What It Was Like to Witness the Guillotine

What It Was Like to Witness the Guillotine

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France’s use of
the guillotine was something of a spectator sport. In France, the guillotine was
like the Macy’s Day Parade, a Super Bowl tailgate party,
and the part in Frankenstein with the villagers chase
Frankenstein’s monster with torches and pitchforks. Back then Parisians lived
for this kind of thing. Today we’re going
to learn about what it was like during the
guillotine era in France. But before we get
started, subscribe to our channel, Weird History. Leave a comment,
and let us know what bizarre and weird historical
items you would like to hear about. Now hide your neck,
we’re going to France. Now it must be noted that while
France kept the guillotine up until the late 1970s– September 10, 1977 to be exact– public executions ended 38
years earlier on June 17 1939, when Eugen Weidmann was
sentenced for the conviction of six murders. While Weidmann was being
led up to the guillotine and assumed the position,
the crowd of rowdy Parisians cheered, booed,
yelled, and basically enjoyed themselves way too much. Someone in the crowd
even secretly filmed the whole thing. And that’s when the French
government put an end to the viewing parties. After Weidmann, all of
France’s guillotine activity took place in private,
in the prison courtyard. This solved two problems. One, the executioners could
rely on a working guillotine. With every use, French
prison employees would have to build and
tear down their guillotine, like overworked carnies
at the county fair. Because of this, it wasn’t
uncommon for the guillotine to malfunction
every now and then. It wasn’t unheard
of for a trigger to snap apart or
an unaligned blade to produce a sloppy severing. A permanent guillotine could
be regularly maintained and calibrated, making the
act a bit more predictable, if not much more efficient. The other problem it served– the crowds were getting
wild in the streets. Local bars filled
up with spectators, pre-gaming for the beheading. Building owners with views
looking out onto the action sold window seats to those
who wanted a bird’s eye view of the proceedings. Kids would be hanging
off nearby tree branches in hopes of getting a glimpse. The French government,
along with prison employees, realized the guillotine had
officially become bigger and much more of a headache–
yes, pun intended– than they ever estimated. How did the public find out? Notices were posted around town,
announcing the time and place. Sometimes the prison would
give their version of a press release to the local
newspaper with the scheduling information. And sometimes the times
weren’t announced, and crowds would just gather
around prison employees, assembling a guillotine
in the middle of a road. By the late 1930s,
guillotine fans earned a violent reputation,
much like football hooligans. The prison staff would be forced
to assemble their guillotine in the middle of the night,
then do the deed early in the morning in the hopes of
avoiding bloodthirsty crowds. But it never worked. The guillotine always
drew a big crowd. The guillotine is
pretty menacing looking. You have to remember, the device
was a relatively new invention. So it looked unusual. It was designed to be
swift, clean, and humane. It’s angled metal
blade rested high above the crowd for
maximum visibility. It was an intimidating beast. It was all lean, no filler. The machine’s simple
design was made up of one very tall, narrow
wooden rectangle, sort of like a window frame, except
instead of a sliding window pane, it had a
large, weighted steel blade, which, in theory,
would make a clean cut. The head would gently
fall into a woven basket filled with sawdust. The sawdust was there
to soak up anything. The rest was rolled
into a cheap coffin. The efficiency was almost as
scary as the mechanism itself. One of the first things
you saw was a procession of rickety wooden carts, hauling
the convicts to the guillotine. During the French Revolution,
the guillotine was so refined, it could take care of 12
people every 13 minutes. Those carts were always busy. Over time, the
guillotine’s efficiency improved, primarily
due to the efforts of Charles-Henri Sanson, the
royal executioner of France during the reign of
King Louis XVI, who personally tested the machine
on animals and cadavers. Sanson had tested the guillotine
for the first time in public on Nicolas Jacques Pelletier. The precision with
which Pelletier’s dome had separated from
his former self pleased Sanson and the
guillotine’s use spread. Eventually the sight of
watching French soldiers, called gendarme, lead these
carts around the city filled with convicted criminals was
the signal that the guillotine would soon be following. One eyewitness said,
“The same carts as those that are used in
Paris for carrying wood, floorboards were placed
