For some time I thought I’d touch on the topic of the guillotine. Not because it’s a particularly Napoleonic topic, but because it’s one of the most persistent symbols of the French revolution. When Rick Santorum decided to enrich the world of politics with the following nonsense, I thought that was as good an excuse as anything:
They are taking faith and crushing it. Why? When you marginalize faith in America, when you remove the pillar of God-given rights then what’s left is the French Revolution. What’s left is a government that gives you rights. What’s left are no unalienable rights. What’s left is a government that will tell you who you are, what you’ll do and when you’ll do it. What’s left in France became the the guillotine. (New Yorker - w/ video)
Tempting as it is, I’ll avoid saying anything about the hysterical incoherence and historical inaptitude displayed above. It’s just about what we’d expect anyway.
It is often claimed that the guillotine was invented by one Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin. But that’s not true. Guillotin was instrumental to its implentation, yes, but he did no invent it. In 1789, as a deputy of the Assemblée Constituante, Dr. Guillotin proposed a reform to the nation’s penal code. The two first articles were as follows:
1. Offences of the same kind will be punished by the same kind of penalty.
2. In all cases where the law imposes the death penalty on an accused person, the punishment shall be the same, whatever the nature of the offense of which he is guilty; the criminal shall be decapitated; this will be done solely by means of a simple mechanism. 
What could be more in the spirit of the revolution than that everyone were to be executed in the same manner, regardless of class. In fact, this was no triviality: traditionally nobles were executed by decapitation, while commoners were hanged. Either way, it was cruel fate. I recall that Norwegian cult author Jens Björneboe spends a significant part of his The history of bestiality cataloguing the history of failed executions. Although hangings were unpleasant and could easily be botched by someone without the requisite knowledge of knots and strangulation, the pre-revolutionary decapitation by sword was an even more harrowing affair. The executioners were often unable to severe the head on the first couple of attempts, and occasionally needed a series of blows before the gruesome ordeal was over. No wonder really, considering the pressure they were under: Bjørneboe recounts how mobs of spectators would occasionally lynch the incompetent executioner.
Enter the guillotine. Wonderfully rational, a purveyor of equality, and ultimately the symbol of the revolution’s backlash. It was commissioned by a committee set down by the Assembly (including Dr. Guillotin), and the first prototype was made in 1792 by Tobias Schmidt, a German harpsichord maker.  Among its many famous victims were King Louis XVI. He was executed on January 21st, 1793 at Place de la Révolution (now place de la Concorde). You can read a first-hand account of the episode here. His wife, Marie Antoinette, was executed in October the same year. In the relative short time of le Terreur (5 September 1793 – 28 July 1794) more than 15 000 were executed by guillotine. Maximilien Robespierre, the man who controlled the infamous Committee of Public Safety (Comité de Salut public) , was himself guillotined in July 1794. Just days prior to Robespierre’s fall, the Committee had Joséphine’s first husband – Alexandre François Marie de Beauharnais – arrested and executed. Joséphine was arrested with her husband but released when the Committee was abolished.
The history of the guillotine does not end with the Terror, however. It was in use in France until 1977 (the death penalty was officially abandoned in 1981). The last public execution by guillotine, on the other hand, was in 1939.
Another famous execution that caught Björneboe’s attention was the guillotining of Henri Languille on June 28th, 1905 (picture above). Present was a Dr. Beaurieux who wrote a sensational medical account of the minutes after the decapitation.
Here, then, is what I was able to note immediately after the decapitation: the eyelids and lips of the guillotined man worked in irregularly rhythmic contractions for about five or six seconds. This phenomenon has been remarked by all those finding themselves in the same conditions as myself for observing what happens after the severing of the neck…
I waited for several seconds. The spasmodic movements ceased. The face relaxed, the lids half closed on the eyeballs, leaving only the white of the conjunctiva visible, exactly as in the dying whom we have occasion to see every day in the exercise of our profession, or as in those just dead. It was then that I called in a strong, sharp voice: “Languille!” I saw the eyelids slowly lift up, without any spasmodic contractions – I insist advisedly on this peculiarity – but with an even movement, quite distinct and normal, such as happens in everyday life, with people awakened or torn from their thoughts.
Next Languille’s eyes very definitely fixed themselves on mine and the pupils focused themselves. I was not, then, dealing with the sort of vague dull look without any expression, that can be observed any day in dying people to whom one speaks: I was dealing with undeniably living eyes which were looking at me. “After several seconds, the eyelids closed again, slowly and evenly, and the head took on the same appearance as it had had before I called out.
It was at that point that I called out again and, once more, without any spasm, slowly, the eyelids lifted and undeniably living eyes fixed themselves on mine with perhaps even more penetration than the first time. The there was a further closing of the eyelids, but now less complete. I attempted the effect of a third call; there was no further movement – and the eyes took on the glazed look which they have in the dead.
I have just recounted to you with rigorous exactness what I was able to observe. The whole thing had lasted twenty-five to thirty seconds.