Few devices conjure up images of a swift and bloody death like the sight of a guillotine. The infamous contraption developed as an execution instrument during the French Revolution.
The guillotine, championed by Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin as an effective and humane method of carrying out a death sentence, reflected the new French ideals of equality for all persons. Dr. Guillotin served on a committee commissioned to select a form of capital punishment that would not inflict pain, yet would gain the fear and respect of all people. He drew a rendering of a machine that would behead a victim by quickly dropping a large blade over the condemned person’s neck. The basic concept of this device was not new. Similar equipment had been used for years in other countries, but Dr. Guillotin created an advanced version that would bring about a faster and more reliable execution. The committee rejected his suggestion.
People all across France, however, were calling for a less brutal and more dignified form of capital punishment. Many supported the use of what would soon be known as the guillotine. Engineers worked on the first model and, in 1792, Nicholas-Jacques Pelletier became the first person to be executed by guillotine.
Soon afterwards, between 1793 and 1794, France fell into a state of political upheaval and revolution. The King and Queen were executed, and the newly formed Committee of Public Safety took charge of the government under the leadership of Maximilien Robespierre. Robespierre led the committee to execute thousands of people for anything he considered to be a “crime against liberty.” People were sent to the guillotine without trial and often with very little apparent cause. The word of Robespierre was enough for any person to be sentenced to death. This period of time became known as the “Reign of Terror.”
By 1794, many considered Robespierre a threat to the nation. He was thrown out of power and put to death by the same device to which he had sent countless others. The terror was over, but the guillotine continued to execute French prisoners until 1977, when a torturer-murderer named Hamida Djandoubi became the last person to be put to death in this way. Guillotines were still a valid method of execution in France until 1981, when capital punishment was officially abolished.