across them for seats. And on each board sat two
and sometimes three victims. Their hands were tied
behind their backs, and the constant
jolting of the cart made them nod their heads up
and down, to the great amusement of the spectators.” The crowds that gathered
around the guillotine weren’t always rowdy. Quite the opposite. It was common for groups
of attending women to knit and converse while
gathered around the guillotine. Called tricoteuses,
these women initially gathered for local
government debates, but officials eventually
banned the ladies from public assemblies,
so they turned to guillotines for the
entertainment factor instead. They even crafted small items
in honor of the day’s events, including phrygian caps. Despite their domestic
origins, the women became associated
with blood lust and anger, as the French
Revolution progressed. Tricoteuses reportedly
developed a violent and hateful reputation. The executioner was always
the star of the show. He was the guy
onlookers focused on. Whether they saw him
as a hero or the heel, they knew the headsman
was in charge. He was the star point guard. And because the
guillotine offered a figuratively hands-off
approach to capital punishment, executioners didn’t
even particularly feel guilty for ending
another man’s life. Executioners focused
on the machine itself, rather than what the machine was
doing to a fellow human being. They also prepped the guillotine
and cleaned up after the event. How’s that for humility? Oddly enough, Parisians
thought the speed of execution via guillotine removed some
of the religious and social connections between
death and execution, lessening the spectacle’s
emotional aspect. The public initially
criticized the guillotine for being too easy and clinical. During the use of
the guillotine, crowds reportedly yelled, “Give
me back my wooden gallows.” Not always, but
sometimes, depending on how many of the condemned
were on the day’s docket, a person who was about to take
the guillotine’s angled blade was given the opportunity
to say a few last words. Many guillotine
victims, but not all, had their last words
recorded for posterity. Before his execution
in 1793, King Louis XVI gave a speech to the
crowd, telling them, “I die innocent of all the
crimes laid to my charge. I pardon those who have
occasioned my death, and I pray to God that the
blood you are going to shed may never be visited on France.” Officials expected the
condemned to remain stalwart in the face of death, but
not all abided by this. Louis XV’s mistress,
Madame Du Barry, begged the crowd, and
perhaps her executioner to give her one more moment. Marie Antoinette,
by some accounts, uttered her final words as an
apology to her executioner, for having stepped on his foot. While the invention
of the guillotine was supposedly more humane and
less bloody than other methods, crowds still attended
expecting to see gore. They weren’t all showy, but
there were some executioners who really like to feed into
the crowd’s need for blood and gore. These particular executioners
often triumphantly held up the head of the recently
topped for the masses to see. When Charlotte Corday died
via guillotine in 1793, the executioner held up her
head and slapped her cheeks, reportedly making
her face blush. A spectator wrote
about this incident, noting that the eyes seemed
to retain speculation for a moment or two. And there was a look in the
ghastly stare with which they stared upon the
crowd which implied that the head was aware of
the ignominious situation. The amount of gore
on guillotines caused horrible odors,
prompting the residents within its proximity
to complain. Sometimes the condemned
prisoner’s blood became cherished,
such as when crowds rushed to dip
their handkerchiefs in the sanguine mess
left by King Louis XVI. The guillotine may have
changed the spectacle of death, but it didn’t eliminate it. How do you think you’d react
to the scene at a guillotine? If you were the
average Parisian, there’s a good chance
you might faint or vomit. Albert Camus wrote about
his father’s experience witnessing the
guillotine, something that caused the man to throw
up and never speak of the event again. According to Albert’s
reflections on the guillotine, written in 1957,
his father watched as a convicted
murderer in Algiers died via guillotine
during World War I. “My father wanted to
attend an execution. He got up while
it was still dark, for the place where the
guillotine was set up was at the other
end of the city, and once there, found
himself among a great crowd of spectators. He never told us what
he saw that morning. My mother could only report
that he rushed wildly into the house,
refused to speak, threw himself on the bed,
and suddenly began to vomit.” So what do you think? Was the guillotine humane? Let us know below and check
out some of these other videos of our weird history.

