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|
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.