The Guillotine 1792 - 1977.

Dr. Joseph Ignace Guillotin did not invent the execution machine that bears his name.
A similar device known as the Halifax Gibbet had been in use in that Yorkshire town since 1286 and continued until 1650. It was noticed by a Scotsman, James Douglas Earl of Morton, who had one built in Edinburgh in 1556, which became known as the Maiden and remained in use until 1710.
There is a credible recording of an execution by a similar machine in Milan in 1702, and there are paintings of a guillotine like machine used in Nuremberg in the mid 1500's.

However, it was Dr. Guillotin (Deputy of Paris) who on October the 10th, 1789 proposed to the Constituent Assembly that all condemned criminals should be beheaded on the grounds of humanity and egalité (equality). Beheading was seen as by far the most humane method of execution at the time and was allowed to people of noble birth in many countries. Ordinary prisoners were slowly hanged, broken on the wheel (an horrendously cruel form of execution) or burnt at the stake. The idea of a standardised, quick and humane death was much more in line with revolutionary thinking.
The Constituent Assembly duly passed a decree making beheading the only form of execution on the 25th of March 1791, and this came into law on the 25th of  March 1792. There was a small problem to this, as was indicated by the then official executioner, Sanson, who pointed out the impracticality of executing all condemned persons by the sword. Beheading requires a skilled executioner with a lot of strength, a very steady hand and a good eye, if it is to sever the criminal's head with a single stroke. Sanson proved to be right, as during the Terror, the rate of executions reached staggering proportions, well beyond the capacity of the few skilled headsmen to carry out.
It was clear that some sort of machine was required and after consultation with Dr. Antoine Louis, the Secretary of the Academy of Surgery, such a machine was devised and built. It was initially known as the louisson or louisette, but no doubt, much to the relief of the good surgeon took on the name of its proposer and became known as the guillotine.
The first one was built in Paris by one Tobias Schmidt, a German engineer, and was ready for testing using recently deceased bodies from the hospital of Bicerte on the 17thof April 1792.
It had two large uprights joined by a beam at the top and erected on a platform reached by 24 steps. The whole contraption was painted a dull blood red and the weighted blade ran in grooves in the uprights which were greased with tallow. However, it worked well enough and its first execution was that of Nicholas-Jacques Pelletier for robbery with violence on the 25th of April 1792 in the Place de Greve. The execution went according to plan with his head being severed at the first stroke.
Guillotines were soon supplied to all Departments in France and models were made as children's toys and even as earrings for women. Experiments were made with a 45 degree angled blade and also a rounded blade but this proved unsatisfactory and the angled blade became the standard pattern, in use until the abolition of capital punishment in France.

The "Terror" began on the 10th of August and trade for the guillotine increased rapidly. In the 13 month period, May 1793-June 1794, no less than 1,225 people were executed in Paris. The Place de Greve saw the first use of the guillotine on the 22nd of August 1792 for ordinary criminals. Political offenders were executed at the Place de Carrousel. Virtually the whole French aristocracy were sent to the guillotine during the French Revolution. On the 21st of January 1793, it was erected for the first time in the Place de la Revolution for the execution of King Louis XVI, its most famous victim. This was also the place of execution for such famous women as Marie Antoinette and Charlotte Corday. Charlotte was condemned after a brief trial for stabbing to death Jean-Paul Marat, one of the revolution's leaders. She was executed on the evening of the 17th of July 1793 and upon arrival at the Place de la Revolution in the usual tumbrel (horse drawn cart), asked Sansom (her executioner) to be allowed to look at the guillotine as she hadn't seen one before and felt that it was of interest to someone in her position! She was an attractive and brave 24 year old who was seen as something of a martyr by many.
In June of 1793, the guillotine was temporarily moved to the Place St. Antoine where 96 people were decapitated in five days. Due to protests from local traders, it was then moved to the Barriere Ranverse where 1,270 people were executed in under two months. It returned to the Place de la Revolution for the execution of the famous revolutionary, Robespierre, and 21 of his followers on the 28th of July. The guillotine was also being used in all the other French cities with great frequency at this time and many thousands of people fell victim to it.

