1794-1850 GUILLOTINE MODELS
The models in this section represent upgraded versions of the basic 1792 guillotine with various features added through the years. Tobias Schmidt’s first two machines, built for Paris and Versailles, were strongly criticized by architect Giraud in an official letter to the Justice Ministry. Schmidt immediately offered an improved machine with many of the changes suggested by Giraud but still lost the bidding to a carpenter named Clairin, a friend of Giraud. This did not prevent Schmidt from going directly to the Provincial governments and selling his improved machine around the Ministry. Since he was prepared to build them immediately, he appears to have outmanoeuvered Clairin. There is good evidence that most of the regional guillotines from the 1792-1794 period were built by Schmidt contrary to some historical accounts that suggest he was pushed out after building the two first machines.
Original 1792 documents from the archives of the Ministere de la Justice give many details of the Schmidt machines through his own hand-written proposals. Among the details given in the quotes are dimensions and sketches of various metal parts. From these and from photos of the Luxembourg, Venlo and Brugge guillotines, which date back to that same period, I have been able to reconstruct the 1794 guillotine.
The 1794 model shown above was sold to best-selling Swiss author Claude Cueni.
A large number of guillotines were built in 1793 and 1794 for regional executioners throughout France. When the number of executions returned to a more normal level, after the 9 Thermidor Year II (27 July 1794), which marked the end of the Terror, France was left with a big surplus of guillotines.
Some were sold to foreign governments, some were sent to the colonies and others were upgraded and used through 1871. The models photographed in this section represent various designs used between 1794 and the 1850s. Upgrades to the basic 1792 model include metal lined tracks, metal lined lunettes, moutons with rollers, bascules with leather straps, zinc head tubs, blade stops with springs etc.
This particular model could be from 1820, 1830 or could even be similar the one that took Lacenaire’s life in 1836.
This third model would probably have been used in the 1840s or 50s. The metal bucket comes straight from the Berger guillotine introduced in 1871. The spring stops and the steel-lined lunette are early improvements, but the taller posts and the spacer bar between the uprights only appear on guillotines in late 1800’s photos. The Metz guillotine (See History Page) was very tall, had a post spacer bar and ressembles this model closely. To further project this as the modern version, I used the brown paint of the Berger guillotines rather that the red paint that was used during the Revolution.
This model is a close replica of the guillotine that was operated on the island of Nou, part of the New Caledonia bagne (penal colony).
The only design information I had to build this model is the photograph on the left, which shows the old executioner, Massé, with his guillotine around 1900 and a few drawings of executions made by inmates.
Read more about the New Caledonia guillotine on the history pages of this website. The model, which also features a metal head tub and a wood body crate, will be exhibited in a small museum located in the restored bakery building of the old penal colony, on the island. The model was purchased by the New Caledonia-based historical organization "Temoignage d’un passé".
Note the partial steel liner on the back of the lunette, a design found on the Geneva guillotine. Note also the leather curtain hanging from a steel hoop. This contraption was described in detail in a 1792 Schmidt quote. It was designed to hide the most violent part of the execution from direct view. A hoop of this type is still visible on the antique French guillotine exhibited in a Nurnberg Museum (See History section).
The mouton on the model above is cast from lead musket balls found on a battlefield of the French Revolution. The 1792 guillotine was designed to always be bolted to a scaffold thus lacks lateral stabilizing braces. This became a problem when the scaffold was eliminated by law decree in 1870. Some French colonies that continued to use older guillotines simply removed the legs from the scaffold but retained its frame and floor planking as an integral part of the machine.
This model also uses the partial liner on the back of the lunette. The rope basket is speculative as there is no irrefutable evidence that baskets were actually used, despite their popularity in cinematographic depictions. The metal lined tracks were described already in a 1792 written quote from Schmidt to the justice ministry. Their use is confirmed by the Luxembourg guillotine but several other surviving 1792 guillotines do not have this improvement.
The spring stops seen here were not used on the original guillotines but they appear on a drawing of the Liege guillotine dating them back to the early 1800s. Before that the mouton slammed down on leather or fabric pads packed into the tracks. The mouton on this model is also equipped with steel guide rollers which were already used on the 1793 guillotine from Nantes. They appear to have been one of the first improvements made to the original guillotine.
The full steel lined lunette was already introduced in late 1792. Schmidt indicates that each steel plate was to be secured to the wood with 6 nails. On this model, I use 12 recessed screws on each plate. The mouton has four the steel guide rollers that do not ride in the tracks but against the inside of the posts. The shape of the chapiteau is copied on the New Caledonia guillotine which may have been built around 1850. The smaller chapiteau appears on photos of guillotines in New Caledonia, Reunion Island, Senegal and in the city of Metz.
Note the release handle with the locking pin, mechanically similar to the one on the guillotines during the Revolution, but with a guarded handle which was in use on guillotines in later years. Note also the metal head tub, the steel lunette liner and the spring stops, all later improvements to the original Schmidt model guillotine.
The machine was built around the core of a 1792-type Revolutionary Guillotine. This machine was designed to always be bolted to a scaffold. When the scaffold was eliminated by the Cremieux ministerial decree of 1870, the older guillotines had to be adapted or replaced. In the case of the guillotine from Ile Nou, a frame was added under the original base, including a cross beam to provided lateral stability. New lateral angle braces span between the beam to the posts. The guillotine also includes two wood cross members between the uprights which were not part of the original core machine. These were likely added to maintain track parallelism as the machine aged and warped.
Other notable “modern” modifications are the footrest on the bascule, the metal head bucket and the slot in the lunette track allowing the lunette board to be removed without disassembling the machine.
HISTORY OF THE GUILLOTINE
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 criminal, on the 25th of April 1792. The deadly machine quickly moved on to more famous victims such asLouis 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 visible asymmetry in the crossbar is the result of a pulley being fitted within the right overhang. Once aloft the mouton could be locked via a steel linkage mounted on the left post.
A release handle held down one end of a connecting rod. The other end of the rod was linked to a steel pivot arm at the top of the left post. This pivot arm extended under a fixed horizontal steel bar secured to the back of the mouton. When the handle was released from the post the pivot arm tilted and the blade fell to the end of the wooden grooves then stopped rather abruptly. The shortcoming of this design must have become apparent rather quickly. There are reports of stuffing the grooves with fabric or leather to cushion the fall. The wood-on-wood slides in the bascule and cutting assembly also caused problems resulting in recommendation to the executioners to grease the tracks with tallow on a regular basis.
It is likely that the early machines were frequently damaged after just a few operations. This explains why machines like the Brugge guillotine were so extensively modified.
