Guillotin and a painless death by “a simple machine”

Source : French Parliamentary Archives, tome IX, p. 393.

Guillotin’s proposition regarding the condemned, National Assembly, session of October 9th 1789 (Parliamentary Archives, tome IX, p.393) and song from the era.

Joseph Ignace Guillotin (1738-1814) was a doctor who was elected deputy of the Third Estate in Paris. Aside from his interventions in debates on the penal system, he mainly addressed medical and health issues in the Constituent Assembly.

Guillotin was one of the first to tackle the question of those condemned to death (the condemned) in 1789, even though the Penal Code project adopted in 1791 was not yet on the table of the National Assembly. His proposal aimed to reconcile the death penalty with the revolutionary principles of equality, humanity, and the individualization of punishment. He wanted to eradicate any difference between the nobility, who had the “privilege” of decapitation, and commoners, who were sent directly to the gallows. Guillotin proposed the abolition of such privileges and the establishment of a sole capital punishment: all criminals would have their heads cut off (article 29 and 30). Punishment would not be inflicted upon the family of the condemned, which meant the end of confiscating property (article 31 and 34). In the spirit of humanitarian revolutionaries, he looked for a method of execution without pain, what Marat called a “gentle death”. On December 1st 1789, he officially suggested that decapitation be done by “the effect of a simple machine”. According to the press at the time, the speech that he gave to the Assembly gave eloquent details justifying the use of such a machine. The Journal des Etats généraux wrote: “Mr. Guillotin described the machine; I didn’t follow all of the details; to illustrate the effects, he momentarily forgot about being a legislator to be an orator: “The machine falls like lightning, the head flies, the blood flows, the man is no more.” It’s not in the Penal Code that you’ll find statements such as that!” We also attribute another famous phrase to Guillotin: “Gentlemen, with my machine, I’ll have your head off in a blink of an eye, without you having to go through even the smallest amount of pain.” These statements strongly affected the positive reception he had with his contemporaries. Since the subject was engaging, his proposition was embellished and rapidly put into song. All the same, Le Moniteur denounced this light-hearted reception of Guillotin’s work, writing, on December 18th 1789, “Regarding the idea of Dr. Guillotin, on the choice of a machine which would cut off the heads of criminals in the blink of an eye, some publications have made indecent mockeries. The French people have something they must lose with the Revolution: these are base habits, which the Ancien Regime supported with much docility from the public. Of all of these base habits, the most despicable is that of joking about torture. Since the sword of Charlemagne, nick-named The Joyous, up through the nickname The Widower that a certain class of people have given to the gallows, we can see a certain weakness of spirit in our nation, a weakness seated deep in the soul. The language of a free people should only express things worthy of their character….

Going back to Dr. Guillotin’s idea, he is perhaps the first who, in a legislative assembly, spoke of capital punishment with humanity, and of the related suffering with true interest. The breakthrough of putting a machine at the place of an executioner who, like the law, separates the sentence from the judge, is worthy of the century which we will enter. Such a machine would separate a people devoted to this type of spectacle (a spectacle which would be shameful for any government to use as a resource); it would finally annihilate the prejudices which make the whole nation, this whole honest family, wither with shame because of the torture the law inflicts on criminals.”
Even though Guillotin never made the technical plans on which the final machine was based, his name will forever be linked to the Guillotine, as it was called before the machine was ever constructed. Most likely, the machine was inspired by contraptions that already existed in Europe, like the Halifax gibet in England, the Maiden in Scotland, or the Mannaia in Italy. For example, the missionary and travel writer Father Labat describes an instrument used in Italy to execute nobles. Voyages de P. Labat en Espagne et en Italie, tome VII, Paris, J.-B. Delespine, 1730. p.22-23 : “It’s with mannaye that beheadings are conducted. This method is very secure, and does not make the victim suffer, excepting when an executioner has to make several blows before separating the head from the body. This punishment is only for Gentlemen, and for all those who benefit from the privileges of the nobility, like members of the secular, or regular, clergy; whatever crime they have committed, it is rare that we have them executed in public. They are executed in the courtyard of the prison behind closed doors, and with a very small audience. The instrument called the mannaya is a fifteen-inch wide frame made of two pillars of about three inches squared with grooves inside to make a diagonal interior passageway, whose use we’ll explain shortly. The two pillars are attached together by three horizontal bars, one on each extremity and one around fifteen inches above that which closes the frame. It’s on this horizontal bar that the kneeling victim places his neck; above this bar is the mobile bar which slides in the grooves of the two pillars. It’s lower half is garnished with a blade that is 9 or 10 inches long and 6 inches wide and very well-sharpened.  The upper part is weighted with sixty to eighty pounds of lead that are well-attached to the bar; this murderous bar is lifted as high as one or two inches below the highest bar to which is attached a small cord. Then, when the Barigel [captain of archers or squires who had the duty of overseeing town security] makes a signal to the executioner, the latter simply cuts this small cord, and the sliding weighted bar falls on the neck of the victim making a clean cut, without the danger of missing its target. I have heard that sometimes in England they use this instrument, provided that the victims are in agreement. But I don’t guarantee this fact, as I’ve not, to this date, read about it in the history of this country.” (trans. P. Bass)

For more information: See the biographical article on Guillotin on Wikipedia.

