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The Guillotine

Part 3: 'Invention' and Adoption


The First Guillotine is Built
The Assembly - working through Pierre-Louis Roederer, the Procureur général - sought advice from Doctor Antoine Louis, the Secretary of the Academy of Surgery in France, and his design for a quick, painless, decapitation machine was given to Tobias Schmidt, a German Engineer. It is unclear whether Louis drew his inspiration from existing devices, or whether he designed from afresh. Schmidt built the first guillotine and tested it, initially on animals, but later on human corpses. It comprised two fourteen-foot uprights joined by a crossbar, whose internal edges were grooved and greased with tallow; the weighted blade was either straight, or curved like an axe. The system was operated via a rope and pulley, while the whole construction was mounted on a high platform.

The final testing took place at a hospital in Bicêtre, where three carefully chosen corpses - those of strong, stocky men - were successfully beheaded. The first execution took place on April 25th, 1792, when a highwayman called Nicholas-Jacques Pelletier was killed. Further improvements were made, and an independent report to Roederer recommended a number of changes, including metal trays to collect blood; at some stage the famous angled blade was introduced and the high platform abandoned, replaced by a basic scaffold.

The Guillotine spreads throughout France.
This improved machine was accepted by the Assembly, and copies were sent to each of the new territorial regions, named Departments. Paris's own was initially based at the place de Carroussel, but the device was frequently moved. In the aftermath of Pelletier's execution the contraption became known as the 'Louisette' or 'Louison', after Dr. Louis; however, this name was soon lost, and other titles emerged. At some stage, the machine became known as the Guillotin, after Dr. Guillotin - whose main contribution had been a set of legal articles - and then finally 'la guillotine'. It is also unclear precisely why, and when, the final 'e' was added, but it probably developed out of attempts to rhyme Guillotin in poems and chants.

The Machine Open to All
The guillotine may have been similar in form and function to other, older, devices, but it broke new ground: an entire country officially, and unilaterally, adopted this decapitation machine for all of its executions. The same design was shipped out to all the regions, and each was operated in the same manner, under the same laws; there was supposed to be no local variation. Equally, the guillotine was designed to administer a fast and painless death to anyone, regardless of age, sex or wealth, an embodiment of such concepts as equality and humanity. Before the French Assembly's 1791 decree beheading was usually reserved for the rich or powerful, and it continued to be in other parts of Europe; however, France's guillotine was available to all.

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