The photos in this section present five Revolutionary-type guillotines that survived until the age of photography. At least three of them still exist today:
– Top left is the Luxembourg guillotine which has been restored in the last 60 years. Note a strong resemblance to the Liege guillotine in the lower right corner. It appears that some of the restoration work was inspired by this guillotine, in particular the chapiteau, which was missing and had to be reconstructed, now has the same unusual shape as the one on the Liege machine.
– Lower left is the guillotine used in the Grand Duchy of Berg until 1813. The Duchy was a French satellite state and had a French Tribunal during the Napoleonic wars. The guillotine is sometimes refered to as the "Nuremberg guillotine" because it is currently displayed there.
– Upper right is the Metz guillotine. It is notable for its extreme height and for the odd steel arches that connect the uprights to the scaffold. It was used ten times by the Germans in occupied Lorraine between 1880 and 1914 and taken out of service when Lorraine was returned to France in 1918.
– Center right is the Butzbach/Mainz guillotine, a French-type guillotine dating back to 1803 and used by the Germans into the 1920s. Note the wood shield used to hide the blade from the condemned.
– Lower right is the Liege guillotine. This Revolution era guillotine was used for the last execution in Liege in 1824. Currently on display in the Musée de la vie Wallonne.
THE BRUGGE GUILLOTINE – 1862
To the right is a close-up of the Brugge guillotine bascule and lunette. This machine was bought by the city of Brugge from France in 1796, four years after the first guillotine execution took place in Paris. The years 1793 and 1794 had seen an incredible number of guillotine executions under the "Terror". It is estimated that over 10,000 people lost their heads to the slanted blade in those two years. Lesser and lesser crimes became punishable by death as the struggling Revolutionary Government attempted to quell internal unrest while fighting a war against all the other European nations. The Revolutionary Tribunals around France first sentenced Royalists and counter-revolutionaries to death, then rebellious and rioting
citizens, then priests and nuns refusing to pledge allegiance to the new "Cult of the Supreme Being", then people trying to flee France and anyone helping them, then people expressing any disagreement with the government. As political intrigue infiltrated the Revolution, the Committee of Public Safety, its the defacto governing body, had rival factions within the movement executed. Hébert, Chaumette, Danton and Desmoulins are among those who ended on the guillotine as a result of this internal power struggle.
These purges also triggered the reaction from those who saw themselves as the next victims. The coup of 9 Thermidor (27 July 1794) removed Maximilien Robespierre, the head of the Committee, and his followers from power and swiftly sent them to join their victims.
In a final ironic twist, the prosecutor of the Revolutinary Tribunal, Fouquier-Tinville, as well as the judges and jurors were themselves guillotined to close the book on that dark period in French History.
The Terror finally ended and the "Directoire" took control of France before Napoleon’s rise to power. At this time the guillotine returned to its roots as a tool of judicial enforcement. It also spread to neighboring states as a means of swift and merciful justice. This was the time when the city of Brugge purchased their guillotine from France, which must have had a large surplus after the dramatic decrease in executions. The entire machine is shown to the left and clearly ressembles the classic 1792 model seen above. Records show that the guillotine was purchased "damaged" and the current state of the machine shows a lot of "improvements" which were probably made in Brugge between 1796 and 1862 when its blade fell for the last time.
The nature of the improvements attests to the large number of design flaws which probably caused trouble over the years. The picture above shows that metal blade tracks were added extending all the way to the ground. Also notable is that the bascule was modified to tip down and the space between the support frame beams was carved out to allow dropping the body through a hole in the scaffold. The picture on the right shows that rollers were retrofitted to the sides of the bascule board and steel brace plates were attached to the front of the lunette board possibly to repair cracks. Several additional changes were made to the back side of the lunette (not shown). The lunette was also lined with metal as it is on later models. The boards could have arrived damaged, but more likely that the repeated soaking with water caused them to expand, crack or warp into the path of the blade.
Substantial bumpers were added at the end of the tracks. This improvement pre-dates the use of spring stops in the 1868 and 1872 guillotines but must have been a major area of concern. The blade assembly weighed about 90 lbs. with a terminal velocity in the range of 22-26 Feet/second. Stopping it in a few inches is not an easy problem to solve. Personally, I am not sure it was ever resolved very well as even the late 20th century guillotine was reported to have problems in that area. Fortunately for the executioners, the machine only had to function once or twice in most situations before it could be repaired.
There was also an additional steel plate on the back side of the lower lunette slightly offset towards the back. It provided a secondary support under the neck during the cutting. The blade would fall into the narrow slot between the two plates and stop when the wooden mouton landed on the stop blocks. The additional plate was probably the answer to the numerous reports of partially severed necks in early executions. Full metal tracks replaced the old wood grooves from top to bottom. The Brugge guillotine does give a lot of insight into many of the gradual developments that led to the modern guillotine.
To the left are pictures of the original mouton and lunette from one of the revolutionary guillotines which is said to have been used in Paris. It was purchased by Madame Tussaud from executioner Clement Sanson in 1858. The lunette appears to be made of stacked oak planks. The mouton has a very noticeable slanted lower edge which was used on many of the 1792 guillotines. The steel holding bar was secured to the back of the mouton and rested on a pivot attached to the left upright. The pivot turned when the hold bar was released allowing the blade to drop. The rope hook and the top-mounted lead weights are also visible in the photograph. These artifacts were later damaged in a 1925 fire at the museum.
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 shown below 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 Bourail.
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. On July 17, 1886, convicted assassins, Luigi Mosca and Joseph Veschi were executed on Ile Nou on this guillotine. Here is a photograph of their bodies in the morgue taken right after the execution.(WARNING: Graphic Photo)
A newer Berger-type guillotine was brought to New Caledonia in the early 1900s. Its design is identical to the guillotine sold to Sweden in 1903. Marcel Deschamps probably built both machines. At this time executions were moved from the isolation of Ile Nou to the town of Bourail, to the great dismay of the locals. The guillotine operated there through 1940 and also traveled to neighboring French-controlled areas such as Port-Vila in the New Hebrides Islands. Six "Tonkinese" slave laborers convicted of two murders were executed there on July 28, 1931. This guillotine can be seen in the Bourail Museum. Click the picture on the right to see the beautiful photographs of this guillotine by Patrice Morin.
THE FIRST BERGER GUILLOTINE – 1868
Alphonse Léon Berger was an assistant to the executioner of Corsica and also a skilled carpenter and cabinetmaker. He built a completely new guillotine in 1868 for the regional executioner in Agen. It is unclear how and when this machine ended up in Algeria but there is strong evidence that it was already in use there by 1870: A decree abolishing the position of regional executioner and eliminating the raised scaffold was issued on November 25, 1870. As part of this decree, Cremieux, Minister of Justice, ordered the construction of "two new guillotines based on the Algerian Model".