A proposition for death by suffocation (1791)

Source : Document from the Historical Center of the French National Archives (Centre historique des Archives nationales), Paris, AA55, file 1513.

Letter to the National Assembly regarding a method of capital punishment, signed by Girardet, end of 1791 (Document from the Historical Center of the French National Archives (Centre historique des archives nationales), Paris, 1155, file 1513)

While Guillotin’s project seemed to be abandoned and even withdrawn by its author, other projects were developed in order to find a technique appropriate for the wishes of the Constituent Assembly: maintaining the death penalty without excess suffering, in the spirit of “moderation”. This project claimed to inflict a quick death (which seems doubtful), without anguish, in just a short period of fifteen minutes to educate the public.

A proposition for death by suffocation (1791) (continued)

Source : Document from the Historical Center of the French National Archives (Centre historique des Archives nationales), Paris, AA55, file 1513.

A proposition for a machine for strangling (March 5th 1792)

Source : Document from the Historical Center of the French National Archives (Centre historique des Archives nationales), Paris, AA55, file 1513.

Letter to the National Assembly regarding a machine for strangling, signed by Thomas, schoolmaster, March 5th 1792 (Document from the Historical Center of the French National Archives (Centre historique des archives nationales), Paris, 1155, file 1513) At this time, the guillotine was not yet adopted and the author of this “new method” fit in perfectly with the predominant revolutionary discourse. In the name of humanity, to avoid offending the mores of a “gentle and regenerated…people”, Thomas proposed a machine for strangling which would have the upside of avoiding the blood and the cries of agony that accompanied previous forms of execution. The noble and the commoner would be equals, and the only way to distinguish the condemned would be by the color of the veil covering their heads – the color would be chosen according to the crime committed. This was similar to the Penal Code of 1791, which decreed that those who committed patricide should have their heads veiled with a black cloth, whereas other criminals condemned to death should be dressed in a red shirt (Title 1, article 4).

A proposition for a machine for strangling (March 5th 1792) (continued)

Source : Document from the Historical Center of the French National Archives (Centre historique des Archives nationales), Paris, AA55, file 1513.

A proposition for a machine for strangling (March 5th 1792) (final page)

Source : Document from the Historical Center of the French National Archives (Centre historique des Archives nationales), Paris, AA55, file 1513.

A proposition for decapitation (March 23rd 1792)

Source : Document from the Historical Center of the French National Archives (Centre historique des Archives nationales), Paris, AA55, file 1513.

Letter to the National Assembly regarding a proposition for decapitation, March 23rd 1792

This proposition is very similar to Guillotin’s and dates from the period when the decision was made to actually build the Guillotine. This document is very technical, and explains the essential elements of what would soon after become the new instrument of capital punishment. The goal is still to inflict the death penalty without suffering and without offending spectators, all while facilitating the task of the executioner. The fact that Guillotin’s idea was embellished and mocked by the popular press led the author of this proposition to remain anonymous.

A proposition for decapitation (March 23rd 1792) (continued)

Source : Document from the Historical Center of the French National Archives (Centre historique des Archives nationales), Paris, AA55, file 1513.

The concerns of the Minister of Justice regarding methods of execution (March 3rd 1792)

Source : Document from the Historical Center of the French National Archives (Centre historique des Archives nationales), Paris, AA55, file 1513.

Letter to the Minister of Justice, Adrien Duport, March 3rd 1792 (Document from the Historical Center of the French National Archives (Centre historique des archives nationales), Paris, AA55, file 1513) Adrien Duport addressed the National Assembly to share his concerns about the way article 3, Title 1, of the 1791 Penal Code (“every condemned person will have their head cut off”) was applied. Beheading had previously been reserved only for nobility, and executioners were reluctant to adopt it on a larger scale because of potential accidents (and the “resulting anger of the people”) caused by the difficulty of manual beheadings by sword. For example, the execution of Lally-Tollendal, a criminal condemned for treason, became a scandal for accident-related reasons in 1766: Charles-Henri Sanson, a young executioner, failed to decapitate the condemned on his first blow of the sword and his father, who attended the execution as Head Executioner, had to finish the job with a supplementary blow (cf. the report of doctor Louis, following page). Extract from Charles Henri Sanson’s report to the Minister of Justice on mode of decapitation (cited by D. Arasse, The Guillotine and the terror, London: Penguin books, 1991, trans. By C. Miller : Appendix 1) « For the execution to arrive at the result prescribed by the law, the executioner must, with no impediment on the part of the condemned man, be very skillful, and the condemned man very steadfast ; otherwise it will be impossible to carry out an execution by sword without dangerous scenes resulting.

