La Guillotine.

Hello and welcome to Paname the podcast that slices through time to in order to discover Paris history that they would rather forget.

Come with me as we discover more about the Hungry lady, the Widow, the Louisette, the people’s avenger, the red theatre, the National Razor, the Grand Dame herself Madame la Guillotine.

The French are proud of their history and their revolution, less so perhaps about the terror and mass decapitations where aristocrats and others were shortened by a head at an alarming rate. They might want us to think‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité’ when we hear tell of 1789 and those events that followed, but most of us probably think of the Guillotine and it is for that reason perhaps that its quite hard to find traces of her so come with me as we try to track her down.

Here on the quiet street of th rue Croix Faubin in the 11th arrondisement 5 discreet paving stones mark where the guillotine once stood yet although there is not much to see and the people passing by seem not to even notice them, despite the small plaque which tells us that between 1851 and 1899 the guillotine once stood here and that more than 200 people lost their lives; although of those 200 only two are mentioned by name – the anarchists Auguste Vaillant and Emile Henry. These stones however, the fact that they exist, that they are placed here and the position they are in tell us a lot about the changing fortunes of the guillotine which was used for nearly 200 years as a means of execution in France, not however, as many believe on the unlucky doctor himself.

In Daniel Gerould’s book Guillotine its legend and lore he starts with a brilliant quote from Victor Hugo: 

“There are those who have no luck. Christopher Columbus cannot attach his name to his discovery. Dr Guillotin cannot detach his from his invention.” 

Today we might think of the guillotine as a terrible barbaric device but originally it was introduced as an enlightened force for good or at least equality. It was unthinkable in the 18th centaury to abolish the death penalty completely but there was a move to make it more fair and just.  Until this point your punishment was based on your rank, status and crime: Nobles were decapitated, most criminals hung, heretics and arsonists were burnt, murders broken on the wheel, counterfeiters were burnt in oil and the most atrocious death was reserved for those who committed high treason such as regicide – I’ll spare you the details.

Feeling at the time towards the death penalty was beginning to shift though – it was enough to pay with your life, it was no longer necessary to suffer. Already in 1780 Louis XVI abolished the use of ‘The Question.’ This was a form of torture that all those condemned to death had to face in order to ascertain if they were withholding any last pieces of information or the names of accomplices. 

Lobbyist for equality in capital punishment, Dr Joseph-Ignace Guillotin wanted to go further and finally after much debate the Assembly voted in 1791 that all those condemned to death would have their heads cut off. But, as Sanson the chief execution attested, decapitation by axe or sword often resulted in accidents and was thus far from painless. A better solution would need to be found. Dr Antoine Louis, Secretary of the Academy of Surgery was charged with setting up a commission to develop a prototype for a beheading machine that could deliver the painless death Dr Guillotin had promised. A form of guillotine did exist and was used elsewhere in the world, but nothing like the sophisticated version created by Louis with the help of German engineer Jean-Tobie Schmidt.

I’m standing in the rather charming Cour de Rohan in the 6th art it is a picturesque private courtyard adjoining the Cour du Commerce Saint André, a bustling pedestrian passageway that goes behind the Café Procope the oldest restaurantin Paris who has had many a famous person to dine including Voltaire, Rousseau, Dantan, Napoleon who even left his hat here, Victor Hugo, Benjamin Franklin and many, many more. This small passage is full of fascinating stories and things to see including part of the original 12th centaury walls of Philip August as well as building that date from the renaissance, but it is also redolent of the Revolution. At no 8 Marat established his publication ‘L’ami de Peuple’ Danton also lived here. But it is here at no 9 Cour de Rohan that  Shcmidt, the German carpenter, who built the original prototype for the guillotine.

By April 1792 a model was ready for testing. It was set up at the Bicetre hospital first it was tested on animals then the corpses of women and children although these were successful when tested on men it was not as efficient but after a few adjustments, Dr Guillotines’ ‘daughter’ was ready to go. The newly developed guillotine consisted of two uprights, four and a half meters high set thirty-seven centimetres apart. Weights were added to the blade to make it more efficient so in total forty kilograms would fall just over two meters and hit the victim’s neck at the fourth vertebra. To ensure accuracy the soon to be executed would put their heads into the ‘lunette’ which was literally a moon shaped holder. 

