Guillotine

Marie Antoinette's execution on 16 October 1793

A guillotine (n/ GHIL-ə-teen, also US: n/ GHEE-, French: [ɡijɔtin] (About this soundlisten)) was an apparatus designed for efficiently carrying out executions by beheading. The device consists of a tall, upright frame in which a weighted and angled blade is raised to the top and suspended. The condemned person is secured with stocks at the bottom of the frame, positioning the neck directly below the blade. The blade is then released, to quickly fall and forcefully decapitate the victim with a single, clean pass so that the head falls into a basket below.

The device is best known for its use in France, in particular during the French Revolution, where it was celebrated as the people's avenger by supporters of the revolution and vilified as the pre-eminent symbol of the Reign of Terror by opponents.[1] The name dates from this period, but similar devices had been used elsewhere in Europe over several centuries. The display of severed heads had long been one of the most common ways a European sovereign exhibited their power to their subjects.[2]

The guillotine remained France's standard method of judicial execution until the abolition of capital punishment in 1981.[3] The last person to be executed in France was Hamida Djandoubi, who was guillotined on 10 September 1977. This was also the last time that the government of a Western nation ever executed an individual by beheading.

Precursors

photograph
A replica of the Halifax Gibbet on its original site, 2008, with St Mary's Catholic church, Gibbet Street, in the background
The original Maiden of 1564, now on display at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh

The use of beheading machines in Europe long predates such use during the French revolution in 1792. An early example of the principle is found in the High History of the Holy Grail, dated to about 1210. Although the device is imaginary, its function is clear.[4] The text says:

Within these three openings are the hallows set for them. And behold what I would do to them if their three heads were therein ... She setteth her hand toward the openings and draweth forth a pin that was fastened into the wall, and a cutting blade of steel droppeth down, of steel sharper than any razor, and closeth up the three openings. "Even thus will I cut off their heads when they shall set them into those three openings thinking to adore the hallows that are beyond."[4]


The Halifax Gibbet was a wooden structure consisting of two wooden uprights, capped by a horizontal beam, of a total height of 4.5 metres (15 ft). The blade was an axe head weighing 3.5 kg (7.7 lb), attached to the bottom of a massive wooden block that slid up and down in grooves in the uprights. This device was mounted on a large square platform 1.25 metres (4 ft) high. It is not known when the Halifax Gibbet was first used; the first recorded execution in Halifax dates from 1280, but that execution may have been by sword, axe, or gibbet. The machine remained in use until Oliver Cromwell forbade capital punishment for petty theft. It was used for the last time, for the execution of two criminals on a single day, on 30 April 1650.

A Hans Weiditz (1495-1537) woodcut illustration from the 1532 edition of Petrarch's De remediis utriusque fortunae, or Remedies for Both Good and Bad Fortune shows a device similar to the Halifax Gibbet in the background being used for an execution.

Holinshed's Chronicles of 1577 included a picture of "The execution of Murcod Ballagh near Merton in Ireland in 1307" showing a similar execution machine, suggesting its early use in Ireland.[5]

The Maiden was constructed in 1564 for the Provost and Magistrates of Edinburgh, and was in use from April 1565 to 1710. One of those executed was James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton, in 1581, and a 1644 publication began circulating the legend that Morton himself had commissioned the Maiden after he had seen the Halifax Gibbet.[6] The Maiden was readily dismantled for storage and transport, and it is now on display in the National Museum of Scotland.[7]