The Fate of Doctor Guillotin

Doctor Joseph Ignace Guillotin belonged to a small political reform movement that wanted to eliminate the death penalty  in France completely.

The doctor died on March 26 and his funeral was held on March 28, 1814 outside of Paris.

Unable to accomplish the banning of capital punishment in France, Guillotin worked with inventor Antoine Louis on a painless and quick punishment method that he hoped would be an interim step towards a complete end to the death penalty.

During the French Revolution in 1789, King Louis XVI of France was driven from the throne and he was forcibly removed from his palace at Versailles, together with his wife, Marie-Antoinette and their children.  They were imprisoned in Paris, from where they tried to escape to safety in Belgium. However, they were captured not far from the border, returned to Paris, imprisoned, tried, and eventually both the King and Queen went to the guillotine. Their young son died in the horrible Temple prison, and the only member of the family to survive was their daughter. *

In the meantime, the new civilian assembly rewrote the penal code to say, “Every person condemned to the death penalty shall have his head severed.”

Buste_de_Joseph_IgnaceOn 1 December 1789, Guillotin made an unfortunate remark during a follow-up speech to the Assembly about capital punishment. “Now, with my machine, I cut off your head in the twinkling of an eye, and you never feel it!

The statement quickly became a popular joke, and few days after the debate a comic song about Guillotin and “his” machine circulated, forever tying his name to it. The Moniteur of 18 December 1789 deplored the joking but repeated Guillotine’s “twinkling of an eye” statement for posterity.

Throughout his lifetime, his efforts to eliminate the death penalty were overshadowed by the popular culture view that anyone who proposes and advocates for the use of a decapitation machine must be in favor of the death penalty.

This excerpt from the Quarterly Review appeared in The North Star, published by Frederick Douglass,  in May of 1848.

The Fate of The Inventor Of The Guillotine

His retreat was so profound that it was said, and readily believed, that he, too, had fallen a victim to his own invention.

But it was not so; he was indeed imprisoned during the Jacobin reign of terror, his crime being, it is said, that he testified an indiscreet indignation of a proposition made to him by Danton, to superintend the construction of a triple guillotine.

There is no doubt that a double instrument was thought of, and it is said that such a machine was made, and intended to be erected in the great hall of the Palais de Justice; but it was certainly never used, and we should very much, and for many reasons, doubt whether it could have been a design of Danton.

The general jail delivery of the 9th Thermidor released Guillotin , and he afterwards lived, in a decent mediocrity of fortune, at Paris, esteemed, it is said, by a small circle of friends, but overwhelmed by a deep sensibility to the great, though we cannot say wholly undeserved, misfortune, which had rendered his name ignominious, and his very existence a subject of fearful curiosity.

He just lived to see the restoration, and died in his bed, in Paris, on the 26th of May*, 1814, aged 76. – Quarterly Review.

* Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin actually died on March 26, 1814 and not in May. It is not clear whether the Quarterly Review got it wrong, or if the typesetters at The Northern Sun made a mistake in transcribing the item

* Thank you Susie Kelly, author of “The Valley of Heaven and Hell – cycling in the shadow of Marie-Antoinette.” for your help in clarifying the paragraph about the fate of the French monarchy.

All images included in blog posts are from either Accessible Archives collections or out of copyright public sources unless otherwise noted. Common sources include the Library of Congress, The Flickr Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and other public archives.

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