What comes to mind when people think of the guillotine? Some may remember the French revolution; others may remember the Nazi's but most seem to see the guillotine as a very barbaric device used to carry out corporal punishment. Compared to the methods used today the guillotine is considered to be less effective and nowhere near as humane as say lethal injection. While today's standards are well less bloody and grotesque, the guillotine, for its time was not only an effective killing machine but is was also the most humane device of its time. Even today the guillotine could be considered humane compared to the electric chair, gas chamber, or even hanging.
The guillotine was invented in 1792 by Antoine Louis, who hired a German harpsichord maker named Tobias Schmidt to actually construct it from his design. The National Assembly adopted the idea of a humane way to carry out the death sentence from Doctor Joseph-Ignace Guillotin in 1791. In 1792 The French began construction on the machine after the idea was passed in to law by Louis XVI. It was first used in the execution of Nicolas Pelletier, a common criminal, on the 25th of April 1792. The deadly machine quickly moved on to more famous victims such as Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette, Charlotte Corday, Danton, Robespierre, and many others. (Unknown)
Although many believed that the device was in fact a humane killing device it still sparked controversy and a lot of scientific research about how the victim lived and if the victim felt pain after the head was removed from the body. In the findings of the late Doctor Beaurieux he may have proved that the victim might have been alive after the head was severed from the body:
Here, then, is what I was able to note immediately after the decapitation: the eyelids and lips of the guillotined man worked in irregularly rhythmic contractions for about five or six seconds. This phenomenon has been remarked by all those finding themselves in the same conditions as myself for observing what happens after the severing of the neck... I waited for several seconds. The spasmodic movements ceased. The face relaxed, the lids half closed on the eyeballs, leaving only the white of the conjunctiva visible, exactly as in the dying whom we have occasion to see every day in the exercise of our profession, or as in those just dead. (Beaurieux)
Most doctors today believe that the movement of the body and head after death is that of only reflexive muscle movement and not conscious deliberate movement. The idea behind that is that the head is cut off severing the blood and oxygen supply to the brain and will immediately go into a coma. According to Dr. Harold Hillman, consciousness is "probably lost within 2-3 seconds, due to a rapid fall of intracranial perfusion of blood"(Hillman). In fact the modern doctor believed that all occurrences of what people thought was the body still functioning was only convulsions as explained:
The person guillotined becomes unconscious very quickly and dies from shock and anoxia due to haemorrhage and loss of blood pressure within less than 60 seconds. It has often been reported that the eyes and mouths of people beheaded have shown signs of movement. It has been calculated that the human brain has enough oxygen stored for metabolism to persist about 7 seconds after the supply is cut off. (The Guillotine 1792-1977)
It seems that in these explanations by modern medical science that Doctor Beaurieux was either wrong in his findings or just didn't have the resources and tools that researchers and medical personnel have today. It may seem that in its time it is understood that one might believe a body could live without its head for minutes, however with limited tools and knowledge the theories made by doctors in the early eighteen and nineteen hundreds are only skepticisms without any basis in fundamental medical science or opinions without any physical evidence.
The guillotine was invented as a way to provide a humane means to execute those who were sentenced to death. It was so effective that even after gory public executions were taken behind closed doors in 1939 the guillotine was still used until 1977. Although we no longer use the guillotine today as a form of corporal punishment it is proven that although very gruesome and bloody the victim is executed painlessly and quickly perceived to be rivaled only by the lethal injection. By the modern definition of humane execution I believe that the guillotine was and is in fact a humane killing device and served its purpose for its time.
- Beaurieux. "Does the head survive?" 28 June 1905. The Guillotine Headquarters. 29 January 2009 <http://www.guillotine.dk/Pages/30sek.html>.
- Hillman, Harold. "An unnatural way to die." New Scientist 27 October 1983: 276-278.
- "The Guillotine 1792-1977." 1 <http://www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/guillotine.html>.
- Unknown. Bois de Justice. 31 January 2009 <http://boisdejustice.com/History/History.html>.