The Guillotine… some fascinating and gruesome facts

The Guillotine… it gives most people the shivers just thinking about it.

Countless victims, young and old, had their heads chopped off during the years of the French Revolution, mainly because they had a title, wealth or were against social change. No one knows the number of deaths across France during that time, not just in Paris; estimates vary between 10,000 and 40,000, but the reality was probably tens of thousands more. Some 247 people fell prey to the guillotine on Christmas Day 1793 in Paris alone, at the height of The Terror, but many aristocrats were simply lynched from lampposts or murdered by rampaging mobs of vengeful sans-culottes. Nevertheless, it is the guillotine that has become synonymous with this grim period of French history.

Execution of Louis XVI in January 1793

Contemporary records of guillotinings indicate that the facial expressions, including eye movements, of separated heads continued to change for a short period, much to the excitement of the baying crowds of spectators. How horrifying is that?! When Jean-Paul Marat’s killer, Charlotte Corday, who famously stabbed the radical politician in his bath, went to the guiilotine in 1793, a man named Francois le Gros allegedly lifted her head and slapped both cheeks. Onlookers claimed that Corday’s face took on an angry expression and her cheeks became flushed.

There are other reports from history of severed heads that seem to have shown signs of consciousness. Gruesome doesn’t begin to describe it! In the 1950s French medical scientists Piedelievre and Fournier concluded that death by guillotine was not as instantaneous as previously thought. In the following decades, research continued using rats to measure brain function after decapitation. The conclusion was that after a swift decapitation, it will take 7 seconds before the brain ceases to function due to blood and oxygen deprivation… so that might explain the contorted faces.

Prior to The Revolution peasants convicted of crimes were publicly tortured and hanged, while their aristocratic counterparts were dispatched swiftly, and mercifully, by a swordsman. Even in death peasants had a rough deal so the guillotine was seen as ‘the great equalizer’ as well as the defender of Revolutionary principles. However, when it was first introduced in April 1792 the avid crowd used to previously bloodthirsty executions felt short-changed. And we thought events in Roman times of Christians being thrown to the lions and gladiatorial fights to the death were barbaric. Some particularly radical women even took to wearing guillotine earrings in support of the machine’s revolutionary purpose. Talk about tasteless!

Guillotine earrings anyone?

Another fascinating tidbit of gory information. We normally associate the guillotine with the brutality of the French Revolution, however, did you know that the Nazis actually used the guillotine during the frightening years they were in power? It has been claimed that the Nazis beheaded almost as many victims as during the French Reign of Terror. How shocking is that? Hitler ordered the guillotine as a method of execution in the 1930s and asked that 20 of the machines be placed in cities across Germany. According to Nazi records, the guillotine was eventually used to execute some 16,500 people between 1933 and 1945, many of them resistance fighters and political protesters. And if you thought that fact disturbing, try this. The Nazis even charged the families of those they had imprisoned and beheaded, sending invoices to the families of the deceased!

The last execution by guillotine occurred in 1977. In September 1981, France outlawed capital punishment altogether, thus abandoning the guillotine forever. It took them 185 years to finally dispense with this most gruesome contraption.