In the centuries prior to the French Revolution, French authorities used a variety of methods of execution depending on the nature of the crime and the condemned man or woman’s place in society. Some of these punishments took on what many would deem quite extreme dimensions of brutality.
For example, French murderess Marie-Madeleine-Marguerite d’Aubray, Marquise de Brinvilliers (22 July 1630 – 17 July 1676), was sentenced to drink sixteen pints of water before being beheaded and then burned at the stake (you may as well be thorough!). In the next century, Robert-François Damiens (9 January 1715 – 28 March 1757), after being tortured for attempting to assassinate his king, had his arms and legs fastened to horses for dismemberment in front of an applauding crowd. Witnesses claimed that his torso somehow survived and so it was burned at the stake to finish him off. The brutality of this punishment influenced opponents of the death penalty. The famous adventurer Casanova witnessed the execution and claimed he had to turn his face away and cover his ears at times. Thomas Paine, famous for his writings near the start of the American Revolution, mentioned Damiens’s execution as an example of despotic government’s tyranny.
As such, by the time revolutionary fervor struck France, enlightened men and women called for a more humane and equalizing manner of execution. The Revolution began on 14 July 1789 with the Storming of the Bastille Prison. On 10 October 1789, Doctor Joseph-Ignace Guillotin proposed a reform of capital punishment to the National Assembly in France. The king rapidly banned some of the more barbaric forms of torture/execution and a committee was eventually formed to realize Guillotin’s proposed reforms. The king’s physician, Antoine Louis, designed the prototype device of a mechanical blade that would quickly sever one’s head in a single blow. In 1792, it would claim its first victim…
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