A Brief History
On April 25, 1792, a major step in the history of execution devices was made when a “highwayman” (robber) became the first victim of the Guillotine.
Revolutionary France struggled to find humanity amid the brutality of the revolution.
Other bizarre methods of execution that were made obsolete by the guillotine included the breaking wheel, which was a variety of application where a person would be strapped to a large wagon wheel and be clubbed, breaking his or her bones and eventually causing death. These previous methods were intended to torture and terrorize the victim and the public, whereas the intention of the guillotine was to kill the condemned person quickly and humanely without torture. (See related list for more methods of execution.)
Other methods of beheading using an axe or a sword had been used in the past, sometimes with less than efficient results, requiring multiple strokes to accomplish the mission while causing a sloppy spectacle. Other beheading machines had also been used such as the Scottish Maiden, the Gibbet, and the Mannaia, all roughly similar to the guillotine in that they dropped a large blade from a height of several feet onto the back of an immobilized neck to detach the head from the body. The guillotine differed from those by having its characteristic sharp slanted blade (45 degree angle) which cleanly lopped off the head which then dropped into a basket.
During the “Reign of Terror” phase of the French Revolution anywhere from 16,000 to 40,000 victims of the “National Razor” lost their heads, and the guillotine remained the national means of execution in France until 1981. The last public execution by guillotine was in 1939, and the last legal use of “Wooden Justice” was in 1977. Note: The guillotine had many nicknames in France and in other places where it was used. Some of the countries that have executed people by use of the guillotine include Belgium, Germany (including Nazi Germany, East and West Germany), Switzerland, Sweden, and Viet Nam. In 1996 a Georgia (US) legislator proposed adopting the guillotine for executions in that state!
Whether decapitated while face down (usually) or face up (rarely), speculation as to exactly how fast one dies when beheaded has never been resolved. Some claim the disembodied head lives on for several seconds and can see, hear, feel, smell and think. Others claim the massive trauma induces nearly instant loss of sensation and consciousness. Researchers have as yet been unable to determine the answer.
Today in the United States the debate over capital punishment rages on, with the latest point of contention being the effectiveness of lethal injection drugs to cause quick and painless death. Question for students (and subscribers): What do you think about capital punishment? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Gerould, Daniel. Guillotine: Its Legend and Lore. Blast Books, 1992.