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Joseph Ignace Guillotin
(28 May 1738 - 26 Mar 1814)

French physician who promoted a law requiring the use of a “machine that beheads painlessly” as a humane mode for all executions. Though he left its design to others, it became known by his name.

Joseph Ignace Guillotin - Biography

from Chambers' Edinburgh Journal (1844)

Guillotines and Robespierre Cartoon
Guillotines and Robespierre Cartoon
Robespierre, après avoir guillotiné la France, son gouvernement et ses habitants, guillotine Sanson. (Caricature de l'époque. — Cabinet des estampes). (Terms of Use) (source)

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[p.218] With the machine to which the above physician was the unwitting sponsor, is associated the wholesale decapitations which took place during the French Revolution. It has thus conferred an unenviable notoriety on a man who appears to have possessed a large share of humanity, and whose gravest fault was the bad vanity which he expressed about his invention—that invention being after all not certainly his, as similar instruments had been used long before in Italy, Germany, England, Scotland, and even France itself. It is only recently that the true history of this man, and of the machine which bore his name, has been completed; first, by the discovery (in 1835) of some documents in the Hotel de Ville of Paris, and next by a pamphlet, written by M. Louis du Bois, published last year.1

We learn from the Biographie Universelle, that Joseph Ignace Guillotin was born in 1738 at Saintes, an ancient town on the lower banks of the river Charente. After having received the rudiments of education, he composed an essay to obtain the degree of master of arts from the university of Bordeaux. This composition produced a lively sensation; and the Jesuits, who invariably tried to connect every person of talent with their order, persuaded him to enter the fraternity, and Guillotin was appointed a professor in the Irish college at Bordeaux. After a few years, however, ambition prompted him to quit the religious habit, and he went to Paris to study medicine. There he soon distinguished himself as a diligent pupil of Antoine Petit, the most learned professor of his time. So ardent was he in the pursuit of medical knowledge, that he organised a certain number of his fellow-pupils into a society, to render a mutual account of the instruction they had derived from the lessons of their master. At length the good use he made of his days as a student met their reward: he obtained a diploma from the faculty of Rheims, and afterwards carried off, from a host of competitors, the prize given by the Paris faculty, which was the title of Doctor-Regent. From that time he was placed, in the opinion of the public, amongst the first physicians of the capital.

When the famous Mesmer broached his doctrine of animal magnetism, Louis XVI. ordered a commission to inquire into the merits of the theory, and Guillotin was appointed one of its members; but at this time the distant murmurs of the revolutionary storm were heard, and both the king and the royal physician had weightier matters to occupy their attention than mesmerism. Louis attempted to meet the coming tempest by organising a popular assembly under the title of the States General, while Guillotin, taking the general tone of the time, published what was thought a disloyal pamphlet, under the title of ‘Petition of the Citizens domiciled in Paris.2 For this he was summoned to the bar of the French parliament to render an account of his opinions. The issue of the affair was favourable to him; and the populace carried him from the parliament house in triumph. His popularity now increased, and, after a time, he was elected a member of the States General. In this national assembly Guillotin chiefly directed his attention to medical reform; and it was in [p.219] a debate concerning capital punishments that a circumstance occurred which, though somewhat ludicrous in itself, handed his name down to posterity in a manner which he bitterly regretted to the latest moment of his existence.

It appears that, under the old system of things, it was a privilege of the nobility, when condemned to death, to be beheaded instead of hanged. Singular as it may seem, this was complained of by the malcontents of the day as an odious distinction. To do away with it, Dr Guillotin framed, and, on the 10th of October 1789, proposed in the National Assembly a series of resolutions, the first three of which were—‘1. Crimes of the same kind shall be punished by the same kind of punishment, whatever be the rank of the criminal. 2. In all cases (whatever be the crime) of capital punishment, it shall be of the same kind—that is, beheading—and it shall be executed by means of a machine [l’effet d’un simple mécanisme]. 3. Crime being personal, the punishment, whatever it may be, of a criminal, shall inflict no disgrace on his family.’ These propositions were adjourned, as it seems, without a debate; but on the 1st of December the doctor brought them forward again, preceding his motion by reading a long and detailed report in their favour, to which, unluckily for the history of the guillotine, the Assembly did not pay the usual compliment of printing it, and no copy was found amongst Guillotin’s papers. The circumstance which so lastingly attached his name to the beheading machine also proved that his propositions were not very attentively received: the debate finished abruptly, in consequence of a curious expression which he used. He had been, it would seem, describing the proposed instrument as his own invention; and, having argued that hanging was a tedious and torturing process, exclaimed, in a tone of triumph, ‘Now, with my machine, I cut off your head in the twinkling of an eye, and you never feel it!’3 This strange expression produced a general laugh, which ended the discussion. Alas! amongst the laughers there were scores of the after-victims of the yet unborn cause of their merriment.

