How Effective Was The Guillotine?

black and white drawing of guillotine with people main

The guillotine is a machine used to execute someone by cutting off their head. It was believed to be a humane scientific means to kill people.  Everyone, not just the rich, would die humanely. It was quite effective in killing people during the French Revolution.  But, justice still was unequal and uncivilized in various ways. Its last use in France was in 1977.

Botched Executions 

A return to the firing squad—and the blood and physical violence that comes with it—is a step in the opposite direction. And some might argue that the visible brutality of such a death could conceivably give rise to its own Eighth Amendment concerns. 

Justice Sonia Sotomayor

There is a lot of debate today about when or if it is appropriate to execute someone for committing a horrible crime. We as a society still support the death penalty in certain instances.  

The trouble then becomes how to apply it fairly and humanely.  How to execute is a big issue. We have struggled over the years to find new and more humane ways.  Lethal injections were one such method.  But, in recent years, there were many problems when they were used.  

Ironically, this led some to suggest we should return to the use of the firing squad, which some argue is less likely to be botched.  It seems horrible.  Is it really more humane?  

An Old Debate 

Debates over proper means of execution have been going on for a long time.  

Jesus was crucified, a horrible means of execution, a sign of how lowly he was to the Romans. Romans were more careful when well-off citizens were executed.  They could be beheaded.  

I am not saying having your head chopped off was exactly a lovely thing to happen to you but it is better than such things as burning at the stake, being broken on a wheel, or hanging.  

Dr. Guillotine’s Act Of Mercy

Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin during the French Revolution argued that a more civilized and equalitarian policy was required.  All executions should be done painlessly.

At the time, beheading was believed to be the way to die, the execution method for nobility.  Decapitation became the only method of execution.  

This was the time of the Scientific Revolution and people tried to think things through logically.  It would take a lot of time and resources to try to execute everyone, there being a lot more commoners than elites, by using swords.  Plus, mistakes can be made even there.

Dr. Guillotin had that covered.  He argued that a machine could be invented to quickly and humanely execute people.  Guillotin believed the death penalty was itself wrong but knew the government was not willing to ban it.  He tried to promote equal justice as much as possible.

He did not invent the killing machine that ultimately was created but it was so associated with his efforts that it became known as the “guillotine.”  The machine was an improvement on older guillotine-like machines used over the years in various places in Europe.  

Rumors aside, Guillotin himself did not die at its hand.  He died years later of natural causes.  

Machinery of Death 

Justice Harry Blackmun in the 1990s spoke about the “machinery of death” when opposing the death penalty.  The guillotine soon became a very productive killing machine.

The French Revolution had a “Reign of Terror” where around seventeen thousand people, including the king and queen of France, were guillotined.  The machine showed its usefulness.  

The state had a quick means of death and everyone (rich or poor) evenhandedly was executed the same way.  It took about half a second for the blade to drop and sever a prisoner’s head from their body.  There were no threats of shortages (as in the case of lethal injection drugs) or drawn-out executions (again, like lethal injection and other methods).  

A guillotine also provided the means to set up a public execution, which was a major event, including times of celebration in the days before television.  The public would see justice being done.  Cutting off a head is bloody but that too sent a message: crime doesn’t pay.  

Too Effective?

Dr. Guillotin was not that happy about all of this and not just because he didn’t like a killing machine (even a supposedly more humane one) named after him.  His machine was now a symbol of death and a reign of terror.  A reign that was full of injustices and excesses.

Mass production of death is the dark side of the scientific age.  The guillotine was supposed to be a more humane form of death.  It was supposed to advance the republican values of the French Revolution. Did making it easier to kill and teaching the public to accept bloody deaths as appropriate advance these ends?  The guillotine was not supposed to be just a killing machine.

Other Problems 

There were many experiments done on animals to help test the guillotine and try to determine its effects.  But, there is no way to ask someone who is executed how it feels. 

The ideal of equal justice also only goes so far.  The justice system remained unfair. You were more likely to be punished if you had less money and resources.  

Also, even if the cut was basically painless, the terror of the execution remained.  The guillotine was never used in the United States.  It had the taint of terror and seemed too barbaric.  

The End of the Guillotine 

Public executions eventually were seen as something that coarsened the public. The guillotine became a private affair.  France began to execute people in private.  
Western European countries began to believe executions generally were unjust.  The last use of the guillotine in France was in 1977.  The death penalty itself was no more.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.