Joseph-Ignace Guillotin’s Opposition to the Death Penalty

   Marie Antoinette's execution in 1793 at the Place de la Révolution


Marie Antoinette’s execution in 1793 at the Place de la Révolution

On May 28, 1738, French physician Joseph-Ignace Guillotin was born. Guillotin is best known for his proposition of the use of a device to carry out death penalties in France, as a less painful method of execution. While he did not invent the guillotine, and in fact opposed the death penalty, his name became an eponym for it. The actual inventor of the prototype was Antoine Louis.

Joseph-Ignace Guillotin received his Master of Arts degree from the University of Bordeaux and became professor of literature at the Irish College at Bordeaux afterwards. After some years, Guillotin travelled to Paris to study medicine, and became a student of Antoine Petit. He received his diploma from the faculty at Rheims in 1768 and later won a prize given by the Paris faculty, the title of Doctor-Regent.

Around 1784, Franz Mesmer began to publicize his theory of ‘animal magnetism’. It was considered offensive by many, and Louis XVI appointed a commission to investigate it. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin was appointed as a member of it along with Benjamin Franklin and others. In 1788, Guillotin drafted a pamphlet entitled Petition of the Citizens Living in Paris, concerning the proper constitution of the States-General. He was then summoned by the French parliament to give an account of his opinions, which served to increase his popularity and on 2 May 1789 he became one of 10 Paris deputies in the Estates-General of 1789. He was secretary to the body from 1789 to 1791.

As a member of the assembly, Guillotin mainly directed his attention towards medical reform, and it was on 10 October 1789, during a debate on capital punishment, that he proposed that “the criminal shall be decapitated; this will be done solely by means of a simple mechanism.” This mechanism was then defined as “a machine that beheads painlessly”. His proposal appeared in the Royalist periodical, Les Actes des Apôtres. Back then, beheading was done by axe or sword, which did not always cause immediate death. Further it is assumes that beheading was reserved for the nobility, while commoners were typically hanged.

Despite his proposal, Guillotin was opposed to the death penalty and hoped that a more humane and less painful method of execution would be the first step toward a total abolition of the death penalty. He also hoped that fewer families and children would witness executions, and vowed to make them more private and individualized.

In 1789, during a speech to the Assembly about capital punishment, Guillotin remarked “Now, with my machine, I cut off your head in the twinkling of an eye, and you never feel it!” This statement became quite popular and people started making up songs about Guillotin and “his” machine. However, it is also believed that Guillotin deeply regreted that the machine was named after him.

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