The sword is not to fit to perform a second execution after the first. The blade is liable to chip, and must absolutely be reground and sharpened again. Were there several executions to perform at one time, it would be necessary to have a sufficient number of swords, all of them ready prepared. It should also be noted that swords have often been broken during executions of this kind. The Paris executioner has only two, which were given to him by the former Parliament de Paris. They cost six livres each.

A further consideration is that, when there are several condemned men to execute at once, the terror of the execution, caused by the vast quantities of blood, will bring terror and faintness to the hearts of even the most intrepid of those to be executed. This faintness will prove an invincible obstacle in the way of execution, as the persons will be unable to hold themselves still. If the attempt is made to proceed despite this, the execution will become a struggle or a massacre. Yet it seems that the National Assembly only decided on this method of execution in order to avoid the long-drawn-out methods previously in use.

To judge by executions of another kind – which do not require anything like the same degree of precision – the condemned have been known to be taken ill at the sight of their executed accomplices, and, at least, to feel unsteady or fearful : all this is an argument against an execution in which the head is decapitated by sword. How indeed should a person tolerate the sight of the bloodiest form of execution without feeling faint ? With the other forms of execution, it was easy to hide this faintness from the public, because they could be carried out without the condemned man having to remain steadfast and fearless ; but, with this form, if the condemned man flinches, the execution will fail. How can one deal with a man who cannot or will not hold himself up ?

With regard to these humane considerations, I am bound to issue a warning as to the accidents that will occur if this execution is to be performed with the sword. It would, I think, be too late to remedy these accidents if they were known only from bitter experience. It is therefore indispensable, if the humane views of the National Assembly are to be fulfilled, to find some means by which the condemned man can be secured so that the issue of the execution cannot be in doubt, and in this way to avoid delay and uncertainty.

This would fulfill the intentions of the legislators and ensure that no breach of public order occurred. »

The concerns of the Minister of Justice regarding methods of execution (March 3rd 1792) (continued)

Source : Document from the Historical Center of the French National Archives (Centre historique des Archives nationales), Paris, AA55, file 1513.

Doctor Louis and his technical developments

Source : Parliamentary Archives, tome XXXIX, session of March 14th 1792, p.686.

Reasoned opinion of Doctor Louis on methods of beheading, March 7th 1792 (Parliamentary Archives, tome XXXIX, session of March 14th 1792, p. 686). Antoine Louis (1723-1792) was a doctor, a contributor to Diderot’s Encyclopedia, and the secretary of the Surgeon’s Academy. Following the concerns of executioners and of the Minister of Justice about the challenges and risks of manual beheadings by sword (cf. Sanson’s report shown on the previous page), the Procurer-General of Paris, Roederer, asked for Louis’ opinion on the matter. The latter supported the executioner’s arguments which claimed that beheadings by sword were irreconcilable with the humanitarian views of the Assembly. As a supporting example, he referenced the Lally-Tollendal scandal of 1766. Taking technical considerations into account (the blade of the instrument must be convex for the best chance of success, etc.) as well as physiological considerations (if the neck bones were tangled, etc.), he concluded that it was necessary to use mechanical methods, like the British did. He concluded that this was the only way that “execution could be done in one instant and with one blow”. Shortly after, on March 20th 1792, the National Assembly decreed that it was an urgent situation, and funds were issued to create such a machine. On March 25th, Dr. Louis gave a descriptive diagram to the carpenter of state property, Guidon, whose expensive estimate lost him the job offer. The task was then offered to piano-maker Tobias Schmidt, who made the contraption in less than a week. The first tests were done on human corpses on April 17th, in the courtyard of the Bicêtre Hospital. The first execution by guillotine was held on April 25th. For more information: see the biographical article on Doctor Louis on Wikipedia.

Doctor Louis and his technical developments (continued)

Source : Parliamentary Archives, tome XXXIX, session of March 14th 1792, p.686.

A demand to bring back torture under the Consulate (8 Brumaire, year 9)

Source : Document from the Historical Center of the French National Archives (Centre historique des Archives nationales), Paris, AA55, file 1513.