Just on a side note about the creation of the guillotine. Sometimes if you see old prints you might notice that the blade is occasionally drawn convex and not sloping. A popular story would have us believe that would have us believe that it was Louis the XVI on hearing of this new invention who expressed an interest and asked to see the plans. Supposedly he noticed the blade and suggested a bevelled one would do the job better. He was right of course and 9 months later he would find out how much so. 

Dr Guillotin famously said  “Now, with my machine, I cut off your head in the twinkling of an eye, and you never feel it!” he would come to bitterly regret his part in the creation of this device, and even these words. The ruthless efficiency of his invention, which did indeed separate head from body in the twinkle of an eye, was so rapid, so easy that it turned this device into a killing machine facilitating the terrible events of 1793 and the reign of terror where in Paris alone over 2,000 people lost their heads with only the bare semblance of a trial. No wonder Dr guillotine tried in vein to detach himself from his invention.

But hold on, did I say painless? From the very beginning there was speculation as to whether this method was truly painless or not.  On July 17th, 1793 executioner’s assistant Francois le Gros slapped the cheek of Charlotte Corday, this was the woman who assassinated Marat in his bath. But as the execution held her decapitated head up for the crowd people reported seeing“unequivocal signs of indignation.” In other words her head and not appreciated this indelicate treatment. This and other stories lead people to wonder if a decapitated head retained a certain level of consciousness. Some told of rival members from the National Assembly when finding themselves executed together and thus their heads in the same basket were so outraged that even after decapitation one ferociously bit the other. True or not there was much speculation that this so called ‘painless’ killing apparatus was in fact just a new means of torture and that the heads stayed sentient for some time causing surely physical and psychological pain to the victim. In an attempt to determine the truth scientists and doctors carried out some dubious and rather disgusting experiments from simply demanding the head to respond with blinks or react to hearing their names to pumping blood back into the head to see if it would respond. Astoundingly experiments were still being carried out as late as 1956 in order to establish the truth as to whether or not the guillotine was truly a modern and enlightened means of execution. Nonetheless it was used up until the abolition of the death penalty in 1981 although the last execution was in 1977.

Jacques Nicolas Pelletier has the dubious honour of being the first convicted criminal to be executed by guillotine on the 25th of April 1792. Before an execution victims were obliged to go through a rather macabre ritual the ‘toilette du condamné’. Their hair was cut and collar removed in a horrible sort of foreshadowing of what was to come.

His execution took place in what was then place de Grève, now Hotel de Ville. Parisians were keen to see the Guillotine in action and a huge crowd gathered. In an attempt perhaps to make it more spectacular the guillotine was painted red and set up high on a scaffold. To give you and idea as to how high it was in 1795 the eldest son of Sanson, while working as his father’s assistant held up a head for the crowd to see as was tradition, but he slipped and fell and later died of his injuries. A decapitated body looses around 3 litres of blood, and even with people there to put sawdust down it must have been a rather treacherous place. From then on railings were put up to ensure the safety of the people working there.

But wer e the crowed who had gathered disappointed that it was over so quickly? Did Sanson feel marginalised by this terrible new machine? Maybe, but the revolutionary government would make sure what was lost in the drama of the prolonged executions from the past was made up for in quantity ensuring they had plenty of executions to watch over the next year. Onlookers could marvel at the speed, for example on the 31st of October 1793 twenty-one people were dispatched in just 38 minutes.

I’m standing in the Place de la Concorde, today dominated by the Egyptian Obelisk but was, dominated by the guillotine.  France in 1794 was governed by Maximilien de Robespierre, a fanatic in charge, ironically, of the Committee of Public Safety, which essentially did its best to make sure that nobody was safe at all. He worked the executions so hard that Sanson even had to ask for a raise for himself and his assistants as they could barely keep up. And there was even talk of the invention of a ‘mega guillotine’ that could decapitate multiple people at once. 

