The name “guillotine” dates to the 1790s and the French Revolution, but similar execution machines had already been in existence for centuries. A beheading device called the “planke” was used in Germany and Flanders during the Middle Ages, and the English had a sliding axe known as the Halifax Gibbet, which may have been lopping off heads all the way back to antiquity. The French guillotine was likely inspired by two earlier machines: the Renaissance-era “mannaia” from Italy, and the notorious “Scottish Maiden,” which claimed the lives of some 120 people between the 16th and 18th centuries. Evidence also shows that primitive guillotines may have been in use in France long before the days of the French Revolution.
The origins of the French guillotine date back to late-1789, when Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin proposed that the French government adopt a gentler method of execution. Although he was personally opposed to capital punishment, Guillotin argued that decapitation by a lightning-quick machine would be more humane and egalitarian than sword and axe beheadings, which were often botched. He later helped oversee the development of the first prototype, an imposing machine designed by French doctor Antoine Louis and built by a German harpsichord maker named Tobias Schmidt. The device claimed its first official victim in April 1792, and quickly became known as the “guillotine”—much to the horror of its supposed inventor. Guillotin tried to distance himself from the machine during the guillotine hysteria of the 1790s, and his family later unsuccessfully petitioned the French government to change its name in the early 19th century.
During the Reign of Terror of the mid-1790s, thousands of “enemies of the French revolution” met their end by the guillotine’s blade. Some members of the public initially complained that the machine was too quick and clinical, but before long the process had evolved into high entertainment. People came to the place de la Revolution in droves to watch the guillotine do its grisly work, and the machine was honored in countless songs, jokes and poems. Spectators could buy souvenirs, read a program listing the names of the victims, or even grab a quick bite to eat at a nearby restaurant called “Cabaret de la Guillotine.” Some people attended on a daily basis, most famously the “Tricoteuses,” a group of morbid women who supposedly sat beside the scaffold and knitted in between beheadings. The theater even extended to the condemned. Many people offered sarcastic quips or defiant last words before being executed, and others danced their way up the steps of the scaffold. Fascination with the guillotine waned at the end of the 18th century, but public beheadings continued in France until 1939.
Children often attended guillotine executions, and some may have even played with their own miniature guillotines at home. During the 1790s, a two-foot-tall, replica blade-and-timbers was a popular toy in France. Kids used the fully operational guillotines to decapitate dolls or even small rodents, and some towns eventually banned them out of fear that they were a vicious influence. Novelty guillotines also found their way onto some upper class dinner tables, where they were used as bread and vegetable slicers.
As the fame of the guillotine grew, so too did the reputations of its operators. Executioners won a great deal of notoriety during the French Revolution, when they were closely judged on how quickly and precisely they could orchestrate multiple beheadings. The job was often a family business. Multiple generations of the famed Sanson family served as state executioner from 1792 to 1847, and were responsible for dropping the blade on King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, among thousands of others. During the 19th and 20th centuries, the role of chief headsman fell to Louis and Anatole Deibler, a father and son pair whose combined tenure extended from 1879 to 1939. People often chanted the Sansons’ and Deiblers’ names in the streets, and their choice of clothing on the scaffold was known to inspire fashion trends. Executioners were also a subject of morbid fascination in the criminal underworld. According to some accounts, gangsters and other hoods would get tattoos with grim slogans such as, “My Head Goes To Deibler.”
From the very beginning of its use, speculation abounded over whether the heads of the guillotined remained conscious after being cut off. The debate reached new heights in 1793, when an assistant executioner slapped the face of one of his victims’ heads and spectators claimed to see its cheeks flush in anger. Doctors later asked the condemned to try to blink or leave one eye open after their execution to prove they could still move, and others yelled the deceased’s name or exposed their heads to candle flames and ammonia to see if they would react. In 1880, a doctor named Dassy de Lignieres even had blood pumped into the head of a guillotined child murderer to find out if it would come back to life and speak. The ghastly experiments were put to a stop in the 20th century, but studies on rats have since found that brain activity may continue for around four seconds after decapitation.
The guillotine is most famously associated with revolutionary France, but it may have claimed just as many lives in Germany during the Third Reich. Adolf Hitler made the guillotine a state method of execution in the 1930s, and ordered that 20 of the machines be placed in cities across Germany. According to Nazi records, the guillotine was eventually used to execute some 16,500 people between 1933 and 1945, many of them resistance fighters and political dissidents.
The guillotine remained France’s state method of capital punishment well into the late 20th century. Convicted murderer Hamida Djandoubi became the last person to meet his end by the “National Razor” after he was executed by the guillotine in 1977. Still, the machine’s 189-year reign only officially came to an end in September 1981, when France abolished capital punishment for good.