This machine preserved the same operational functions as the 1792 model yet was completely new in overall dimensions, mechanical features, and appearance. The materials and construction style of the early industrial revolution are very apparent in the concealed mechanisms, bolted connections, coil spring shock absorbers and cast bronze rollers. Berger made extensive use of steel, brass, bronze and zinc for his apparatus. There are many complex metal parts that were absent in the original machine. The new machine was designed to be quickly disassembled for transportation to the locale of execution. Its most unique features were the "spike and claw" release system housed inside the chapiteau and the spring stops embedded in the uprights. The new machine was similar in size to the old one except for the addition of a massive cross beam. It provided better lateral stability to a machine that would no longer be bolted to a scaffold.
Alphonse Léon Berger was also chosen to build the two machines for France’s newly appointed National Executioner in 1870. The primary feature distinguishing the 1868 model from the new design that Berger created in the 1870-1871 period is the location
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.
This photograph is taken at an indetermined location in Algeria. The modern uniforms of the gendarmes and the fact that execution is public narrows the timeframe when the photo could have been taken to 1925-1939. The guillotine is clearly the same machine that is seem in the photos above with the notch in the top edge of the lunette and the distinctively tall uprights. The condemned man, with his torso bared, is being led to the bascule as the photo is taken.
A large number of spectators wear arab clothing which further confirms the location of the execution. The photo has previously been claimed to be the execution of Elie Lagarde, in 1933, in Vendome. This is of course erroneous, as the guillotine in the photo is unique and has never left North Africa between 1870 and today.
I am still seeking information regarding the location and the identity of the condemned. If you have knowledge about this photo or recognize the building or the mountain in the background please contact me via the E-mail listed on the site.
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 poorly framed picture was taken at the execution of François Onésime Baillet, in Douai, on the 28th of August 1891. I have included the picture, despite the fact that most of the machine and the head-executioner were cut off because it still is a great picture. The dynamic of the execution is clearly seen in the blurred outline of the assistant, wearing a top hat, and holding the condemned by the ankles as the bascule is tilted and rolled forward. On the side the gaping basket sits ready to swallow up the decapitated body. The blade is just a mere second or two away from falling as seen by the outstretched necks of the spectators, trying to catch a glimpse of the gory spectacle. The scene is just amazing in its’ portrayal of human indignity. Its’ exceptional sharpness lets us see the excitement in the faces of the people, adding to the sheer horror of the spectacle. In case you start feeling bad for the performer, Mr. Baillet, it may comfort you to know that he assassinated six people to get here…
This picture is said to have been taken on December 29, 1894 as Pierre Mazué, triple assassin, walks from the fourgon to the guillotine on a small square of Châlon-sur-Saône. Mazué was Anatole Deibler’s 69th customer. He was still an assistant to his father at the time.
The picture is not of exceptionally good quality, but is a much better copy than those I have seen in the past. So, when I found it at the Police Museum in Paris, I felt I should make it available to others through this website.
There is some question in my mind as to the authenticity of the picture. Notice that there are just a couple of mounted gendarmes to the left and a few spectators standing in the street, unrestrained by the usual line of police or military. Contrary to all other execution photos, there are no spectators either in the windows of the building behind the machine. This may have a logical explanation but it still raises a suspicion that the photo may be staged. The two or three figures that are walking behind the guillotine are a bit sketchy but not as obviously fake as those that were added to the Languille photo of 1905. On the other hand, the guillotine and the fourgon appear to be real enough so if it is not a photo taken during the actual execution, it was most likely still taken on the day of the execution.
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 Brittany.
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 Deiblerassisted 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.
This photograph was taken just 21 days after the one above, on May 11th, 1897. The guillotine returned to Paris and about two weeks later made the journey to Marseilles by train and then continued on the steamer Lebanon (Liban) to Bastia on the island of Corsica.
Corsica no longer had its own executioner (since 1872) so Louis Deibler arrived with his aides on the same ship. The guillotine was assembled on Place d’Armes near the harbor. On the photo, Jean Bartoli, convicted of a hideous torture-mutilation-vengeance murder appears to be on the bascule (the white object would be his shirt). The photo must have been taken at the exact moment of his execution.
The island of Corsica was in many ways similar to Sicily, with criminal families, blood feuds (vendettas) and a large number of famous bandits. Bartoli had formed a criminal association with two other individuals and operated in the area for six years before being captured by police in a shoot-out that left his two associates dead.
The following two pictures are taken in 1899 during the execution of Aloïs Zuckermeyer in the small town of Remiremont in the Vosges mountains. In the first photo, the machine stands ready to operate, blade raised, lunette and panier open, bascule in vertical position. The shiny pavement and the many umbrellas confirm the very rainy weather reported by the newspapers. This has not deterred the crowd of spectators piled up everywhere in sight of the Guillotine even on the slick roofs of every house. The military holds the crowd back as they await the arrival of the fourgon carrying the condemned and the executioners. Zuckermeyer (or Zuckermeier) was a German citizen. I tracked down his prior criminal record in the archives of the Bavarian police with arrests for theft and fraud in 1896 and 1898. He deserted from a regiment stationed in Strasbourg in Alsace, a part of France that was under German rule
between 1870 and 1918. He found work as a stone mason on the French side of the border, then raped and murdered a seven-year-old girl in Remiremont. She lived long enough to identify him before dying.
In the second photograph, taken a few minutes later, Zuckermeyer has just been executed. His body, dropped into the large wicker basket, has already been loaded into the fourgon, which is preparing to depart for the cemetary.
The guillotine blade rests in the dropped position. One of Deibler’s assistants appears to be washing the machine with a bucket of water prior to starting the disassembly work. A municipal employee stands nearby with a cart of sand or sawdust to soak up any blood from the pavement.
Although the spectacle is all but over the crowd has not started departing.
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 seldom seen picture of a French execution was taken in Toulouse on May 2nd 1901 as Jean Allières approaches the guillotine for his fatal meeting with Anatole Deibler. Allières had murdered his elderly handicapped mother with an axe just five months earlier… the justice system in France was rather swift. Being a "parricide" – one who had murdered one of his parents – Allières would have gone to the guillotine barefooted and worn a black veil over his head as he was considered unworthy of seeing the light of his last day. This veil was removed just before the execution. Prior to 1832 the Napoleonic judicial code followed this ritual by the axe-amputation of the condemned’s right hand, followed immediately by his beheading. This horrible ritual was a left-over from a time, before the Revolution, when the death penalty was applied with various degrees of cruelty and torture to "fit the crime". A parricide was considered an especially vile criminal thus entitled to this extra attention.
