January 21, 2016

Today in History: The guillotine and King Louis XVI’s “progressive” execution (1793)

John RobsonResident Historian

The guillotine used on France’s King Louis XVI on Jan. 21 1793 was meant to be more egalitarian and humane.

But as so often happens, the effort to improve fundamental things by applying mathematical technique, including those involving life and death, ended up grotesquely inhumane and brutal.

The result was right out of C.S. Lewis’s National Institute of Coordinated Experiments. It would have been fairer and more humane to exile the hapless French monarch or, failing that, dispatch him the old-fashioned way with a hand-held ax or sword.


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commented 2016-01-25 15:06:54 -0500
It was suggested by the physician, Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, in 1789. Nicknamed The National Razor, many were sent to it’s blade by Maximilien Robespierre, who must have looked at it with pathological irony as he was decapitated.

It even inspired gallows humor. Black Adder to his manservant Baldric: “You’re about as useless as a barber shop at the foot of the Guillotine.”

Speaking of irony, another doctor, J.M.V. Guillotin, was thus executed.
commented 2016-01-21 19:26:48 -0500
As with most modernizing improvements the semi-automatic beheader, or Halifax Gibbet, originated in England, wayyyy back in the thirteenth century. There were undoubtedly prior examples in darker time and further places, but this is certainly that on which the french based their stolen “invention”.
commented 2016-01-21 17:56:24 -0500
I thought the guillotine was designed to make an execution as quick and painless as possible, as opposed to treating all classes of people the same. Could the professor possibly be feeding us some revisionist history?
commented 2016-01-21 17:49:07 -0500
I wonder if there’s one of those in Canada…maybe we can test it on Trudope, Wynne and Notley et al?
commented 2016-01-21 15:29:26 -0500
As progressive, functional, and humane the guillotine was supposed to be, the original design had an angled blade with about a one inch thick flat edge. Not what it is today: a sharp beveled blade.

Many times the original design would only cut part way though, leaving the head hanging, or even worse, the partially decapitated subject still alive, with the process repeated.

Perhaps Monty Python had a better idea; drop a ten ton weight on the person in question.