10 Gruesome Facts about the Guillotine (The Beheading Machine)

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Decapitating or beheading was one of the most gruesome methods used for the execution of the convicts in the 17th century as the human head has always been considered the prized trophy. Many tools were being used for decapitating human. It was done either by Sword or by an Axe as the most common tool.

The drawback was it was more painful and was considered inhumane as sometimes it took 2-3 strikes to behead the convict. The need for a machine that can decapitate the convict in a single swift swing arose. The French people ended up in inventing the Guillotine. So without further ado here are some gruesome facts about this killing giant.

Origin of Beheading Machine

guillotine facts
Image Credit: Johann Jaritz

Though the name Guillotine dates back 1790s French Revolution, the early signs of this killing machine can be traced much before it during middle age in Europe. It was in existence for centuries under different names such as Halifax Gibbet (used by the English), Planke (used in Germany), Manaia (used in Italy), Scottish Maiden (used during 16th to 18th century), and so on.

The Guillotine can be considered as the borrowed concept of these middle-aged beheading machines. It is a matter of argument that this machine has also been used in France before the French Revolution.

History of Guillotine

guillotine history
Image Source: Daderot

In 1789 French physician Joseph Ignace Guillotine gave the idea of using such a machine that can make capital punishment less painful in keeping with human rights. The idea was not taken into effect at that time.

In 1791 when the French Revolution progressed, the idea attracted the sight of lawmakers. In 1792, Antoine Louis (the secretary of the Academy of Surgeons) worked in the direction of making this device seen in France. Tobias Schmidt, a German Piano Maker made the model of the machine.

Initially, the machine was named Louisette but later named after the name of the person who first gave the idea of it. Guillotine never wanted the machine to be named after him.

The first execution was done in April 1792 of a thief, Nicolas Pelletier who was beheaded by Guillotine.   

The most famous guillotined was done in 1793 of King Louis XVI and his queen Marie Antoinette for treason. They were convicted by the revolutionary government.   

The Design and Structure of the Killing Machine

The Guillotine was constructed with its base called a scaffold. The base included post supports, the floorboards, the interconnecting beams and the staircase to reach the platform. An open railing was also assembled on the three sides of the scaffold and on one side there was staircase for entry.

Besides the platform, a razor-sharp steel blade and mouton were manufactured by a skilled blacksmith. The blade was then screwed with the mouton.

On the stage, there was a crossbar with two separate pieces of wood having a big hole to contain the victim’s neck. Leather straps were on both sides to tie the victim’s hands and also a strap to tie down the back and legs.  

The major spectator’s event of the 1790s

guillotine spectator event

Guillotine execution was one of the major spectator events of the era of 1790s. The razor-sharp blades of this machine ended thousands of lives of the foes of the French Revolution.

Gradually the beheading execution became a major event for gathering. Hundreds of people used to watch the Guillotine execution around the stage as a source of entertainment. The event became so popular that poems, stories, and even jokes were written and told during the era.

Fascination with the Guillotine ended until the end of the 18th century but the public execution remained in existence till 1939 in France.

Miniature Guillotine (The popular children’s toy)

guillotine toy cutter

The fascination with the Guillotine was at its peak during that time, the children also use to gather around the stage of execution to witness the decapitating the human head. They also used to play with their own miniature Guillotines which was a popular toy among the children during those days.

A replica of Guillotine which was about 2 feet long with a replica of blade and timber was a popular toy that was used by the children for beheading the dolls. The small model of this machine also took place at the dining table of the upper-class people who used to slice the vegetables and fruits with it.

Celebrity Status to the Executioners

Guillotine celebrity status
Image Credit: Peter d’Aprix

With the increasing fame of Guillotine, the popularity of its operators or executioners also arose. They enjoyed a celebrity status nationwide. Some executioners received notoriety during the French Revolution when their work was closely judged. The popularity of the executioners depended on how quickly and neatly they can behead a person.  Some had made it a family business. 

The most famous as the Sanson family who adopted Guillotine execution as the occupation for multiple generations starting from 1792 to 1847. Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI had also been executed by this family. Some people also engraved the tattoos of Guillotine on their bodies with slogans.        

Marie Tussaud (The collector of decapitated heads)

madame tussaud
Image Credit: Wellcome blog post

Marie Grosholtz better known by her married name Madame Tussaud was one of the best French sculpture artists at the time of French revolution. She used to collect heads of beheaded people and used to dip them into molten wax to form effigies. 

The people use to buy them for protests during the revolution thus made Madame Tussaud a famous figure those days. She loaded her waxworks in a train and started a touring exhibition of the British Isles which was lasted for about 30 years. These sculptures became the foundation of an empire which is known as Madame Tussauds Wax Museums which can be found all over the world.

Guillotine Execution in Nazi Germany

guillotine unknown facts
Image Credit: Mball93

France was not the only country that had used Guillotine for execution. Germany, during Nazi Reign, also executed several lives by making use of this life taking machine. 

Adolf Hitler, the most famous dictator of the history made Guillotine execution a state method of the death penalty during the 1930s – 1940s. Total 20 Guillotines were installed at different locations during Nazi Rule and about 16500 people including men and women were executed during that time according to Nazi records. Most of these people were resistance fighters and political dissidents.              

The last Guillotine Execution

The killing machine remained the state method of execution or capital punishment until the late 20th century. The National Razor was last used in 1977 on the head of a convicted murderer named Hamida Djandaubi. Also, this was the last time when Guillotine last time used in any country in the world. 

In 1981, France abolished capital punishment and hence the use of this gruesome machine had been stopped.        

The studies on the heads of condemned

The studies on the topic of the consciousness of the beheaded heads was started since the initial days of the use of Guillotine.  The arguments reached at its peak during 1793 whether the beheaded heads retain consciousness for some time or not since the cut off procedure was too quick and swift. It took only .005 seconds to behead a person with Guillotine so the chances of remaining consciousness could be possible.

The Conclusion

We have dived into the world of some bizarre facts of the Guillotine the so-called National Razor of Nazi times.  Hope you have gained some new information about this decapitating method of using Guillotine.

Please comment because I would love to know you thoughts about Guillotine, The French Beheading Machine.


Hi , I am a computer engineering graduate and a professional Digital Marketing Expert.

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