The Reign of Terror

You will be guillotined as soon as it can be arranged.

Beheading someone is harder than it looks. Just ask Mary Queen of Scots. Well, you can’t, she got her head chopped off, but by all accounts it was a messy business. The first axe blow missed her neck, cutting instead into the back of her head. The second stroke was more successful, cutting through most of the neck, but the executioner had to have a third go at it to grind through the last bits of gristle.

This kind of thing was not at all uncommon. Anyone who’s ever had to chop firewood knows that it’s an inexact business at the best of times, and the neck is a pretty thick, solid object to try to cut through in a single stroke.

So it’s not surprising that people developed machines to do the job more efficiently (the option of just not cutting heads off at all evidently being regarded as folly).

The basic idea of a guillotine is simple enough. The amount of force a human can impart to an axe or sword is limited by their musculature. If you attach the blade to a great big weight and drop it, the speed, energy and momentum of the blade are only limited by how high you can drop it from. Add some vertical guide rails and a neck-holding device at the bottom to make sure it hits its target, and away you go.

The guillotine is indelibly associated with Revolutionary France, but similar devices precede it by hundreds of years. The Halifax Gibbet was built by the good burghers of that town in response to increasing problems of the theft of cloth, a major trade good of the time. No one knows exactly when it was built, though there is apparently a reference to it dating from around 1280, but we know it stayed in use till 1650, when Oliver Cromwell banned the practice. (And when Cromwell thinks your punishments are excessive, it’s time to take a good hard look at yourself.)

It was a simple enough device: two tall vertical runners holding a large, heavy block of wood with an axe head attached to the underside. The hapless thief would be placed with his neck on the block beneath the blade, the executioner would tug on a rope to release the securing pin, and the blade would fall. In a macabre twist, if the conviction was for theft of an animal, the animal in question would be tethered to the gibbet’s rope and then driven off, pulling out the pin. In this way the animal would execute the person who tried to steal it.

The Earl of Morton, a Scottish nobleman and leading opponent of Mary, Queen of Scots, was so impressed with the Halifax Gibbet that he brought the design to Edinburgh, where a more portable version was constructed in 1564. Unlike the English model, this one was flat-packed and stored away in between beheadings. The Scottish Maiden, as it was called, did merry business, taking 150 heads in as many years – including that of Morton himself.

These early devices are basically the same as the classic French guillotine, apart from one technological advance. Both the Halifax Gibbet and the Scottish Maiden have horizontal blades, either straight or slightly curved. The blade on the French version is steeply angled.

To see why, take a knife and cut through something reasonably solid from the fridge – some cheese or meat, say. If you try to cut by pushing the blade straight down, it’s hard – you have to apply quite a lot of force. But if you move the blade horizontally as you cut down, it’s a lot easier. To put it slightly more formally, if the direction of motion of the blade is perpendicular to the blade, then the required cutting force is at a maximum: as the angle increases away from the perpendicular, the force required decreases. When Mary’s executioner struck her neck with his axe, the blade would have been nearly perpendicular to the blow. (The kind of axe he used has sadly gone unrecorded. A curved axe blade would have been better than a straight blade in this respect, but would not have made a dramatic difference.) In the end, he had to resort to a sawing motion to finish the job, giving him the benefit of horizontal slicing.

The angled blade of a guillotine achieves this automatically. The larger the angle, the greater the ratio of horizontal to vertical slicing, and the less force needed to achieve the cut. In practice, the angle can only get so large before the whole mechanism becomes unwieldy: more difficult and expensive to manufacture, and requiring an increasingly high vertical drop. So the final design is a compromise between theoretical cutting efficiency and practical engineering.

So by the eighteenth century, the French had perfected a machine to carry out swift, efficient beheadings. To see why this would become such an icon of the Revolution, we have to look at the man who the machine would eventually be named after: Joseph-Ignace Guillotin. As a physician turned politician, Guillotin’s main work during the revolution was in medical reform. He proposed that a single method of execution should be used in France, and that it should be the beheading machine. There were two reasons for this: one humanitarian, one political. He thought mechanical decapitation would be a virtually painless form of death, and he wanted all citizens to be treated equally, regardless of class. Hitherto, beheading had been reserved for the nobility, while peasants were generally hanged – or worse.

