The National French Razor: Dr. Guillotin's Killing Machine During the 18th century, most if not all executions in France were public events. Entire towns, including the women and children, gathered to watch different types of death sentences. For the lower social class, the common execution method was quartering. It is characterized by ripping the prisoner's limbs in four different directions. On the other hand, upper class prisoners could buy their way into a less painful death such as beheading (1). Throughout the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, the guillotine was a device constantly used for carrying out executions by decapitation. The continuous usage of this invention proved that the rights of men and equal justice at the time weren't recognized as well. Even though the execution by the guillotine was a sickening and disturbing sight, it was considered a quick way of ending a life without torture. This later became the negative symbol of the French Revolution and used by many others. The remnant of Sir Youssef's diary, an extremely rich aristocrat that was a close friend to King Louis XVI, was kept for many generations by his family members. This is where he kept a record of his final days before his execution. Few members of the Royal Court and I have been imprisoned for about three years in the famous prison named La Bastille. It is 6:00 am on October 20 1793, when I have just received the news that we, the royalists, will all be sentenced to the guillotine at eight o'clock the following morning. The next day, I was beaten, tortured and then escorted by a guard of ten horsemen and many sans-culottes (French for without knee-breeches), whom are the badly prepared volunteers of the French Revolutionary army, to my place of execution. As I was walking for the very last time, I started thinking of this deadly machine, the guillotine... In the center of this gory big stage, named Place de la Revolution, stands this fourteen feet tall upright frame from which a bloody sharp blade is suspended. Weighing approximately 1200 lbs, the guillotine has a blade weighing more than 80 lbs. People say that the blade falls at a rate of 21 feet/second which is equal to a little more than 14 miles/hour. With its lightening speed, the actual execution takes less than one second just like a blink of an eye (1). The blade itself was made of steel, and the forceful and durable rope was made out of cotton. The cutting edge had an upward angle from one side of the blade which was around 45 degrees to the opposite side. The angle allowed the blade to cut more quickly and cleanly. Leather straps restrained the victim's body around the arms and the back and legs to the bench. At the other side of the platform, a leather basket was used to catch the falling head of the victim (5). This well-known invention was created by Doctor Joseph Ignace Guillotin. He was a very well known physician and politician during the French Revolution. Ironically, he suggested to banish the death penalty completely years before the creation of this monstrous invention. He later proposed that "the criminal shall be decapitated; this will be done solely by means of a simple mechanism" and that the guillotine is a ?machine that beheads painlessly? (1). Cutting or severing the carotid and jugular blood vessels would lead to an instant drop of blood pressure to zero. This should cause an equally instant faint, followed by complete unconsciousness or coma which will eventually lead to death. This standardized method of execution was to replace the inhumane techniques that were used in the past such as burning, mutilation, and hanging. Another contradiction to the reality, Dr. Guillotin wanted the machine to be hidden from the view of the public. He believed that the execution should be private and not allow such a hideous spectacle being enjoyed by the public on the price of someone else's misery. In 1791 a law was passed stating that everyone condemned to death in France should be decapitated. On April 25, 1792, the first criminal was beheaded by the guillotine (5). The most famous victims of the guillotine were King Louis XVI and his queen, Marie-Antoinette. The former king was decapitated on January 21, 1793. Nine months later, his wife suffered the same fate. In addition to this, one of the most famous heads to ever fall into the basket was that of the biologist and chemist Antoine Lavoisier. He was the scientist that stated the first version of law of conservation of mass. He also recognized and named many elements including Oxygen and Hydrogen. A famous quote was said during this event, "It took them only an instant to cut off that head, and a hundred years may not produce another like it." (3). From the executions of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette to other commoners throughout the Reign of Terror, the guillotine came to symbolize the dark side of the French Revolution and was also referred as the "National Razor". I suddenly wake up from my daydream and realize that five assistants helped the executioner lead me to the machine. They removed any clothing around my neck, and cut my hair. They strapped me down, placed my head across the lunette, and lowered the top of the lunette around my neck. Charles-Henri Sanson, the official executioner at that time asked me if I had any last words. I said with a loud and proud voice: "I die innocent of all the crimes laid to my charge; I pardon those who have occasioned my death; and I pray to God that the blood you are going to shed may never be visited on France." (4). Couple of seconds later, I heard the drums beating faster and faster which was proportional to my heartbeats. The executioner released the declic, the wooden handle, and all of a sudden ................................. Total blackness. Can you believe that between 19000 and 40000 people were killed during the Reign of Terror? This number is at least 5 times more than the death toll of the Allied forces during D-Day in 1944! The oldest person recorded to be executed by the guillotine was 92 and the youngest was just 14 years old. Although the guillotine will always be associated with the French Revolution, the machine was not a new invention. Small primitive versions of it were used for the execution of aristocratic criminals in Germany, Italy, Scotland and Persia. Its use has been known as early as the fourteenth century, especially in Scotland (2). During Hitler's reign, it has been estimated that 16000 persons, were guillotined by the Nazis. After the war, the guillotine was last used in West Germany in 1949. East Germany continued to use the guillotine for a few more years afterwards. The last execution by guillotine took place in Marseilles, France on September 10, 1977. Its final victim, Hamida Djandoubi, was beheaded for torture and murder. France outlawed the guillotine and all other possible form of capital punishments in 1981 (3). In general, most people associate Dr. Guillotin's killing machine with the bloody and violent French Revolution without knowing that many other societies have also put it to work. More than 200 years ago, people had a transition from a barbaric way of capital punishment such as burning and quartering to the more modern "without torture" guillotine. So now more than 200 years later, are our capital punishment such as the electric chair and lethal injection considered even "more humane"? Would they be considered barbaric 200 years from now? Works Cited Bellis, Mary. "The History of the Guillotine." About.com:Inventors. The New York Times Company., 2010. Web. 9 Feb. 2010. . Brainard, Jennifer. "The Guillotine: a Humane Form of Execution - HistoryWiz." HistoryWiz: for students, teachers and lovers of history. Web. 13 Feb. 2010. . Enerson, Ole Daniel. "Joseph Ignace Guillotin." Www.whonamedit.com. 1994. Web. 11 Feb. 2010. . "The Execution of Louis XVI, 1793." EyeWitness to History - history through the eyes of those who lived it. Ibis Communications, Inc, 1999. Web. 13 Feb. 2010. . Guillon, Edmund Vincent. Build Your Own Guillotine: Make A Model That Actually Works. New York: Putnam, 1982.
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