Joseph-Ignace Guillotin Didn’t Invent The Guillotine

“And if my thought-dreams could be seen, they’d probably put my head in a guillotine.” —Bob Dylan, “It’s Alright, Ma”

In A Nutshell

If the credit for any invention seems like it would be (pardon the pun) clear cut, you’d think it would be the guillotine, clearly named for its inventor, Dr. Guillotin. The French aristocrat didn’t actually do any of the designing or building, though: He only championed the cause for a more humane manner of execution. The actual grunt work was done by another doctor, Dr. Antoine Louis. In fact, the guillotine started out being called the Louisette. And Guillotin ended up hating the creation.

The Whole Bushel

The stories of how the guillotine got its name usually credits its namesake, Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin with the invention of the device that would change France forever. But in truth, he didn’t invent it at all. The guillotine concept was actually the combined efforts of two men, named Dr. Antoine Louis and France’s state executioner, Charles-Henri Sanson.

Similar devices had been in use for hundreds of years by the time revolution swept across France in the late 1700s, but it wasn’t until Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin started to champion a rather odd cause that the early machine became perfected into what we now know as one of Europe’s ultimate deliverers of capital punishment.

Guillotin went before the French National Assembly in 1789 and lodged a complaint about the methods by which the death penalty was dealt; specifically, the difference between the long, drawn out sufferings of commoners who were hanged or burnt at the stake as opposed to nobility, who had the option of the quick death of decapitation. He wanted common criminals to have the same right, but that presented a problem. Decapitating a person quickly and cleanly required exquisitely sharp, strong swords, which weren’t a cheap commodity. And, they would also need to train a large number of executioners to deliver the blow correctly to prevent a botched execution and a long, painfully bloody death—so said Sanson. So Guillotin proposed the development of a machine that would do the work for the executioner.

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And that’s about where his involvement ended.

The actual design was created by Dr. Antoine Louis, and for a while, the finished product was even known as a “Louison” or “Louisette.” (Louis was selected as he was also the Secretary of the Academy of Surgery.) He first tested it on live sheep and cattle, then on the corpses of women and children, before the original design was remade with its now distinctive, slanted blade and increased height to ensure a clean cut every time. All this was done under the watchful eye and the guidance of the man who originally dissuaded the assembly from using the headsman for everyone, the executioner himself, Charles-Henri Sanson.

The machine was strictly designed by Louis and actually built by a German engineer named Tobias Schmidt. The honor of being the first person executed by the new machine went to a robber named Nicholas-Jacques Pelletier, who was beheaded on April 25, 1792.

The irony behind the guillotine is not only did its namesake not approve of the attachment of his name to the creation, but he came to hate it. The guillotine ended up allowing for people to be executed very quickly; in June 1793, 96 people were executed. In 13 months, between May 1793 and June 1974, more than 1,220 people were executed by guillotine.

Guillotin had championed the device as a way to make executions more humane, but ended up unleashing a monstrous contraption on the French that allowed the aristocracy to execute its citizens with frightening speed and efficiency. Sanson, who went on to embrace the guillotine, was reported to be capable of executing 12 people in 13 minutes. What began as a crusade for human rights ended in carnage, and Guillotin hated it.

Show Me The Proof

History: The Guillotine’s First Cut
The Guillotine: 1792–1977