|Primitive ancestors of the guillotine were used in Ireland, England and Italy in the 14th and 15th Centuries. Several known decapitation devices such as the Italian Mannaia, the Scottish Maiden, and the Halifax Gibbet are well documented and may pre-date the use of the French guillotine by as much as 500 years. The following deals mostly with the modern guillotine from the late 18th Century until today. It is not meant to be a complete history or even a complete overview of the history as this would take hundreds of pages. Instead consider it a brief introduction to the subject highlighted by a few good pictures.|
Contrary to popular belief, Doctor Joseph-Ignace Guillotin
was not the inventor of the machine. He was a medical doctor and
lawmaker who in 1790 proposed that the death penalty should be equal for
all, regardless of social rank and nature of the crime. It would be
carried out by a swift mechanical device to eliminate suffering. His
idea was derided at first but later the National Assembly revived it and
them adopted it in 1791.
The document making the death penalty "by mechanical decapitation" the law of the land in the Kingdom of France was signed both by Dr. Antoine Louis, secretary of the National Academy of Surgery, and by Louis the 16th., who was still King of France. Dr. Louis was the author of the technical portion of the document. He explained that this method was the only "humane" mode of execution which insured the condemned a swift and painless death. A copy of the law was distributed to all the provinces for immediate implementation. To the right are the four pages of an original 1792 copy of the law sent to the department of Orne and hand-marked as No 76.
The ministry of justice proceeded quickly following the enactment of the
law. They assigned the task of designing and building Dr. Guillotin’s
machine to Antoine Louis, who hired a German harpsichord maker named
Tobias Schmidt to actually construct it from his design. This pair were
the defacto inventors of the modern guillotine. The prototype built by
Mr. Schmidt may or may not have had the characteristic angled blade. The
machine was tested on animals and cadavers to insure its reliability. It
was first used in the execution of Nicolas Pelletier, a common
the 25th of April 1792. The deadly machine quickly moved on to more
famous victims such as Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette, Charlotte Corday, Danton, Robespierre,
and many others. Tobias Schmidt lost the contract for building
additional machines, therefore we do not know the precise details and
appearance of his original apparatus.
A great number of guillotines were manufactured in the following few years to meet the demands of the blood-thirsty Revolutionary Government. Guillotines were dispatched to every province and city in France and soon after to conquered neighboring countries as well.
|THE REVOLUTIONARY GUILLOTINE - 1792|
These guillotines were all of similar construction using Tobias
Schmidt's principles but maybe not his actual design. They are usually
referred to today as "The 1792 Model Guillotine". Due to the large
number of these guillotines manufactured during the years of the great
Terror (1793-1794), several machines from this early batch have survived
to this day. Among the surviving “1792” machines are the ones displayed
in museums in Venlo (Netherlands), Liege and Brugge (Belgium), as well
as one stored in Musée national d'histoire et d'art in Luxembourg. This guillotine represents one of the best preserved examples of a 1792 machine.
Newer versions of the 1792 design were built in the 1800s and can be seen in photos from New Caledonia, Reunion Island, and Senegal. These photos are dated from the early part of the 20th Century. The design of these machines is very similar to the oldest known 1792 version so they would fall under the general category of a 1792 model. The machine from Reunion Island was used until 1954. It was returned to France in 1984 and is currently stored in the basement of Musée National des Prisons in Fontainebleau along with the Berger guillotine used in Martinique in 1964 and 1965. Both disassembled guillotines are visible in this photo.
The photo on the left shows a nearly complete original 1792 guillotine with its integral scaffold. Photo is undated but probably taken around 1918 inside a cathedral in Northern France or Belgium.
|The vertical posts were 3.7 to 4.5 meters tall and made of oak. The grooves for the blade were carved into the wood and are not lined. The boards for locking the head in place (the “lunette”) were also made of oak and had no metal liner as on later machines. Even the lunette tracks were just carved grooves in the wood. There was no mechanism to hold the lunette open or to lock it in place when closed. The front and rear support braces were also made of wood and were pinned in place with dowels making the machine very difficult to disassemble. The bascule (teeter board) was shorter than on the modern machine but tilted and slid forward as on the newer version. The slide mechanism was made up of a wood carriage traveling in wood grooves. The triangular blade was secured to a heavy oak block which traveled up and down in the post grooves. The blade was hoisted up with a rope running over two small pulleys lodged in slots within the top crossbar.|
|THE BRUGGE GUILLOTINE - 1862|
|EXECUTION IN ARRAS - 1869|
The photo below was taken on "La Grande Place" in Arras, most probably
on October 21th, 1869 just before the execution of Charles Carpentier.