Unsurprisingly surrounded by so much death a terrible sort of gallows humour seemed to pervade Paris; It was an excellent cure for headaches people would joke; gave the closest shave in town; the best method to avoid hair going grey.

And the dreaded machine itself soon became a fashionable symbol of the revolution, not forgetting that if you showed any disgust or disagreement you may very well be next. On place de la revolution you could buy miniature models to decapitate enemy dolls or live mice, pamphlets were circulated with the days program one calling itself ‘the list of the winners in the Sainte Guillotine Lottery’. The best seats for the show were in the Jardins des Tuileries, where children would play in the gardens and parents could have a drink at a restaurant which renamed itself ‘Cabaret de la Guillotine’ and on the back of the menu each day it would print the list of the ‘catch of the day’ to be served to the hungry machine. Guillotine jewellery and motifs appeared frequently. Songs were sung about the guillotine, the condemned and the executioners in the cabarets in and around Paris. While executions themselves were crowded and theatrical events.

The condemned would often walk bravely to their death or offer the crowds witty departing words. Danton was famously meant to have said “Be sure to show my head to the people its worth a good look at.”  And the General Baron de Biron, executed on the last day of the year remarked “I will soon arrive in the next world, just in time to wish all my friends a happy new year’.  Although perhaps the most famous last words are perhaps those of Madame Roland who on seeing a statue of liberty cried out “oh liberty what crimes are committed in they name”

But of course the biggest show on the bill, and that which drew the largest crowds was the decapitation of Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette which took placeOn the 21st of Januaryand the 16th of October 1793 respectively. Apparently both Louis and Marie Antoinette went bravely to his death

A 15 min walk from place de la Concorde you arrive in what is today the square Louis XVI where both the bodies of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI were taken. Today it is a calm, green spot in the 8th art. But then it was the Madeleine cemetery where the bodies from place de la Concorde were taken and placed in a large burial pits. Although the remains, or what was believed to be the remains of the late monarchs was later be moved to St Denis. Before that could happened business woman; entrepreneur and artisan Madame Tussauds, at the time a young apprentice in her uncles wax works would make a death mask of the royal couple and other significant people of the Revolution. It’s hard to imagine what a horrible job it must have been following the executioner’s wagon to the graveside and finding and the decapitated heads but it seems that is exactly what she did.  Her work was popular and people were keen to see the displays. Marie Tussauds would later make her fame and fortune in England; part of her appeal must surely have been ghoulish interests people of Britain had with the revolution. Sadly most of her original works were destroyed but you can still see one of her pieces in the Musée Carnavalet. 

Concorde was not the only place that guillotine was used. It was moved to various locations around Paris. Here we are at Place de la nation, a crowded- car filled roundabout, but during the revolution it was calledPlace du Trône-Renversé or the overturned throne.  Between the 13th of June 1794 to 27th of July of that same year the guillotine was in operation. Paris in the 18th Centaury was famous for its filth, however piles of rotting bodies and pools of blood made it even worse.  It was in part for this reason that the guillotine, during The Terror needed to be moved to various locations, not to mention the crowds that executions brought disturbing the neighbours.  Near each sight mass pits were dug to bury the bodies. Come with me and lets walk the 5 minutes from Nation to 35 rue Picpus where in 1794 a mass grave for the one thousand three hundred and six men and women used to be, and where today is one of Paris most unusual cemeteries.

Behind a discreet door is the private Cemetery Picpus. You can still see a small part of the original wooden fence that once surrounded the graves, as well as the original entrance for the carts, which brought the bodies. Inside the Chapel you will find two enormous plaques that give the names, ages and occupation of all the victims of The Terror who are buried here.

You will also find the grave of the Marquise de Lafayette. A requisite of this cemetery is that in order to be buried here you must have had a family member perish during the revolution, which sadly was the case for Lafayette. His grave is easy to spot, an American flag flies over his tomb. Not only that but, at his request, the soil covering his tomb is also from America, the country that he became so attached to during his fight in their War of Independence.