France was not the only country to adopt the guillotine as many other governments saw the advantages in speed and humanity of it compared to the other methods then available. It was used by Algeria, Belgium, Germany, Greece, Italy up to 1875, Luxembourg, Monaco, Switzerland up to 1940, Sweden, Tunisia and Vietnam, which was then called Indo China and was under French control. The Papal States in Italy used the guillotine from 1814 to 1870 for 369 executions.  Sweden purchased a guillotine from France in 1903 so that they could end decapitation by the axe. This machine was used only once for Sweden’s last execution, that of Johan Ander at Långholmen in Stockholm on the 23rd of November 1910.

More people were guillotined in Germany during Hitler’s time, than in France during the whole of the French revolution. The guillotine had been in use in some parts of Germany long before Hitler came to power. The Rhine province had introduced it as far back as 1798. The province of Bavaria used it from 1854, Saxony and Wuerttemberg from 1853 and 1854 respectively and Baden from 1857. From 1871, German law stated that all condemned criminals must be decapitated but allowed both the axe and the guillotine. Executions were fairly infrequent during the early years of the 20th century, however, increased dramatically particularly between 1938 and 1945. On the 14th of October 1936, Adolf Hitler decreed that in future that criminals and those who opposed his regime should suffer death by either guillotining or hanging. But since Germany did not yet have such machines in every place of execution, there was a transition period until 1938. Hitler ordered and had 20 guillotines built and dispersed to prisons around Germany and Austria. He also greatly increased the number of crimes punishable by death. Between 1933 and 1944, a total of 13,405 death sentences were passed. Of these, 11,881 were carried out. In 1940 alone, some 900 German civilians were put to death. In 1941, the minimum age for execution was reduced to just 14 years.
The execution rate had risen to over 5,000 by 1943. Between 1943 and 1945, the People's Courts sentenced around 7,000 people to death. In the first few months of 1945, some 800 people were executed, over 400 of them German citizens. Nazi executioners could guillotine a prisoner every three minutes if required, which it often was. It has been claimed that it took just 90 minutes to guillotine 75 prisoners at Breslau Prison.  The Nazis created a number of Execution Centers to which persons were brought who had been sentenced in the areas surrounding the Centers.
There the guillotine was permanently installed, as opposed to the earlier organization which had demanded that the executioner come to the place where the prisoner was, erect his machine and kill him there.

In 1940, the following organization was established:
At Berlin-Plötzensee executions were held for the area of Berlin, at Brandenburg for Brandenburg and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, at Breslau for Silesia, at Dresden for Saxonia and a part of Czechia.
Frankfurt(Main)-Preungesheim was the execution centre for Hesse, Hamburg served Hamburg, Kiel, and part of Northern Germany, as did Cologne for the Rhineland, and Königsberg for East Prussia.
Munich dealt with prisoners from Bavaria and Tyrol, with Posen for Silesia, Stuttgart for Suebia and Weimar for Thuringia, Wolfenbüttel for Westphalia and the parts of Northern Germany not covered by Hamburg or Weimar.
Four executioners were appointed:
One for Berlin-Plötzensee and Brandenburg: Wilhelm Röttger (1942-45), Johann Reichhart for Dresden, Frankfurt, Munich, Stuttgart and Vienna, possibly Friedrich Hehr for Hamburg, Cologne, Weimar, and Wolfenbüttel and an unknown man for Breslau, Königsberg, and Posen.

Friedrich Hehr continued in the role of executioner for the British after 1945 at Hamburg and Wolfenbüttel and guillotined 87 persons at the latter prison who had been sentenced by Military Government Courts (not to be confused with Control Commission Courts or Military Tribunals).