Letter from the citizen Etienne to the Minister of the Justice, 8 brumaire year 9 [October 30th 1800] (Document from the Historical Center of the French National Archives (Centre historique des archives nationales), Paris, AA55, file 1513) This letter sent to the Chancellery eloquently shows the evolution of values since the beginning of the Revolution, when the overriding principle was “humane” execution. Henceforth, people rail against “a deceptive and dangerous human race”: criminals must suffer, because they deserve it. Although public opinion conceded that capital punishment should be executed without unnecessary suffering, the desire to go back to the torture of the Ancien Régime – notably the gallows and the Catherine wheel – was justified by the need to maintain “the terror of the people” and to protect the “healthy part of the population” (i.e. landowners). Partisans of a return to Ancien Regime methods evoked the image of the guillotine, which beheaded so many “honest men”, in order to argue for its replacement by another machine, which would scare spectators and criminals alike. This letter did not seem to have an effect on the type of instrument adopted in 1792, but it nevertheless expressed a trend in public opinion to return to Ancien Regime methods, and the Penal Code of 1810 reflected this: note, for example, the reestablishment of iron branding and the punishment of patricide by cutting off the hand of the condemned.

A demand to bring back torture under the Consulate (8 Brumaire, year 9) (continued)

Source : Document from the Historical Center of the French National Archives (Centre historique des Archives nationales), Paris, AA55, file 1513.

A demand to bring back torture under the Consulate (8 Brumaire, year 9) (continued)

Source : Document from the Historical Center of the French National Archives (Centre historique des Archives nationales), Paris, AA55, file 1513.

A demand to bring back torture under the Consulate (8 Brumaire, year 9) (end)

Source : Document from the Historical Center of the French National Archives (Centre historique des Archives nationales), Paris, AA55, file 1513.

The fantasy of a steam-operated guillotine

Source : Archives of the Parisian Police Prefecture, DB/142

Extract from the newspaper Le Monde, December 8th 1871 and Paris Journal, November 22nd 1871 (Archives of the Parisian Police Prefecture, DB/142) The guillotine, practically by its rapidity alone, brought capital punishment into the industrial age. During the Reign of Terror, a multitude of projects (both real and imaginary) were thought up to maximize the efficiency of the machine. The two newspapers shown above published short articles on proposed ideas for a steam-powered guillotine. Paradoxically enough, the articles were published the day after the French defeat of 1870 to the Germans, and the day after the failure of the Commune, and both the inventors mentioned represent groups that were the “enemy” of bourgeois society the day before! For example, Raoul Rigault (1846-1871), the inventor cited in the first article, was a delegate of the General Security Department (la Sûreté générale) and a prosecutor for the Commune. Similarly, Bismarck, mentioned in the second article, had just led Germany to occupy a portion of French territory, defeating Napoleon III. The fact that these two men could be considered as “monsters” capable of creating instruments of massive repression “reassured”, in a sense, high society.

Perfecting the instrument (Le Siècle, June 28th 1872)

Source : Archives of the Parisian Police Prefecture, DB/142.

Extract from the newspaper Le Siècle, June 28th 1872 (Archives of the Parisian Police Prefecture, DB/142) Since the Commune burned the guillotines ordered by the Minister of Justice of National Defense (Crémieux) the day after the fall of the Commune (May 28th, 1871), Parisian executioners had to bring in the guillotine normally used in Dijon. This replacement guillotine was only to be used while a new guillotine was being constructed under the orders of executioner Nicolas Roch. It is worth noting that the construction was primarily done by executioners’ assistants - who were neither carpenters nor woodworkers by training. Common carpenters were doubtlessly reluctant to work on judicial machines. The technical improvements made at this time may seem minor: in 1872, certain grooves were added to prevent the condemned individual from being whacked in the head when being placed into the machine. Anatole Deibler introduced other modifications: he adapted the side wheels to ensure a smooth descent of the blade, added a layer of copper protecting the grooves, and installed rubber tubes to absorb the shock of the falling blade.

Portrait of the Widower

Source : Collection of the French National Museum of Prisons.

