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The Guillotine is the Famous Be-Heading Machine Invented in France

Updated on May 9, 2013

The Guillotine

The guillotine (the famous be-heading machine) is a machine that was invented in France for the quick and painless execution of condemned criminals. The guillotine was fast, efficient, and deadly. A be-heading machine was first proposed by Doctor Joseph Ignace Guillotin, who had proposed six articles to the new legislative assembly, and one of the articles was for decapitation to be the sole method of execution in France with a simple device that he had illustrated and designed himself. The be-heading machine was laughed at and rejected. Five of the six articles were accepted in 1789, with the exception of the be-heading machine that the assembly laughed at, although nervously.

Eventually, the guillotine was accepted and criminals who were sentenced to death would die by being be-headed by the new machine. Dr. Guillotin was a French medical doctor and a lawmaker, who proposed that the death penalty should be equal for all. The guillotine could be used on anyone regardless of their stature in life. Before the invention of the guillotine, persons of nobility were beheaded by executioners with axes or swords, which were messy and not efficient. Common criminals were hanged, or drawn and quartered. There was seen a need for a better, faster and cleaner way to execute condemned criminals. The guillotine was better, faster and a more clean way to execute criminals. This was the period of "The Enlightenment" and equality for all. This meant that anyone who received a death sentence in France would be executed by guillotine. The guillotine was used to execute all of the condemned criminals.

The idea for the guillotine more than likely came from previous devices that were similar, and existed in other countries. Dr. Guillotin did not die on the guillotine as is popularly believed. Later on, Dr. Guillotin came to resent the be-heading machine bearing his name.


Guillotine | Source


The guillotine is a death machine that consists of two uprights, crossbar, the mouten with the blade attached with three bolts, a rope, a handle (delic), lunette, and bascule (teeter board). The mouten is released by a mechanism in the crossbar, when the delic (handle is pulled down), and then the Mouton and blade fall in less than 100th of a second. There are grooves in the uprights that the mouten and blade run along. The mouten is weighted and runs on four wheels.

The lunette is the piece that has a hole for the condemned's neck. The bottom of the mouten is fixed, so it does not move, the top part is movable and hinged, so that it can be opened to place the condemned's neck for decapitation of the head. The bascule stands in upright position, before execution, then the condemned prisoner is forced against it. The bascule than tilts forward into a horizontal position, then the condemned prisoner's neck is positioned in the lunette between the two uprights. The delic (handle) is pulled down to release the mouten and blade to decapitate the condemned prisoner with a basket waiting to catch the severed head. There was a sort of table on one of the sides of the bascule that was hinged, to make it easy to pull the headless body into a large basket or coffin.

The First Guillotine

Antoine Louis was given the task to design and build the first guillotine, and he hired a German harpsichord maker named Tobias Schmidt to build it. The first guillotine was tested out on animals, and later on human corpses. Improvements were made, and the famous angled blade was eventually introduced.

The guillotine grew in popularity. Execution methods before the guillotine were messy and took too much time. The guillotine was fast, efficient and reliable. The guillotine was a machine that would never tire. It could be used over and over again. It had a quick turn around time. The guillotine was intended to be a more humane form of decapitation. The older methods were messy and not efficient.

The Guillotine and The Terror

The guillotine was at its greatest height during "The Terror." From June 1793 to July 1794 was known as"The Reign of Terror', or simply known as The Terror, where many whole-scale executions took place in France. People could be executed by guillotine for doing very little wrong or nothing at all. The number of deaths were great during this period of the French Revolution. Much blood was shed as the blood would pour out of the bodies after the head was decapitated from the body. The streets of Paris ran red with the large numbers of decapitations that were taking place during "The Terror."

During the time of "The Terror", crowds of spectators would come to watch the be-headings. Execution by guillotine became popular entertainment for the spectators, and regulars, who would try to get the best seats, parents would bring their children to watch, and there were even vendors selling programs that listed the names of the victims, who were scheduled to die. Towards the end of the terror, the crowds grew tired of the spectacle, and the crowds grew thin, became bored at the most grisly entertainment. Too much be-heading might be the reason the crowds grew tired and bored, and then, found other things to entertain themselves with.

A French politician named Joseph Le Bon from Arras is depicted in a print, drinking blood from a chalice, while filling another chalice with blood from a freshly decapitated body. Le Bon is depicted as a shirtless, crazed madman, standing on a pile of decapitated bodies, between two guillotines.

Joseph Le Bon Between Two Guillotines

Joseph Le Bon Between Two Guillotines Drinking Blood
Joseph Le Bon Between Two Guillotines Drinking Blood | Source

The Guillotine Used In and Outside of France

The guillotine was used outside of France, as well. It was used in other European countries, for instance, Germany. The guillotine was used extensively in Nazi Germany for the decapitation of political prisoners. The guillotine has never been used in the United States.

The guillotine was seen as an expression of equality for all citizens. The guillotine had nicknames like, The National Razor, and Madame Guillotine, and others. The guillotine was last used in France until the death penalty was abolished in 1981, but can still be used for certain crimes like crimes against the state.

The deadly machine had claimed famous lives, such as King Louis XVI, his wife and queen, Marie-Antoinette, Charlotte Corday, Danton, Robespierre, and many others.

The French Revolution

Mel Brook's History of the World Part 1

A History of Evil


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    • gail641 profile image

      Gail Louise Stevenson 4 years ago from Mason City

      Hi, thanks for commenting. The wouldn't be any pain or it would be very short with the blade coming down so quickly and severing the head.

    • profile image

      barrie whitehead 4 years ago

      at least there would be no pain

    • gail641 profile image

      Gail Louise Stevenson 5 years ago from Mason City

      The tool would be very disturbing and a great horror. It sounds like it would be very messy after they call "Next" over and over again. Thanks for commenting and voting up. gail641

    • gail641 profile image

      Gail Louise Stevenson 5 years ago from Mason City

      To GlstngRosePetals: I agree-it sounds very sisturbing--it doesn't sound humane at all. Thanks for commenting and voting up! That would sound very strange when they would call "Next" over and over again. I would think that it would be really messy.

    • GlstngRosePetals profile image

      GlstngRosePetals 5 years ago from Wouldn't You Like To Know

      Well now that's a tool of disturbing horror. Just the thought of the blood spatter and fluids releasing from the corpse twitching from its severed nerves just to be discarded in a box and the call out for "NEXT". Interesting article. Voted up!!

    • gail641 profile image

      Gail Louise Stevenson 5 years ago from Mason City

      Yes, it is amazing that people went to the executions, much like they go to horror or actions movies today. They sure did get bored. It might be true that people did live for a few seconds, but not for very long. There are stories about people who susposedly lived a few seconds after being beheaded. That must have been pretty gross for people to watch all of the beheadings, but they did get tired of it and the crowds thinned out.

    • GoGreenTips profile image

      Greg Johnson 5 years ago from Indianapolis

      Interesting hub! It's amazing that people would come to the executions much like they go to a horror or action flick today. Even more amazing is that they got bored watching the craziness.

      I wonder if the stories are true about people actually living for a few seconds afterwards and actually speaking? Good informative hub!

    • gail641 profile image

      Gail Louise Stevenson 5 years ago from Mason City

      My mother's family was German. My grandma's grandfaher left Germany in the 1850s, way before Hitler. I sure wouldn't want to get up close and personal with a horrific machine like that, either. That would be horrible and unimagionable. Thanks for your comment.

    • tirelesstraveler profile image

      Judy Specht 5 years ago from California

      The great equalizer uh. Sure glad my family was German. they left before Hitler or their big mouths would have gotten them up close and personal experience with this horrific machine.