• Weird History

What It Was Like To Watch A Beheading By Guillotine

Reservedly advocated as a humane killing device by Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin during the 18th century, the guillotine executed people en masse during the French Revolution; France discontinued its use after 1977. The mechanism of death evoked fear and altered public sentiment about execution. During that time, many viewed capital punishment as a grand, public spectacle, but death by guillotine was a quicker, less-involved process than hanging or traditional beheading at the blade of an ax. 

French Revolution participants and other crowds who witnessed guillotine executions had mixed reactions to what they saw when the blade fell. Some spectators questioned the so-called painless contraption of death, while others demanded the blood and gore of previous practices. Either way, the guillotine's widespread use became infamous as a historical instrument of allegedly merciful fatality.

  • Photo: Pierre-Etienne Lesueur / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Groups Of Women Gathered To Knit And Watch The Blade Drop

    It was common for groups of women to attend beheadings, knitting and conversing while gathered around the guillotine. Called tricoteuses, these women initially gathered for local government debates, but officials eventually banned them from public assemblies, so they turned to executions for entertainment instead. They crafted small items during the events, including Phrygian caps, or liberty caps.

    Despite their domestic origins, the women became associated with bloodthirst and anger as the French Revolution progressed. Tricoteuses reportedly counted their stitches as they counted heads being chopped off, and they developed a violent and hateful reputation.

    The literary introduction to tricoteuses by Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities (1859) helped to further this representation. Dickens had written his tricoteuses, namely Madame Defarge, as characters who would weave executed victims' names into their work. Baroness Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905) also featured tricoteuses "who sat there and knitted, whilst head after head fell beneath the knife, and they themselves got quite bespattered with the blood of those cursed aristos."

  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Carts Publicly Carried Victims To The Guillotine, Fostering The Execution's Event-Like Atmosphere

    The guillotine could execute 12 people every 13 minutes, which exponentially increased the death count during the French Revolution. Over time, the guillotine's efficacy improved, primarily due to the efforts of Charles-Henri Sanson, who personally tested the machine on animals and cadavers.

    Sanson had tested the guillotine for the first time in public on Nicolas-Jacques Pelletier. The precision with which Pelletier's head had separated from his body apparently pleased Sanson, and the guillotine's use spread.

    Spectators began gathering to watch soldiers, called gendarmes, lead carts that carried condemned individuals. One eyewitness described the carts:

    The same carts as those that are used in Paris for carrying wood; four boards were placed across them for seats, and on each board sat two, and sometimes three victims; their hands were tied behind their backs, and the constant jolting of the cart made them nod their heads up and down, to the great amusement of the spectators.

  • Photo: Emile Friant / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Solemn Sadness Before The Beheading Was Often Palpable

    Regardless of how the condemned behaved during their walk to the guillotine, there was often a somber mood among the procession of officials when they approached the machine and line of soon-to-be victims. JG Millingen described an execution in 1793; it featured "culprits [who] were led out in turn, and, if necessary, supported by two of the executioner's valets."

    Millingen also recalled the other side of solemnity, indicating that he had seen "some young men actually dance a few steps before they went up to be strapped to the perpendicular plane."

    In 1813, Colonel Francis Maceroni recounted an execution that took place in Rome:

    The deep solemn chanting of the miserere was now heard, as from a distance the procession approached the silent square. Not a word was uttered, save a low murmuring sound when the two sufferers were seen advancing, each supported by a priest on either side, who recited prayers that were repeated by the dying man.


  • Photo: Isidore Stanislas Helman / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    A Condemned Person's Final Words Were Important

    Many guillotined victims - but not all - had their last words recorded for posterity. Before his execution in 1793, King Louis XVI gave a speech to the crowd, telling them, "I die innocent of all the crimes laid to my charge; I pardon those who have occasioned my death; and I pray to God that the blood you are going to shed may never be visited on France." 

    Officials expected the condemned to remain stalwart in the face of death, but not all abided by this. Louis XV's mistress, Madame du Barry, begged the crowd and perhaps her executioner to give her "one more moment."

    Marie-Antoinette, by some accounts, uttered her final words as an apology to her executioner for having stepped on his foot