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.
I could think of no reason why the machine would have been moved before the arrival of the condemned neither did I understand why the ladder was moved from laying down behind the lampost to leaning up against it between the photos. Finally, it appears that the row of soldiers holding back the crowd has moved significantly closer to the machine in the second photograph. All these inconsistencies lead to a bit more research and to the theory that the second picture may have been taken at the execution of Sylvain Laroche in 1910. Both executions were performed on Place Bel Air, in Orléans. Laroche was executed in late May, which would account for the lighter foliage on the trees while the 5 years time span explains why the trees are slightly taller in the second photo.
This new photograph was taken the 26th of January 1909 at Carpentras, where double-murderer, Rémy Danvers, is about to be executed. This occurred just two weeks after use of the death penalty resumed in France with the quadruple execution of the Pollet gang in Béthune. From 1905 to 1909 president Fallieres systematically commuted every death sentence that came across his desk, until he was forced to relent by public opinion and a decisive vote (against abolition) in the Assembly.
The great public interest in the executions and associated pictures was deemed indecent by the government, which moved to prohibit the taking of pictures (movie or still) at all executions in 1909. This move was what led to the birth of movie censorship in France. After 1909 all pictures and films of executions were taken illegally.
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 Fabrewho 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 prison.
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
French Guyana was used as a deportation site for undesirables as early as the 1760s. During the French Revolution a number of royalists, disgraced republican politicians, and priests were also deported to Guyana. Deportations continued on a small scale in the first half of the 19th century until "Le Bagne" was officially created in 1854 prompted by the desire to close similar prison camps in metropolitan France. The word "Bagne" comes from Italian "bagno" or bath, the name of a prison in Rome which had formerly been a Roman bath. It designated any penitentiary used for the detention of criminals sentenced to hard labor. France systematically deported all hardened criminals to the three colonial bagnes in Guyana, New Caledonia and Indochina from 1854 to 1938. A large population of criminals under less tight supervision than in a conventional prison created the need for harsh discipline, including imposing the death penalty for severe crimes.
This picture shows one of the Berger guillotines that were sent to French Guyana between 1890 and 1900. One was used in the Bagne’s Transportation Camp in St Laurent-du-Maroni, and the other on Ile Royale where the maximum security penitenciary camp was located. They replaced a 1792 type machine which had been in service since the Revolutionary years. The old machine was rumored, as were so many others, to be "the original one built by Tobias Schmidt" and "the one that decapitated Louis XVI".
The only evidence of the guillotines left today is two sets of concrete pedestals designed to support the machine found in the Camp in St Laurent and on Ile Royale. Information surrounding executions in Guyana is sparse and less reliable than information on executions in
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.
The Bagne executioners were recruited among the prisoners themselves in both Guyana and in New Caledonia. Isidore Hespel (The Jackal) was the most famous of them all. He was a colorful character who took his job so seriously that he was called "Monsieur de St Laurent" by some. He executed 50 of his fellow prisoners between 1898 and 1921. He was ultimately freed long enough to murder a civilian and return to the penitenciary to be decapitated by his assistant, Ladurelle, on his own machine in 1923.
The words "Tribunal Maritime Special" can be seen in the background of the left photo on the mantel of the porch. This identifies the building as the place where the death sentences were pronounced.
Albert Londres, a famed journalist, started bringing the horrible conditions in the Bagne to the attention of the French public in 1923. Public pressure on the government rose over the next 15 years and in 1938 deportations to the Bagne ceased. But the Bagne wasn’t closed immediately. In 1940 the Guyana colony found itself cut off from France by the war. Nearly half of the prisoners died of malnutrition and disease between 1940 and 1945. The Bagne was officially closed in 1946 and the last surviving prisoners returned to France in 1953.
Some have asserted that the guillotines were returned to France around 1953 but one machine still remains in Saint-Laurent. This machine was unpacked and photographed by journalist Yvan Marcou during a 1996 visit to Guyana.
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.
I confirmed this recently but have always suspected it as the "atmosphere" and the "actors" seem much too relaxed for it to be a real execution. A small movie sequence was filmed at the same time and shown in the "March of Time" newsreel series. The photos were likely taken in the 1933-37 timeframe and the article was published in September 1939.
Another detail about this guillotine intrigued me. Contrary to all other known Berger guillotines the mouton on this machine was not painted. At first, I supposed it was a new machine that had never been painted, but this made no sense as it was fabricated in France by the same experienced team that made all the other Berger guillotines and they would not have shipped an unpainted mouton. The mouton was probably painted but then was stripped and polished by a man obsessed by "his" guillotine: Isidore Hespel. This obsession transpires in the account of his last day when he asked to assemble the machine for his own execution but was denied. His last words were to scold Ladurelle for having assembled it "as a pig".
The staged photo on the left, shows kneeling prisoners forced to witness the "execution". That scene was reconstructed for the execution in the famous Steve McQueen/Dustin Hoffman movie "Papillon". It appears to have been the standard protocol for executions at least until the early 1900s.
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 money hidden.
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 next three photographs were taken between executions, but not clearly identified sequentially. The hand drawn numbers in the left corners are not chronological.
In the first photo, Desfourneaux and Deibler are standing behind the guillotine right after one of the executions. Deibler (on the right) appears to be securing the rope to the mouton hook in preparation for re-arming the machine. Desfourneaux may be about to remove the shield, to reach the bucket and remove the severed head or he may just have replaced the shield around the bucket for the next execution.
This second photo was scanned from a large, high resolution print dated 1923. The photo series from Valence was made into postcards for broad distribution and most digital copies are scanned from the postcard version. In this photo, Desfourneaux and Deibler are cleaning the machine in preparation for their next "customer". Deibler has partially raised the mouton using the rope and pulley system and holds it at face level while Desfourneaux wipes down the blade with a wet sponge. This macabre ritual, using two buckets and a sponge, which left the surrounding area soaked in blood and water, has been recorded by witnesses to the French executions in several books and newspaper articles. Many considered this process to lack the dignity required by capital executions. Contrary to contemporary executions in other countries, the French did not do much to spare the condemned from the gruesome scene of preceding executions. The large basket was designed to hold four bodies and at this point there is already one body in it, which the next man will see as he prepares to meet the same fate.
In the third picture Deibler is unhooking the rope from the mouton after having locked it into position in the jaws of the mechanism. The rope will then be stored on hooks attached to the left upright so it won’t interfere with the freefall of the blade. The assistant, Léopold Desfourneaux, is bending over to be wash his hands in one of the waterbuckets, most likely after handling the nasty sponge washing job. The machine will soon be ready to dispense justice to the next assassin.
