Word Origins: Dr. Joseph Ignace Guillotin and the Guillotine

About the history and biography of Dr. Joseph Ignace Guillotin who had the misfortune to be the origin for the word guillotine.

GUILLOTINE ('gil-e-ten) n. A machine for beheading by means of a heavy blade that slides down in vertical guides.

Dr. Joseph Ignace Guillotin (1738-1814) did not invent the guillotine, did not die by the guillotine, and all his life futilely tried to detach his name from the height reducer.

The confusion began on October 10, 1789, when the eminent Parisian physician, a member of the National Assembly during the French Revolution, suggested that a "merciful" beheading device replace the clumsy sword and degrading rope then used by French executioners. Guillotin may have studied similar instruments abroad and definitely knew they existed, for the infamous "Maiden" had been used even in France during the Middle Ages and was still widely employed throughout Europe. In his speech to the French chamber Guillotin contended that hanging brought disgrace upon a criminal's family, that beheading probably felt better, being quicker and less painful at least, and that there wasn't any equality in a nobleman's being dispatched by the sword while a commoner legally had to swing by a rope for his crimes. His ideas, especially the last, gradually took hold in egalitarian France, and 2 years later the Assembly adopted decapitation as the legal means of execution for "every person condemned to death."

The specific machine accepted for the purpose was designed by Dr. Antoine Louis, secretary of the Academy of Medicine, and constructed by a German named Tobias Schmidt, who even supplied a leather bag to hold the severed heads. For some 329 francs, inclusive, the 1st Louisette or Louison, as it came to be called, was erected on the Place de Greve, and on April 22, 1792, the head of a notorious highwayman named Peletier became the 1st to plop into its basket. But Dr. Guillotin remained in the public's mind for his eloquent speech and one of many popular songs about the new machine claimed that he had invented it. Not much time passed before "la louisette" lost out to "la machine guillotine," "Madame Guillotine," and then "guillotine" itself.

The legend that Dr. Guillotin was hoist with his own petard springs from several circumstances. For one, its real designer, Dr. Louis, lost his inventive head to the guillotine during the Reign of Terror-as did thousands of victims, including, of course, the mechanically inclined Louis XVI, who is said to have recommended its oblique cutting edge as a refinement to the inventor. Secondly, Dr. Guillotin was indeed condemned to die for protecting friends suspected by Robespierre, only escaping execution by the narrowest of margins when Robespierre himself was guillotined. Finally, a Dr. J. B. V. Guillotin of Lyon had been so executed during the Terror, his name, of course, confused with the more prominent doctor's.

Many wanted to think that Guillotin became the victim of his own Frankenstein's monster--like Hugues Aubriot, the designer of the Bastille and the 1st man to be imprisoned in it--but the good doctor lived on. He lived to see Napoleon suppress the Revolution and saw the method he advocated become a symbol of needless and brutal slaughter rather than humanitarianism. But he died a full 22 years after the machine was introduced--in his own bed, peacefully, of a carbuncle on his shoulder. After his death, his children petitioned the French Government to change the name of the guillotin, but won only permission to change their own names.

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