Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Joseph-Ignace Guillotin: A Most Notorious Name

Dr Joseph-Ignace Guillotin (Saintes,  Charente-Maritime, France, 28th May 1738 - Paris, France, 26th March 1814)


Joseph-Ignace Guillotin


Well, it has not escaped my attention that one of the regular visitors to my salon thinks that I can be relied upon to feature the National Razor at least once each week. Never one to disappoint a gentleman, I could hard let the anniversary of the birth of the estimable Dr Joseph-Ignace Guillotin pass unmarked. I hope that a certain gentleman of Cork who visits the salon so often will appreciate that this post is written with him in mind! 

Although Guillotin's name is forever associated with the instrument of execution that was to became so infamous, the doctor himself was actually a medical man and politician. One of the ten Paris deputies in the Estates-General, Guillotin was passionate about reform of medicine in the country and became a regular at debates, where he was an eloquent and learned speaker.

On 10th October 1789 Guillotin attended a debate on the subject of capital punishment, a topic he held strong feelings on and something that he hoped to see stamped out forever. When it came to his turn to speak, Guillotin spoke out against the practise of agonising public executions and explained that, though he opposed that death penalty, he believed that the means of death should be as quick and humane as possible. To this end he proposed that decapitation should become the standard method of execution but not by axe or sword. Instead Guillotin posited that a machine might be developed that would "cut off your head in the twinkling of an eye and you never even feel it", and that every person sentenced to death would meet their maker by way of this machine. Crucial to his scheme was the importance of ensuring the condemned prisoner was afforded dignity, so there would be no public execution but rather a private, efficient procedure.


A model of the 1792 guillotine
A model of the 1792 guillotine

This would, he felt, make capital punishment a truly democratic act. All prisoners would be afforded a speedy, hopefully painless end that would see their dignity remain intact. Rich and poor alike would face this yet to be named device and the town squares of France would no longer witness gory public executions. In fact those who witnessed the debate found the idea that anyone could be painlessly decapitated utterly laughable and it would be two years before decapitation became the official method of execution in France.

Guillotin himself did not design the machine that came to bear his name and it was, in fact, initially developed by Dr Antoine Louis and built by Tobias Schmidt.  In 1792 the guillotine was erected in Place de Grève and the first man to meet his death beneath the blade was Jacques Nicolas Pelletier. Although he played no part in its design,  the device was inextricably linked with Joseph-Ignace Guillotin to the extent that, many years later, the doctor's family petitioned the government to rename the instrument. When their request was refused they simply changed the family name.

It is a popular myth that Guillotin died on the National Razor; in fact, although he was briefly incarcerated during the revolution, he passed away peacefully at home in his seventy sixth year.

21 comments:

  1. Knew nothing about him. Thanks for posting this.

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  2. Thank you for such a fascinating post, Catherine. Madame La Guillotine is infamous but I knew nothing of the man after whom it was named. I didn't know it was referred to as the National Razor.

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    1. It was one of my favourite posts to write and research too!

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  3. Great piece! I understand that Jacques Nicolas Pelletier was a highwayman. It's such a fascinating period of history.

    Thank you for sharing.

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    1. He was indeed a highwayman; I do have a morbid fascination with guillotine history, I am afraid!

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  4. Like you,Madame I have a morbid fascination with the guillotine and have several books on The Terror,the guillotine and executioners.Maybe a quick discussion with you will be in order next time I help push your coach out of the mud at Tyburn?

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    1. I think that sounds like a marvellous idea!

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  5. Love your salon, Madame! Dr Guillotin very much resembles the Princess Royal, Princess Anne, the queen's dear daughter.

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    1. A pleasure to meet you! You know, I hadn't spotted the resemblance but now I can't *not* see it.

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  6. From Rick Green; The device was used in Hull before Dr Guillotine introduced it to France.

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    1. It has a long and rich history, I'm musing on another guillotine-themed post now!

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  7. "Gruesomer" and "gruesomer" ...
    Apparently, Hitler used it for executions in Nazi Germany. He made it the state method of execution in the 1930s. Twenty cities across Germany enjoyed a clean shave—some 16,500 people met the barber of Paris.

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  8. Great post, thank you. We forget that he was actually trying to be kind! We had an early form of the guillotine in Halifax (UK) which was in use in the 17th C. The blade is still in the local museum.

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    1. It sounds as though you and I are just a short hop from one another, Melinda; I know the Halifax guillotine well!

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    2. Wow, another fascinating fact! Thanks. I do love a bit of history :)

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  9. If I understand the premise correctly, the executed person loses consciousness immediately, either from lack of oxygenation to the brain cells due to blood deprivation, or perhaps from some neurological factor such as the speed of the trauma exceeding the rate of nerve impulse transmission.
    Modern medical findings make this premise doubtful, inasmuch as the brain remains undamaged by oxygen deprivation for up to four minutes, and Near death Experience reports indicate that some visionary experience may still occur when there is no detectable electrical activity in the brain.

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    1. Thank you; it seems there's still much to learn...

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  10. What an intriguing story. I must admit that I always think of the famous Carry on Film featuring the guillotine... I will now regaling everyone I come across with this fascinating piece of history! Popping over from #ArchiveDay

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