The triple execution took exactly 6 minutes. To my knowledge there are thirteen photographs of these executions, including three facing the prison gate, one close-up of David and one from a distance overlooking the entire area. This set of pictures caused great outrage in French government circles as it was illegal to photograph executions. André Obrecht, nephew of Anatole Deibler and future chief executioner himself, recalls seeing these pictures as a child and having nightmares about his uncle cutting people’s heads off.
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.
Here is a collage of some of the heads claimed by the guillotine over the years (Left to Right, Top to Bottom): Juan Vidal (1910), Auguste DeGroote (1893), Joseph Vacher (1898), Canute Vromant (1909), Lénard, Oillic, Thépaut and Carbucci (1866), Jean-Baptiste Picard (1862), Abel Pollet (1909), Charles Swartewagher (1905), Louis Lefevre (1915), Edmond Claeys (1893), Albert Fournier (1920), Théophile Deroo (1909), Jean Van de Bogaert (1905) and Auguste Pollet (1909) – Lefevre’s head underwent a brain autopsy after the execution, which explains the incision across the forehead (Not a botched execution as claimed by the French magazine that published the photo) WARNING: the pictures are very graphic.
Another pair of ugly pictures from the autopsy of the Pollet gang, executed in 1909 in Béthune. On the left Canute Vromant’s decapitated body on the examination table. On the right the severed heads of the Pollet brothers. This picture is much less known than the famous one that is found in nearly every guillotine book. WARNING: the pictures are 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
caused the body to fall off.
This second photo of the execution taken by a photographer positionned directly behind André Obrecht shows Desfourneaux’s hand still pulling down on the release lever. The mouton has just passed in front of Obrecht, the metal spike attached to its top is still visible right above his hat. Given the position of the blade the picture is in fact recording "the exact instant of death".
Henri Sabin, wearing the beret, is holding Weidmann’s feet while Georges Martin is weighing down on his back ready to push the body into the basket. André Obrecht is standing far back from the machine, a move he probably made to avoid being splattered with blood. He has been criticized, by Fernand Meyssonnier among others, for not remaining at his post through the entire execution. This was Desfourneaux’s third execution as chief, or fifth counting the two executions he performed as interim chief before being officially nominated, so it may only have been the fifth time Obrecht held the position of first assistant and photographer.
A huge crowd gathered the night before, but was kept out of the street by a police barrier so the larger view of the execution scene, on the right, shows only a half circle of a few hundred spectators, the ones with official passes, allowing them through the police blockade. The government downplayed the story and to this day the picture with the small crowd is still used to dispell the "myth" of the near-riot situation that occured that morning. The reality was that around 30-40,000 rowdy, drunken, screaming and singing "would-be" spectators spent the night partying in the surrounding streets. The photo below was taken at 1:30 am about 100 yards from where the guillotine would be set up. After the execution was over and the guillotine had been dismantled, this bloodthirsty crowd invaded the area. Reports of women dipping handkerchiefs in the bloody water on the sidewalk were, in fact, true.
It is not known if the crowd’s undignified behavior, the illegal photography and filming, the flashy press coverage or the new executioner’s apparent incompetence prompted it, but the government put an end to public executions by the following
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, 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.
MARCEL PETIOT – 1946
This photograph was captured – inconspicuously – through the main gate of the Santé prison in Paris on May 25, 1946. The guillotine is being dismantled after the execution of the most infamous serial killer in French criminal history. Marcel Petiot was a shady doctor who, during the occupation of France, preyed on people seeking to escape from the Germans. These included Jews, members of the Resistance and common criminals. He lured them to his office under pretense that he could help them escape to South America then murdered them with poison, incinerated their bodies and stole their belongings. He was caught after the liberation of Paris, tried and sentenced to death for twenty-six murders, although he probably had committed many more. He has the dubious honor of being the first person executed by guillotine after the War.
Four photos were taken at the same time showing the execution team working in the courtyard. These are the only known photos of the French guillotine taken between 1939 and 1981.
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 and Punishment.
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 Obrechthad 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 retouchedphoto 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 ofPierre 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 ofVeteau 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 downloadedhere (WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT).
LES GUILLOTINES D’ INDOCHINE
From around 1900 to 1952 the French used guillotines in Indochina, both to punish common criminals, but also to execute political prisoners, which were causing unrest in the colony. There were at least three guillotines used in Indochina, one built in 1930 and used in Saigon until 1960 and two machines probably built in 1889 and used in Maison Centrale in Hanoi, later known as the "Hanoi Hilton" and "Hoa Lo Prison". The machine on the right has been known for a while. It is the one exhibited at Hoa Lo prison museum and probably the machine that is seen in the old film clip discussed above. It is in quite good condition although it is improperly assembled: The blade is installed backwards, the C-brace designed to surround the lower part of the posts is mounted at the mid height where the cross-brace should have been and the lateral and rear T-braces have been swapped, leaving both sets crooked.
This machine does have special retainer plates to hold the buffer springs in place and keep them from buckling. This is possibly a local fix to the ever present spring problem as these plates are not used on any other Berger guillotine. The machine is definitely a very close relative of the machines used in France, most probably being constructed by the same Paris shop that built the metropolitain machines.
The second guillotine from Maison Centrale is probably the one that is now being exhibited at the Revolutionary War Museum and shown in the photograph on the left. It is another Berger type machine, painted black or dark grey. It also has been improperly assembled, with the blade mounted backwards and the C-brace sitting in mid-air between the posts. This guillotine is much less known than the one at Hoa Lo Prison and I didn’t discover its’ existence until a few months ago. It is equipped with an unusually large head tub, which includes an elevated back wall and stepped sides which make the front part of the tub much wider than the spacing of the posts. This design would preclude the installation of the standard photographer’s shield used in France. It is likely that the oversized tub with the high ledges was designed to completely replace the shield.
The machine also has the same spring buffer retainer plates as the one exhibited at Hoa Lo prison. The construction is otherwise typical of that of a standard 1889-era Berger model from France. The hinged sideboard is missing but the hinges are still visible on the side of the bascule support. The base frame is of the type with the transversal tension rods as all the older guillotines, visible on the picture below and to the right.
Other interesting details that can be seen are the embedded bolts holding the laminated posts together, visible on the photograph to the left.
The photograph on the left shows very good details of the mouton and spike construction. The spring retainer plates can be seen inside the post on the right side.
The photograph on the right, shows the bascule plank which appears not to have the semi circular cut-out of the later Berger models. It also gives a very clear picture of the three hinges lining up along the right side of the base frame. These hinges allowed the post and the front and rear brace to tilt outward as one unit. Whether this was used as a means of erecting the posts or just a way to install and remove the mouton is still a bit unclear although the design is clearly purposeful.