This execution was carried out by "Monsieur de Paris", Jean-Francois
Heidenreich, assisted by the regional executioner from Amiens, Nicolas
Roch. Both were soon to become head executioners for all of France.
Heidenreich was nominated to the top position in late 1870 and Roch was
chosen as his successor when he died in 1872.
The guillotine is visible and has the assymetrical chapiteau of an 1792 model. Two carriages are waiting at the foot of the guillotine and a white shadow is visible on the steps leading up to the machine. This could be the white shirt of the condemned blurred
by motion during the exposure of the plate. Carpentier was sentenced to
death for the murder and robbery of a farmer coming home from the market
with his earnings.
One remarkable thing about the picture is the use of a high scaffold, which was eliminated in 1870, at the same time as the Berger-designed guillotine was chosen to replace the old 1792 machine. From then on all executions were to take place at ground level to reduce the "spectacular" aspect of the events, which is clearly visible here. According to the local newspaper "l'Avenir", it took all night to erect the scaffold and the guillotine. This was one of the main reasons it was eliminated when the guillotine and the executioner started to travel all over France.
Only once again, in 1923, did a French executioner operate on a scaffold, as Anatole Deibler was called to execute a German murderer in Sarrebruck, then occupied by France, and operated in full daylight on a scaffold as was the German tradition.
This photo was part of a pair of pictures sold for viewing on a stereoscope, a primitive 3-D optical device. I have not seen it published before so it is probably quite rare. It is one of a few surviving photographs of French guillotine executions on scaffolds. Here is a second photograph of the same execution, taken a few moments earlier, before the arrival of the carriage.
|NEW CALEDONIA GUILLOTINE - 1910|
The machine on the left is another strange hybrid derived from
modifications of an older model. This machine operated in the
"Bagne"(penal colony) in New Caledonia, which is in the south Pacific
east of Australia. The Penal Colony was established in 1864 and
consisted of three primary camps: Ile Nou for hardened criminals, the
Ducos Peninsula for dangerous political deportees and Ile des Pins for
deportees considered not dangerous but undesirable in France. The Penal
Colonie Administration and main arrival camp were located in the town of
Two large groups populated the Penal Colony: Survivors of the Paris Commune Insurrection deported from 1871 to 1874, and the survivors from the Algerian Kabyle Insurrection of 1871. The guillotine was used to punish violent crimes among the detainees. As in Guyana, the local population included a large contingent of former detainees who were liberated but not allowed to return to France. This resulted in high crime rates and a high number of death sentences.
The photo was probably taken at Ile Nou around 1910. The executioner, Macé (or Massé), a detainee himself, is claimed to have carried out at least 74 executions but he appears to be past retirement age in this photo. The machine is an 1800’s version of the 1792 model which had the narrow top crossbar and slightly lighter construction than the earlier machines. Unusual features of this machine include the addition of two improvised cross braces between the uprights as well as lateral braces extending to grade on both sides of the uprights. The improved 1872 model included both of these features and used bolted steel braces at both locations. We can conclude that prior to the improvements there must have been real problems keeping the oak posts aligned and the uprights vertical. This was possibly exacerbated by the tropical climate of the island. The mechanism on the left post is the classic 1792 design, although the top pivot should face the opposite direction.
|THE FIRST BERGER GUILLOTINE - 1868|
of the mechanism. In the 1868 version the mechanism was mounted on the
front of the chapiteau which required the locking spike to overhang the
upper half of the mouton. The mechanism itself worked flawlessly but
its location was a problem. The open lunette was directly in the path of
the metal spike protruding from the mouton. The spike would collide
with the lunette as the blade fell if the lunette was left open (and
this did occur several times during actual executions). The flawed
design was corrected in Berger's newer machines by relocating the
mechanism to the back side of the chapiteau. The picture above shows the
original 1868 Berger machine identified by the distinctive notched top
lunette (where the spike would otherwise hit the lunette), the indented
cross brace (to let the spike through) and the front mounted mechanism.
Other noticeable differences from the 1870-1871 model include the
oversized lunette hole, the lunette release mechanism located much
higher on the left post, the round headed bolts holding down the
chapiteau, the rectangular bascule board without the familiar
semi-circular cut-out, and the box-like shield around the zinc tub. Less
noticeable is the fact that the posts are about half a meter taller
than on the later version of the machine. The model 1868 machine
remained in use in Algeria until 1959 and was the only guillotine used
in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco from 1870 to 1957.
