“The two widows” — Cover detail from L’Oeil de la police (1908)

It seems as though it were a being, possessed of I know not what sombre initiative; one would say that [the guillotine] saw, that this machine heard, that this mechanism understood, that this wood, this iron, and these cords were possessed of will. […] The scaffold is the accomplice of the executioner; it devours, it eats flesh, it drinks blood; the scaffold is a sort of monster fabricated by the judge and the carpenter, a spectre which seems to live with a horrible vitality composed of all the death which it has inflicted. — Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

With its ten-foot-tall wooden frame, a gaping hole to secure one’s neck, and an angled blade gleaming under the sun like an iron fang, the guillotine is probably one of the most dramatic-looking apparatuses of death. Still considered a macabre curiosity, the guillotine embodies both the feverish utopias of the French Revolution as well as the traumas of the Reign of Terror during which more than 20,000 people were beheaded. Yet while its history is unsettling, it offers an array of juicy facts through which to explore the origins of its sulfurous aura.

Martyrdom of St. Matthew, woodcut by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1512) (via Wikimedia)

The French are often believed to have invented the concept of the guillotine, which is only partly true. Contrary to popular belief, the guillotine had several forerunners in medieval Europe. They included the Hallifax Gibbet, the Scottish Maiden, and the Italian Mannaia, all  well-documented vertebrae-crushing machines which inspired the Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin to propose on October 10, 1789, a modernization of this device within his “reformation of capital punishment.”

In front of the National Assembly and King Louis XVI, Guillotin defended, among other ideas, the genius of getting rid of, once and for all, the barbaric methods of the Ancien Régime. Previously, depending of the crime and social status, the condemned would be burned alive, hanged, or beheaded with an axe. Another possibility was the popular “breaking wheel” and its endless hours of pains, during which birds would peck at the helpless victim.

In his second article of his “Reformation,” Guillotin stated:

“Whenever the Law imposes the death penalty, irrespective of the nature of the offense, the punishment shall be the same: decapitation, effected by means of a simple mechanism.”

The new method would be ethically correct, as argued by Guillotin, as it was considered more humane since it would end life in a supposedly painless fashion. The bevelled edge blade of the guillotine, a technical recommendation ordered by Louis XVI who was an amateur locksmith on his spare time, would take off the head instantly, a pretty big improvement considering that decapitation with an axe needed at least two blows to kill the condemned, who would sometimes bleed to death before losing his head.

Ultimately, this modern form of capital execution would prove an equal opportunity for the nobility and the Third Estate to have their dance with death. 


 ”Hell Broke Loose, or, The Murder of Louis. Vide, The Account of that unfortunate Monarch’s Execution.” As the blade of the guillotine severs the head of Louis XVI, devils stand on the platform and fly overhead, singing “Vive la nation” (“Long live the nation”) and “Ça ira,” the emblematic song of the French Revolution. This British print was published in London just four days after the execution of Louis XVI on January 21, 1793. (via British Museum)

In 1790, power changed hands as the the French people overthrew the monarchy. In 1793, the wigged head of Louis XVI fell into a basket under the screams of a furious crowd. Frivolous Queen Marie Antoinette also enjoyed for a split second the locksmith ingenuity of her husband with the guillotine blade. Behind the scaffolds, a 32-year-old woman undertook the gruesome labor of casting in wax the severed heads of the enemies of the Revolution. The effigies were then paraded on picks in the streets as symbolic sacraments of the people’s victory. The dilligent wax manufacturer’s name was Marie Grosholz, a name she promptly changed after her wedding to become Madame Tussaud. 

Wax tableau of young Madame Tussaud creating the death mask of Queen Marie Antoinette after her execution. (via Curious Matters)

During the Terror, between 1793 and 1794, the paranoid Revolutionary Tribunal sent to the “black widow” anyone suspected of “crimes against liberty.” Public executions became an important part of Parisian life as a popular spectacle, particularly for a group of women who even brought their children. Nicknamed the knitting women, they would harangue hysterically in the crowd, and wink and squeak at the executioner until the blade fell. 

article-imageVictor Hugo, “Justitia” (1857) (via Bibliotheque Nationale de France)

In the 19th century with the development of rational sciences, the cortege of decapitated bodies left in the wake of the Reign of Terror led to many questions. How long does consciousness continue in a freshly decapitated victim? What if life lingered on, even for a few seconds? While science tried to capture signs of reflexes on severed heads, fait divers of the sensationalist press spread rumors of beheaded revenge, cursing last words after the decapitation or the biting of the first hand that would touch them. Headless figures became an obsessive trope in the visual arts. In his art piece “Justitia,” artist and writer Victor Hugo compared the anxious death by the guillotine to the end the human soul. The bodiless victim, a vengeful ghost floating in the air, became a metaphor for the injustice and horror of capital punishment.

On the other hand, emerging practices like phrenology and physiognomy took advantage of the plethora of disposable heads to hone their theories. In those pseudosciences, the morphology of the face and the shape of the skull could indicate the personality of a person. A big nose could be evidence for a tendency to robbery, big lips and black hair could be used as proof you were a rapist. As a consequence, anatomical wax manufacturers were commissioned to cast the heads of the most infamous criminals in order to study their aspects and trace analogies between their shapes and their cruel personalities. 

article-imageMaison Tramond, Wax head of Henry Jacques Pranzini, guillotined on August 31, 1887. (via

The guillotine remained the main device for execution in France until 1981, when capital punishment was abolished in the country. Almost all of the guillotines have by now been destroyed expect two, which are in pieces in the basement of the Fontainebleau prison. But relics of the guillotine era are still visible here and there. The Musee Carnavalet, focused on Paris history, contains great numbers of grotesque paintings from the Reign of Terror and a couple of “national razor” miniatures, two of which are carved out of bones. Rue de la Croix Faubin, in the 11th district, has five horizontal slabs embedded on the road. These are remnants of the last guillotine site, which adjoined the now-demolished Petite Roquette prison.

If you want to dive in the heyday of Paris criminology and see the wax head of Henry Jacques Pranzini, guillotined on August 31, 1887, go to the Musée des Collection Historiques de la Préfecture de Police. Finally, if you want really want to be creeped out, pay a visit to Henri Landru at the Museum of Death in Hollywood, California. The guillotined head of the 1920s French serial killer is on display there since it was donated by a neurologist.

article-imageTwo miniature guillotines made out of bones of the Musée Carnavalet (via Arylie/Flickr)



THE MUSEUM OF DEATH, Hollywood, California



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