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Two guillotine anniversaries invite a macabre head count

April 25, 2017 - FRANCE

The year 2017 offers up a head count of a macabre kind. France introduced the guillotine en route to a more humanitarian and equitable system of capital punishment 225 years ago on the April date, and used it for the last time 40 years ago. At least 40,000 heads rolled before France abolished capital punishment in 1981.

Convicted felon Nicolas-Jacques Pelletier fell victim to the not-so-merciful killing machine, which introduced the efficiency of the slaughter house to executions, on Apr 25, 1792. The last decapitation in France was Hamida Djandoubi's on Sep 10, 1977. A Tunisian immigrant, he was executed for the slaying of his girlfriend.

The French Revolution alone is believed to have lopped off those 40,000-plus heads. Encyclopedia Britannica notes that only eight executions occurred between 1965 and the last one in 1977. The number for the intervening centuries is probably a matter of record for anyone interested enough to scour French government archives.

The inventor of the execution machine, Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, lobbied for decapitation before the National Assembly in 1789 as an execution method that exemplified the spirit of liberté, égalité and fraternité. The argument at the time, as recounted by, was based on unfairness: common criminals in France were executed by unreliable methods such as hanging, burning at the stake and breaking on the wheel while aristocratic felons had the privilege of a quick decapitation. A tip would persuade the executioner to ensure a swift chop.
The guillotine was promoted as an instrument that would decapitate more efficiently than a sword or ax.

The discovery that the instrument wasn't as efficient as its inventor portrayed hastened its end, as did Djandoubi's execution. A doctor in attendance testified that Djandoubi remained responsive for up to 30 seconds after decapitation.

It was not the first time that the condemned appeared to remain conscious for an uncomfortably long period of time before life finally oozed out. Henri Languille, guillotined in 1905, reportedly looked at a witness who called out his name - after being decapitated.

The abolition of the death penalty was incorporated into the Constitution of the Fifth Republic by the Constitutional Act of Feb 23, 2007, and under French law, it is forbidden to remove people to a country where they would face the death penalty.

France and Death Penalty (French government)

Guillotine (

Sept. 10, 1977: Heads Roll for the Last Time in France ( 10 Sep 2007)

Guillotine (Encyclopedia Britannica)

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Date written/update: 2016-09-15