The two first improved Berger machines under construction in 1871 were seized in the rue Folie-Mericourt workshop by the "Communards" during the bloody uprising in Paris. They were "sentenced" to be destroyed then burned in a big public ceremony dedicated to the "New Freedom". The guillotine, symbol of equality and of the overthrow of the nobility during the Revolution of 1789, had become a symbol of government oppression just 82 years later. Two replacement machines were completed after the fall of the Commune and entered service in the fall of 1871.
The close-up photo of the machine (above) was probably taken in the Barbarossa prison courtyard around 1910. The three photos on the right were taken during a double execution in Tunisia (or possibly Algeria).
The top photo shows the ready guillotine and the crowd awaiting the arrival of the fourgon with the condemned and the executioners. The style of the colonial uniforms and the rifles date the picture to around 1915.
The second photo shows the fourgon stopped next to the machine and the condemned being helped down the steps by two assistants while the photographer awaits him behind the lunette. As in the first photo the guillotine is ready to function.
The identical position of the fourgon and of the spectators in the third photo indicates that it must have been taken within a few seconds of picture No.2. The lunette is still closed but the bascule plank has been returned to vertical and the executioners are raising the blade. This implies that they a readying the machine for another execution and that a second man must be awaiting his turn in the fourgon. If this was a single execution they would be preparing to carry the body away in the closed basket, not re-arming the machine. You can recognize executioner Pierre Lapeyre by his distinctive the black beard. He held the position of "Monsieur d'Alger" from 1886 to 1928.
A number of machines based on the 1871 redesign have survived to this day. To my knowledge the Algerian machine is the only example of Berger's first design that exists today and probably the only one of that type built. It is currently exhibited in Le Musée de l'Armée in Algiers. This actual machine was used in the execution scene of the 1966 movie "The Battle of Algiers". I am also convinced that all the execution pictures taken in French North Africa show this same machine.
Many people have been credited by the press for the design of the new guillotine including Heidenreich, Roch, Anatole Deibler, and Leopold Desfourneaux. Some of these may have contributed minor alterations or supervised construction of some of the later built machines. However, there is little doubt that Léon Berger is the author of the original design. This is confirmed by hand-written notes left by his grandson, André Berger, who was the Algerian executioner from 1944 to 1956.
|LA VEUVE DE SAINT-PIERRE 1889|
|The only time the guillotine was used in North America was on the 24th of August 1889 when Auguste Neel, a fisherman convicted of murdering another fisherman the year before, was executed in the French town of Saint-Pierre, located a few miles off the coast of Newfoundland. The events are loosely portrayed in the movie "La Veuve de Saint Pierre" which was released in 2000. To read about the real story and see pictures of the real Berger model guillotine from Saint Pierre, built in 1889, click here.|
|VARIOUS EXECUTIONS - 1891 TO 1929|
|This old postcard was published in Colonial Algeria around 1900. The photo depicts the execution of Areski L'Bashir, a sort of Algerian "Robin Hood" or "Jesse James" character. Areski was born in Kabylia a region of eastern Algeria which was annexed by France in 1857. The region rebelled again in 1871 and the ensuing French repression sent many Kabyles to the bagne in New Caledonia. Around 1880 Areski rose against the injustices of the French colonial administration and led a band of over 300 rebels fighting a guerilla war against anyone supporting the French. The French regarded them as common "bandits" because they stole food, money and supplies in order to survive and often killed both the French colonists and their Algerian helpers, military or civilian. With his repeated success and the inability of the administration to capture him, he grew into a legend and a local hero. He became "the law" in the remote areas of|
|Kabylia, where the colonial power could not reach. In 1893 the Governor of Algiers decided he had to put an end to Areski's free reign. A large expedition was mounted against him and after being on the run for a month and a half he was finally captured. Some of his men fell in combat with the French while the rest dispersed and tried to evade capture. His trial in Algiers in January 1895 ended with death sentences for himself and 9 of his followers and deportation to New Caledonia for the remainder of his gang. He was transferred from the Barbarossa prison in Algiers to the Gendarmerie in Azazga in front of which he was executed together with five of his lieutenants on May 14, 1895.|
This photo shows the assembly of the guillotine prior to an execution,
apparent from the number of spectators, including one hanging in a tree
and one laying on a roof. The execution was recently identified as that
of Jean-Baptiste Dagorne on June 3, 1896 in the town of Saint-Brieuc in
The first clue was the advertizing painted on the building refering to a "Gd Hotel de la Croix" (Grand Hotel of the Cross) and "Verde Soeurs", which was tracked down to the Hotel de la Croix-Rouge owned by the Verde sisters and located in Saint-Brieuc. The Hotel is advertized in the 1892 Jouanne travel guide. The word "Rouge" is missing in the photo as it is outside the frame. The hotel is located on Place Duguesclin, where the execution took place and the architecture of the building in the photo is compatible with that of the Hotel as seen in photographs dating from the 1930s.