100 thoughts on “What It Was Like to Witness the Guillotine”

  1. Donald Trump would be happy to bring back the guillotine, he already has the followers, He would do it un TV, you are fired!!!

  2. Bruh they should’ve kept doing it, and film it, when cameras come out. It’s like the French version of the super bowl

  3. Very humane, when the head is severed right at the stem of the brain, life is drained away instantly. The force of impact would cause unconsciousness instantly. Even if the blade was dull the impact would be enough to complete the task.

  4. This is the definition of Humane: adjective 1.having or showing compassion or benevolence.

    How can someone be compassionate while taking someone elses life? Consider that when you eat animal corpse flesh, for the triviality of flavour. Humane killings…is a myth.

  5. It needs to come back …. to America. Spectators would love to watch career criminals get their worthless heads lopped off. Charge $1.00 a person, all the money goes to the victims families….

  6. While true that humans had always known violence and brutality, I still can't wrap my head around how watching a public beheanding could be entertaining. It would be cool if you did a video on what life was like in ancient Japan, i think it's an interesting subject.

  7. I really love watching and learning from these but I also know when I need to sleep these always knock me out. They're not boring just relaxingXD

  8. You know..when you think of the punishments of the past,weather its,electric chair or go back in time..a little say midevil times,there was some
    Auful punishments for sinners,victims of charlatainian laws of ignorance,any way if you were one of the unfortunate, dying by guillotine seems to be
    Peaceful, cant see it coming,and its instant
    You won't feel a thing..

  9. People think of more cruel ways to harm each other! If they spent more time caring and respecting this world would be truly something to be proud of!!!!

  10. Fear is a good motivator for accountability to keep people in check. Half the comments on social media could probably get yourself killed for heresy, lewdness, treason, enticing disorder and a host of other offenses. But today it's all about comfort, safety, entitlement, gender confusion, seeing a therapist and sarcasm.

  11. Your know at least one marriage proposal happened at one of these executions.

    Just as his head is severed some girl turns to her boyfriend

    “Oh Pierre! Iznt eet wunderful?”

    “Marie my love, will you be meh wife?”

    “Oh Pierre! Ove coorse!”

    jumps in to his blood spattered arms and crowd cheers

  12. In one case during the French Revolution, a scientist was sentenced to die (for no real reason other than being a learn'ed person) and he set up an experiment to measure how long the brain continued to work after the head was severed. He had one of his assistants watch his eyes after his head fell into the basket, and he would blink his eyes till he could no longer do so. The assistant would time how long he blinked. The ultimate sacrifice for science.
    In another case, the executioner's teenage son would assist by holding the heads up by the hair for all to see. One day the boy slipped and fell off the platform, breaking his neck and dying.

  13. The late Christopher Lee witnessed the last public execution by guillotine in France. 1939. For some reason I find that fact wild.

  14. absolutely disgusting, were there no christians in france? I dont care how despicable the convict is, this is a barbaric

  15. It may seem barbaric, but it’s actually more humane than the electric chair, gas chamber, or lethal injection.
    If I were going to choose my own method of execution, I’d choose a guillotine.
    Personally though, I’d just prefer to abolish capital punishment.

  16. What's it like to witness a guillotine? I imagine exactly what one may imagine its like. Smh and society is still pretty sick so it's not a shock that they would find it literally a fucking party and act like blood thirsty hooligans. Backwards World was taking place a lot longer than we think

  17. Men at executions: Getting rowdy and violent, excited over watching a prisoner get decapitated.
    Women at executions: Knitting and conversing after being banned from public assemblies.

    People in the 21st century: "These women are cold and are a symbol of bloodlust and have a violent and hateful reputation".

    Bloodlust, violent and hateful reputation? And the executioners and men like Robespierre were not? But knitting women are?

  18. I think was designed to be humane, but the spectators as described in the film made is very inhumane. Good intentions gone awry.

  19. I cant imagine the fear that comes knowing youre about to die. Imagine lying down under the guillotine and just waiting for it to drop while simultaneously counting and soaking up the last few seconds of your life while trying to squeeze in a prayer?? Too scary!

  20. I DIDN'T deserve to die this way. I was innocent. And so was my Louis. I just wanted my CAKE Damnit!! 🍰🍰🍰😭

  21. Those knitting ladies got a reputation for bloodlust because they would try to catch blood from the head on their knitwork. Brutal.

  22. Marie Antoinette should have impaled her executioners foot and then twisted her heel like she was crushing a rats skull.

  23. Is it true that America has bought from China and is secretly storing thousands of guillotines? Why would they do that?

  24. Inhumane is a stupid word because who ever done this things were not literally monsters neither demons they were humans so it was humane not inhumane.

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