A Slice of Death: Chasing the Shadow of the Guillotine

The Allure of the Lore of Gore

December 9, 2023By David JaggardC'est Ironique!
The guillotine looms large in the popular imagination, but the traces of this icon of the macabre are not easy to find in Paris. Goya’s “The French Penalty” (1824-28).

A few weeks ago I was walking by the Place de la Concorde and happened to notice a young couple who seemed to be wandering aimlessly around the pedestrian areas of the square, pointing and staring in every direction with a disoriented look on their faces. Obviously lost tourists. As I was crossing Avenue Gabriel near the Hôtel de Crillon, they approached me and asked for help. Specifically, what they asked was, “Where is the guillotine?”

Their question wasn’t stupid – it was just 218 years too late. The guillotine was, in fact, a fixture on the Place de la Concorde for a time during the Revolution, and this was where Louis XVI and his wife (I think her name was Mary-something – Maryann?) met their respective fates on January 21 and October 16, 1793.

Everyone knows that the guillotine was invented by Doctor Joseph Ignace Guillotin (the “e” was added later for reasons that remain unclear), but what few people know is that the guillotine was not invented by Doctor Joseph Ignace Guillotin. Not exactly: what he did was submit a proposal to the new revolutionary government in 1789, urging them to adopt the use of a beheading machine as a means of “humane execution.” The phrase may seem oxymoronic today, but before the guillotine the available options for offing offenders included breaking on the wheel, drawing and quartering and burning at the stake, any one of which makes swift decapitation seem like a UNICEF program.

Guillotin outlined the concept – the prisoner strapped onto a plank, the heavy blade falling between two uprights, etc. – but the actual R&D was handled by a German engineer named Tobias Schmidt based on a design by a certain Antoine Louis. Nonetheless, the name of the good doctor remained associated with the device. Apparently “guillotine” was considered a nicer-sounding trademark than “schmidtlouise.”

The idea was that, properly used, the contraption would dispatch the prisoner quickly and, Guillotin was convinced, painlessly, “causing only the sensation of a sudden chill on the back of the neck.” He must have figured that the blade would be warm by the time it reached the front of the neck.

After working out the bugs in his prototype, Schmidt did a few tests on sheep, whose skeletal resistance and collar size were considered to be comparable to that of humans. Plus they’re docile.

These early blade trials took place in Cour de Rohan, which is a picturesque private lane adjoining the Cour du Commerce Saint André, that pedestrian passageway that runs behind the Café Procope at Odéon. There’s no sign of where the sheep shearing took place, but it’s worth a look if you can get through the gate – sometimes you can sneak in as a resident is coming out if you look like you have business in there. If anyone stops you, just say, “I have farm animals to behead!” and they’ll let you right in.

So it is a little-known fact that Tobias Schmidt is the actual unsung co-inventor of the guillotine, which he also tested on some cadavers of stout, stocky men as a sort of a dress rehearsal. And Schmidt’s creativity didn’t stop there: an even lesser-known fact is that, as a result of these experiments, he also invented rubber boots and gloves, the squeegee mop, paper towels and the expression “Eiuw! Gross!!!”

The perfection of this appalling appliance came just in time to make a spectacular contribution to the barbarity of the Revolution. It was set up in 1792 at what is now called Place de la Concorde, but was then called Place de la Revolution, because before then it had been called Place Louis XV, and there it was used to bisect the king, the queen and an impressive roster of royals and old-regime sympathizers throughout 1793. By which time the bloodshed was about to reach flood-alert levels.

France in early 1794 was ruled by Maximilien de Robespierre, a revolutionary zealot who became the de facto head of the main governing council. Called the Committee of Public Safety, it essentially did its best to ensure that no member of the public was ever safe. All enemies, real or perceived, of the new government were summarily put to death by guillotine. Understandably, everyone was on edge, out of the very real fear that an edge would soon be on them, which is why this period was called the Reign of Terror.

In June of that grim year, the committee dispensed with the need for witnesses at treason trials: merely being accused of anti-revolutionary activity, thought or, presumably, dreams was enough to send a suspect to what the British by that time were calling the Continental Divider. Not surprisingly, this measure gave the old bean harvester a real workout: from June 14 to July 27, it was erected at the Place du Trone (now Place de la Nation) and used to denogginize no fewer than 1,306 alleged enemies of the people.

That’s more than 30 gruesome public executions per day. The details vary from account to account, but one source gives the age range of those killed as 14 to 90, which raises the question: what exactly could a 14-year-old and a 90-year-old do to warrant execution as counter-revolutionaries? Did the teenager give a sans-culotte a wedgie? Did the old-timer yell “King me!” at one too many checkers games? The history books are conspicuously silent on this issue.

The splatterfest finally came to an end when Robespierre’s policies proved so effective that he became a republic enemy himself: in July he was accused of the crimes of dictatorship and tyranny – obviously trumped-up charges. Not having the benefit of Cochran and Kardashian, he was found guilty, and on July 28 he followed in the footsteps, and head-plops, of his many victims, bringing the Reign of Terror to a welcome end.