In Austria, 1,377 men and women were guillotined between 1938 and 1945 after sentence by the Special Court or People’ Tribunal in Vienna. These Special Courts had replaced the ordinary courts in 1939. Most of them were executed for opposing the Nazis and for treason. It is thought that in all, some 16,000 people were guillotined by the Nazis. For accounts of some of these executions click here.
After the war, the Allies permitted the use of the guillotine for German nationals and even had some new ones constructed by the company of Fritz and Otto Tiggeman.  West Germany (as it became) abolished capital punishment in 1951, the last guillotining of Berthold Wehmeyer, taking place on the 11th of May 1949. East Germany continued to use the guillotine until 1967, but records of executions there are very sketchy.

All guillotines follow the same basic pattern, but the modern ones did not have a scaffold for the condemned to climb and were placed directly on the ground. As with the gallows in Britain, this was found to be a great improvement, due to the difficulty of getting an often terrified person with their hands strapped behind them up a flight of steps.
French guillotines had two uprights, approximately 14 feet 9 inches (4500 mm) high and 15 inches (370 mm) apart, with metal lined grooves to ensure free movement of the triangular shaped weighted blade which ran on a four wheeled carriage. The substantial frame is set perfectly level using spirit levels after the guillotine is erected, to prevent the blade jamming.
At right angles to the uprights, is a bench shaped structure, about 800 mm from the ground, at the end of which is the bascule. This is a hinged board which stands upright to receive the prisoner who is then strapped to it before the bascule is turned to the horizontal and slid forward bringing the prisoner's head into the lunette. The lunette is formed in two halves each with a semicircular cut out for the neck. When the victim is correctly positioned in the lower half, the top half is lowered into position to prevent them moving.
The blade is of high quality steel, about 300 mm deep and is weighted with lead to give a total weight of approximately 40 Kgs. It falls just over seven feet (2,250 mm) in around 0.75 of a second before being brought to rest by a spring mechanism in the block beneath the lunette. The blade is drawn up by a rope running through a brass pulley until it is caught by a spring release mechanism. It is released by pulling a cord or operating a lever mounted on one of the uprights.
There is a metal bucket to catch the head and a metal tray for the blood. Originally, a wicker basket lined with oil cloth had been used to catch the head. The decapitated body falls or is pushed off the bascule onto an angled board that deposits it into a basket or coffin.
The Nazi guillotine (fallbeil in German) was similar to the French style but not as high, as the photo of the one in Plötzensee prison in Berlin shows. It is around eight feet tall but has a heavier blade to produce the required force. The condemned was made to lie face down on a simple bench rather than being strapped to a bascule and the head fell into a metal basin attached to the frame.  Later a tip board was used to further speed up the process and Johann Reichhart designed a device for rapidly clamping victims to this.  Reichhart later abandoned the bascule as it took too much time to carry out the large number of executions required.  His assistants simply slid the condemned under the blade and held them there until it fell.  Other modifications were the addition of ducting to funnel the blood into a floor drain and a head rest in the surround/splash guard that the prisoners forehead rested on, helping to keep the neck straight.