The unlucky expression of Dr Guillotin passed into a jest, which was indelibly fixed on him by a song that appeared a few days afterwards in a comic periodical supported by the royalist party, and the humour of which turned on his being supposed to wish for a swifter mode of killing than the professional one which he had previously practised.

And physician,
Bethought himself, ‘tis plain,
That hanging’s not humane
Nor patriotic;
And straightway showed
A clever mode
To kill—without a pang-men;
Which, void of rope or stakes,
Suppression makes
Of hangmen.

‘Twas thought, and not in vain
That this slim
Hippocrates’ limb
Was jealous to obtain
The exclusive right of killing.
By quicker means than pilling.

The patriot keen,
The best advice to have.
Before the next debate.
Consults Coupe-tête,
Chapelier and Banarve;4

And then off-hand
His genius planned
That machine
That ‘simply’ kills—that’s all—
Which after him we call

This jeu d’esprit became very popular, and the name of Guillotine, which it gave in derision, and by anticipation, clung to the fatal machine when it was finally adopted, and for ever after. It appears that the bad taste of jesting on so grave and solemn a subject did not escape notice, for in the Moniteur of the 18th December 1789, appear some ‘observations on the motion of Dr Guillotin, for the adoption of a machine which should behead animals in the twinkling of an eye,’ and censuring the ‘levity with which some of the periodical papers have made trivial and indecent remarks thereon.’

To show how unjustly Guillotin’s name has been treated by posterity, it is only necessary to add, that the above is nearly all the connexion he had with the so-called guillotine; for at the time he talked of ‘my machine,’ it does not appear that he had made either a model or so much as a drawing of it, and it could only have existed as an idea in his mind, whether borrowed or original, it is now impossible to determine. The fact is, that the first guillotine was not constructed till three years afterwards, and with the making of it Guillotin had nothing whatever to do!

Though the doctor’s propositions were laughed off on the 1st of December 1789, yet every one of them were eventually adopted. That which first came under discussion was the third, by which every stain of disgrace was to be removed from the relations and families of criminals. About the middle of the following month (January 1790), an event took place which shows that, although Guillotin and his ideal instrument found little favour in the Assembly, the third clause of his motion made a great impression amongst the populace. The case, very characteristic in all its circumstances, was this: —There were three brothers of a respectable family in Paris, of the name of Agasse, the two eldest of whom— printers and proprietors of the Moniteur—were-convicted of forgery of bank-notes, and sentenced to be hanged. Their condemnation excited great public interest, from the youth and previous respectability of the parties. Instead, however, of this sympathy being employed in procuring a mitigation of the sentence, it was expended on the relations and friends of the criminals, whose case was thought to afford an excellent opportunity of carrying out one of Guillotin’s ameliorations. In the evening sitting of the 21st of January, the Abbé Pepin hastily mounted the tribune of the National Assembly, recalled to its attention Guillotin’s propositions, and stated that the clause relative to the abolition of prejudice against the family of criminals ought to be immediately passed, to meet the case of the Agasses. This was enthusiastically agreed to, and a decree was immediately ratified to meet the case. Three days after, the battalion of National Guards of the district of St Honoré, where the Agasses resided, assembled in grand parade; they voted an address to M. Agasse, the uncle of the criminals, to condole with his affliction, and to announce their adoption of the whole surviving family as friends and brothers; and, as a first step, they elected the young brother and younger cousin of the culprits to be lieutenants of the grenadier company; and then, the battalion being drawn up in front of the Louvre, these young men were marched forth, and complimented on their new rank by M. de Lafayette, the commander-in-chief, accompanied by a numerous staff. Nor was this all: they were led in procession to St Eustache and other churches, and paraded, with every kind of ostentation, to the public gaze. A public dinner of six hundred National Guards was got up in their honour; numerous philanthropic toasts were drunk; and then [p.220] in an enthusiasm of patriotism, the two youths were marched back through half Paris, preceded by a band of music, to the house of the uncle, where the whole family, old and young, male and female, came forth into the street to receive the congratulations of the crowd. While these tragical farces were playing, the poor culprits, who did not at all share in the enthusiasm their case excited, were endeavouring to escape from the painful honour of having this great moral experiment made in their persons; but in vain; their appeals were rejected, and at length they were, on the 8th of February, led forth to execution, and hanged.

