At 3:30 p.m. on April 25, 1792, a robber and killer named Nicolas Pelletier was led to the scaffolding in the Place de Grave, where public executions were performed during the reign of Louis XV. Scads of national guardsmen were on the scene to preserve order. This was the very first time the guillotine would be used to put a convicted felon to death and the authorities were concerned that the crowd would be unusually large and rowdy.
The condemned prisoner walked up the stairs wearing a bright red shirt and was quickly positioned on the guillotine, also bright red in color. (How creepy is that, right?) Within seconds, the blade fell, Pelletier was decapitated, and it was all over.
The assembled crowd, however, felt totally ripped off. Where was the drama? Where was the excitement? At least with a hanging or a breaking-at-the-wheel, you got some proper entertainment. Some disappointed people in the crowd even shouted out:
“Bring back our wooden gallows!”
But the guillotine was here to stay.
There had been other devices similar to the guillotine previously in Europe, but the machine we know today was developed by Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a French doctor and member of the Revolutionary National Assembly. The good doctor was actually against the death penalty, but he figured a more humane method of execution was better than nothing until capital punishment was eradicated completely.
The guillotine was adopted as France’s official method of execution on March 20, 1792, and remained so until the death penalty was abolished in 1981.
When the guillotine was instated, it was considered an egalitarian way to dispatch justice in capital cases, unlike the old system that was unapologetically biased towards the upper class.
Before the guillotine, aristocrats underwent relatively painless executions by being beheaded, either by ax or by sword. Commoners, on the other hand, could be hanged, burned at the stake, broken on the wheel, or made to suffer many other sorts of horrible, lingering deaths. The guillotine, to the revolutionary mind, provided a level playing field.
And during the Reign of Terror, from June 1793 to July 1794, it sure got a work-out. After the monarchy was overthrown, most of the democratic principles put in place were cast aside and anarchy ruled the day. No-one was safe, and it’s estimated that 5,000–40,000 French met their end in the Place de la Revolution by means of “Madame Guillotine.”
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