Friday 1 December 2023


While the French revolution gave the world 'Liberty , Equality and Fraternity' which reverberated throughout the world , though necessarily immediately like in India, it also gave a killing tool some sort of a status in the French  society! Guillotine which was promoted by a surgeon became respectable at that time since it symbolized equality in  death also! When it was introduced in 1789 by Dr.Joseph Ignace Guillotin as a lawmaker this was the logic behind and the name of the equipment got stuck to the family name.Till capital punishment was stopped recently in France in 1981, Guillotine was continued to be used.

As the Guillotine way of execution which was quick and considered to be more humane compared to the various ways of execution existed till those days, the King Louis XVI was slaughtered in 1793 in public, declaring the country to be republic followed by queen Marie Antoinette in the same year! 

During the days of 'Reign of Terror' (1793-94) fight among revolutionaries themselves following execution of the King took place while Jacobin's eventually took control, 40000 such executions took place using Guillotin.Such executions were popular among the masses as an entertainment and staged in public.

How Guillotin came into France...

The story of beheading was different in the world.At least 500 years before Guillotine was put into practice in France, similar but more crude and other ways of executions were there in Ireland ,Italy and England. "Planke" of Germany, Scottish "Maiden"  and "Mannaia' of Italy are some of them. "Halifax Gibbet" was used in England in the 12th century.

In 1790 Dr Joseph Ignace Guillotin did not invent the machine but as a lawmaker promoted  it that death penalty shall be equal to all regardless of crimes committed or social ranking of the person who did it!In fact this machine was invented by another surgeon Antonie Louis.Initially the machine was called as Louisette.

 Dr. Guillotin presented his six articles as follows and became law in France.Quote:

1. Offences of the same kind will be punished by the same kind of penalty.

2. In all cases where the law imposes the death penalty on an accused person, the punishment shall be the same, whatever the nature of the offence of which he is guilty; the criminal shall be decapitated; this will be done solely by means of a simple mechanism.

3. In view of the personal character of crime, no punishment of a guilty person shall involve and discredit to his family. The honour of those belonging to him shall be in no way be soiled, and they shall continue to be no less admissible to any kind of profession, employment and public function.

4. No one shall reproach a citizen with any punishment imposed on one of his relatives. Whosoever ventures to do so shall be publicly reprimanded by the judge. The sentence imposed on him shall be written up on the offender's door. Moreover, it shall be written up on the pillory and remain there for a period of three months.

Confiscation of the condemned person's property shall in no case be imposed.

6. The corpse of an executed man shall be handed over to his family on their request. In every case, he shall be allowed normal burial and no reference shall be made on the register to the nature of his death.Unquote.

The machine...

The device releases a sharp blade from a height of 226 centimeters.With the combined weight of the blade and counter the Guillotine can cut through the neck of a human being within .005 seconds!According to Guillotine, this invention was one of the best deals of the revolution-humane,equalizing and scientific!A guillotine blade that was originally used during revolution for executions is exhibited in Paris at the Police Museum.Still it seems like a star attraction!

By the time joseph Guillotin died at his age of 75, the machine had become synonymous with terror with his family name stuck to it. After his death , his relatives approached the Government to change the name of the machine which was rejected.It could be a paradox in history that instead the family changed the name!

Earrings and Tricoteuses of the revolution period

Tricoteuses is a French term used to describe 'a knitting woman' who used to flock in thousands and watch the live executions staged in public while continuing to knit!It became a nickname to describe the women who sat to watch the executions by guillotine and cooly knit enjoying the scenario! The liberty cap they knit those days became infamously popular. Charles Dickens in his famous novel 'A Tale of Two Cities ' has popularized the images of Tricoteuses profusely. Even fashion was influenced by the  earrings modelled after Guillotine as seen above!!

Ironically Hitler made the Guillotine the state method of execution in the 1930s and 40s with 20 such machines placed across the German cities killing thousands!

Tailpiece....The Cross

Having written about Guillotine and how it was regarded as a symbol of equality on death in a modern society in France and elsewhere, if I skip about a killing device which has become arguably the most popular in the history of the world, I would be unfair.The Cross, the most important symbol of Christianity  not only remains a symbol of  hope and peace... but also revered among Christians for last 2000 years!