The 25th April 1792 saw the world’s first use of the guillotine as a method of execution. Nicolas Jacques Pelletier, a French highwayman found guilty of killing a man during one of his robberies, was the guillotine’s first – but by no means last – victim.
Pelletier’s status as a common criminal was significant. Prior to the French Revolution, beheading as a form of execution had been reserved for the nobility. Commoners were usually subjected to longer and arguably more painful deaths through hanging, or worse. To end the privilege of the nobility, the National Assembly therefore made decapitation the only legal form of execution.
It was recognised that manual beheading was, however, still a gruesome form of execution. On 10th October 1789, physician Joseph Guillotin argued that every execution should be swift and mechanical. The National Assembly agreed, acknowledging that capital punishment should simply end life, not purposefully cause pain as well.
Another physician, Antoine Louis, was appointed to lead a committee to develop a quick and efficient decapitation machine. Although Guillotin was a member of this committee, it is actually therefore Antione Louis who is credited with the device’s invention, even though it carries the Guillotin’s name.
As for the highwayman Pelletier, his execution went smoothly – much to the disappointment of the crowd who expected better ‘entertainment’. Excited to see the new machine in action, they were disappointed at its speed and efficiency.