Why the guillotine was the first "egalitarian" execution tool

You've probably seen the guillotine in historical epics and Dickens adaptations. But were you aware that it struck a blow for egalitarianism in more than one way? The French believed the guillotine's angled blade was both a scientific and social innovation. Here's why.

Most of us know the basics of the guillotine - it's a French contraption suitable for killing royalty and any pesky roving Highlanders. But while we associate the old chopper with taking care of princes of the universe, its real purpose was egalitarianism. Or, at least, that was its stated purpose. Doctor Joseph Ignace Guillotin was sickened by the spectacle of public execution and wanted to abolish it completely. In the late 1700s, this was unthinkable. After some strategizing, Guillotin got an angle on it. There was a reason why the rich paid a purse to executioners. They wanted to ensure that their deaths were quick and painless. The poor didn't have that luxury. They often didn't even have the luxury or the power to bribe their way into deaths that might be made painless. Slow hanging, draw-and-quartering, and burning weren't unusual. The rich, on the other hand, got themselves such sweet deals that some nobility demanded that they be hanged with a silk rope, as a sign of status.

In the 1790s, after the resentment of the privileges of the rich and titled had boiled over, Guillotin and his supporters made the point that "The Machine" meant a humane, painless death for rich and poor. They figured that taking away the spectacle was the first step towards abolishing the death penalty altogether. They were, to put it mildly, wrong. A civilian assembly granted the quick, painless death to everyone, but the sheer scale of the executions made them a spectator sport. The man who wanted to abolish the death penalty saw his name forever associated with a machine designed for execution.

Why the guillotine was the first "egalitarian" execution tool

The guillotine was not the first mechanical beheader. As early as 1307, Ireland was occasionally killing people with a similar device. Even in France, they had a few automated choppers. The problem was, they were expensive and tough to maintain, and so they were reserved for the rich who didn't want to chance it with a human axeman. The guillotine was a better, more consistent, and more efficient design. Guillotin, a German harpsichord maker named Tobias Schmidt, and a surgeon named Antoine Louis all added touches to perfect a machine that would be humane.

All guillotine-like contraptions had the basic falling-blade design, but they very much depended on the nerve of the condemned. If the person jerked, or moved, the blade might fall on the head or the shoulder. Louis added an iron collar that would keep the person in place and expose their neck at the perfect point for chopping. A heavier, and diligently sharpened, blade was added. Most innovative, though, was the angle of the blade going down. Earlier machines had straight or slightly curved blades. These hit the neck full-on and all at once, spreading the force of the blow over the entire area of contact and slowing it down. The guillotine has a severely angled blade. When it first makes contact with the neck, it does so at one point, instead of a more spread-out area. Of course the point of contact grows as it sinks into the neck, but it is minimized as much as possible. This concentrates the force of the blow and keeps the blade moving fast. The blade doesn't slow or get stuck. It is said to pass through the person's neck in about a two hundredth of a second.

There are those who say that severed heads stay alive and animated for a few seconds after death. Most doctors today say that it's unlikely. The quick trauma to the spine renders a person unconscious and death is so fast that it's as good as instantaneous. Or so they say.

By all accounts, the guillotine was an efficient instrument of death, which might be why it was never changed to anything else. Executions went on, with the guillotine, into the twentieth century. They were public until 1939, when the execution of Eugen Weidmann was secretly filmed. After that, they were conducted in prisons, out of the public eye. The last person to be executed by guillotine in France was Hamida Djandoubi. At that point the public had caught up with Doctor Guillotin's sentiment that execution by the state should be ended entirely. When rumors got around that the head was responsive for thirty seconds after it was severed, outrage grew.

Although it wasn't used again, technically the guillotine wasn't scrapped until 1981. It only went out when all execution in France was abolished. Although throughout history other countries have used the machine, it is not used anywhere today.

Second Image: Boisdejustice

Via About.com and Global Politician and Wired.