Little Bits of History

“Off With Their Heads” – The Queen of Hearts

Posted in History by patriciahysell on April 25, 2010

Guillotine in use; entertainment for the masses

April 25, 1792: Nicolas J. Pelletier is the first person to be executed by guillotine. A guillotine is a machine made to decapitate those being executed. Earlier types of the machine were in existence as early as 1307, when the Scottish Maiden’s use was first documented. The improved, more humane guillotine was designed by Antoine Louis at the request of Joseph-Ignace Guillotin as a more humane method of execution. Tobias Schmidt won the contract to build them for 960 francs.

Prior to 1792, those of noble birth in France who were condemned to death were beheaded, commoners were usually hanged, but some people were tortured with the wheel [tied to wheel spokes, breaking limbs with hammers, then weaving the sometimes still living person through the spokes and letting birds eat the remains] or burned at the stake.

It was considered more humane to chop off someone’s head and have them die instantly. The guillotine was more efficient at the process than beheading by sword or axe. In egalitarian times, it was also deemed to be more equitable to have both aristocracy and the common criminal executed using the same method. The guillotine was exported to other countries, mostly in Europe. There were tales of heads living without being connected to the bodies, leading to speculation concerning the humanity behind the method. The “living head” issue has never been scientifically proven and there is evidence pointing to loss of consciousness in seconds even if actual death came slower.

Eventually the guillotine became the only means of capital punishment in France. Public beheadings were stopped in 1939. Hamida Djandoubi was the last person executed with the guillotine on September 10, 1977. It is thought that between 15,000 and 40,000 people were executed using the guillotine during the Reign of Terror which lasted from June, 1793 to July, 1974. There is no longer a death penalty in France.

“GUILLOTINE, n. A machine which makes a Frenchman shrug his shoulders with good reason.” – Ambrose Bierce

“The world itself is but a large prison, out of which some are daily led to execution.” – Walter Raleigh

“Laws are rules established by men who are in control of organized violence for the non fulfillment of which those who do not fulfill them are subjected to personal injuries, the loss of liberty, and even capital punishment.” – Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy

“As long as you have capital punishment there is no guarantee that innocent people won’t be put to death.” – Paul Simon

Also on this day, in 1961 Robert Noyce received a patent for a semiconductor, leading the way to our current computers.

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