Two guillotinings described.
Marie Margarete (Grete) Beier.
Grete Beier, the 22 year old daughter of the Mayor of Freiburg in Saxony, was guillotined for the murder of her fiancée, a civil engineer named Kurt Proffler, whom she had poisoned for financial gain. Grete was in love with another man, Hans Merker, of whom her father didn't approve. Her father had forced her into the engagement with Proffler, whom he felt had much better prospects than Merker.
The case attracted international attention due to her age, sex, personality and the elaborate nature of the crime. She was seemingly a happy and fun loving girl from a good background. (Click here for a photo of her)
At her trial, she admitted that on May 13th, 1908, she had visited her fiancée's house and given him potassium cyanide in a drink she mixed for him, and then to make sure of his death, shot him in the mouth with his own revolver. She then did her best to make the scene look like a suicide, placing the gun carefully at his side, leaving a forged will in her favour on his desk and with a final note to herself, also forged, saying that he feared to lose her love, because of a relationship that he had had with a woman in Italy who was now accusing him of desertion and threatening to tell Grete everything. These forgeries were good enough to initially deceive police and the Coroner. She fell under suspicion when about a month later a letter was found that she had written to another man hinting at what she had done, when he was arrested for an unrelated crime. She was arrested and made a detailed confession to the murder. She hoped by confessing that she would be granted a lesser sentence but, as the crime was a premeditated poisoning, she was sentenced to death.
Her execution took place on the morning of July 23rd, 1908 in the yard of the regional court building before some 190 people. The guillotine had been erected earlier in a corner of the yard and at around 6.25 a.m., the public prosecutor, Dr. Mannl, the judges who had heard her case, including their chairman Dr. Rudert, and the 12 official witnesses came into the yard. The public prosecutor and the judges all wore their official robes.
At precisely 6.30 a.m., a bell was rung as the signal to bring out the prisoner. She was led through the gardens by her lawyer and the prison chaplain, her arms folded and her eyes looking down at the ground, walking slowly but upright and unaided. She was very pale but seemed calm and showed no emotion. She wore a black dress, that had been cut down at the neck.
She was led onto the platform of the guillotine by the executioner and his assistant and strapped to the board which was then tilted into the horizontal and slid forward, so that she could now see directly into the bucket in which her head would land. This was too much for Grete, who was beginning to lose her composure. She cried out, "Father, into your hands I lay my soul – Father." The upper part of the neck ring had been closed about her and at this moment the blade fell. The executioner took off his hat and announced to the public prosecutor in the traditional German fashion that the judgement of death had been executed. The prosecutor requested the witnesses to depart quietly. The whole execution had taken just three minutes. Grete's body was taken away in a hearse decorated with flowers and buried next to her late father.

Martha Marek.
Martha Lowenstein Marek (
see photo) was guillotined by the Bavarian State executioner, Johann Reichhart, in Vienna on the 6th of December 1938, for the poisoning of her husband, their baby daughter, an elderly relative, whose money and house she inherited, and finally a lodger in her house.
Emil Marek had conspired with his wife Martha to defraud his insurers by getting Martha to chop off his leg in order that they could collect $30,000 in accident insurance he had taken out. Martha, however, was not very good at wielding the axe and it took three blows to sever the leg. The insurer's doctors were not convinced that it was an accident that had occurred while cutting down a tree as the Mareks claimed and therefore rejected their claim. Emil died, apparently from tuberculosis, in July 1932 and their nine month old baby daughter died a month later. When her lodger, Felicitas Kittsteiner, died his relatives became suspicious because he had told them that when he ate or drank anything that Martha prepared, he immediately felt violently sick. Martha had taken out a life insurance policy on him before he died. The relatives informed the police who ordered the exhumation of all four bodies. They found that they had all been poisoned with a compound of thallium. She was arrested and brought to trial in Vienna in 1938. Hitler had re-instated capital punishment in Austria when he took control of it and a new guillotine was sent to Vienna by rail, packed as "industrial machinery" on October 3rd, 1938. As you read earlier, it was to see plenty of use. No woman had been executed in Austria for over 30 years and there was some reluctance on the part of the authorities to execute Martha. Martha was alleged to be paralysed so it was decided to take her from the condemned cell to the execution chamber in a wheelchair. The executioner, Johann Reichhart, and his assistants practised tipping the wheelchair in front of the guillotine so that Martha would fall directly onto the bench in the right place. On the morning of the execution, however, Martha's paralysis seemed to have disappeared and she struggled violently with her guards and was able to land a heavy kick on Reichhart before being subdued and tied to the bascule by his assistant. Reichhart executed 3,165 people between 1924 and 1947.
Many British accounts of Martha Marek state that she was beheaded with an axe but this is not correct and may well stem from an incorrect translation of the German for guillotine -Fallbeil- literally drop or fall hatchet (axe).