After this, none of the questions concerning the execution of criminals mooted by Guillotin were revived till 1791, for meantime the executioner’s revolting office was never performed. But on the 6th of October in that year, it was enacted, that ‘every person condemned to death should be beheaded’—the especial privilege of the nobility being thus at last abolished. The next question was, as to how the fatal operation was to be performed. Hanging would no longer be tolerated, in consequence of the shocking number of ‘irregular executions’ which had formerly occurred from that mode, when the populace, taking the law into their own hands, suspended obnoxious persons from the street lamps. Guillotin’s plan seems to have been almost forgotten; and the general adoption of the aristocratic mode of beheading with the sword possessed many disadvantages. The subject was much discussed for some time, but was at length brought to an issue by the condemnation of one Pelletier, who, on the 24th January 1792, was condemned to capital punishment for assassination. The magistrates of Paris inquired of the minister how the sentence was to be executed; and, after the delay of a month, the minister himself, and the Directory of the department of Paris, were obliged to have recourse to the Legislative Assembly for instructions. The letter of the minister, Duport du Tertre, is remarkable for the reluctance with which he enters on the subject, and the deep and almost prophetic horror he expresses at having had to examine its odious details. ‘It was,’ he said, ‘a kind of execution [espèce de supplice] to which he had felt himself condemned.’ Alas! it was but an anticipation of a fatal reality. On the 28th of November 1793, he was himself really condemned by the revolutionary tribunal, and suffered on the 29th by the machine first used under his involuntary auspices, and in company with that same Barnave, the first and most prominent patron of revolutionary bloodshedding!

In the midst of the difficulty, M. Sanson, the hereditary executioner of France, was applied to for his opinion, which he gave in a memorial written with good sense, showing the cruelty, uncertainty, and torture of beheading by the sword, then the usual mode. The question was finally referred to M. Louis, secretary to the academy of surgeons, and in his report, dated 7th March 1792, he recommended such a machine as Guillotin had previously described, but without the smallest allusion to Guillotin himself. This proposal was entertained, and Guillotin at last thought of; for, on the 10th of March, we find that Rœderer, then the departmental Procureur-General, wrote the following private note to Guillotin:— ‘Dear sir and ex-colleague, I should be very much obliged if you would be so good as to come to the office of the department, No. 4, Place Vendôme, at your earliest convenience. The Directory [of the department of Paris] is unfortunately about to be called upon to determine the mode of decapitation which will be henceforward employed for the execution of the third article of the penal code. I am instructed to invite you to communicate to me the important ideas which you have collected and compared, with a view of mitigating a punishment which the law does not intend to be cruel.’ Whether the proposed interview took place, is not positively stated; and with this letter ends every tittle that has been recorded of Guillotin’s connexion with the terrible contrivance to which, three years before, his name had been given, and which bore it ever after. In proof of this, it is only necessary to follow up the narrative of what occurred in reference to the machine.

All the time this discussion was going on, not only Pelletier, but several other malefactors, lay in the provincial jails awaiting execution. In this difficulty, an officer of the criminal court of Strasburg, named Laquiante, made a design of a beheading machine, and employed one Schmidt, a pianoforte maker, to execute a model. Meanwhile, Louis’s proposition was acted on at head-quarters, and the Legislative Assembly empowered Rœderer to get an instrument made; but whether or no his ‘ex-colleague’ Guillotin assisted him in the task, is not stated. Roederer applied to one Guidon, who was the contractor for furnishing wood for the use of the criminal executive (pour la fourniture des bois de justice), for an estimate of the expense. On the 5th April 1792, Guidon sent in his estimate; no less than the sum of L.226. When expostulated with on the exorbitancy of the amount, he replied that it arose from his workmen demanding ‘enormous wages, from a prejudice against the object in view.’ On which Rœderer remarks — ‘The prejudice, indeed, exists; but I have offers from other persons to undertake the work, provided they should not be asked to sign contracts, or in any other way to have their names exposed as connected with the object’ This is very remarkable, as showing that even operative carpenters dreaded the sort of notoriety which Guillotin inadvertently courted on the 1st of December 1789, by talking of ‘my machine.’ In the end, Guidon’s offer was rejected, and Schmidt made, for L.38, the instrument that was finally adopted. One was immediately ordered and made for each province or department.

