On April 25, 1792, Nicolas Jaques Pelletier was the first person to be executed by guillotine.
Now, this came as a surprise to me as I thought the device had been thought UP much earlier.
Think about it. The blade de jour had only been used as a means of execution in France for 16 months when it’s most notable victim, Louis XVI was executed.
This, with as much as I’ve read about the Bourbons of France, had never dawned on me.
So, of course, I needed to investigate!
Pelletier was a known criminal, as were all his friends, but on the night of October 14, 1791 he, along with others attacked a passerby on the Rue Bourbon-Villlenueve in Paris and relieved said passerby of his wallet and several securities.
During the robbery the victim was killed. Pelletier was accused and arrested that same evening when the cries of the victim were heard by nearby gendarmes.
Pelletier’s solicitor called for a fair court hearing, but Judge Moreau, France’s equivalent of a hanging judge, sentenced him to death and a few days later his appeal to the second criminal court was lost; his sentence was confirmed.
The execution was delayed while the National Assembly debated whether or not decapitation should be the only means of capital punishment. Other options included breaking at the wheel which King Louis VXI had banned and fire, as well as other swell methods.
The Assembly decided that decapitation was the only humane way and at the urging of Joseph Ignace Guillotin, a new invention by surgeon Antoine Louis was adopted as France’s device de jour for execution.
Yes, kids, Guillotin didn’t invent the Guillotine as we’ve been taught all along, Antoine Louis did.
On March 23, 1972, the guillotine was decreed the only method of legal execution.
The Guillotine was placed on scaffolding just outside the Hotel de Ville where public executions had taken place for the last seventy years or so.
Thinking a large number of people might show UP for the first ever guillotine execution, the prison warden asked General Lafayette for a contingent of National Guardsmen to ensure order.
About 3:30 that afternoon, Pellleter was lead to the scaffold wearing a red shirt which matched the color of the guillotine. As predicted by the officials, a large crowd was there eager to see the new invention at work!
The execution moved swiftly, and within seconds Pelletier was dispatched.
The crowd was disappointed, feeling it was too quick and clinically effective, thus not providing the entertainment value of previous executions.
They began changing “bring back our wheel” and “bring back our wooden gallows!” “Not my guillotine.”
Someone started selling knitted red hats.
Okay, that’s not true…but
…did I mention that public executions in France were a form of family entertainment?
Sorry, should have included that.
Mom would pack a lunch and dad would load UP the kiddos in the cart and off to the Hotel de Ville they’d go for an afternoon of hangings, breakings, and burnings at the stake!
But then, they gave us perfume and dry cleaning, so I suppose we can forgive them, right?
And the metric system…ugh!
In 16 months, the Reign of Terror would take the life of the French King and his Queen, Marie Antoinette and thousands of others.
By this time, public executions were carried out at the Place de la Revolution, a former palace of the king now known as the Palace de la Concorde.
The executions drew great crowds as the heads of the French nobility rolled. Vendors sold programs listing the names of those condemned to die as well as sweets, sandwiches, and other foods.
Aside from popular entertainment, the guillotine symbolized the ideals of the revolution; Equality, liberty, fraternity.
Prior to the revolution, there were separate forms of execution for the nobility and the common folk.
The guillotine evened things out, so to speak.
The device remained the official method of execution in France until the death penalty was abolished in 1981.
The last guillotining took place in 1977 when child murderers Christian Ranucci and Jerome Carrein were executed in Marseille just prior to the execution of Hamida Djandoubi’s , a torturer-murderer in September.
The device has had many names over time. La Monte-à-regret, or the regretful climb being one.
You see, regardless of the method, executions back in the day included a climb UP 13 steps.
Dr. Guillotin’s family was so embarrassed by his association with the device they petitioned the French government to rename it.
When their request was refused, they changed their family name.
Dr. Guillotin, contrary to what many believe died in his sleep at the age of 75; he was not a victim of the device he encouraged as a more humane method.
There was a Dr. JMV Guillotin of Lyons who was, indeed, led to the scaffold and executed by the device.
That could have been where that little mix UP came from!
Don’t lose your head today! Okay?