Modern French execution procedure.

Some 6000 people were guillotined in France between 1800 and abolition, with around 3,750 of these taking place in the years 1800 – 1824.
In the 20th century, the 580Kg. guillotine would be sent from Paris to the prison by rail and be erected in a suitable place during the night. Just before dawn, the officials would go to the condemned man's cell and inform him that his appeal had failed and that he was to be executed immediately. He would be allowed an hour to prepare and to pray with his priest before having his hands strapped behind his back and the collar of his shirt cut down. The prison register would be signed for the final time and the prisoner escorted to the guillotine by warders. On arrival, he would immediately be strapped to the upright bascule and then turned horizontally and slid into the lunette. The top of the lunette would be brought down, instantly followed by the release of the blade. The whole procedure typically took less than two minutes to complete.

Up to 1939, executions were carried out in public - normally just outside the prison gates. The crowds saw very little as the guillotine was always surrounded by gendarmes but reporters and invited witnesses were permitted. Eugene Weidmann became the last to suffer in public outside the Pallais de Justice at Versailles before a large crowd on the 17th of June 1939 for multiple murder. This execution was photographed and the shots appeared in the French press. The general public obviously enjoyed it more than was felt good for them and a week later, the government changed the law making all executions private.

Guillotinings had got steadily fewer during the 20th century and France came under pressure from its European neighbours to end capital punishment.
France finally abolished the death penalty in 1981. At least 247 men and eight women went to the guillotine in 20th century France (roughly a third as many executions as occurred in Britain during the same period). The war time period, under Nazi occupation and the period under the Vichy government, saw a rise in the number of executions There were 36 executions between 1958 and 1969, during General de Gaulle's term as president. De Gaulle commuted 18 or 19 sentences, one of those condemned rejected the offer of clemency and was executed.
Between March 1969 and November 1972, there were no executions in France. One of the executions during Pompidou's presidency took place on the 12th of May 1973 (Ali Benyanes), the other two on 28th of November 1972 (Claude Buffet and Roger Bontems, the Clairvaux mutineers).
Valery Giscard d'Estaing sanctioned the execution of Christian Rannuci on the 28th of July 1976 at Marseilles; Jerome Carrein on the 23rd of June 1977 at Douai Prison; and Hamida Djandoubi, a Tunisian immigrant, who became the last person to be guillotined (by Marcel Chevalier) on the 10th of September 1977 at Baumettes Prison, in Marseilles. Djandoubi was executed for the murder, rape and torture of Elisabeth Bousquet.  Djandoubi was the last person to suffer capital punishment within the original European Union countries.
Philippe Maurice was granted clemency by Mitterrand in 1981. Maurice, a hardened and uneducated criminal at the time, is now noted as a talented history researcher. He was released from prison in 2001 and has written a much acclaimed book about his life.

French women executed.

Death sentences on women were very rare and were almost always commuted in the 20th century. From 1887 to 1939 no women was executed in France.  However there were nine female executions in the decade 1940 and 1949.

Georgette Thomas (aged 25) and her husband, Sylvain Henri, (aged 30) were guillotined in public on the 24th of January 1887, at Romorantin, 100 miles south of Paris.  The couple had burned to death Marie Lebon, Georgette’s mother on July 29, 1886 on their farm in Selles-Saint-Denis. Alexander and Alexis Lebon, Georgette’s brothers and accomplices received life sentences for their parts in the crime.  They thought the mother was a witch.
A large number of reporters travelled down from the capital, to cover the almost unique execution of a woman. That it was a joint husband a wife execution heightened the public interest. Georgette disrupted the performance by proceeding to remove her clothes, trying to distract the executioners from their duties.  Louis Deibler was so upset that he vowed never to execute another woman - even if it cost him his job.