After a great many delays, an execution by this mode took place on Monday, 23d April 1792, Pelletier being the first victim. The new machine performed its duty with complete success, and, shocking as it may appear, became so popular, that it afterwards served as a model of ornaments for women, and of toys for children !5 Some attempt was made to give it the name of the Louison, from the share M. Louis, the surgeon, had in bringing it forward; but the epigram had fixed Guillotin’s name on it too firmly, and it was never popularly known by any other.

During the horrible anarchy which followed, Dr Guillotin hid himself in such close secrecy, that it was believed he had fallen a victim to his so-called invention. This was so current an opinion, that we find Mr Todd, in introducing the word guillotine into Johnson’s Dictionary, states it as a fact Guillotin did not, however, wholly escape the fury of the time, as he was for a certain period imprisoned on some slight pretence. When order was in a degree restored, he was liberated; and being heartily tired of performing the character of a politician, he returned to the practice of his own profession, overwhelmed, it is stated, by a deep sense of the great, though not wholly undeserved, misfortune which rendered his name ignominious, and his very existence a subject of fearful curiosity. ‘It is astonishing’—we quote the Biographie Universelle—‘that Guillotin did not solicit from the authorities permission to change a name which thenceforth must have been hardly supportable to him.’ In spite of it, however, he enjoyed, up to the latest moments of his life, the esteem of all who knew him. His love for his profession suggested to him the idea of a medical society, which still exists in Paris under the name of the Academy of Medicine, where he associated with his old companions. He lived just long enough to see the Restoration, and died in his bed on the 26th May 1814, aged seventy-six years. A funeral oration was made over his remains by one of [p.221] his oldest friends, Dr Bourru, and was published shortly after his death.

Never was a man more severely punished for a little inconsiderate vanity than Dr Guillotin, who, apart from the merit or demerit of his invention, seems to have been a truly estimable member of society.

1 Recherches Historiques et Physiologiques sur la Guillotine, &c. Paris. 1843
2 Besides the Pétition des Citoyens Domiciliés à Paris, Guillotin published (in 1788) two other pieces, which formed an octavo of thirty-five pages: thus much from the Biographie Universelle— but in a book published in 1796, entitled Portraits of Celebrated Persons, we find it denied that Guillotin wrote these pamphlets, having only ‘fathered’ them, the real author being a lawyer named Hardouin, who was afraid of the consequences of the publication.
3 ‘Avec ma machine, je vous fais sauter la tête d’un coup-d’œil, et vous ne souffrez point!’
4 Coupe-tête was one Jourdain (afterwards more widely celebrated for his share in the massacres of Avignon), who derived his nickname from having cut off the heads of Messrs De Huttes and Varicourt, who were murdered in the palace of Versailles about two months before Guillotin’s unlucky speech. Barnave and Chapelier were two of the most violent democratic members of the National Assembly. All these men fell under the guillotine a few years later.
5 Quarterly Review, vol lxxxiii. p. 261.

[Notes: “Tittle” is a word meaning “the smallest part.”
The original cartoon caption in French is: “Robespierre, après avoir guillotiné la France, son gouvernement et ses habitants, guillotine Sanson. (Caricature de l'époque. — Cabinet des estampes),” which translates to “Robespierre after having guillotined France, its government and its people, guillotines Sanson. (Cartoon of the day. - Print Room).” Robespierre was a leading Revolutionary during the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution. (He fell from favour and was guillotined.) Sanson was the French public executioner.]

Cartoon added (not in original article from Hector Fleischmann, La Guillotine en 1793 (1908), 269. Footnotes consolidated at end of article and numbered accordingly. Text from William and Robert Chambers, Chambers' Edinburgh Journal (6 Apr 1844), New Series No. 14, 218-221. (source)

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  • 28 May - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Guillotin's birth.

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