March 28, 1814: The Funeral of Guillotine Creator Dr. Joseph Guillotin


Joseph-Ignace Guillotin was a French physician, politician and freemason who, in October of 1789, proposed a new device to carry out death penalties in France.

What is interesting about Dr. Guilltin, though, is that he actually opposed the death penalty, and only proposed the guillotine because he was hoping that he could make executions less painful. Though it was his idea, he did not actually invent it, but his name got slapped onto it for history. He will always be remembered as the inventor of one of the most popular execution methods of the time, even though he did not believe in execution.


Dr. Guillotin was an extremely start man. To get a degree of Master of Arts from the University of Bordeaux, he wrote an essay that persuaded the deciders so much that he not only achieved his degree, but was persuaded to become a professor. He did for a bit, but left after a few years to live in Paris and study medicine. He achieved another degree there and won prizes for his achievements.

In 1788, Guillotin created a pamphlet titled Petition of the Citizens Living in Paris that lead to his summoning by the French parliament to give an account of his opinions. This helped him gain political popularity and in Mary of 1789, he became a Paris deputy in the Estates-General of 1789, and was secretary to the body from 1789 through 1791, jumpstarting his political career.

Guillotin spent a lot of his time and power on medical reform. On October 10, 1789, he said during a debate on capital punishment that "the criminal shall be decapitated; this will be done solely as a means of a simple mechanism". He wanted to behead criminals as quickly and painlessly as possible, as at the time, French beheadings were done by axe or sword, which often caused long, painful deaths. Additionally, only noble criminals were beheaded, commoners were typically hanged, and thus he felt it should be the same across the board.

He had hoped that his step towards a more painless method of execution would be a bigger step towards the abolishment of the death penalty. He also proposed that fewer families and children be present for executions, making them more private and less of a public spectacle.

In December of 1789, he said: "Now, with my machine, I cut off your head in the twinkling of an eye, and you never feel it!" which became a popular joke around the country, with stories and comics about his machine. This quote was likely how his name got tied to it forever. And, until the day of his death, he deeply regretted that his name was tied to something that brought the end to so many lives.

He and his family were so embarrassed and ashamed of their association with the guillotine that they petitioned the government to rename it. When they refused, they changed their own family name.

Despite common misconception that Dr. Guillotin died by his own machine, he did not. He died peacefully in his home in Paris from natural causes on March 26, 1814. His funeral was held 2 days later, 206 years ago today, where those who loved him and knew that he hated his association to the killer machine mourned him and paid their respects to a good, smart man.


Because this article is quite short, and cruel and unusual ancient capital punishment happens to be a fascination of mine, I figured that I would include a section of other ways people have executed "criminals" throughout history. And, even though being beheaded by a giant head-chopping machine sounds a little bit terrifying, I think most people would select the quick, largely painless death that Dr. Guillotin proposed in place of any of these.

  • Use of animals: Various animal-related executions were used throughout history, including, but certainly not limited to: Crushing by elephant, being eaten by animals (i.e., being thrown to the lions) or being eaten by alligators, crocodiles or sharks, poisonous snake bites, being tied to 4 different horses and having your body pulled apart, or being trampled by horses

  • Back breaking: Used in Mongolia, people were killed by having their backs broken and left to die to avoid spilling blood on the ground

  • Blood eagle: In one of the most horrifying deaths possible, the skin near the victim's spine would be broken to look like "wings", and then they were hung up by the skin

  • Boiling to death: And not just in water! It could have been oil, tar, or molten lead

  • Brazen bull: The victim would be put into an iron bull statue, a fire would be lit underneath, and they would be cooked alive inside

  • Buried alive: I think you know what this means

  • Burning alive: A hot way to execute heretics or witches. Also used by Native Americans when torturing their captives

  • Disembowlment and dismemberment: Having your insides taken out one by one OR having your limbs taken off one by one! Guillotine sounds pretty good now, right?

  • Falling: Victims would be thrown off of a high surface into some sort of hollow bottom, or, as done in Argentina, they would drug their abducted and throw them from an airplane into the ocean

  • Flaying: Full removal of the skin from the body (i.e., the Bolton's preferred torture method in Game of Thrones)

  • Gibbeting: With the use of a gallows-type structure, the victim would be in a cage hung in public and left to die, with the hopes of warding off any future criminal activity from passerby's

  • Immurement: The victim would be confined with no exits and only kept alive through one tiny opening - though, this is arguably more of an inhumane imprisonment than execution, because some lived up to four years confined like that

  • Poena cullei: The act of stuffing the accused into a sack with animals and being thrown into a body of water

  • The pendulum: An axe would swing over the body of the person that gets closer and closer until it slices the victim's torso

  • Scaphism: This is an ancient Persian method of execution and also perhaps the worst thing you'll ever read. The victim would be placed between 2 boats and force-fed milk and money. Then, they'd be left floating in a stagnant pond. Once the victim inevitably got diarrhea, it would attract insects that would burrow in the victim and essentially eat him or her from the inside out, until they died of septic shock.

  • Death by a Thousand Cuts: The body would be cut apart methodically over a long period of time.

Anyway, whether or not you believe in the death penalty, I think we can all agree that for the late 1700s, the quick guillotine was far superior to any of the above methods, and even though the electric chair and lethal injection still may be completely morally wrong to some, at least insects aren't burrowing into their body to eat them.

Dr. Joseph Guillotin was, overwhelmingly, a good man who saw an issue and tried to chip away at fixing it. Though it lead to him being forever tied to a death machine, he truly was just trying to make capital punishment less painful if he was not able to get rid of it altogether. He made a compromise, one that tarnished his family's name, but acted to make death more peaceful for some, and I think that makes him a pretty good guy.




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