Miniature guillotine (National Museum of Prisons) Could this be the work of a condemned man? Or of an executioner, modeling his work on the description found in the 1872 newspaper article on the next page? Realism is the name of the game, as we can see in the nearly clinical description of the guillotine that Maxime du Camp gives at the end of the Second Empire. Maxime Du Camp, Paris, ses organes, ses fonctions et sa vie jusqu’en 1870, Monaco: G. Rondeau, 1993, p. 325-326. “Today, the guillotine is lighter, smaller, and more manageable than before; yet it’s still the same machine, and the modifications that it has been through change neither the way it functions nor its general form. It’s a square platform, 4 meters long and 3 meters 80 centimeters wide; it’s elevated two meters off the ground by four trestles. The floor of the apparatus is surrounded by a railing creating a sort of clear-way, reachable via a stairway of ten steps. Along two-thirds of the length of the apparatus rise two parallel supports topped with a lintel that we call the “cap”; they are four meters high and spaced 37 centimeters apart. The “sword” consists of a triangular steel blade fitted with three bolts in an iron mouton which is the reason for its considerable weight. The mouton is 35 centimeters wide and the blade is 30 centimeters at its widest; the total height of both is 80 centimeters. One meter from the ground, two boards, placed one atop the other vertically and with a half-circle cut out of each [referred to as lunette boards], give the impression, when they are placed together, of a full moon. The lower board is fixed, but the higher one is mobile, and it slides in lateral grooves, allowing it to be raised or lowered at will. Between the posts and the last step of the stairs there is the bascule, a straight board directly facing the lunette [hole for the neck] of the apparatus. When the machine is at rest, the bascule is vertical, and it only requires a small push to make it horizontal. When the machine is in use, the bascule falls onto a firmly-supported table, which is longer than the bascule, ending at the two lunette planks. The bascule, equipped with small wheels, rolls onto this table and rapidly brings the neck of the condemned directly onto the lower plank, right into the half-moon cut-out in such a way as to trap it there. On the right of the bascule, seeming almost to be one with it, an inclined plane is arranged to lean on the edge of a large wicker panel (lined with zinc) and filled with bran. A small oblong trough lies beneath the bascule and the lunette, and another apparatus resembling a tub lies in front of the two posts so that if someone makes a wrong move, and the person in charge of holding the head lets go, it does not roll onto the platform or otherwise be seen by the public. The entire apparatus and its accessories are painted a disagreeable red, somewhere between the color of cow blood and chocolate. The bascule is garnished with buckled straps in order to prevent any possible resistance from the “patient”, but we never use them, or at least not in Paris. The upper half-moon decapitates abruptly thanks to an incredibly simple mechanism that starts with the simple push of a button. The “sword” is fixed to the cap with a clamp in the form of a figure 8. The lower half of this 8-shaped clamp opens when the upper half closes. A cord attached to a handle is right above the button of the upper half-moon, and it allows one to squeeze together the two upper branches of the clamp, force the bottom parts of the clamp to move apart, and thus the mouton slides down the open space and the sword, with all the momentum of its weight, falls with lightning speed, accelerated even more by the action of the small polished iron wheels rolling along their copper grooves, which are fixed all along the poles. During this fall, the blade slices precisely down the outside edge of the lunette until it is stopped by the mouton, on two supports covered by rubber which cushion the shock and dampen the sound. Now we understand the security and the simplicity with which this formidable work of justice accomplishes its duty. The condemned who arrives on the platform finds himself standing before the vertical bascule which arrives at ankle-level and at chest-level; in front of him, the lunette opens, and the top half is drawn up; the executioner pushes the bascule which decapitates, rolls it forward; and the head seems to throw itself off into the semi-circular bay, and an assistant seizes it by the hair. There are only two things to do: to press the button activating the upper half of the lunette which immediately falls on the poor man’s neck, and to turn the sword’s spring, which allows it to fall. The head is cut off at the fourth vertebrae and projected into a basket as the executioner gives a little push to the body, sliding down the inclined plane…” (trans. P. Bass).

Storing the Guillotine (rue Folie Regnault)

Source : Archives of the Parisian Police Prefecture, DB/142.