The location is further confirmed by the low houses on the left of the photo which are an exact match for those on Rue de Gouedic facing the hotel.
The "kepis" worn by the Gendarmes were identified by the owner of the photo, himself a retired Gendarme, as 1880-1890s vintage, because they are taller than the model worn after 1900. The rest of the picture is typical of a "Deibler-era" execution. The guillotine assembly is almost complete. The person in the light suit appears to be working on something sitting on the bascule, possibly removing the blade from its case in order to install it. The basin and shield sit in front of the machine, to the right, waiting to be moved into place. The body basket is not visible in the picture, probably being unloaded from the fourgon outside the field of vision.
This picture was taken in Lons-le-Saulnier on April 20th, 1897 when the murderer, Pierre Vaillat, was executed by Louis Deibler
assisted by his son, Anatole. The "fourgon" (Horse-drawn closed
carriage), seen on the right, was used to transport the guillotine to
the place of execution, sometimes as far as 500 miles from Paris where
the machine was stored (until 1911) in a garage at 60bis Rue de la Folie-Regnault. After the execution, it was also used to take the body away for medical examination and burial.
The picture is detailed enough to show the outline of the top-mounted pulley, the distinctive 3-bolt mouton and the metal claw under the crossbar. The brass lined lunette, the body basket and the metal braces on the uprights are also visible. There are no visible differences between this guillotine and the ones seen below in newer pictures. It does appear that from 1872 to 1939 the guillotine did not undergo any significant changes, if any at all.
|The improvements rumoured to have been made by Anatole Deibler, and reported in a few books, are the addition of rollers to the mouton (in 1899), the brass tracks, the rollers on the bascule and the spring buffers. All these claims are refuted by the fact that the guillotine from Saint-Pierre, which was stored on the remote island without being used from 1889 to the 1990s, already had all the "Deibler improvements" and is in fact identical to the guillotine photographed in 1907 and 1909. With those facts we can safely label the "Deibler rollers and other improvements" as yet another guillotine myth.|
The guillotine was erected on Place de la Tour Carrée, a few blocks from
the Remirement prison. The location was chosen by Anatole Deibler the
day before the execution. This rare photograph
shows him inspecting the site and discussing it with Remiremont mayor,
Argant, the judge, Noisette, and the Chief of Police, Iverlet. Also
present are the prosecutor, the city engineer, a journalist and the
prison chaplain who will assist Zuckermeyer the next day.|
Thanks to Gaëtane, the Remiremont Historical Society and the Remiremont Municipal Archives for the use of these photographs.
This photo is a well known picture taken before the execution of Henri Languille,
in Orléans, on June 28th, 1905. The picture was admittedly touched up
by Photography Studio Joseph to add figures of Languille, his
executioners and a priest because the photo they had taken during the
actual execution did not turn out. The anecdote validates the widely
circulated postcard photo, with the obviously fake handpainted figures,
as having been taken before that execution.
Languille is famous for being the object of the "Beaurieux experiment", in which a doctor tried to establish whether there was survival of consciousness after decapitation. There has been much discussion about the veracity of his report and this photo adds to my suspicion that the reported experiment may never have taken place.
One will notice that the guillotine is properly set up, with the tub and
shield ready to receive the head, no special provision for the
experiment. Beaurieux precisely describes his interaction with the
decapitated head: "...The head fell on the severed surface of the neck
and therefore I did not have to take it up in my hands... ...I was not
obliged even to touch it in order to set it upright... ...Next
Languille's eyes very definitely fixed themselves on mine and the pupils
focused themselves...". The fact that the head would have landed in the
zinc bucket behind the shield makes it impossible for Beaurieux to make
eye contact with Languille without picking up the head.|
The second photo of the Languille execution below gave me some grief. Although it is obviously taken at the same location, I noticed that the guillotine is installed behind the lampost and not in front of it as in the picture above.
This newspaper front page relates the execution of Henri Besse and Pierre Simorre
in February 1909 at Albi in Southern France. The title states that "the
assassins of guard Mouttet died with courage". The rest of the story,
related in Sylvain Larue's book "Les Grandes Affaires Criminelles du
Tarn", is that Besse and Simorre, both small time crooks, did not know
eachother before they were sent to the Albi prison. Besse had been
sentenced for burglary in 1908 and Simorre for rape that same year.
They were both awaiting deportation to Guyana at the prison in Albi,
when they connected. They decided that neither of them was ready to
take the trip to the "dry guillotine", the Bagne, which, in those years,
meant certain death for a high percentage of the deportees. They
planned to escape by overpowering the guards who numbered only three for
the entire small regional prison. They managed to overpower both guards
on duty, but the third guard alerted the gendarmes who recaptured the
two inmates within the prison walls. In the process, one of the guards,
Mouttet, died from a blow to the head with a paving stone.