The Reign of Terror would finally come to an end with the execution of Robespierre himself. He was buried in a cemetery, which no longer exists, a  plaque indicating the site is located at 97 rue de Monceau. The remains of those who had once been there were moved to the Catacombs.

Parisians breathed a sigh of relief and celebrated the end of a terrible time – although stories do tell of the bizarre and macabre celebrations of the ‘Bal des victims’. Where  you might only attend if a close relative had lost their head during the terror – at these events women were said to wear their hair piled up, exposing their necks and tie a thin red ribbon around their neck to imply the mark left by the bloodthirsty blade. Men wore their hair cut short with a similar ribbon around their necks.

After the revolution the guillotine was still used but over the years there were increasing calls for it to be abolished and people questioned weather public executions served any purpose at all.

Dumas fils describes people gathered to watch as telling jokes and not appearing in no way to be put off by what they were about to see. I found this passage very telling:

“Women and children were in the majority. There was a little brat of 4 years old who was crying because it was cold. ‘If you keep crying ill take you home’ his mother threatened. The child kept quiet. “Oh how fast it went” people said in disappointment, for them the excitement of the denouement is less than the excitement of the anticipation. To whom is this example of any value? The guillotine has raised vice in triumph, it has served as a pedestal for crime. As for its effect on the masses let the magistrates go judge for themselves as I have done this morning, and they will see that it is virtually non-existent.”

Dickens also describes an execution he watched in Italy:

“Nobody cared, or was affected. There was no manifestation of disgust or pity… it was an ugly filthy careless, sicken spectacle meaning nothing but butchery.”

Indeed the last public execution took place in 1939 in Versailles. Various errors meant that it did not take place early in the morning but rather at midday, by which time a large crowd had gathered including photographers and even filmmakers. However, the guillotine was no longer the gaudy red contraption mounted high up for all to see. By 1870 she had painted brown, a more sombre, respectful colour as people grew tired or ashamed of the blatant spectacle of the executions. The blade too was painted to stop it glinting in the sunlight, and the scaffolding, which had already been reduced, was eliminated. There was however quite a scandal at peoples behaviour and the government finally admitted that it did not served not as a deterrent and should no longer be held in public but rather behind prison walls. They needed was to witness yet more.

So now Let us return to our flagstones on rue Croix Faubin. It was essential that the guillotine was placed on a perfectly flat surface once the platform had been removed as an uneven one would mean that the blade would not fall properly and the execution would not go smoothly. So it became necessary to lay stones on the uneven streets to ensure that things all went according to plan. So there very existence of the stones we see today speaks of a changing approach to the nature of the ‘show’ of execution. Once held up high it is not brought down to the ground.

Secondly their location: why here in the then working class art of the 11th arrt? Although now destroyed this was the location of the Roquette prisons. Previously the guillotine had stood tall, proud and red in place de la Concorde, Hotel de Ville, Bastille or Nation. Its victim’s kings, queens and aristocrats; but as the terror ended and stability was re-established the guillotine and the death penalty once again favoured the poor and outcast. Less prestigious people, less spectacular surroundings.

And lastly, what does the position of stones tell us.  Although they stood here for over 9 yearsthe Roquette prison was decommissioned in 1900. The director tried to sell the stones to the Musée Carnavalet, a museum which is dedicated to the history of the city. The museum declined such a sombre souvenir and the director of the prison was obliged to replace the stones that he had prematurely take with him. But he made a mistake while doing so and placed them in a slightly different position which is why today we see not a traditional Latin cross but a St Andrews cross.   The refusal of the museum to take this relic of French history is testimony to how far from grace the guillotine had fallen by the end of her long career. Once considered modern and enlightened she is now out-dated and even barbaric.

Where might you see the Guillotine today? well apart from these flagstones There is a real blade at the Conciergerie Museum a reduced replica at theMusée de la Préfecture de Policeand if your feeling festive then there’s a full-sized version at the Caveau des Oubliettes on Rue Galande.