Postcard. The garage of the guillotine, 60 rue de La Folie-Regnault (Archives of the Parisian Police Prefecture, DB/142) Maxime du Camp evokes the sinister reputation of this space: “It’s here, in fact, where the guillotine is put away in a vast hangar ridden with spiders, poorly insulated from the weather by a half-broken window, because almost all the dregs of society throw a rock through the window when they pass by what they call the “house of bad omens”; whether this is a sign of fear, a sign of hatred, or to ward of bad luck, who knows?” (Maxime Du Camp. Paris, ses organes, ses fonctions et sa vie jusqu’en 1870, Monaco : G. Rondeau, 1993, p. 328, trans. P. Bass) Common people curious about upcoming executions were joined by journalists, who sometimes gained permission to enter this storage space. Here is the narrative of a reporter for La Presse, published on December 21st 1872 under the title The museum of the gallows: “Yesterday, after the execution of Joly, one of our reporters was able to visit the sinister garage where the guillotine and its accessories are put away on rue de la Folie-Regnault. Nothing in this world is so curious, nor so bizarre. The first thing that gets one’s attention is the new guillotine that we’ve previously spoken of, that the executioner’s assistants have assembled themselves without the help of a single soul from the outside. When our reporter entered the garage, they were in the middle of trying it out. On one side, there was a closed car that looked like, if we’re not mistaken, those that clothing dyers and washers normally use. It’s a company car, in a sense, that brings the condemned to the site of the execution, an area that’s vulgarly referred to as the “turnip field”[1]. The back of the warehouse is full of boxes and wicker baskets all stacked up, one inside the other. All these objects seem discarded. There are also fragments of wood piled up in a corner from guillotines which are no longer in use. One of these out-of-use guillotines is the Dijonnaise, named that way because it was brought from Dijon when the one in Paris was burned down. It’s never been used in Paris. At the other end of the warehouse, we find a millstone. There, the eve of executions, the blade of the guillotine is sharpened. Above the door, someone has attached a small well-made decorative wood carving. It’s a little guillotine, a pocket guillotine if I may, crafted by Doublaud, an assistant carpenter of feu Hendereck, who’s currently retired. This small jewel of a figurine is a gift to a reporter we know, who hasn’t yet come to pick it up. But what’s most interesting to look at is certain objects that have been kept as souvenirs, and which form some sort of a museum – a museum of the gallows! First, you’ll find sets of stairs with twelve steps each from outdated guillotines, all painted red like the instrument itself, and five or six blades, each with its own record of service. You’ll find the blade that decapitated Verger, the murderer of the archbishop of Paris, - a blade that has not been used since. There is even the blade that was used for the execution of Troppmann. It’s nicked and is going to be fixed. The blade that cut off the head of poor Louis XVI is also there – perhaps the most historic of all, and for which an Englishman offered ten thousand franks in 1869. We call this one the Blade of Louis XVI. It’s the only one that has four bolts instead of three. It’s relatively small, and much lighter than the ones we use today. One of the executioner’s assistants even said: “I don’t know how we could decapitate a man with such a blade”. Then, there are also trinkets that belonged to the most notorious criminals, like Castaing’s snuffbox, Collignon’s pipe, Lemaire’s sweater, Lapommeraye’s boots, etc. What a collection, and what a museum!” (trans. P. Bass) 



[1]              A « turnip » (navet) in French can mean rubbish, a dud, a flop, or a turkey (as the term is used for films: “That movie was a real turkey”).

The guillotine set up (Valence, 1909)

Source : Collection of the National Museum of Prisons (France).

Photograph: the guillotine at Valence in 1909 (National Museum of Prisons) This photograph shows the executioner and his assistant doing a final verification of all the parts of the guillotine, and particularly the mechanisms that close the lunette and free the falling blade. The gunners work under the protection of the (police) troop who cordon off the area around the machine. We can clearly see the tramway rails on the avenue that borders the prison. On September 22, 1909, three members of the gang of Chauffeurs, David, Berruyer and Liottard, were executed by the famous executioner Deibler.

The execution of members of the military: the firing squad

Source : Archives of the Parisian Police Prefecture, BA/887.

Official report on the execution of Nouvel, March 6th 1873 (Archives of the Parisian Police Prefecture, BA/887) Auguste Nouvel, a sapper in the 3rd regiment of combat engineers, was sentenced to death by the second war council on November 14th 1872, for the murder of a non-commissioned officer in the Dupleix barracks. He was executed by firing squad in the polygon of Vincennes on March 6th 1873. Military personnel were not subject to the guillotine: they were sentenced to death by a firing squad of their peers. The public was predominantly, even exclusively, composed of officers and soldiers in the line of duty and only a few members of the common population were present; here, we can see that they consist of workers and other manual laborers. Following the execution, the troops at hand would file past the body. The firing squad was also the method used by court martials which treated insurrections (such as the Commune of Paris) or insubordinations and rebellions during times of war (for example, those executed by firing squad during WWI). Spies were also sentenced to death by firing squad (Mata Hari).

The execution of members of the military: the firing squad (continued)

Source : Archives of the Parisian Police Prefecture, BA/887.

Elsewhere: the firing squad in Madagascar (1896)

Source : Collection of the museum of living history (Musée d’histoire vivante), Montreuil, France.

