Censored Guillotine Scene

views updated

Censored Guillotine Scene


By: Anonymous

Date: 1904

Source: "Censored Guillotine Scene." Corbis, 1904.

About the Photographer: The source photograph is a still from a movie by Georges Méliès, the first film scene ever to be suppressed by the police. The photographer is unknown.


The guillotine is best known for creating a sea of blood during the French Revolution of the 1790s. The French did not invent the device though. Crude versions of the guillotine existed as early as the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Italy, England, Scotland, Naples, Holland, and Germany. Its use represented an exceptional aristocratic privilege. The victim avoided the contaminating hands of the working class hangman while the execution was performed with mechanical efficiency. The executioner only pulled up the razor-sharp blade by a cord and then released it to chop off the victim's head in a flash.

For most of the population, execution remained a imprecise and gruesome affair. Executioners who wielded axes sometimes failed to kill with the first blow, forcing the condemned to endure multiple slices. Hangmen occasionally failed to employ proper counterweights, with the result that the condemned person's neck did not break immediately and the prisoner slowly strangled to death. In 1757, the Damiens Affair shocked France. Robert-François Damiens was sentenced to be publicly hanged, drawn, and quartered for attempting to kill the king. He was briefly choked in a noose and his genitalia were cut off before four horses attempted to pull him apart. The horses were unable to dismember him and Damiens was finally cut apart with a knife. While drawing and quartering was comparatively rare, France in the eighteenth century still broke non-nobility on the wheel and burned them at the stake.

Equalization of the death penalty was first proposed by Joseph Ignace Guillotin (1738–1814), a professor of anatomy and a deputy for the Third Estate in the French National Assembly. Guillotin, a Jesuit who left the order to become a physician, was a humanitarian. He wanted to retain the deterrent value of capital punishment while ending the torture associated with it. The guillotine reduced the pain of the victim and limited the spectacle of public execution to a sudden spurt of blood. The Assembly decreed decapitation as the death penalty in June 1791 and another physician, A. Louis, actually invented the guillotine. The machine began operation in April 1792. Nicknamed "The Widow," it remained in use in France until 1981.



See primary source image.


Public executions in France ended in 1939. Execution increasingly became a relatively rare form of punishment, for only the most heinous of crimes. Between 1965 and 1981, only eight men were guillotined. The last use of a guillotine in France occurred on September 10, 1977, when an Algerian named Hamida Djandoubi was executed for murdering a woman in Marseille. After 1977, President Valery Giscard d'Estaing gave life sentences to prisoners condemned to death.

By the end of the twentieth century, the guillotine increasingly came to be seen as an antique device from an uncivilized era. The Giscard government considered abolishing its use, but no alternative could be found. Proposals for sending convicted murderers to isolated South Sea islands or to bleak Antarctic wastelands were rejected as either too nice for the convicts or too nasty for the jailers. The issue of the death penalty created such high feelings on both sides that no solution could be found.

On September 20, 1981, France's National Assembly voted overwhelmingly by 369-116 to abolish the death penalty. The Socialist Party, newly in power, fulfilled its campaign promise to end execution. A majority of the French public disagreed with the government. The French people supported the continued use of execution as a deterrent to rising crime. At the time of the vote, 52 percent of the French public supported the death penalty while 42 percent opposed it.

The decision, which sent the nation's two guillotines to museums, made France the last country in Western Europe to end the death penalty. The Socialists believed that it made no difference to society whether criminals were executed or sentenced to life imprisonment. Passage of the law automatically commuted the sentences of the six men on death row.



Arasse, Daniel. The Guillotine and The Terror. London: Allen Lane/Penguin Press, 1989.

Bryan, Geoffrey. Off With His Head!. London: Hutchinson, 1934.

Opie, Robert Frederick. Guillotine: The Timbers of Justice. Stroud, U.K.: Sutton Publishing, 2003.