Unlike Robespierre, who was guillotined face-up (who says executioners don’t pay attention to the little niceties?) and buried in a common grave near what is now Parc Monceau, the other casualties of the Trone massacre were heaped into wagons, hauled off to what used to be the garden of a convent not far from Nation and chucked, head over (or under, or alongside) heels, into long, deep ditches. Later, in the 19th century, the land was converted into a cemetery: the Cimetière de Picpus, where to this day only direct descendants of Terror victims can be buried.

It is still possible to see the mass graves and the lintel over the former gateway in the outer stone wall where the corpse carts came through with each fresh load:

The opening was walled over in the Napoleonic era to ease the memory of those turbulent times. And then the date and plaque were added in the post-Napoleonic era to revive the memory of those turbulent times. You just can’t please some people. Photo: Ronald Hurwitz

After the bloodbath, things quieted down somewhat, and France eventually got on with the business of trying to be a republic. Which of course didn’t last long, because Napoleon crowned himself emperor in 1804, and then in 1814, just 20 years after the Terror, the Bourbon monarchy was restored. Robespierre must have been rolling over, perhaps at two different speeds, in his grave.

Meanwhile, France’s guillotines were not, unfortunately, dismantled and sold for parts or souvenirs. Dr. Guillotin’s gadget continued to be used for executing criminals until 1977 and was officially still on call until 1981, when capital punishment finally got the axe, so to speak. From 1836 to 1899, prisoners condemned to death were held in the now-long-gone Grand Roquette prison in the 11th arrondissement.

Since executions were still public (and would be through 1939, when the Nazis took over that particular niche of the entertainment business), the guillotine was erected outside the prison on a case-by-case basis. And since the street surface was uneven, and a perfectly level platform was needed to ensure a straight drop for the chop, five smooth stone blocks were set into the pavement to serve as the foundation for the scaffold. Those slabs of granite are still visible on Rue de la Croix-Faubin at the corner of Rue de la Roquette:

They don’t look like much today, but for most of the 19th century these were the stones that every convict wanted to skip. Photos: Peter Olson

Despite its important place in French history, it is no longer possible, as far as I could find out, to see an actual whole guillotine in Paris. There is a (real, used) blade at the Conciergerie Museum on the Ile de la Cité and another one at the Musée de la Préfecture de Police on Rue de la Montagne Sainte-Geneviève. The Police Museum also has a reduced-size replica of a guillotine, and there’s a full-sized, although bodyboardless, topper lopper featured as part of the decor (when it’s not lent out for film shoots) at the Guillotine Bar on Rue Galande. I think they use it to zest limes for the margaritas.

Of course, no discussion of the guillotine would be complete without mentioning the elephant in the holding cell: the eternal debate as to whether or not the severed head sees the basket coming toward it. Or, to put it less graphically, whether the body-deprived cranium continues to live and think for some speculative, although no doubt brief, period of time after amputation.

The consensus seems to be that the brain’s neural functions could possibly continue for about a dozen seconds, although the shock of the blow would probably induce what I can only assume would be a merciful state of unconsciousness. A more complete discussion of the phenomenon can be found in The Straight Dope, a weekly column by Cecil Adams in the Chicago Reader.

The guillotine at the Police Museum is a 1/3-scale model, not big enough to exterminate a traitor or even a sheep, although it would probably do a pretty good job on a Tickle Me Elmo doll. I, for one, would pay to see that. Crappy photo: D. Jaggard

Appendix I: For Americans, an interesting aside is that the Marquis de Lafayette, the French general who helped the rebels in the American Revolution (he of “Lafayette, we are here,” “Lafayette, we’re going home now,” and “Lafayette, the least you could do is act a little bit grateful”) is buried in Picpus Cemetery. He married an aristocrat whose sister and mother were slaughtered by the terroristes and thus earned the right to rest in peace in Picpus, where an American flag flutters over his grave day and night:

The Marquis de Lafayette’s full name is Marie-Joseph Paul Roch Yves Gilbert Du Motier. I imagine the stone carver looking at the work order and groaning, then muttering to himself, “He’s dead – he can make do with just initials. And to hell with the final ‘M’.” Photo: Ronald Hurwitz

Appendix II: In the mid-1880s, the city of Paris issued a call for bids for the construction of a monument on a large patch of grass across from Trocadéro in preparation for the Universal Exhibition of 1889, marking the centennial of the Revolution. Many proposals were considered, and the contract ultimately went to a guy with a kind of a German-sounding name who wanted to build this big tall steely thingy with an openwork frame and tapering convex contours.

It was a pretty good idea, but get this: one of the rejected proposals was to build, instead of the Eiffel Tower, an enormous multi-story-high replica of the guillotine in honor of the victims of the Terror. Think of what the skyline of Paris would look like today. Now stop thinking about it and think of the city’s image: instead of being called The City of Light it would be known today as the City of Kersplat. Or the City of the Approaching Basket.


Note: this article was originally published on November 1, 2011.
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© 2011 Paris Update


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