1792: Three cadavers, to test the first guillotine

1 comment April 17th, 2017 Headsman

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.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",France,Guillotine,History,Innocent Bystanders,Known But To God,Milestones,Posthumous Executions

Tags: , , , , , , ,

1792: Nicolas Pelletier, Madame Guillotine’s first kiss

15 comments April 25th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1792 — a surprisingly late date, just nine months before the king himself would die under its blade — debuted the iconic symbol of the French Revolution, the guillotine.

Today, it turned a thief and killer named Nicolas Pelletier from thug to trivia. Much more illustrious names would follow, and anon.

Though predecessors of the grim machine had been used centuries before in Scotland, Italy and Switzerland, the guillotine ushered in a distinctly modern era of technological application to capital punishment informed by egalitarianism — prior to the French Revolution, nobles and commoners had different modes of execution — and by legal and medical expertise aimed at minimizing pain.*

In fact, the device’s namesake, physician Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, opposed the death penalty altogether; he approved scientific and “painless” execution as a stopgap measure.**

For his troubles, the humane doctor’s name became synonymous with terror, enough so that his descendants changed their handle. One wonders how the doctor judged his own legacy; certainly better for any condemned person to die on the guillotine than the breaking wheel, but the mechanical efficiency of the “French razor” and the depersonalization of the condemned in relation to the headsman and the witnesses also made possible the mass executions the French Revolution is known for.

Singular Guillotin, respectable practitioner: doomed by a satiric destiny to the strangest immortal glory that ever kept obscure mortal from his resting-place, the bosom of oblivion! … “With my machine, Messieurs, I whisk off your head (vous fais sauter la tete) in a twinkling, and you have no pain;”–whereat they all laugh. (Moniteur Newspaper, of December 1st, 1789 (in Histoire Parlementaire).) Unfortunate Doctor! For two-and-twenty years he, unguillotined, shall near nothing but guillotine, see nothing but guillotine; then dying, shall through long centuries wander, as it were, a disconsolate ghost, on the wrong side of Styx and Lethe; his name like to outlive Caesar’s.

Carlye

Whither the ethical role of the physician dedicated to life in the protocol of dishing out death? It’s a strikingly current dilemma.

Want to know more about how the guillotine was built? Want to build your own?

* Pain reduction was distinctly not the order of the day under the ancien regime. Often, quite the opposite.

** It was still another physician, Antoine Louis, who actually designed the decapitation machine; for a time, it was known as the Louisette. The working model was built from Louis’ design by a piano maker — and it may be more than coincidence that the science of constructing this mechanically complex musical instrument was also bursting with creativity on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Milestones,Murder,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Theft

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,


Calendar

July 2019
M T W T F S S
« Jun    
1234567
891011121314
15161718192021
22232425262728
293031  

Archives

Categories

Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!