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The Executioner

Marie Antoinette on her way to the Guillotine
In France, the role of executioner was an hereditary post and from 1688 – 1847 it was held by the Sanson family. At the time of the Revolution the position was held by Charles-Henri Sanson, who took his trade very seriously. But once his public role had been reduced by the guillotine to the mere pulling of a pin the better to show his skill by the sheer numbers that could be dispatched in the shortest amount of time. At the peak of the Terror Sanson guillotined 300 men and women in three days.
Oh, thou charming guillotine,
You shorten kings and queens;
By your influence divine,
We have reconquered our rights.
Come to aid of the Country
And let your superb instrument
Become forever permanent
To destroy the impious sect.
Sharpen your razor for Pitt and his agents
Fill your divine sack with heads of tyrants.

The Scaffold

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The Execution of Robespierre
The executioner's working conditions were all but impossible during the Reign of Terror. Blood soaked the scaffold, leaving Sanson and his assistants liable to slip and fall. A pond of blood pooled beneath the scaffold causing a disgusting stench. Rivers of it ran down the cobbled streets. Indeed, in 1792 Charles-Henri saw his own son Gabriel tumble to the ground, sustaining fatal injuries, after skidding in a pool of blood. Afterwards, railings were put up around the scaffolds to safeguard executioners.

The Halifax Gibbet

The Halifax Gibbet
The most notable forerunner of the guillotine was in use in Halifax, England, from 1286 until 1650. Convicted criminals - those who stole goods assessed by four constables to be worth over 5p. - were taken to the gibbet on market day for execution. When the offender was placed with his head on the block every man nearby took hold of the rope and gave a mighty pull to unleash the pin and allow the blade to crash down, thereby placing justice into the hands of the people.

The Early History

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The Scottish Maiden, 16th Century
Contrary to popular conception, there were many fore-runners of the guillotine throughout history. The Halifax Gibbet (below), the Scottish Maiden, and the Italian "Mannaia" used to execute Beatrice Cenci in the sixteenth century. And it was just these instruments that Dr. Guillotin had in mind when he recommended a design to Dr. Antoine Louis of the Academy of Surgery (in fact, the guillotine was originally known as the Louisette ... pretty pretty, don't you think?). The prototype and subsequent improvements were carried out by a German harpsichord maker, Tobias Schmidt.

The Guillotine

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.

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