The guillotine, which came to symbolize the French Revolution, was first used in 1792.
Its scaffold was the final stage for Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, aristocrats, foreigners,
revolutionaries, counterrevolutionaries, bourgeoisie, and peasants alike. Was it an instrument
of democratic justice, or a weapon of tyrannical terror? For more information, click on the flag,
the knitting woman, the head of the victim, the executioner, and the woman awaiting execution.
Prior to the Revolution, only aristocrats could afford beheadings. Proposed by Dr. Joseph
Ignace Guillotin, the guillotine was meant to be a humane form of capital punishment because
it reduced suffering. During the Revolution, its image was popularized in jewelry and toys.
But the justice that the guillotine once represented was marred by the Reign of Terror. In
1794, thousands were imprisoned and killed for being counterrevolutionary.
Dying for liberty was heroic in the view of many revolutionary French. Appearing dignified
and unafraid on the scaffold was important to most of the convicted. To come to terms with
their imminent death, prisoners rehearsed their execution. Fellow prisoners took the part of
tribunal members—some the part of the executioners, and others the part of the sneering
mob. The victim always played himself or herself and went, hands bound behind, to the guillotine
prop-usually a bed or two chairs. One military officer on his way to the scaffold told Charles-Henri
Sanson, Paris's chief executioner, "Today's the actual performance: you'll be surprised how well I know my role."
The guillotine that once stood at the Place de la Révolution (now called the Place de la Concorde)
rests in storage in a museum outside Paris. The guillotine remained in use in France until 1977, but the
last public guillotine execution was in 1939. France outlawed the death penalty in 1981.
What happened to the prisons of Paris after the Bastille was stormed?
The storming of the Bastille in 1789 represented the beginning of the Revolution. But at the
time it was stormed by a Paris mob, only six prisoners occupied the 400-year-old structure.
The revolutionaries were seeking the weapons that were stored in the building. Bastille Day is
celebrated in France each July 14 with celebrations centered at the Bastille monument.
However, imprisonment hardly came to a halt with the storming of the Bastille. At the height
of the Reign of Terror, several prisons throughout Paris swelled with inmates. Just before trial,
most prisoners were moved to the Conciergerie, where they awaited trial before the Revolutionary
Tribunal. Prisoners were frequently sentenced and executed on the same day.
Over the course of the Revolution, the definition of crimes against the Revolution became more vague.
Those crimes came to include conspiracy against the republic, statements favoring the return of the
monarchy, and even expressions of grief at the execution of a loved one. One eighty-year-old woman in
a remote part of France was beheaded for giving food and water to an Austrian. Studies of the use of
the guillotine throughout France during this period have found that 78 percent of executions were for
rebellion and treason; 10 percent were for federalism, a term that meant resisting further revolutionary
changes; and 9 percent were for holding questionable opinions.
Credits: Girondists © Corbis; Guillotine Illustration by Patrick Whelan;
Storming of the Bastille, July 14, 1789. Chateaux de Versailles et de Trianon,
Versailles, France. Photo © Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource, New York;.
Top of Page