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…
10. Nicolas Jacques Pelletier (died 25 April 1792).
Pelletier associated with various criminals during his relatively wicked life. His crimes included assault, robbery, and rape. After one of his attacks, his victim cried for help, which alerted a guard who then arrested Pelletier. Judge Jacob Augustin Moreau heard the case and sentenced Pelletier to death. Now many highwaymen have been sentenced to death, but Pelletier’s historic claim to fame is being the first person ever executed by the guillotine.
Public executioner Charles Henri Sanson first tested the guillotine on corpses “donated” by a hospital. Being satisfied with the efficiency of the guillotine over the sword, the authorities moved forward with the execution. In the afternoon, Sanson positioned Pelletier on the device and decapitated him instantly upon releasing the bleed. Fascinatingly, the crowd, used to more entertaining executions via hanging or breaking on the wheel expressed their disappointment in the underwhelming spectacle actually calling out for the return of the gallows. For better or worse, those requests were not granted.
9. Eugen Weidmann (5 February 1908 – 17 June 1939).
From the first public guillotining to the last! Weidmann was a German-born man who schemed to kidnap wealthy French tourists as a way of stealing their money. He also participated in more heinous crimes, including murder. He shot at least three men and one woman in the napes of their necks. The final murder proved his undoing as police identified him from a business card left at Weidmann’s last victim’s office. Like a scene from a Hollywood movie, Weidmann initially resisted arrest, shooting at the police.
His efforts were unsuccessful. The wounded and unarmed civil police wrestled Weidmann and knocked him unconscious with a hammer. Now in custody, Weidmann confessed to his crimes. On a summer day in 1939, then seventeen year old future actor of Star Wars and Lord of the Ring films Christopher Lee was among the witnesses of Weidmann’s beheading. With that Eugen Weidmann became the final person to be publicly executed via guillotine.
8. Hamida Djandoubi (c. 1949 – 10 September 1977).
Whereas Weidmann was the last person to be publicly executed by guillotine, he was not the last person to ever be executed in that manner. Tunisian born Maida Djandoubi lays that claim to infamy. Djandoubi has allegedly tried force his 21-year-old girlfriend Elisabeth Bousquet into prostitution. Not surprisingly, she did not stick with him. Nevertheless, his did manage to enlist two other girls into his “employ”. These girls witnessed Djandoubi vile assault on Bousquet following his kidnapping of her. At his home, he beat her and put a lit cigarette to her breasts and genitals, before driving her to a more secluded location where he strangled her and disposed of her remains.
A month later, the Tunisian tried again at kidnapping a woman, but this woman fortunately escaped and identified him to the police. He was charged with rape, torture, and murder. Djandoubi became the last person ever executed by guillotine when he was decapitated in September 1977. He was not, however, the last man condemned to the guillotine. Nevertheless, the final people condemned received a sort of reprieve in 1981 when capital punishment was abolished in France.
7. Hans Fritz Scholl (22 September 1918 – 22 February 1943) and Sophia Magdalena Scholl (9 May 1921 – 22 February 1943).
France is not the only country historically to use the guillotine. Germany also used the guillotine from at least the time of the German Empire (1871–1918) through the German Democratic Republic as late as 1966; including in that scope of time was also the notorious Nazi German state. Nazi records suggest that over 16,000 people met their end at the guillotine in Greater Germany between 1933 and 1945. Two of the most famous victims are the Scholl siblings. The brother and sister pair helped found a non-violent anti-Nazi resistance movement called the White Rose. The organization produced leaflets urging German opposition to Nazi cruelty. The Gestapo would not tolerate such dissent in a time of world war and so it arrested the leaders of the White Rose and beheaded them.
Sophie’s last words were: “How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause. Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?” Her brother’s final remark was simply: “Long live freedom!” They have since been honored on post-war German stamps for their courage. After all, while they may not have stopped the Nazis, the ilk responsible for their executions did get their punishment in the end as well. Perhaps fittingly then, the last German executed by guillotine was none other than SS member Horst Paul Silvester Fischer, born 31 December 1912. For his crimes committed at Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II, he was executed by guillotine on 8 July 1966.
6. Marie-Anne Charlotte de Corday d’Armont (27 July 1768 – 17 July 1793).
Charlotte Corday is without any doubt one of the most famous female assassins in world history. The young woman read the works of Enlightenment era philosophers and grew horrified of the carnage unleashed by the French Revolution. She supported Revolution, but not the bloodshed that occurred. For example, she did not think it right that the king was executed. She blamed radical Jacobin Jean-Paul Marat for much of this bloodshed and as she said at her trial, she “killed one man to save a hundred thousand.” She went to see Marat on the false claim that she had knowledge of an uprising against the revolutionary government.
