A guillotine execution in Napoleonic times

The guillotine scene in Napoleon in America required me to do some research on beheading in early 19th century France. Best known for its use during the French Revolution, the guillotine continued to be the primary method of judicial execution during Napoleon’s reign and during the Bourbon Restoration. In fact, the guillotine remained France’s standard means of carrying out the death penalty until capital punishment was abolished in 1981. The last guillotine execution in France took place at Marseilles on September 10, 1977.

The guillotine execution of King Louis XVI, 1793. German copperplate engraving by Georg Heinrich Sieveking

The execution by guillotine of King Louis XVI, 1793. German copperplate engraving by Georg Heinrich Sieveking

Guillotine not invented by Guillotin

Although named after Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin (1738-1814), the guillotine was not invented by him. Other decapitation devices – the Diele in medieval Germany, the mannaia in 16th C Italy, the “Maiden” in Scotland, the Halifax gibbet in England – had existed for centuries.

Dr. Guillotin actually opposed capital punishment and wanted to make executions more humane. In 1789, as a deputy to France’s National Assembly, Guillotin argued that all capital criminals should be killed in the same fashion, and as swiftly and painlessly as possible. At the time, commoners were hanged, burned at the stake, or broken on the wheel, while nobles had the luxury of having their head chopped off by a sword. Guillotin proposed that where the death penalty was imposed, the punishment should be decapitation by means of “a simple mechanism.” In 1791, the National Assembly adopted a change to the penal code in which every person condemned to death was to have their head cut off.

It was left to Dr. Antoine Louis, secretary of the Royal Academy of Surgeons, to design a machine that would make beheadings fast and simple. The first model of what was initially nicknamed the “petit louison” or “louisette” was built by a German harpsichord maker named Tobias Schmidt. He tested it out on sheep, calves and corpses. The first guillotine execution – of highwayman Nicolas Jacques Pelletier –  took place on April 25, 1792 at the Place de Grève in Paris.

The official executioner, Charles-Louis Sanson, said:

Today the machine invented for the purpose of decapitating criminals sentenced to death will be put to work for the first time. Relative to the methods of execution practised heretofore, this machine has several advantages. It is less repugnant: no man’s hands will be tainted with the blood of his fellow being, and the worst of the ordeal for the condemned man will be his own fear of death, a fear more painful to him than the stroke which deprives him of life. (1)

Both Dr. Louis (who died later that year) and Dr. Guillotin greatly regretted that their names were attached to the device.

In 1795, after the death of over 16,000 people during the Reign of Terror, the National Convention passed an act that promised abolition of the death penalty when “general peace” arrived in France. But peace didn’t come. The French Revolutionary Wars turned into the Napoleonic Wars. In 1810 Napoleon Bonaparte issued a new criminal code that eradicated the eventual abolition of the death penalty. The new code affirmed that anyone condemned to death should be decapitated.

Napoleon’s successors, the Bourbon Kings Louis XVIII and Charles X, also retained the guillotine, even though it had taken the lives of their brother King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette.

Description of a guillotine execution

What follows is a vivid description of a guillotine execution in Rome in 1813. At the time, the Papal States were annexed to France and Pope Pius VII was Napoleon’s prisoner. The account was written by Colonel Francis Maceroni, an aide-de-camp to Napoleon’s brother-in-law Joachim Murat. The condemned man was a Roman merchant named Venturi, who was found guilty of murdering a friend’s servant.

The instrument of judicial execution of the sentence of death, is in France the guillotine. This machine was substituted for the gallows, in every country occupied by the French. I think, from the personal sensations I have experienced on such occasions, that the effect of an execution, on the spectators, is much stronger in the case of beheading than in hanging. However, I am an enemy to the punishment of death altogether, and cannot conceive how civilized beings can take such an atrocious pleasure in witnessing the dying agonies of their fellow creatures!

