The Guillotine

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Place de la Révolution

Guillotine , n. A machine which makes a Frenchman shrug his shoulders with good reason.
— Ambrose Bierce, “The Devil’s Dictionary”

In 1789 Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin proposed to the newly formed National Assembly of Paris a humane alternative to the then barbarous method of separating one’s head from one’s body. “The mechanism falls like lightning; the head flies off; the blood spurts; the man no longer exists.” He explained. “Gentleman, with my machine, I’ll take off your head in a flash, and you won’t even feel the slightest pain,” his words were greeted with nervous laughter. Much to the Doctor’s chagrin, the machine was christened in the imagination of the populous as “le Guillotine”, an association the good Doctor was never able to distance himself from.
Yet it was not until 1792 that the dread machine was implemented, not until the Assembly had received a request from the Executioner Sanson that some sort of mechanical facilitation was required in order to meet the new revolutionary quotas; i.e. the “Enemies of the Republic”. During what is aptly known as The Reign of Terror, 1793-94, between 20,000 and 40,000 people lost their lives under the blade of Madame Guillotine, ending only with the death (aptly by guillotine) of the virtual dictatorship of Robespierre.

Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin
Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin
1738-1814
Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin
Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin
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Early drawing of a
guillotine, late 18th century
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Robespierre, Anonymous, late 18th century
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Guillotine
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Robespierre Guillotining the King
The New Yorker, 2006

2 thoughts on “The Guillotine”

  1. you need to post about the family and history of the childhood of Joseph Guillotine! I can’t find it anywhere!

  2. There is not enough written about the great Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin. From what little I have read about him, he seems like a genuinely fine man.

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