Besse and Simorre were sentenced to death on October 28th, 1908. The execution took place in front of the same prison where the murder was committed.
This photo of the guillotine being erected at the prison for the Besse
and Simorre execution is not very well known. Note that the door and
lantern above the door can also be seen in the newpaper photo above
although the paper places the guillotine on the wrong side of the door.
In the photo the specially-built ladder, with the top cross bar and metal stakes, is leaning against the wall of the prison. It can often be seen in the background of execution photos. It was used to install the chapiteau and was designed to lock into two holes in the guillotine frame with the cross bar spanning the uprights so it was very stable when an assistant climbed up with the heavy chapiteau. Andre Obrecht makes a note about that exercise being quite dangerous and one of his assistants nearly breaking his neck in the process. He notes: "Petit George (Ribour) is a good butcher but a bad acrobat - avoid putting him on the ladder in the future".
The horse-drawn carriage in the foreground would have left the garage, Rue de la Folie-Regnault in Paris (where "les Bois de Justice" were stored until 1911) a day or two earlier and travelled by train to Albi. The travels and arrival of the guillotine was followed by the population always eager to discover the location and time of an upcoming execution. The carriage was a rather non-descript transport vehicle of the time and could easily be overlooked. Deibler tried his best to conceal his own arrival often travelling and registering under a false name. Nevertheless the attendance at these "events" grew larger and larger over the years.
Many thanks to Sylvain Larue for the information and newpaper clipping.
This next photo is of the guillotine being dismantled in front of the
prison main gate, in the city of Nevers, on July 11, 1914 after the
execution of Robert Fabre
who murdered a psychiatric hospital orderly in order to escape. Fabre
was only 19 when he was executed but already had committed a great
number of robberies and burglaries and had spent a lot of time in
One of Deibler's assistants has been left behind to take the machine apart while the fourgon is away, carrying Fabre's body to the cemetery. All the familiar pieces of the machine can be seen stacked on the sidewalk or against the prison wall and door. A few onlookers are still hanging around the scene. According to the legend on the photo, the darker spots on the street, in front of the door, are blood from the execution. Other photos in the set confirm that the guillotine was installed there.
This was the last public execution in Nevers.
This photo shows the guillotine being disassembled in front of the main
gate of the Valence prison. The prison architecture and the streetcar
tracks in Avenue de Chabeuil are unmistakable. Since the position of the
guillotine is directly in front of the portal and not to the right side
where it was for the famous 1909 executions, I believe this photo was
taken in February 1929 after the execution of René Frédillon.
The heavy coats and hats of the onlookers would indicate a winter
setting. The only other execution that it could possibly be is that of
Mathias Hadelt in July 1892.
21-year old René Frédillon murdered two people to rob them and attempted to murder two others. He didn't show much remorse and refused to speak to the priest on the morning of his execution. He complained about departing for the hereafter on such a cold morning and said, as he was being bound, "You're all wrapped up like a sausage, your gizmo there isn't any fun".
|ANATOLE DEIBLER 1885-1939|
|Anatole Deibler was the head executioner for the French Republic from 1899 to 1939. Before that he was an assistant to his father Louis Deibler for eight years after spending 6 years learning the "family trade" with an uncle in Algeria. During his fifty-four year career he executed almost 400 criminals and is the quintessential French "bourreau". The following link takes you to a page where you can see many of Anatole's "clients" (All pictures taken when they were alive): Anatole's 400 heads.|
|THE CAYENNE GUILLOTINES|
France because of the secrecy surrounding the operation of the Bagne. A
complete and detailed record exists of all executions in France between
1870 and 1977 while very little information about the bagnards executed
in the same time frame has been kept.
It is estimated that around 200-250 prisoners were executed in French Guyana between 1890 and 1944. Most were sentenced to death for murdering fellow inmates or guards while in detention. These sentences were pronounced by a military court known as the "Tribunal Maritime Special", established by the decree of November 4, 1889. This tribunal exclusively handled disciplinary sentences against Bagne inmates during incarceration. It did not rule on guilt or innocence but only on the severity of the disciplinary action which ranged from limited confinement to total silent confinement to death.
The machine seen in these pictures is typical of the batch of Berger guillotines called the 1889 model by the workshop that built them. Chapiteau, mouton, release mechanism, pulley and bascule seen in this picture all match up to the 1907 and 1909 photos of the Parisian machine. Only the straps on the bascule are unique.
