September 10, 1977 – Last Execution By Guillotine in France

On this day in history, Hamida Djandoubi, a Tunisian immigrant convicted of murder, became the last person executed by guillotine in France.

The guillotine is best known for its use during the French Revolution, but it actually had replaced the sword for public executions long before that time. According to The Guillotine Headquarters, a woodcut published in 1577 claims to show a guillotine in use in 1307.

The execution of Murcod Ballagh near to Merton in Ireland 1307. This woodcut is from a book published in 1577.   Courtesy British Museum

The execution of Murcod Ballagh near to Merton in Ireland 1307. This woodcut is from a book published in 1577. Courtesy British Museum

The “Halifax Gibbet” – a similar contraption – was used in England for executions on market days, possibly as early as 1280.

A replica of the Halifax Gibbet on its original site, 2008, with St Mary's Catholic church, Gibbet Street, in the background.

A replica of the Halifax Gibbet on its original site, 2008, with St Mary’s Catholic church, Gibbet Street, in the background.

Scotland’s analogous device was called “The Scottish Maiden,” used between 1564-1710 according to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, where you can still see one on display.

The Scottish Maiden

The Scottish Maiden

In any event, we have Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin (1738 – 1814), a French physician, to thank for the name of the device in France that bears his name. Dr. Guillotine was actually opposed to the death penalty, but believed if it must be carried out, it should be done quickly and with as little pain as possible. Prior to this time, beheading in France (reserved for nobility) was typically done by axe or sword, and did not always cause immediate death. (Commoners were typically hanged.) Dr. Guillotin proposed that the only method of capital punishment should be death by mechanical decapitation, in order to increase fairness of the death penalty.

Dr. Gillotine

Dr. Gillotine

The French Revolution, an influential period of social and political upheaval in France, lasted from 1789 until 1799. The period from June 1793 to July 1794 in France is known as the Reign of Terror or simply “the Terror.” Most of the democratic reforms of the revolution were suspended and the Revolutionary Tribunal sentenced thousands to the guillotine. Maximilien Robespierre became one of the most powerful men in the government, and the figure most associated with the Terror.

Eventually, the National Convention had enough of the Terror, partially fearing for their own lives, and turned against Robespierre. He was arrested and himself executed on the guillotine on July 28, 1794.

The execution of Robespierre

The execution of Robespierre

The association with the guillotine so embarrassed Dr. Guillotin’s family that they petitioned the French government to rename it; when the government refused, they instead changed their own family name.

The last public guillotining in France was of Eugen Weidmann, who was convicted of six murders and beheaded on June 17, 1939. A number of problems with that execution (such as rowdy behavior of spectators) caused the French government to order that future executions be conducted in private in the prison courtyard, but it still remained the official method of execution in France until the death penalty was abolished in 1981.

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