Part 2: Dr. Guillotin's Legislation
Many methods of execution were used across France in the early 18th century, ranging from the painful, to the grotesque, bloody and painful. Hanging and burning were common, as were more imaginative methods, such as tying the victim to four horses and forcing these to gallop in different directions, a process that tore the individual apart. The rich or powerful could be beheaded with axe or sword, while many suffered the compilation of death and torture that comprised hanging, drawing and quartering. These methods had a twofold purpose: to punish the criminal, and to act as a warning for others; accordingly, the majority of executions took place in public.
Opposition to these punishments was slowly growing, due mainly to the ideas and philosophies of the Enlightenment thinkers - people such as Voltaire and Locke - who argued for humanitarian methods of execution.
One of these was Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin; however, it is unclear whether the doctor was an advocate of capital punishment, or someone who wanted it to be, ultimately, abolished.
The French Revolution began in 1789, a process which was to convulse France, re-shaping the country's social, cultural and political makeup; the legal system was reviewed immediately. On October 10th 1789 - the second day of the debate about France's penal code - Dr. Guillotin proposed six articles to the new Legislative Assembly, one of which called for decapitation to become the sole method of execution in France. This was to be carried out by a simple machine, and involve no torture. Guillotin presented an etching that illustrated one possible device, resembling an ornate, but hollow, stone column with a falling blade, operated by an effete executioner cutting the suspension rope. The machine was also hidden from the view of large crowds, according with Guillotin's view that execution should be private and dignified. This suggestion was rejected; some accounts describe the Doctor being laughed, albeit nervously, out of the Assembly.
Narratives often ignore the other five reforms: one asked for a nationwide standardisation in punishment, while others concerned the treatment of the criminal's family, who were not to be harmed or discredited; property, which was not to be confiscated; and corpses, which were to be returned to the families. When Guillotin proposed his articles again on December 1st 1789, these five recommendations were accepted, but the beheading machine was, again, rejected.
The situation developed in 1791, when the Assembly agreed - after weeks of discussion - to retain the death penalty; they then began to discuss a more humane and egalitarian method of execution, as many of the previous techniques were felt to be too barbaric and unsuitable. Beheading was the preferred option, and the Assembly accepted a new, albeit repetitive, proposal by the Marquis Lepeletier de Saint-Fargeau, decreeing that "Every person condemned to the death penalty shall have his head severed". Guillotin's notion of a decapitation machine began to grow in popularity, even if the Doctor himself had abandoned it. Traditional methods like the sword or axe could prove messy and difficult, especially if the executioner missed or the prisoner struggled; a machine would not only be fast and reliable, but it would never tire. France's main executioner, Charles-Henri Sanson, championed these final points.