have been a wondrous spectacle, a triumph of ingenuity and philosophy for a humane new age.

* Executed Today long ago interviewed Dr. Friedland about this book.

** A rival proposal called for automating death via a sort of proto-gas chamber: the executioner to “attach the condemned by the neck, feet, and hands behind the back [to a post on the scaffold], all of which he would cover or enclose in a kind of booth, 5 feet square, equipped with panes of glass on all four sides and with a tight-fitting cap on top … charcoal, sulfur, and other materials that cause asphyxiation could be introduced into the booth by means of an inverted funnel in such a way that the condemned would suffocate and expire instantaneously.” Yet another proposal called for a strangling machine.

† “Who charged 5,500 francs for it,” report the memoirs of the Sansons, which also notes that by way of experimentation, two of the cadavers were beheaded with the familiar-to-us oblique knife, and the third less satisfactorily with a crescent-shaped alternative.

1990: Charles Coleman, the first lethal injection in Oklahoma

Despite our occasional predilection for the odd “literally executed today” post, this macabre chronicle has never really aspired to focus on our subject matter’s breaking-news beat.

Nonetheless, the landscape of the death penalty has evolved noticeably in the years since we launched on Halloween 2007. Executions are down in China, but up in Saudi Arabia and Iran; India has ended a long death penalty hiatus; Pakistan began, sustained, and dramatically repudiated a death penalty moratorium.

And in the United States, the prevailing execution method, lethal injection, has fallen under a barrage of legal and political challenges.

Like the guillotine, the electric chair, the gas chamber, and weirder contraptions, the prick of the needle had once been sold as a Solomonic compromise between the executioner and his critics: you still get to kill a guy, but now he doesn’t feel a thing. This time we really mean it!

Lethal injection got some run in the Nazi T-4 euthanasia program but was first approved for regular judicial executions by Oklahoma in 1977, and first used by Texas in 1982. Where gas and electricity transferred industrial technology to the death chamber, with great metal chairs and huge switches like Dr. Frankenstein’s lab, injection analogized medicine: silent and light, and so sterile that the technicians would hygienically swab the skin before they pushed in the death-dealing needle.

Most of all it was sterile for the viewers, who had occasionally been subjected under the other processes to nauseating botches: men who were supposed to be dying instantly instead thrashing wildly away, catching fire, gushing blood, or requiring jolt after jolt to finish off. The electric chair surely owes its iconic cultural position in part to its reputation for spectacular failures.

When capital punishment got its 1970s reboot, it only seemed natural to think about cleaning up the how along with the why. Nearly everyone now had the experience of anaesthetic; it was natural to think that you could just put a man down like the family dog and not have any mess to clean up afterwards.

“Being a former farmer and horse raiser, I know what it’s like to try to eliminate an injured horse by shooting him,” future president Ronald Reagan had said in proposing the technology while he was still governor of California in 1973. “Now you call the veterinarian and the vet gives it a shot and the horse goes to sleep. That’s it.”

As executions surged in the 1990s, lethal injection was thoroughly displacing America’s previous humane technologies to become the overwhelmingly predominant method.


Data via the Death Penalty Information Center’s executions database.

And the state of Oklahoma, which had been first with a lethal injection law back in ’77, finally started rolling out gurneys — when it put murder Charles Troy Coleman to death with the needle on September 10, 1990. It was Oklahoma’s first execution in 24 years.*

It was Oklahoma’s medical examiner Jay Chapman who had formulated the three-drug cocktail that for a long time comprised the definitive lethal injection protocol: the short-acting barbiturate sodium thiopental, followed by the paralytic drug pancuronium bromide, capped with potassium chloride to stop the heart. Why three drugs, Human Rights Watch later asked him? “Why not?” Chapman was not a pharmacologist and had little expertise with the drugs in question.

Nevertheless, his process “could not be construed as cruel and unusual punishment since it is merely the extreme of procedures done daily around the world for surgical procedures,” Chapman insisted when he proposed it. “It’s simply an extreme form of anesthesia.”

Extreme anaesthesia. Was it really?

Even at Coleman’s death, observers saw it differently.

“I saw him choke and gasp and struggle for air,” said Joe Ward, an investigator in the public defender’s office. “It looked like he was choking to death. He looked over … and mouthed the words, ‘I love you.’ Then he looked straight back up and started choking.” Reporter Art Cox, by contrast, viewed it as “a very easy death … a very cold death, very antiseptic.”

Oklahoma has executed well over 100 people since Charles Coleman but if anything the uncertainty about that “easy” and “antiseptic” death has only grown — in the Sooner state and elsewhere.

And the question has become quite urgent during the lifetime of this blog as political pressure on manufacturers has dried up the supply of sodium thiopental, forcing the many states using lethal injection to scramble for a variety of new drug sequences that are basically being invented on the fly and sussed out with live experimentation on the next death row prisoner in the queue.

Oklahoma’s version was to switch from sodium thiopental to pentobarbital; in January 2014, a man being executed with pentobarbital exclaimed, “I feel my whole body burning.”. Months later, the manufacturer of that drug also cut off the supply, unwilling to be party to the executions it facilitated.

So Oklahoma switched to a third anaesthetic, midazolam, a drug whose execution debut took place in Florida in 2013. The state has also tried to shield its suppliers from anti-death penalty campaigners with a secrecy law.

Proceeding on a mad catch-as-can basis, Oklahoma proceeded to horribly botch its midazolam executions, throwing its new procedure right back to the courts. Just this past June, a divided U.S. Supreme Court narrowly approved the continued use of its midazolam cocktail, which a dissenting justice savaged as “the chemical equivalent of being burned alive.”

It’s a story still being written before our eyes — a long quarter-century after Charles Coleman premiered Oklahoma’s modern era of executions on this date in 1990.

* The last previous execution in Oklahoma was that of James French in 1966.