The Guillotine’s Namesake Was Against Capital Punishment

And contrary to popular myth, he died of natural causes, not by beheading

In the eyes of Joseph Guillotin, the guillotine was an invention in the best ideals of the Revolution: humane, equalizing and scientific. Wikimedia Commons

By the time Joseph Guillotin died, aged 75, the invention which now bears his last name had become synonymous with the terror and mass executions of the French Revolution.

His funeral occurred on this day in 1814. At the same time, writes Richard Cavendish for History Today, his family was lobbying the French government to change the guillotine’s name so that their family name would no longer be synonymous with a period known as the “Terror.” “The government refused, so they changed their family name instead,” he writes.

Ironically, Guillotin’s motives were good: he wanted to make execution—gruesome even now, but particularly brutal in pre-revolutionary France—more humane. Realizing that he was unlikely to stop executions entirely, his intention was to make capital punishment more humane and more equal across social classes, writes Naomi Russo for The Atlantic. And as a doctor and politician, he had the social standing to make his voice heard, she says.

Execution was a regular punishment for things like killing another person but also things like theft and assault. Depending on rank, people were killed in increasingly gruesome ways, writes historian Pieter Spierenburg. Aristocrats automatically got the relatively humane beheading, while punishments for people of lesser social standing could be subject to punishments as horrifying as the wheel (although some were beheaded, as judges saw this as a lighter punishment.)

It was in this climate, writes Russo, that Guillotin advocated for the machine that would make his name infamous.With the decapitating machine he popularized, everyone would be executed in the same way, by a sharp blade that had no chance of missing.    

Guillotin did not in fact invent the machine his name is associated with—that was Dr. Antoine Louis, writes In fact, the machine was first nicknamed the “Louison” or “Louisette.” But Guillotin did popularize it, using the arguments about equality and humanity that also shaped the ideals of the Revolution.

His first big opportunity to talk about the guillotine came when he appeared before the National Assembly in December 1789, in the first year of the Revolution, “arguing for the guillotine to become the standard manner of carrying out the death penalty,” Russo writes.

“In a moment of enthusiasm, he told his audience, ‘Now with my machine I take off your head in the twinkling of an eye, and you never feel it.’” 

This ideal of execution accomplished with a purpose-built, swift machine was a far cry from something as brutal as hanging or the other regularly practiced punishments.  In fact, when Guillotin’s mother watched a man executed on the wheel—tied in a starfish to a large wooden wheel and then beaten to death, bones breaking in the process—the sight supposedly caused her to go into premature labor.

A day after Guillotin’s Assembly appearance, writes Russo, his name was forever linked in the popular imagination with his "machine." Then on June 3, 1791, she writes, “the Assembly decreed that the decapitating machine was to be the sole means of legal criminal execution.” 

In the years that followed, more than ten thousand people died by beheading with the guillotine. Executions done this way “may have been less torturous,” writes Cavendish, “but they could now be carried out with the efficiency of a slaughterhouse assembly line.” It looked scientific, but it was brutal. 

A persistent myth about Guillotin is that he was killed by his own invention. This is not true: he lived to see its unintended consequences.

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