Visible on the left side of the frame is the steel ball, located at the end of the rear tensionning rod. A lever was inserted through the hole in the ball and used to turn the rod which pulled the frame together. This was particulary useful to take up slack as the wood aged and contracted over the years.
This photograph was taken around the turn of the Century on the Grande Place in Saigon and shows an execution with a Berger guillotine, probably one of the two machines photographed above. The two guillotines built in 1889 were ordered for "Le Tonkin" (Northern Vietnam) and "La Cochinchine" (Southern Vietnam and areas of Laos and Cambodia) but are now both exhibited in museums in Hanoi.
The photo was published as a postcard by Planté, a local Saigon editor.
The setting seems more casual than for executions in France. A few "priviledged" spectators, mostly military officers, have been allowed inside the line of troops keeping the crowd away. A close examination shows the ladder laying on the ground in front of the machine. It also appears that the cane basket is just being opened to receive the body while two assistants are pushing the condemned forward on the bascule.
This newly acquired photograph shows a crowd massing around the guillotine in the port city of Haiphong in Tonkin (North Vietnam). The photo quality is consistent with a 1890-1920 time frame. The helmets worn by many in the crowd is an unusual design introduced in 1888 and known as "casque pain-de-sucre" due to its tall, domed, shape. It was used mostly by Marine Infantry and also by a few colonial units until the end of The Great War.
There are no spectators in identifiable local clothing and the entire crowd appears to be European. The box in the foreground is not the body basket as one would expect, but rather a crate, used to store the body basket. The actual basket is apparently what draws the attention of the cluster of people in the foreground. Note that the mouton/blade assembly is down indicating that the execution has already taken place.
A second photograph of the same execution in Haiphong recently surfaced and I was fortunate to be able to acquire it. The low building in the background on the left is clearly the same as the one in the picture above although the camera position and angle are very different. The crowds in the two photos include some of the same people, which precludes the picture from showing another execution at the same location.
One can note, from their clothing, that the workers disassembling the guillotine are "Annamites" (the name that the French gave to the Vietnamese people) but they are the only ones present, except for the lone silhouette in the foreground.
The photo was taken by R.Bonal, photo-editor based in the French Tonkin province. He is well known for a series of photos taken at a sword execution that resulted from a failed 1908 poisoning plot.
This postcard is from a unknown execution, most likely in Haiphong between 1905 and 1914. I purchased it from a post card dealer in Paris who knew it came from a large lot of cards, all from Haiphong. The design of the postcard dates it to the years listed above.
It is not taken at the same location as the two other postcards so it is a different execution. We see the same marine infantry/colonial helmets as on the three pictures above.
The photo is remarkable, taken in the midst of the execution. The executioner and assistants were moving swiftly during the exposure and appear only as blurry areas behind the guillotine. The condemned man is on the bascule and was motionless long enough to be clearly seen, with his head entering the open lunette and his bare feet overhanging the back of the machine.
A man wearing a cap and driving goggles stands right behind the executioners. To his left a group of Annamite helpers are preparing to take down the guillotine as soon as the execution is over. A young spectator in the foreground hangs on to a metal lightpole get a better view.
MUSEUM QUALITY GUILLOTINE MODELS
Custom Guillotine Models, handcrafted in Hardwoods, Steel, Copper, Brass and other metals.
True to the original "bois de justice" or "timbers of justice", the legal name given to the guillotine in France.
Most parts are made by hand. Only basic hardware parts, such as screws, nuts, springs and hinges, are sourced commercially.
Very accurate working copies of the original guillotines used in France from 1792 to 1977.
Standard working scale is 1/6th. Larger and smaller scale guillotines can be built to order, please inquire.
Each guillotine is built to your specifications.
Enter the Gallery pages to see more detail shots of my various guillotine models.
Can be customized to match any specific guillotine, including the 1868 Berger guillotine, a German fallbeil or the Swiss Lucerne guillotine.
My guillotine designs are based on real historical photographs and scale drawings.
Design details of several known guillotines can be incorporated into your model.
See my History page for some historic insight into the guillotine.
Model guillotines are powerful and very realistic. They are not toys and should be handled with care.
Each guillotine takes from 100 to 400 hours to complete and is made of up to 500 individual parts.
The finished guillotines are signed, numbered and shipped with a brief History of the guillotine and detailed assembly instructions.
My guillotines are incredible conversation pieces that will draw a lot of attention. Guillotines also make unusual cigar cutters.
Guillotine models can be built from many types of wood including oak, rosewood, mahogany, maple and teak.
Prices start around $500.00 for a 1792 revolutionary model guillotine.
Go to the Workshop page for current backlog of models and approximate waiting time.
Guillotine History Page – Lots of photographs and facts about the French guillotine from 1792 to 1981.
A copy of the legal document that made the guillotine the official instrument of capital punishment in France for almost 200 years.
The Brugge guillotine – The guillotine in the French Colonies – The guillotine in North Africa.
Photos of what is probably the only real guillotine in North America.
Actual execution photos from 1869, 1891, 1894, 1897, 1899, 1905, 1909, 1910, 1914, 1939. A photo gallery of severed heads.
A photo gallery of almost 200 criminals executed by Anatole Deibler between 1885 and 1939.
Pictures of the guillotine that was used for the last execution in 1977.
Vintage photos of two German fallbeils from the 1920s. Photos of two guillotines used in Vietnam.
Click on any picture above to see more details of that model.
This website is continually being updated. Check back frequently for new information.
For a historical information and photographs of the real machine go to the History Page.
For information and photos from my trip to see the Saint-Pierre guillotine click here.
To purchase complete construction drawings of an 1872 guillotine click here.
To see photos of the Swedish guillotine, used once in 1910, click here.
To see historic photos of various types of German fallbeils click here.
For a photo gallery of over 200 of Anatole Deibler’s "clients" click here.
For a visual dictionary of frequently used guillotine terms click here.
Please address any inquiries to: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
FALLBEIL: THE TEUTONIC GUILLOTINE
Historical documents and one old engraving suggest that the Germans may have used a primitive decapitation machine in the middle ages, but it was all but forgotten when the Germans rediscovered the guillotine in the late 1700s. It was reintroduced thanks to the French Revolutionary armies fighting their way into Western German areas and spreading "Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité" along with a new justice system to all their neighbors.
The guillotine was adopted in several German States and coexisted with the more traditional hand-axe (Richtbeil) in other states as the primary execution method for over 140 years.