Marat, who suffered from a terrible skin disease, spent much time in a bathtub, allowed her to see him with her information. As he wrote down names that she told him, she then drew out a knife and stabbed his chest, slicing into his aorta and lung. Marat called out for help, but died anyway, his death immortalized in Jacques-Louis David’s famous painting and also recreated cinematically for the films Napoléon (1927) and Land of the Blind (2006). Corday was condemned for the murder. Reportedly, after her beheading, a man lifted her head from the basket and slapped it. Witnesses claimed that she made an expression of indignation as a result. The man was then imprisoned for three months for his action. Corday became something of a hero for many and received the nickname of “angel of assassination”.
5. Alexandre François Marie de Beauharnais, Vicomte de Beauharnais (28 May 1760 – 23 July 1794).
Beauharnais was a French nobleman who served as a deputy in the Estates-General and later as President of the National Constituent Assembly before ending his career as General-in-Chief of the Army of the Rhine. He was arrested for lack of military success and his aristocratic connections and sentenced to death during the Reign of Terror. On one hand, he may seem as just another noble guillotined during this time; however, his place in history is significant largely because he was in fact executed. His wife, Josephine, who was imprisoned in the same prison as her husband survived him and was freed when the Reign of Terror ended. She went on to marry Napoleon Bonaparte and become the first ever Empress of the French. Her grandson, also Alexandre de Beauharnais’s grandson through their daughter Hortense, later became Emperor Napoleon III. Had Alexandre lived, would Josephine have married Napoleon? What if Josephine was guillotine at the same time as well? The 1927 movie about Napoleon also reenacts the fateful moment when Alexandre is taken to be executed from his distraught wife in prison, showing one of many tragic moments in a bloody revolution.
4. Olympe de Gouges (7 May 1748 – 3 November 1793).
Olympe de Gouges was actually born Marie Gouze. She is the quintessential feminist author of the French Revolution. In 1791, she responded to the Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen with her own Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen. She dedicated it to Queen Marie Antoinette, who was still alive at that point in the Revolution. In the document, de Gouges argued that the “purpose of any political association is the conservation of the natural and impresciptible rights of woman and man; these rights are liberty property, security, and especially resistance to oppression.”
In addition to calling for gender equality, she also advocated abolitionism and was recognized by others who opposed slavery. Her ideas were, however, too much for Jacobins, the ruling political party in France by 1793. She was arrested for alleged monarchic sympathy and executed shortly afterwards. One of her plays dealing with slavery was also burned after her death. Her major causes, equality for women and the eradication of slavery would come some time after her death. Slavery was finally abolished in French colonies in 1848. Women received the right to vote in France only in 1945.
Given how long it took France to realize de Gouges’s dreams, one should get a sense of just how brave she was for espousing such ideals when she did. A leading French politician and former presidential candidate in 2007 and 2012, Ségolène Royal, has suggested that de Gouges’s remains be moved to the Panthéon in Paris in a ceremonial manner as her actual burial place is uncertain. The author of this list, as an opponent of slavery and supporter of women’s rights, agrees with Royal’s proposal!
3. Georges Jacques Danton (26 October 1759 – 5 April 1794).
According to author Victor Hugo and filmmaker Abel Gance, Danton is considered one of the “three gods” of the French Revolution alongside Marat and Robespierre. A fiery orator famous for saying, “We need audacity, and yet more audacity, and always audacity,” Danton played a critical role in both the overthrow of the French monarchy, an institution that had endured for over one thousand years, and the establishment in its place of the French Republic. This lawyer and politician belonged to the Cordeliers political party during the Revolution and supported the execution of his king.
When Marat was still alive, the Revolution was under an almost unofficial triumvirate if you will of Marat, Danton, and Robespierre. If you study history, remember what happens to triumvirates when one of the three members if eliminated. In the case of the First Triumvirate in ancient Roman times, it did not take long after Marcus Crassus’s death for surviving members Julius Caesar and Pompey Magnus to engage in a civil war against each other. In the period after Marat’s murder, Danton and Robespierre’s factions drifted apart. Danton’s opponents accused him of financial corruption and then arrested him.
Before being guillotined he said to the crowd, “My only regret is that I am going before that rat Robespierre,” and then to his executioner, “Don’t forget to show my head to the people. It’s well worth seeing.”
2. Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre (6 May 1758 – 28 July 1794).
Danton’s implication that he was merely going before Robespierre was proven prophetic. But months after Danton’s execution, Robespierre would indeed get his just desserts as well. Robespierre is hands down the most famous French Revolutionary leader of the Reign of Terror. This radical Jacobin lawyer and politician strove to purify France during the Revolution despite having once composed a prize-winning speech to welcome the king to his school when Robespierre was a student! As the Revolution progressed, he spoke out against or otherwise eliminated his possible rivals as chief authorities of the new government in succession. He argued that the king “must die so that the nation may live” and remained in power during the executions of such other leading figures of the Revolution as Corday, de Gouges, Beauharnais, and Danton, among thousands of other victims of the Reign of Terror. Robespierre continued to eliminate anyone deemed a threat with cartoons even depicting Robespierre guillotining the executioner!
