- , LOUISETTEThe niceties of putting a person to death became an important topic of discussion during the French Revolution, a time when the frequency and number of persons put to death made the topic not only current but crucial. The two methods of capital punishment were hanging, the usual form of execution for the riffraff, and decapitation, a privilege offered to nobility. Many people considered both forms barbaric. With hanging, some victims did not die immediately but would writhe in pain on the gibbet. With decapitation, nervous hands sometimes missed the crucial spot, and more than one blow became necessary.Dr. Joseph Ignace Guillotin (1738-1814), a physician during the French Revolution, proposed in a speech on October 10, 1789, to the Constituent Assembly, of which he was a member, a more humanitarian instrument for inflicting capital punishment by decapitation. The device he recommended consisted of a large blade that fell between two upright posts, striking the back of the neck of the victim. Dr. Guillotin informed the amazed assembly: "I can whisk off your head in a twinkling, and you feel no pain." The execution device, with its oblique blade, was adopted but misnamed.This death-dealing device was not invented by Dr. Guillotin. It was designed by Dr. Antoine Louis, secretary of the College of Surgeons, and built by Tobias Schmidt, a German mechanic, who even supplied a bag to hold the severed head. But similar instruments of death had been used previously in other countries. Italy in the thirteenth century had a decapitator called mannaia. Edinburgh had such a device called maiden. Reports indicate that a similar beheading machine was used in the Yorkshire town of Halifax.Although the French device was originally called Louisette, the name guillotine was more often used. Dr. Guillotin took exception to the name and tried to change it, but the name stuck. After the good doctor's death, however, his family changed the family name legally.
Dictionary of eponyms. Morton S. Freeman. 2013.