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Guillotin Joseph Ignace

Guillotin Joseph Ignace (1738—1814)

The guillotine is named after a French physician, Joseph Ignace Guillotin, who was born in 1738. He did not invent the device, but as a member of the French Constituent Assembly, he proposed in 1789 that all prisoners condemned to death should be executed the same way. Instead of hanging (which was usually used for the poor) or beheading (for the rich convicts), Guillotin proposed that "the criminal shall be decapitated; this will be done solely by means of a simple mechanism."

Some of France's best engineering minds bent their intellects to the purpose of designing, building and revising the machine over the next few years. The final design was a wooden framework with a hole for the offender's head; a blade, falling between two grooves, would decapitate the criminal. Although similar devices had existed for hundreds of years, none was built with the attention and care of the French machine.

The decapitation device was tested on animals and cadavers before its first human execution, on April 25, 1792, when Jacques Nicolas Pelletier, a highwayman, was executed.

Of course, the machine became a beloved tool of the madmen who took control of France after the turbulent French Revolution. They executed about 15,000 people by 1799 -- including, most famously, King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette.

Dr. Guillotin was imprisoned for political reasons in the aftermath of the Revolution, but he was released and died at home in 1814 or 1821. The device -- which had originally been nicknamed the louisette or louison (after either King Louis XVI, or one of its builders who was named Dr. Louis) -- came to be known as the "guillotine" because of Dr. Guillotin's original proposal. The association with the machine of death so embarrassed Dr. Guillotin's family that they begged the government to rename it; when the government refused, they changed their own family name. The guillotine was last used in France in 1977; it was outlawed in that country, along with all forms of capital punishment, in 1981.

Comoren Islands, 1989, Dr. Guillotin and Guillotine


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