One day in May 1738, legend has it, a woman approaching the end of her pregnancy was walking down a street in Saintes, France, when she heard the cries of a man being executed on the town’s breaking wheel. (The condemned would be tied to a large wheel, limbs stretched into a starfish, and then beaten with a club to break the bones.) So traumatic were the man’s screams, the story goes, that the woman went into labor right then and there.
The circumstances, if true, were fitting for the person that came into the world that day. As the French historian Daniel Arasse wrote, “the conditions of his birth determined his later renown”—the baby, Joseph Ignace Guillotin, would grow up to invent one of the deadliest instruments of execution of his time. But before he invented the guillotine, he would devote a career to lobbying against the death penalty in France.
Guillotin’s early career was accomplished, if otherwise unremarkable: He worked briefly as a literature professor at the University of Bordeaux, then left for Paris, where he studied medicine and then settled as a practicing physician. In 1788, he wrote a pamphlet titled “Petition of the Living Citizens of Paris,” arguing for more representation for non-nobility in the legislative body called the Estates General. The following year, largely as a result of the attention he received for “Petition,” he became a representative to the Estate, launching his political career.
As a politician, Guillotin focused mostly on medical reform. He was also an opponent of the death penalty, and, perhaps recognizing that outright abolition was unlikely, focused his energy on making capital punishment more humane—and more egalitarian. At the time, only the nobility in France had the dubious privilege of beheading by sword; most criminals sentenced to death were hung on the gallows (or, in some gruesome cases, sent to the breaking wheel).
On October 10, 1789, Guillotin submitted a proposal to the French government arguing for a decapitating machine to become the standard manner of carrying out the death penalty. Initially, the proposal gained little traction—but that December, Guillotin delivered a speech to the National Assembly that would ultimately elevate both the man and the idea to international fame. In a moment of enthusiasm, he told his audience, “Now with my machine I take off your head in the twinkling of an eye, and you never feel it.”
The following day, the Les Actes des Apôtres, a popular French journal, mocked Guillton’s comment into song (this translation comes from Chambers Edinburgh Journal, a 19th-century British magazine):
Bethought himself, 'tis plain,
That hanging's not humane
And straightaway showed
A clever mode
To kill - without a pang - men;
Which, void of rope or stakes,
Of hangmen. …
And then offhand,
His genius planned
That machine that ‘simply’ kills—that’s all—
Which after him we call
For Guillotin, it was the moment that his name became forever synonymous with decapitation. (As the Chambers’ Journal noted, the three other politicians mentioned in the full version of the song were all known as violent members of the National Assembly. All, coincidentally, also were later killed by the guillotine, as was the author of the song, Chevalier de Champcenetz.)
Despite the public merriment around Guillotin’s comments, all of his propositions were eventually approved. On June 3, 1791, the Assembly decreed that the decapitating machine was to be the sole means of legal criminal execution, and tasked the politician Pierre Louis Roederer with overseeing its construction.
Roederer contacted Guillotin on the March 10, 1792, to request his involvement, but no record exists of whether the doctor complied. In the meantime, he initially struggled to procure workmen for the job, due to their concern about the stigma of being affiliated with the machine. After receiving a letter suggesting workmen would charge exorbitantly for involvement, Roederer wrote to one potential contractor: “Prejudice indeed exists, but I have offers from other persons … provided they should not … have their names exposed as connected with the object.”
Finally, Roederer reached an agreement with a German harpsichord maker, Tobias Schmidt, to manufacture the guillotine. The machine was initially tested on sheep, calves, and human corpses; the first human to fall victim to the guillotine was Nicolas Jacques Pelletier, in 1792. From there, the guillotine would reign for another two centuries: It remained the standard means of execution for condemned civilians in France until the death penalty was abolished in 1981. Guillotin, the Chamber’s Edinburgh Journal wrote, “bitterly regretted to the latest moment of his existence” his involvement with the killing apparatus.
Despite persistent public myth that Guillotin himself was killed by his eponymous machine, the doctor died at 75 of natural causes. (The myth was so widespread, however, that the popular Johnson’s Dictionary even recorded it as fact under the entry for guillotine.) At his funeral, Guillotin’s friend, the physician Edme-Claude Bourru, eulogized the late physician, commenting: “How true it is that it is difficult to benefit mankind without some unpleasantness resulting for oneself.”