Le Petit Journal. Supplément illustré, 22 November 1896 (Collection of the Museum of Living History (Musée d’histoire vivant – Montreuil) Madagascar became a French protectorate in 1885. The population’s resistance to the occupation led the French government to send in general Gallieni in mid-September 1896, little more than one month after the island was declared a colony on August 6th 1896. Adopting the title of “General Governor”, Gallieni decided to take on a “pacification” project, which would violently repress the resistance of locals and their authorities. He began with the queen of Madagascar, who was exiled to Alger, and two ministers who were arraigned and executed by firing squad. On November 22nd, 1896, the popular newspaper Le Petit Journal wrote: “The nomination of a civil governor in Madagascar has not been a particularly happy event, since the Fabavolos of the large island only know respect based on fear. They make fun of M. Laroche, seditions are breaking out everywhere and, in the long run, we, with our soldiers, will lose all the benefits of our laborious, deadly and costly exploration. We’ve put things in order by sending general Gallieni over, who has proved since the very beginning that he is not one to fool around. His interview with the queen was very clear. Her black majesty was warned that she’d have to submit to the authority of this French representative, and she consented, adding, as is the traditional formula of respect in the country, that the general “was her father and her mother”. Otherwise, since a lesson needed to be given to the rebels, two highly visible figures who had colluded with them, the prince Ratsimananga and the Interior Minister Rainandriamampandry, were seized, judged, condemned and executed by firing squad. These events happened with a rapidity that inspired certain advantageous reflections in the hearts of their accomplices.” During the governorship of Gallieni (1896-1905), we estimate that there were 100 000 victims of capital punishment. Under military occupation, the death penalty was carried out via the firing squad. This was the rule in colonies where the army played a determining role in maintaining colonial order.

Elsewhere: electrocution in the United States

Source : Collection of the museum of living history (Musée d’histoire vivante), Montreuil, France.

Le Petit Journal. Supplément illustré, April 9th 1899 (Collection of the Museum of Living History (Musée d’histoire vivant – Montreuil)) The first executions by electrocution in the United States took place in 1890. Over the years, the press wrote extensively on them, and even European criminologists took an interest in such proceedings. Alexandre Lacassagne, for example, published an article on this method two years after the first electrocutions in New York: Lacassagne (A.) Les executions électriques aux Etats-Unis, Archives d’anthropologie criminelle, 1892, p.431-440. This type of execution was seen as a form of progress, albeit risky and experimental, that did not yet seem to be completely satisfactory. Accordingly, the Petit Journal published the following: “While waiting for the upcoming, and very desirable, abolition of public executions, Americans, who are keen on progress, just used electricity for capital punishment once again. It has not yet been completely perfected, because the death of the individual is not as sudden and violent as desired. A certain woman named Place, who murdered her mother-in-law in Brooklyn, did not, in fact, die when she received the first current of electricity, even though it consisted of 1760 volts for four seconds. Between the first and the second electric shock, you could see her lips move to murmur a prayer. The spectacle was so terrifying that even the confessor couldn’t take it, and he turned his head away. The doctor and the nurse showed more rigidity. From the moment that the executioner Warden-Sage told her that she would be executed through the moment she was positioned on the electric chair with electrodes fixed to her head, and even through all her suffering and pain, she did not make a single complaint. Such resignation is certainly remarkable, but it doesn’t erase the horror of the crime.”

Elsewhere: a hanging in Persia (1908)

Source : Collection of the museum of living history (Musée d’histoire vivante), Montreuil, France.

Le Petit Journal. Supplément illustré, July 12th 1908 (Collection of the Museum of Living History (Musée d’histoire vivant – Montreuil)) In this engraving, Le Petit Journal illustrates the repression of religious leaders who headed a nationalist movement ordered by the Shah: “one of the punishments that is most commonly used, “hanging by one’s heels”, kills the condemned with atrocious suffering.” The same issue of the newspaper published an article by Ernest Laut on “Persian torture”, which finished by lauding the good Western conscience of “civilized” countries which abolish all forms of barbarous executions, at least in the mainland: “Normally, those condemned to death are strangled, decapitated or stabbed. Yet, when there’s a crime with aggravating circumstances, the suffering of the condemned is prolonged: some are impaled, others are attached to curved branches. Malcom [British explorer] reports that even in 1810, a slave who belonged to an inhabitant of Tehran tried to poison his master and the entirety of his master’s family. Thanks to prompt help, all of them survived, but the slave who had been found guilty was condemned by the king to hanging by his heels and then to being cut into pieces like a sheep. ‘Except’, adds Malcolm, ‘the condemned is denied the same rights that butchers usually give to sheep, which have their throats cut before they are cut into pieces’. These latest events show that the punishment of hanging by one’s heels has not yet disappeared in the mores of Persia. And we’re in the twentieth century! Sweet country!”

Elsewhere: a crucifixion in Morocco

Source : Collection of the museum of living history (Musée d’histoire vivante), Montreuil, France.

Le Petit Journal. Supplément illustré, August 16th 1908 (Collection of the Museum of Living History (Musée d’histoire vivant – Montreuil)) In a series of engravings on punishments abroad, Le Petit Journal comments on an image of a crucifixion in Morocco – an opportunity for the newspaper to justify colonialism with the argument of civilization: “A horrible scene has recently occurred in Marrakesh. The criminal Bensegra, of the Zemran tribe, offered to sell the criminal Kabbour, his personal enemy, to the khalifa Hafid for about 5,000 douros. Once the deal was done, Bensegra captured Kabbour, crucified him in the courtyard of his home, and held parties under the victim’s watching eyes. The third day, Kabbour was taken down and cut into pieces; music muffled the cries of this poor soul, and dogs ate what was left of him.”

