March 20, 1792
The guillotine is declared the official means of execution in France
Though beheading machines existed before the guillotine, with documentation existing as far back as 1307 in Ireland, the French refined the design and were the first to implement it as an official means of execution.
Originally, the machine was dubbed the louison or louisette, with its creator Antoine Louis as its namesake, though “guillotine” eventually became the preferred term. The guillotine derives its name from Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a member of the Revolutionary National Assembly who opposed the death penalty, who suggested the machine as a humane method of killing the condemned. Guillotin suggested to his colleagues: “The mechanism falls like lightning; the head flies off; the blood spurts; the man no longer exists.” France had previously employed the use of hanging, beheading with a sword or axe (which often took several chops to sever the head), burning at the stake, and breaking at the wheel (in which the condemned would be strapped to a wheel and bludgeoned to death beginning by breaking the legs, then arms, and eventually the head or heart, ending with decapitation or strangulation if the wheeling was not sufficient to kill on its own), among other gruesome methods of execution.
The guillotine was officially adopted as the sole means of execution in France on March 20, 1792, though it was first tested nearly a month later on April 17. The first of the guillotine’s victims were living sheep and calves, as well as three corpses from the poorhouse. Eight days later, the first living human was killed by the guillotine: Nicolas-Jacques Pelletier, a highwayman sentenced to death for robbery and murder.
Pelletier’s execution, bloody as it was, did not satisfy the crowd watching his death. Chants of “Give me back my wooden gallows” rose, but the government kept the implement in use, finding the swift death to be a success.
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