The machine was assembled on a set of raised concrete pads set in the ground. The aides seen assembling the machine in this photo and the one below are all convicts. They are identifiable by their striped suits and wide brim straw hats.
The bare-headed man in the photo appears to be Louis Ladurelle, the second to last executioner from the Bagne. Ladurelle held the job from 1923 to 1937.
Locals suggested it was the guillotine from the Civil Prison in Cayenne
which had never been used, but the photos tell another story. A close
comparison of the photos with the old B&W photos reveal a small fabrication error that identifies this guillotine as the old St Laurent guillotine.
From his 1996 aerial photo of the Saint-Laurent transportation camp, and the water tower visible in the background of the photo below, Yvan determined that the entire series of photos was taken right outside the camp at the rear entrance of the TMS building. This was the location where freed convicts, such as Isidore Hespel, were executed. Convicts sentenced while serving their detention time were executed inside the camp.
When the Bagne was closed in 1946, there was no guarantee that the guillotine would not be needed in Guyana for regular death penalty cases, so the machine was simply turned over to the Civilian justice system and became the Cayenne prison guillotine, which was never used after 1946.
These photographs, except the one at the top of the section, were all taken during a staged mock execution authorized by the Bagne administration. An article accompanying them states this fact and notes that it is illegal to photograph a real capital execution, thus this officially-sanctioned re-enactment.
|LES CHAUFFEURS DE LA DROME - 1909|
The following group of photographs is probably the best set of pictures
taken of a guillotine execution. They were taken in Valence (South
eastern France) in 1909. The triple execution took place much after
sunrise contrary to protocol and the daylight gave the photographers a
great picture opportunity. The condemned assassins, Pierre Berruyer, Octave David and Urbain Liottard
ran the gang known as "Les Chauffeurs de la Drôme". Chauffeurs
translates as "heaters" and refers to their practice of torturing their
victims by burning their feet to make them reveal where they had their
The gang had committed numerous murders in the process of robbing isolated farmhouses throughout the region. When they were finally caught they had a sensational trial in Valence and were sentenced to death. The year was 1909 and President Fallieres had been pressured by public opinion into letting some executions proceed despite his personal opposition to the death penalty. Eight people had been executed earlier in the year, including the four members of the Pollet gang, which had committed similar crimes in the North of France.
When the President turned down their appeal for clemency, Deibler was immediately dispatched to Valence with his machine and his team. They set up on Avenue Chabeuil in front of the prison in the early morning hours of the 22nd of September.
Octave David was executed second after Pierre Berruyer and before Urbain Liottard. The four photographs to the right retrace his final minutes.
At the top, he exits the prison main gate, escorted by two of Deibler's assistants. The guillotine is on the right, less than 30 yards from the door. A crowd of onlookers form a hedge along his path. The final preparation took place in a small room just inside the front gate. There, the condemned were offered cigarettes and rum, time to write a last letter and an opportunity to confess and hear a short mass. Thereafter, legal documents were signed transferring custody of the condemned from the warden to the executioner. The prisoner was then tied with string at the wrists and ankles, the collar of his new shirt was cut off and any hair at the neckline was shortened.
The second photo is a remarkable close-up of the same scene. The prison street address, number 79, is visible on the wall to the right. David's shirt has been pulled down, leaving his shoulders and chest exposed. Deibler has stepped forward from the guillotine and is waiting on the right, looking at David as he approaches. There a vile feel to this photo, maybe from the apparent excitement and eagerness of the crowd, coupled with the desperate and fearful look of the man who is about to die. David is described as being boastful and crude during his final minutes, but in this picture he doesn't appear to be.
On the third photo, David has reached the guillotine and is about to be "tipped" over on the bascule by two of Deibler's assistants, Louis Rogis, Deibler's brother-in-law, and Marcel Deschamps. Anatole Deibler, with the very recognizable "bouc" (goatie) stands ready at the lever, while the first assistant, Léopold Desfourneaux, is waiting to pull the man's head into the open lunette. Note the streetcar tracks running under the guillotine and the storm drain in the curb behind the machine. Soldiers from the 75th Infantry Regiment form a square to keep back the onlookers. The big wicker basket is open, which means that David can probably see the decapitated body of his accomplice, Berruyer.
