April 25th

On this day in 1792, the guillotine was first used in France on the highwayman Nicolas Pelletier.

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Following the proposal made by Dr Guillotin on October 10th 1789 to the Constituent Assembly that criminals sentenced to death should be beheaded due to qualities relating to ‘humanity’ and ‘equality’ as the most humane method of execution, attempts to introduce a more standardised and efficient death sentence were seen. On the 25th March 1791, the Constituent Assembly passed a decree which made beheading the only form of execution to be employed in state executions, coming into law a year later. Despite such an initiative, practical difficulties soon became apparent; indeed the limitation of such a death to nobility in the past had largely been due to the costly requirements; skilled executioners were not prevalent enough to escalate their use to a state endorsed scale in lieu with the existing organisation. Such an obstacle made the necessity of a machine increasingly apparent.

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The Secretary of the Academy of Surgery, Dr Louis, was duly consulted with regards to the creation of such a mechanism that would address the need for a machine applicable to large scale operations. The first guillotine was thus created in Paris on the 17th April, used initially on dead bodies to test its efficiency before being used for the first time on the highwayman Nicolas Pelletier, successfully severing his head with a single stroke. Further experimentation was attempted with blades angled at 45 degrees as well as rounded blades.

The use of the guillotine has become synonymous with images of ‘the Terror’ in France, beginning on the 10th August 1792. Indeed, between May 1793 and June 1794, over 1200 people were executed, aided in the efficiency provided by the use of the guillotine. Victims to the guillotine included but were not limited to the majority of the French aristocracy. The most famous of the executions carried out via the guillotine was that of King Louis XVI on 21st January 1793, followed by other key figures such as Marie Antoinette. The guillotine was being used nationwide, with thousands falling victim to the blade. In terms of broader legacy impact, the perception of the guillotine as a humane, as well as efficient, method of execution saw its adoption in various other countries such as that Belgium, Greece, Germany, Italy, Algeria and several more.

The last use of the guillotine in France took place in 1939, whilst the death penalty was abolished in French law in 1981.

To learn more about the French Revolution:

The French Revolution: The Bloodied Key to Modern Politics

To learn more about modern examples of the death penalty:

March 10th

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