The Birth of the Guillotine

parisblogroquette parkgateIf you walk up the rue de la Roquette in the direction of Pere Lachaise cemetery, you will notice a pleasant park on your left, with a rustic-looking entrance. On the gate is a memorial tablet honouring 4,000 women Resistance members who were imprisoned there (…“dans ces lieux 4,000 Résistantes ont été imprisonnées pour avoir lutté contre l’Occupant.” But I found the French text imprecise. “Dans ces lieux…?” What lieux? guillotine illoLater, I learned that this was once a women’s prison known as La Petite Roquette, demolished in 1974. On the other side of the rue de la Roquette stood La Grande Roquette, the men’s prison, demolished in 1911. All that remains of these grim places are the rustic-looking gate, the former prison entrance, and some granite stones set into the roadway where the rue de la Croix-Faubin meets the rue de la Roquette. You can see them on Google Street View. You may feel as if a goose has walked over your grave when you look at them. This is where the prison guillotine once stood. Most of us who are not French associate the guillotine with the part of the Revolution known as the Terror, and forget that the device remained in use in France until capital punishment was abolished in 1981. guillotined heads(Actually, the last execution by guillotine took place in 1972.) And we tend to think of “the guillotine” as if there were only one – the one on what is now the place de la Concorde, where the king, the queen, hundreds of aristocrats, and many others met their deaths. But there were lots of guillotines, at least one in every major city and town in the country back then. guillotinThe guillotine is as steeped in irony and paradox as it is in blood. Its name comes from a doctor and humanitarian called Joseph Ignace Guillotin, who proposed it as a humane, efficient, and egalitarian way of dispatching those whom the state saw fit to dispatch. Of course, in the 18th century, the radically humane idea of not putting people to death for their offences never occurred to him.

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One Response to “The Birth of the Guillotine”

  1. Comment by Ken Holland | 08/07/14 at 9:51 am

    Thank you for the lovely piece on the history of the guillotine. I once saw a grainy black and white video, taken surreptitiously, of supposedly the last execution by guillotine in France. I was impressed by the speed of the whole sad affair. Though bloodier and more gruesome than American executions by lethal injection, at least the French got it right–the last execution in Arizona a couple of weeks ago took over two hours to work. That is intolerable. They should go back to the firing squad if executions must be carried out. “Ready, Set, Fire!” End of story…show’s over, everyone go home.
    I do have one question. Your piece seemed to imply that by the 1950’s or so, there was only one guillotine still in operation for executions in France. So…what happened to all those guillotines that used to be used in every hamlet and town throughout France, back when every town had its very own headsman. Were they just junked or what? I would think that some of them might get put in museums, or bought by private collectors with odd tastes in collectibles. Surely there must be some guillotines still around even if they are not (hopefully) being used.
    I should mention that back when i was in 6th grade in 1961, my buddies and I each made a working guillotine out of balsa wood, string and a razor blade. They stood about 14 inches high. I think we weighted the razor blade with pennies or something. We were thrilled with them. No sooner did Sheldon (we made the guillotines at his house) proudly show his mother his working guillotine, than she took it and threw it away. Believe it or not, I think he cried…hey, we were only 11 years old and had spent all afternoon making these things. I proudly took mine home and showed it to my parents, who even let me demonstrate it, sans victim. My father was sort of impressed by my little homemade engine of death. My mother, on the other hand, was aghast and, alas, my little guillotine ended up in the big trash bin next to the alley by the backyard fence.

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