In the last scene, the blade is down and soiled. Justice has been served! Desfourneaux is bending over handling the tin tub and preparing to transfer the severed head into the big zinc lined basket, where it will join the body. Deibler stands behind the basket and holds it open while the two other assistants are looking on. The splatter shield has been moved aside to retrieve the tub and sits on the ground to the right. The bare-headed officer in the foreground appears to be strolling casually over to look at the proceedings...
|THE GRIM REALITY|
|This picture depicts the real "work" of the guillotine. The body resting on the morgue slab is Albert Fournier, triple murderer and rapist, executed by Anatole Deibler, at Tours, in February 1920 . WARNING: the picture is very graphic.|
|The last photo is of the heads of the two other members of the Pollet gang, Canute Vromant and Théophile Deroo taken - according to the note on the picture - just a quarter of an hour after the execution. WARNING: the picture is very graphic|
|EUGENE WEIDMANN - 1939|
|The picture to the left is probably the most famous picture of the guillotine ever taken. It is a photograph of the last public execution to take place in France. The date is June 17, 1939, the location is Versailles, southwest of Paris and Eugene Weidmann, six-time murderer, is about one second away from losing his head. The new chief-executioner, Henri Desfourneaux, is poised to pull the lever. His first assistant, later to become chief executioner himself, André Obrecht, has just stepped back from the lunette after positioning Weidmann's head between the uprights. The Berger guillotine in the picture is very similar to the 1909 model above but does have a sort of wood shield at the base of the bascule. This same arrangement can be seen in the pictures of the Gorguloff execution in 1932 and on the last pictures of the guillotine taken at Fresnes in 1981, but not on other execution pictures from before 1932, so it is probably a an add-on piece improvised by Deibler at the time. The execution took place later in the morning than scheduled giving the photographers plenty of time and light to get lots of pictures and even to shoot two motion pictures. One of these film clips can be downloaded here (WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT). The machine was improperly assembled and the bascule jammed when tilted to horizontal requiring the assistants, Georges Martin and Henri Sabin, to drag Weidmann forward on top of the jammed plank. This is clearly visible here as his feet lay on top of the board instead of hanging over the edge as they would normally. As the headless body was tipped in the basket the bascule board started tilting up and almost|
|month. All executions, through 1977, would take place behind the prison walls and beside a few pictures of the guillotine being dismantled after the 1946 Petiot execution, in the Sante prison courtyard, there are no known pictures or film of the French guillotine during that time period. The secrecy around the executions became such that the prison courtyards were ordered covered with a black tarp prior to the erection of the timbers of justice to prevent any viewing from above. At the time of the abolition of the death penalty, in 1981, there was a short relaxation of the rules allowing a few people, including Jean Ker, to view and photograph the instruments in Fresnes prison before the total blackout was reinforced. Until 2010, the exact whereabouts of the two last French guillotines was unknown and getting access to them was near impossible.|
|THE LAST GUILLOTINE - 1981|
|When Jules Henri Desfourneaux died in 1951, André Obrecht was chosen as the new chief executioner of France among 400 candidates for the job. He had been assistant to both Anatole Deibler (his uncle) and Desfourneaux (his cousin), but had resigned twice, in 1943 and 1947, because of strong personal disagreements with the latter.|
During Obrecht's tenure not much was known about the guillotine and the
executions hidden behind the prison walls. Obrecht's memoirs were only
published after his death in 1985. In 1981, the public got a brief
glance at "Obrecht's guillotine" before the government ushered it away
to secrecy. The guillotine remained in secret storage, first at the
Fort d'Ecouen then at the Musee des Civilizations d'Europe et de la
Mediterranee. In 2010 it was brought out for the first time since 1981
and displayed at the Orsay Museum as part of special exhibit on Crime
From the five 1981 pictures shown here (Taken in the Fresnes prison storage shed) I note that the machine appears very old. The lateral metal supports bars have been drilled like swiss cheese. The blade has been widened to the point of almost touching the uprights. Note in the two top pictures that a second disassembled guillotine is visible in the background. This is the backup machine that was probably never used.
There is an unusual assymetry in the blade bolt pattern, with one bolt significantly offset to the right. This is particularly visible in the picture of the mouton (Left side, 3rd down) when compared with the close-up picture of the 1907 mouton (Left, Bottom). At first I assumed this was part of the blade modifications made by Obrecht, but eventually I realized it made no sense for him to move the mounting holes and modify the mouton front plate just to widen the blade. Then I came across the 1905 picture of a Berger blade (Right side, 3rd down) with the same bolting pattern. Note that not only is the hole offset laterally, but it is also located slightly higher than the other hole, an exact match of the bolt arrangement seen on the Fresnes photos. This makes it virtually certain that the blade belongs to that particular guillotine. The blade has keyed holes to prevent the bolts from turning when the nuts on the back of the mouton were tightened down. It has a center reinforcing plate, which was used on some Berger blades. Installed as shown in the 1905 picture it would have been visibly offset toward the side with the long edge, with a significant gap between the short side and the other upright. This may explain why Obrecht had a strip of steel welded to the short side. This could have been done to visually "balance" the blade between the uprights. In his book, Obrecht claims he did it to remedy a technical cutting problem. This retouched photo shows what the blade/mouton assembly would have looked like in 1891 before Obrecht "fixed" it.