Elsewhere: the execution of pirates in Tonkin

Source : Collection of the museum of living history (Musée d’histoire vivante), Montreuil, France.

Postcard (Collection of the Museum of Living History (Musée d’histoire vivant – Montreuil), Album titled ‘Conduché’, Photograph: Véronique Fau-Vincenti) This postcard shows a frequent scene in Indochina when it was under French occupation: the execution of “pirates” by sword, a type of punishment which was used in this colony as in nearby China. French officials let local authorities take care of the execution procedures themselves. The term “pirate” also included bootleggers, true pirates who pillaged villages, and those who resisted the foreign occupation. Colonel Frey reported on the French military operations done in 1890 and 1891 to combat “the pirates of Tonkin”, stating: “In Indochina, the European equates not only marauders, highway robbers, and bootleggers, but also adventurers of all types who, giving in to the temptation of a vagabond life and challenging the impotence of the law, do their damage in gangs, on the mainland, on the coast, or in the rivers of Tonkin. Even indigenous people who revolt against French rule and battle for national independence are included in this term.” (Colonel Frey. Pirates et rebelles au Tonkin, nos soldats au Yen-Thé, Paris, Hachette, 1892, p.39-40, trans. P. Bass). He adds that for Annamites [residents of Annam, a former subdivision of French Indochina] pirates are also “French administrators who collect taxes instead of the Annamite government”, as well as Chinese gangs who extorted money from local populations. Often, executions ordered by the French army aimed to crack down on the resistance to the occupation, which the colonel recognizes: “The assurance and the courage with which so many pirates face the executioner, after having been, sometimes, the victim of the most atrocious tortures; the speeches that certain of them address to the public in the moments right before their deaths, declaring, with the fervor of martyrs dying for their beliefs, that they don’t have a single act of pillage or of robbery to be reproached with; that they’ve fought and sacrificed their lives to save their country from foreign oppression; the respectful reverence with which the crowd watches these executions and including the sinister precautions that the executioner takes to ward off the resentment of these innocent manes [latin : innocent souls of the dead], precautions that go as far as kissing and licking the disgusting blade dripping with blood; all these facts show that we’re in the presence of true rebels…” (Colonel Frey. Pirates et rebelles au Tonkin, nos soldats au Yen-Thé, Paris, Hachette, 1892, p.84-85). Alongside this account taken from a trustworthy source, we can read a critique of the 1889 treatment of one of such “pirates”, Doï Van, written by anarchist Emile Pouget: Extract from an article by Emile Pouget, Le Père Peinard, n°45, January 1890. “For proof, I’ll tell you the story of the execution of Doi Van, a pirate chieftain, who formally submitted to French power before taking up his arms against his country, at the head of a group of rebels. No need to explain this gibberish, you’ve understood, isn’t that right, friends? Pirates and rebels, they’re good blokes who just don’t want the French to come take over their country like low-lives; the violence wasn’t started by them, they only returned the blows that we dealt them. So, Doi Van was taken in and they decided in a snap to cut off his head. Once condemned to death, they put the constraint on his neck and locked him up in a big wooden cage where he couldn’t even move. A sign was posted on the cage: Vuon-Vang-Yan, treason and perjury. After which, eight soldiers took the cage and paraded it through the streets of Hanoï. They had created a platform in the most visible public square; that’s where Doi Van had his head cut off with a saber, after all sorts of disgusting play-acting was finished. The executioner’s assistant pulled Doi Van by his hair, the saber fell like lightning, and the head fell into the hands of aforementioned assistant, who showed it to the crowd and rolled it on the ground. It was recuperated in order to be mounted on a long stake, so that this could be an example to the rebels. Oh, in the name of god, shame on you! Dirty bogus republicans, dishonorable fat cats, immoral muckrakers, all of you who infest the population more than vermin and who overwhelm them with your lies, won’t you sing us your refrains about your own spirit of humanity again? You’ve organized a damned number of parties for the hundred year anniversary of 1889 – the most impressive, the one that would best characterize your treachery is the execution of Doi Van. His head shouldn’t have been planted on a stick in the middle of Asia, in a Tonkinese village. God no! It should be stuck on the tip of the Eiffel tower, so that, overlooking your crimes at a height of 300 meters, this blockhead could declare to the whole world that under your republicanism, there’s nothing but dirty, smeared barbarism.”