With his establishment of a Festival of the Supreme Being to replace Christian celebrations, Robespierre had himself depicted in a manner that seemed to witnesses as a sort of modern Moses, which was too much for the French populace. On 26 July 1794, Robespierre gave a speech implying a conspiracy without naming names. Fearing they might be next to be targeted by Robespierre, various members of the National Convention rose up against Robespierre before he could accuse them. As Robespierre tried to speak in his defense, he was shouted down, with one man saying, “The blood of Danton chokes him!” The fall of Robespierre known as Thermidor is masterfully recreated once again in Abel Gance’s film about the early years of Napoleon. The scene has Berlioz’s “March to the Scaffold” thunder in the background as the Convention rises against Robespierre. Robespierre tried to avoid the public humiliation of an execution by shooting himself, but botched his suicide. He shattered his lower jaw, which bled until a doctor wrapped it. Before beheading him, the executioner ripped off the bandage on Robespierre’s jaw, causing the defeated men to scream in agony, his attempt to create a “republic of virtue” having ended along with his life.
Robespierre was not executed alone, however. Also, executed on the same day as Robespierre were his various colleagues, including most prominently his right hand man: Louis de Saint-Just. This particular man who is actually played by Abel Gance himself in his outstanding film of 1927 is known not as the “angel of assassination” like Corday, but rather as the “angel of death.” Yet, there is one pair of guillotine victims that is still more significant to history than even Robespierre and Saint-Just.
1. Louis XVI (23 August 1754 – 21 January 1793) and Marie Antoinette (2 November 1755 – 16 October 1793).
Louis and Marie are not the first king or queen to be beheaded. English King Charles I (19 November 1600 – 30 January 1649), Scottish Queen Mary (8 December 1542 – 8 February 1587), as well as English Queens Anne Boleyn (c. 1501 – 19 May 1536), Catherine Howard (c. 1518–1524 – 13 February 1542), and Jane Grey (1536/1537 – 12 February 1554) are among the well-known decapitated European royals prior to Louis and Marie. Yet, these particular French monarchs are the only husband and wife duo in royal history to both be executed by beheading. They came to the throne in 1774 following the long, but disastrous reign of Louis XV who had lost many of France’s colonies as well as French prestige in the catastrophic Seven Years’ War. As an attempt at revenge against England, France joined America in its Revolutionary War for Independence from 1776 to 1783 at great financial expense. This financial expense occurred alongside other problems for the French state. By the late 1780s, while France experienced some harsh weather conditions and correspondingly bad harvests, Enlightened ideas that challenged the Divine Rights of Kings and Absolutism also spread.
Meanwhile, the queen became a target of dissatisfaction, being regarded as out of touch with her people and living a life of luxury. She was most notably scandalized during the Affair of the Diamond Necklace in which she was falsely implicated in a conspiracy to try to defraud crown jewelers in order to obtain an extravagantly expensive necklace. She had earlier been ridiculed for the long time it took her and Louis to produce an heir. By 1789, conditions were so desperate that for the first time in over a hundred years, the French monarch called the Estates-General, a sort of legislative body, to address the fiscal crisis afflicting France. Instead, a Revolution broke out. Louis and Marie meant well and believed what they were doing was righteous, but that they were in over their heads and lacked the personalities to resolve such serious problems. Louis recognized as much. When he became king, he even said, “Protect us, Lord, for we are too young to reign.” He attempted to survive during the Revolution as a constitutional monarch, but when it became clear just how bad things were getting, he and his wife also attempted to flee to his wife’s homeland of Austria in June 1791. They were captured before reaching the border and returned to Paris where things became far, far worse.
Afterwards, the attempt at saving his monarchy seemed futile. Just a few months later, revolutionaries voted to execute the king. His final speech was cut short by a drum roll and he was then beheaded with conflicting reports of whether or not he was beheaded with one or two drops of the blade. Marie Antoinette survived him for several more months. In October of 1793, her hair was cut off and if she was driven in an open-cart to her place of execution. She apologized to her executioner for stepping on his feet and was then beheaded. She has become a major part of popular culture. This past semester one of my students even gave me a birthday card with a version of her apocryphal line about eating cake. For entertaining cinematic depictions of her and her husband’s life before her downfall see 2006’s Marie Antoinette starring Kirsten Dunst and 2001’s The Affair of the Necklace, keeping in mind that these films do more to show how we remember this royal couple rather than presenting a completely accurate historical recreation of their lives and deaths.
My final question to you the reader is whether or not you believe any of the people in this list deserved their fates? Is execution ever acceptable and if so in what cases? Specifically, is the guillotine an appropriate form of punishment? Do people have the right to not just overthrow but even execute their leaders in extreme instances? And finally, what would have been the consequences had any of these men and women not been executed?
Dr. Matthew D. Zarzeczny, FINS, the author of Meteors That Enlighten the Earth