Starting out as an exact copy of the French 1792 guillotine, the German guillotine (or Fallbeil) gradually evolved in different directions leading to several unique designs, both of the tall wooden and of the shorter metal type. The following section highlights a few of these.
THE HAMBURG FALLBEIL 1856-1933
The French guillotine spread to surrounding countries at the time of the Revolution, either through the spreading of French law to areas conquered by the armies of France or through the legal reform that the Revolution inspired. Despite the excesses of the Terror, many of the basic ideas of the Revolution were progressive and sound. Some areas of Germany embraced the legal reforms and adopted a uniform death penalty statute and the guillotine by the early 1800s. In German, the guillotine was renamed "Fallbeil", literally translated "Drop-Axe". Over the years the German Fallbeil evolved along its own path separately from its French cousin. Early Fallbeils were identical to the 1792 guillotines that inspired them, but by the mid 1800s Prussia used mostly a short fallbeil constructed entirely of metal. The picture on the left is quite different. Although the machine is tall and made mostly of wood it is not a French design at all but a completely German design used in Hamburg from 1856 to 1933. The blade shape, release mechanism, U-shaped mouton, bascule frame extensions with the fabric funnel and the dual cross braces clearly separate it from the 1792 design. The permanent scaffold included a trap hatch allowing the body to be dropped into a box in the room below. In the background the tall prison walls can be seen, topped with cloth screens to prevent any viewing of the execution from the outside. The machine only was used in 18 executions from 1856 to 1917. After this time, the executions started becoming more frequent and when the Nazis took power in 1933 the Fallbeils started working around the clock claiming far more victims than the guillotine did during the Terror years of the French Revolution.
GRETE BEIER EXECUTION 1908
This photograph has been identified as showing the preparations for the execution of Grete Beier in the interior yard of the regional courthouse in Freiburg, Saxony. Grete Beier was a young socialite, daughter of the mayor of Freiburg, who poisoned and shot her fiance because she did not love him but would not defy her family who wanted her to marry him. She forged a note to make the murder appear to be a suicide and almost got away with it, but was ultimately caught and confessed. She was sentenced to death and beheaded on the 23rd of July 1908 at the age of 22 by executioner Moritz Brand.
The guillotine is similar to a French "Schmidt" design but has taller posts, two track spacer braces, a wood shield to hide the blade and a foot rest on the bascule plank. This could bethe same guillotine that was later used in the town of Weimar. Weimar was part of the Kingdom of Saxony between 1806 and 1918.
THE REICHHARTS OF MUNCHEN
These old photographs both show Bavarian executioner Franz Xaver Reichhart with a Mannhardt type fallbeil. On the left photo Franz, standing to the left of the fallbeil, is a young assistant to the Bavarian sharfrichter who is wearing the top hat. It could be Lorenz Scheller. The photo was probably taken between 1885 and 1895. The photo appears staged, ie not taken at a real execution. The awning is an unusual touch. Note the blade with the curved hand-holds which does not appear in the other photograph. This may indicate two different fallbeils and ,possibly different locations, Munich and Würzburg for example.
In the photo on the right Franz has been promoted to head executioner and has inherited the privilege of wearing the top hat himself.
The rough scaffold, the pile of sand/sawdust under the head bucket and the transport crate in the foreground seem too real to be staged, so I believe this photo was taken before a real execution. Franz was the Bavarian sharfrichter from 1894 to 1924 and is fairly young in this photo, so it probably dates back to 1900-1905. It is possible that this photo was taken before the execution of famous Bavarian outlaw Mathias Kneißl in February 1902.
The next photo shows the same execution team about 15-20 years later. Franz Xaver is an old white-haired man and his young assistant from the last photo is a now middle-aged man. This again appears to be a staged execution.
When Franz Xaver Reichhart retired in 1924 at the age of 73, his nephew, Johann Baptist Reichhart took over the office. Comparing this photograph to the one below it is remarkable how similar the two fallbeils are, down to the scratches in the paint on the blade and the blemishes on the right post. These could have been taken the same day except for the different execution teams…
This photo presents good view of the entire fallbeil with the all-metal frame and mechanism. Only the bascule and support "table" of the machine are made of wood. The metal "sledge", a sort of gliding frame to which the blade is attached, is shaped like and upside down "U" and comes to rest at the base of the tracks in two boxes stuffed with felt and leather, thus dampening the impact of the 68 kg "drop axe". A winch with a hand crank (Laying on the floor under the machine) and a rope are used to raise the blade assembly. The condemned stepped on the footrest before being strapped, with two leather belts, to the cradle-shaped bascule. The upper lunette board was held open by a simple pin on a chain and the release was a vertical lever arm tilting the big curved "hook" which can be seen going through the hole in the top of the blade.
This machine type was designed by clockmaker Johann Mannhardt in 1854 and this particular one operated through 1945. It was used in Munich by both Franz Xaver and Johann Reichhart and probably two executioners before them. The photo was most likely taken in 1924 in the courtyard of the Regensberg Prison. The man on the right, holding the lunette pin, has been identified as Johann Reichhart but is in fact his assistant, Huber. The man in the top hat, at the execution lever, is actually Johann. The picture is almost certainly staged and may have been taken to commemorate Johann’s nomination as chief-executioner. The third man would be Donderer, the assistant who got Reichhart into trouble by getting a side job demonstrating a mock fallbeil at a wax museum in Munich.
A second photo taken the same day, shows the fallbeil at a different angle, giving a clear view of the fabric "tub", the square shock absorber tubes and the blood "gutter" protruding under the lower lunette. This gutter connected to a hole at the front of the table and directed the blood to the scaffold floor in front of the machine where a pile of sawdust or sand was placed to capture the spillage.
Above the executioner’s head there is a small bell attached to the prison wall. The "Armesuendersglocke",or Poor Sinner’s Bell, was an integral part of the execution ceremony, and was rung continuously during the execution. A black curtain visible on the left side of the photo was also a symbolic part of the ceremonial, which remained religious in nature until 1940. The black veil remained even after that time in the Nazi execution rooms.
Johann went on to become quite infamous for executing about 3,000 people, most of them political opponents of the Nazi regime, including members of the "White Rose" anti-nazi movement. After the Allied victory, he continued his grim trade for the other side by hanging Nazi War Criminals at the Landsberg prison.
This actual fallbeil was reported destroyed at the end of WWII. One of identical design, from the prison of Würzburg, was transferred to Breslau in 1937. It was captured by the Soviets at the end of WWII and is currently exhibited at the War Museum in Kiev.
THE MANNHARDT FALLBEIL
The first steel guillotine constructed in Germany was designed by clockmaker Johann Mannhardt in 1854 and remained the only type used until around 1936. The original drawing on the right is from 1854 and stamped by the Royal Bavarian Justice Ministry. The drawing was titled "Fallschwert", Falling Sword, at the time although "Fallbeil" – or Falling Axe – was the name that was ultimately retained.