Female executions under Nazi Occupation during World War II, under the Vichy government of Philippe Petain.

Five women guillotined during World War II, they were :
On the 8th of January 1941, Elisabeth Ducourneau, (35) was executed at Bordeaux, for the murder of her husband and mother by poisoning in 1937 and 1938.
Georgette Monneron (30) was guillotined at the Petite Roquette women’s prison in Paris on the 6th of  February 1942, for the abuse and murder of her daughter. Her husband, Emile, was executed the next day for his part in the crime.
The 8th of June 1943 saw the execution of Germaine Philippe Besse (29) at Saintes for the abuse and murder of her stepson.
Czeslawa Sinska (nee Bilicki) (33) was executed on the 29th of June 1943 at Chalon for the murder of her husband.  Her lover helped with the murder but did not get the death penalty.
Marie-Louise Giraud, (39) a laundress, was guillotined at the Petite Roquette women’s prison in Paris on the 30th of July 1943. She had been convicted of having performed 27 illegal abortions in the Cherbourg area between December 1940 and October 1942. One of abortions had tragic consequences, causing the death of a mother on February the 15th 1942.

Four women were executed under the "Fourth Republic" of President Vincent Auriol.

45 year old Lucienne Thioux (45) was executed at Melun on 11th of December 1947. She had drowned her husband Paul, 73, on their wedding night, March the 2nd 1946 at Ussy-sur-Marne by throwing him off a bridge.  She had to be dragged from the cell to the guillotine, urinating in fear and shouting "I did nothing! I did nothing!

On the 21st of April 1949. Geneviève Calame (née Danelle) was executed by firing squad in Paris for treason (helping the Nazi’s).  Her husband was shot the following day.

During 1948 Madeleine Mouton was guillotined in Algiers for poisoning 11 people. (Algiers was a French colony).

On the 22nd of April 1949. Germaine Leloy-Godefroy (31) was guillotined at Angers for murdering her husband, Albert Leloy, with an axe while he slept at Baugé on December the 10th 1947. This was to be the last French female execution.

It is reported that when she was woken up at 4:30," she turned pale and dressed in silence, assisted by two inmates with whom she shared her cell. "
Following a meeting with the chaplain Moreau, she wrote a long letter, went to confession and attended the mass. After the blessing, she refused rum and cigarettes. She was led into the prison yard and the blade fell at 5.50 am. She was described as "A very dignified woman, she spoke in a soft voice. She died murmuring prayers.

The cause of death.
The person guillotined becomes unconscious very quickly and dies from shock and anoxia due to haemorrhage and loss of blood pressure within less than 60 seconds. It has often been reported that the eyes and mouths of people beheaded have shown signs of movement. It has been calculated that the human brain has enough oxygen stored for metabolism to persist about seven seconds after the supply is cut off. As in hanging, the heart continues to beat for some time after decapitation.
Various experiments have been made on guillotined heads and generally seem to show that little consciousness remains after 2-5 seconds of separation from the body although some have concluded that the head retains feeling for much longer. Whatever the truth, guillotining is probably one of the least cruel methods of execution and yet one that has a high deterrent value because it is perceived as gruesome.

The guillotine was the catalyst for the famous Madame Tussaud's waxwork exhibitions.
In the 1790's there was, of course, no television and the rudimentary media of the time had no means of printing pictures in quantity. Thus only very few people knew what the French aristocracy looked like. Madame Tussaud collected the guillotined heads and made plaster casts of them, which she then filled with wax to give a reasonable likeness. She toured France with her exhibition for some time before falling foul of the Revolution herself and fleeing to England where her work continued. Her waxworks are still enormously popular today.
Executed criminals continued to be popular subjects and Tussaud's used to buy the clothes and other effects of famous criminals from the hangman in the days when these items became his property after the execution.

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For further reading visit Jørn Fabricius' excellent site
and the Bois de Justice site.