Because the asymetrical bolt pattern would be easy to spot even on a picture from far away and because the blade for the machine already existed in 1905, I searched through all my old guillotine pictures for a machine with offset bolts. I finally came across one picture (Right, Bottom), probably from the execution of Pierre Joseph Merger at Arras in 1891, showing the same bolt offset. The old picture confirms that the machine Obrecht and Chevalier used until 1977 was probably an older machine, pre-dating the 1907-1909 Deibler machine and different from the one used in 1939 (Weidmann) and 1946 (Petiot). Incidentally, these were two last executions from which photos are known to exist.
Both of the "Obrecht" modifications are mostly cosmetic and are the last known changes made to the 1872 Berger guillotine. One can only speculate that his purpose may have been to leave "a mark" on his trade, a sort of "signature" to differentiate "his" guillotine from earlier (and later) ones. Note also that the assembly job for the Fresnes photos was botched: The lower C-brace and the bumper springs are missing so there is no way to operate the machine without causing serious damage.
|THE HANOI EXECUTION VIDEO - APPROX 1915|
|A new incredible filmed document has surfaced in the last 5 years, documenting the guillotine execution of two men. The people who made the film public have asserted that it is the 1933 execution of Veteau and Martin, by Anatole Deibler, in the city of Angouleme. The film is of poor quality but an incredible document from a historical standpoint. As I viewed it, I came to the immediate realization that it could not be the execution it claims to be. The first issue is the type of the equipment used. The jerky pictures, grainy quality, wildly varying speed and exposure from frame to frame points to a hand-cranked camera of pre-1920 vintage not what would typically be used in 1933. The opening scene, pictured on the right, shows the guillotine in a brightly lit dirt venue in front of a prison gate. Deibler carefully notes in his "carnet" that Veteau and Martin were executed at 3:50AM on July 20th, in total darkness. The architecture of the prison, with the vertical slit wall openings, the arched gateway and the characteristic base stonework is near identical to the modern shot of the "Maison Centrale" in Tonkin (Hanoi) shown below. The first letter of the word "MAISON" can be discerned over the door inside the red circle. Click here for an older photo. The "Maison Centrale" later became known to captured US aviators as the "Hanoi Hilton". Other issues such as the clothing worn by the spectators and the unpaved city street do point to a colonial setting rather than to a 1933 French provincial town. The guillotine is definitely a real model 1872 Berger and there is little doubt about the authenticity of the footage itself. The following scene takes place right after the opening general scene above, before either of the two executions has been filmed. The camera has been moved closer and becomes completely stationary for the remainder of the sequence. This camera is obviously on a fixed tripod and not handheld by an amateur standing in the middle of a crowd of onlookers. There are no people between the movie camera and the guillotine. Considering the outrage caused by the||
||filming of the Weidmann execution in 1939 (Done secretly from an apartment window) it is impossible to imagine how a professional cinematographer could have been allowed to set up a fixed camera, practically overhanging the zinc tub, in France in 1933... This is the kind of thing that could only happen in a colonial setting far away from the eyes of the French government. The scene shows an aide leaning into the basket and also the blade in the dropped position. In the red circle we can clearly see that the blade is bloody, which is inconsistent with the fact that this scene precedes the first of the "two" executions. Immediately following this scene a bucket of water is thrown on the bascule and blade, obviously to wash off the blood of the first victim (before the "first" execution). Noteworthy also are the facts that the ropes are not "stored" on the hooks as they would normally be but instead are draped over the back of the bucket and also that there is no shield around the tub (Possibly an arrangement between the photographer and the executioner?). Such "sloppiness" is not likely from Deibler's well-trained team of professionals. After this, the first condemned man is brought forward and as he is "tilted" on the bascule one of the aides whips open the basket and reveals what we already suspected, the foot of a corpse in the basket (in the red circle). This is the final confirmation that we are dealing with a triple, not a double execution. Other notable facts are that the condemned men wear no shoes and that the executioner's aides wear loose fitting canvas uniforms similar to what was worn at the Bagne in Guyana. My best guess is that the film clip is from 1915 to 1920 and shows a triple execution of "forcats" at the Maison Centrale in Tonkin, Northern province of French Indochina. This does not lessen the historical value of the document in my view so I felt I should help set the record straight. A copy of the film clip can be downloaded here (WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT).|
|LES GUILLOTINES D' INDOCHINE|