His proposals were accepted, and the classlessness of the new death penalty was amply demonstrated in the Reign of Terror that followed the Revolution. Tens of thousands were executed for political crimes regardless of class, and often regardless of evidence.

The guillotine remained the standard method of state execution in France right through to the twentieth century. It was also adopted in some parts of Germany, but only saw intensive use there once the Nazis came to power. Hitler, it turned out, was a big fan. The improved German models were shorter, for use indoors, and featured all kinds of handy features such as a metal bucket for the head, a spout to direct the blood downwards into a drain, and a forehead strap to keep the victim’s head steady. Over 11,000 people died in the Nazi guillotines, approaching but not matching the figures for the Reign of Terror in France.

It was the swift efficiency of the guillotine that attracted the Nazis to the device, with turn-around times between executions of just a few minutes. Achieving a more humane execution was the last thing on their minds.

And maybe it’s just as well. The guillotine purports to offer an instant death, but from the time of its mass deployment in the French Revolution questions were being asked about how long a decapitated head can live.

There are various tales of guillotined heads remaining apparently alive for many minutes post-execution, but these are mostly apocryphal. The most famous of these is told of the great chemist Antoine Lavoisier, who was sent to the guillotine on charges for which he was posthumously exonerated. It is said that he asked a student to observe his severed head, and that he would continue blinking for as long as he could in order to establish how long consciousness would last. The student watched Lavoisier’s eyes blink for fifteen seconds before they finally closed for good. It is a stirring tale of scientific dedication in the face of terror and injustice, rendered only slightly less compelling by the fact that it appears to have been made up some time in the last twenty years.

The most widely credited testimony comes from Dr Gabriel Beaurieux, who described the experiment he was allowed to perform at the guillotining of Henri Languille. In his account, the severed head remained capable of full eye contact and responsive to Languille’s name being shouted for 25-30 seconds. Even this, though, is under some cloud of doubt, as contemporary photographs of the event are inconsistent with the doctor’s account, and he is not mentioned in the official report.

It would be difficult these days to devise an ethical experiment to sort the matter out once and for all. However, we do know enough about anatomy to be fairly sure that a severed head would have at most a few seconds of consciousness, as the intercranial blood pressure rapidly falls. This is consistent with the more pragmatic observations of British commando pioneers Fairbairn and Sykes, whose table of the effects of severing various arteries in the enemy indicates that, when the carotid artery is cut, unconsciousness occurs in five seconds,and death in twelve. This sets an upper limit on how long a completely severed head could live.

It would be a painful few seconds, and in that respect probably less humane than the long drop hanging technique perfected by Albert Pierrepoint, or the Russian method of shooting in the back of the neck. However, this search for a painless method of execution is a rather artificial exercise. It may be possible to deliver a near-painless death to an animal, but a person condemned to die understands what is to happen to them, and experiences the terror and anguish of death long before the sentence is carried out. Simply to wait for execution is the most wracking torture, regardless of the method of death that is ultimately employed.

There is no such thing as a humane method of execution, and the attempt to create one is really about enabling the people doing the killing to feel better about it. An execution machine like a guillotine is about more than an efficient decapitation: it is about distancing the executioner, the onlookers and the whole of society from the reality of judicial murder. This reaches its ultimate form in the present-day US, with its ritual of killing by lethal injection. The drugs mandated for use in execution are chosen not to minimise the pain of the condemned person, but to give the outward appearance of a gentle slipping away at the cost of actual agony, while the entire process mimics as closely as possible a genuine medical treatment, right down to the redundant swabbing of the skin before the needle is inserted.

The guillotine itself is no longer in use. France executed its last prisoner in 1977. With the death penalty now abolished throughout the EU, and falling out of favour in most of the world outside the US and China, this device of terror is now confined to the museum, as a reminder of less civilised times. Perhaps, in time, the other paraphernalia of state killing will join it.


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