Notwithstanding my usual repugnance to such spectacles, which I never had intentionally attended, I felt a curiosity to see the death of this wretched criminal, so I applied to the commander of the gendarmes, who gave me a place close to the scaffold. For the information of those who have never seen a guillotine, or the use of one, I will just describe the instrument and the process in as few words as possible:

The base of the guillotine is a hollow cube of boards, about twelve feet square, supported on wheels, which are concealed by the planking, the top forming the floor of the scaffold, which is attained by steps and bannisters from the ground. On the edge of this platform, arise two vertical parallel spars of wood exactly similar to a pile-driving machine, and in grooves along the two inner surface of the spars runs the knife, as the driving weight does in the pile driver. The knife does not present its edge horizontally but diagonally, at an angle of forty-five degrees, from side to side; it is about a foot square, and the upper side or back is loaded with some twenty pounds of metal. On a level with the floor of the scaffold, is a solid block, which receives the knife, but the patient’s head is not placed upon that block, but fixed just above it, between two pieces of wood, which embrace the neck, exactly as the two parts of the common village ‘stocks’ confine the feet of the petty delinquent. The knife is drawn up to the top of the shafts by a rope, where it is retained by a kind of latch staple and a spring. Another cord on the other side, being pulled by the executioner, sets free the knife, which, passing with its diagonal edge, close to the surface of the stocks, that embrace the neck of the culprit, shaves off the head, and would do so without the slightest check, were half a dozen human necks placed one over the other. There are two ways of placing the culprit under the knife; one is to strap him to a board, which, pivoting on its centre, is brought to the perpendicular for that operation, and then turned with the man upon it, horizontally, so as to bring his neck into the lower half-hole of the stocks, the other half of which being instantly pushed down, confines the head as above stated. At Rome, this pivoting plank was not used, but the culprit being made to kneel on a step below the stocks, the neck was there secured. And this is a briefer method than the strapping to the plank.

A dark dismal cloudy day in January, 1813, was appointed for the execution of Venturi, – and at the same time was also executed a Roman gendarme, who, in a fit of jealousy, had killed with his sabre a beautiful girl, who served as a model to students in painting and sculpture. The fatal instrument was erected in the midst of a square, of which I forget the name, and hung round with black. Two decent coffins provided by the relatives of the sufferers were ready to receive them. Instead of the vast crowds, which in England are usually seen to attend such spectacles, there certainly were not a hundred persons present besides the guards and priests attendant on the ceremony, and the greater portion of those lookers-on were foreigners.

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. The gendarme walked with a firm and quiet air, but Venturi was with difficulty supported by those who were endeavouring to console him. The former was executed first, and uttered not a word or gave the least sign of fear or agitation. Venturi kept screaming out ‘Gesu! Gesu! Gesu!’ until the falling knife cut short his last pious ejaculations. The head remains in a kind of wire receptacle, on a level with the neck hole in the ‘stocks.’ The executioner immediately seized it by the hair, and placing it on a wooden platter, containing saw dust and a large sponge, held it up in exhibition all round the scaffold. I distinctly saw the eyes make two violent rolling movements, – then fix for ever. The bodies, upon being deprived of the heads, made only one considerable motion, which was – from a kneeling bent down position, the legs and thighs stretch out behind, so as to place them in a straight line on their faces. The coffins being placed underneath the scaffold, the bodies were let down into them through a trap-door. The jet of blood was prevented from flying over the pavement by being caught in a receptacle, which conducted it into a vessel out of view. Thus ended the affair of Venturi…..

Not more than three or four other executions occurred at Rome, during the whole period of the French dominion. (2)

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  1. Daniel Arasse, The Guillotine and the Terror (London, 1989), p. 26.
  2. Francis Maceroni, Memoirs of the Life and Adventures of Colonel Maceroni, Vol. II (London, 1838), pp. 25-27.

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I think, from the personal sensations I have experienced on such occasions, that the effect of an execution, on the spectators, is much stronger in the case of beheading than in hanging.

Francis Maceroni