The design was adopted in several German States while others retained the older French design. By the end of World War 2 Mannhardt-type fallbeils had been used at Stadelheim, Plotzensee, Hamburg, Bruchsaler, Wolfenbuettel, Strasbourg (France) and Wroclaw (Poland) so there were at least six of these machines in existence at some time. To my knowledge only four have survived to this day.
When the Nazi justice ministry "standardized" on the guillotine as the official the death penalty method throughout the Reich in 1938, the Mannhardt machines were the only ones they deemed re-usable.
Older wooden guillotines were retired and replaced by the new "Tegel" design, which is described in the section below. Some of the Mannhardt machines were modified to match the new design. The bascules were removed and replaced with a fixed wooden tables and some machines received a blade shield and a metal head bucket in lieu of the fabric one.
This photograph shows the Mannhardt machine from Wolfenbuettel which was also used by the Nazis during the war but was not modified when this photo was taken. The freestanding metal bucket is probably a goofy idea by the photographer, and was not part of actual guillotine accessories.
Note that the frame is welded, not bolted, the sledge crossbars having circular protrusions around the bolt holes and there is a small hinged spatter shield attached to the left post. Because of these fabrication details this fallbeil is not one of the original Mannhardts. Its exact origin is unknown.
This fallbeil was captured by the Allies in 1945. It was put back into service in the British sector where it was used to execute criminals sentenced under German law for crimes committed during and after the war, as opposed to those sentenced by Allied War Crime tribunals, who were hanged.
These two photos show the same Wolfenbuettel fallbeil after modification. Note the metal bucket, the added downspout to the floor and the lack of a tilting plank. The original bench was reused but its center track is filled in with a wood plank.
The photo on the right was taken in the Wolfenbuettel prison execution room, around 1947 when the British were using it.
The photo on the left shows an unusual modified Mannhardt with a steel table and steel tilting plank. In 1944, this fallbeil was transferred from Strasbourg, France to the new execution center at Bruchsaler where it was used to execute 55 people. There is some evidence that it is the fallbeil that was used in Strasbourg between 1890 and 1914 when Alsace-Lorraine were under German rule.
The second photo shows a damaged Mannhardt fallbeil in the death house of the Plotzensee prison, where thousands were murdered by the Nazis. The machine has the fixed table, blade shield and metal bucket. It was transfered from Bruchsaler to Plotzensee before the war and is probably the restored fallbeil currently displayed at the Brandenburg memorial. This photo was taken by the Soviets shortly after the capture of Berlin.
THE TEGEL FALLBEIL
This fallbeil is "THE" Nazi guillotine. After 1933, when Hitler and his henchmen refashioned the German judicial system in the image of their oppressive regime a lot of new crimes became capital offenses, leading to a drastic increase in the number of executions in the Reich. To meet this new demand for "justice" many prisons were designated as execution sites (Sixteen such sites by 1942) and equipped with metal fallbeils as required by the standardized procedure.
These fallbeils were first built by the inmates of the Tegel prison in Berlin, hence their name. They were more crude than the Mannhardt design, lacking the hinged bascule and the external pulley frame. The visible "pivoting hook" release mechanism was also replaced by an internal system triggered by a pull rod.
Other changes include a geared winch to reduce the force required to raise the sledge, a lunette with an oval opening and a push button release and a hinged sheet metal shield to protect the executioner from blood spray.
The Tegel guillotine shown on the left was used at the Brandenburg prison and is currently displayed at the Deutsche Historisches Museum. It is very well preserved and contrary to most other Tegels it is not painted and does not have the blade shield. The crude bench made of wood planks with four hefty wood legs is characteristic of the original Tegel design. On some restored Tegel fallbeils (Pankrac, Vienna) the rear legs have been replaced with square metal tubing.
These are two infamous Tegel fallbeils from Poland. The one to the left is being examined by Red Army soldiers after the capture of Poznan. Note that the crank rotation is parallel to the blade and not perpendicular as on the Mannhardt system. The soldier on the left is pulling the release system which looks much like an old fashioned toilet pull. There is no blade installed on the sledge. The soldiers provide a good scale to see of how short the machine actually is (about 8 feet).
On the right is the Tegel fallbeil from the town of Katowice, nicknamed "the Red Widow". (Photo by Adam Cyra). It was used to execute over 550 people accused of resistance against the Nazi occupation between 1941 and 1945. The machine is currently stored at the Auschwitz-Birkenau holocaust Museum.
The rear view shows the metal tub with lateral cut-outs for the head strap, an adjustable leather belt that passed under the forehead of the condemned to prevent him from lowering his head. This strap is very visible on the photo of the Wolfenbuettel fallbeil above. Also visible are the shock absorber tubes, the blade shield and the nearly vertical blood deflector under the tub. The diagonal steel braces designed to stiffen the bench legs are missing on both of these machines.
These modern photographs depict two additional Tegel fallbeils exhibited in museums. To the left is a close-up of the blade of the Vienna fallbeil, which was pressed into service in 1938 shortly after the Anschluss. It claimed many victims among opponents of the Nazi regime in Austria. It is currently displayed at the Vienna Museum of Criminology. The head bucket is a reproduction and is not properly designed. The top of the bucket should have been secured to the metal supports visible above the head strap post thus it is mounted much too low. In addition the bucket should not have a rear wall. It was designed to catch the head and direct the spillage down to the floor drain located under the deflector spout. It was never intended to contain the blood.
On the right is the Tegel fallbeil from the Moabit prison in Berlin. In addition to being used by the Nazis, this one also was used after the war and became the last fallbeil to claim a life under West German law, when murderer and rapist Berthold Wehmeyer was beheaded in West Berlin on May 12, 1949. The fallbeil is currently exhibited at the Strafvollzugsmuseum in Ludwigsburg.
THE PANKRAC FALLBEIL
The Nazi fallbeil also made its way to Czechoslovakia when it was annexed as the "Reich Protectorate of Moravia and Bohemia". The fallbeil was of the standard "Tegel" design and is shown in the Pankrác execution room, on this 1943 photo (Left). Between April 5, 1943 and April 26, 1945 a total of 1,075 people were executed in Pankrác prison, located in southeastern Prague.
Most of the victims were Czech citizens resisting the Nazi occupation.
Just 12 days before the capitulation of Germany, the machine was used to execute 5 people. It was then broken up and its wood parts were burned while the metal parts were thrown in the Vltava River in an attempt to conceal the Nazi war crimes.
After the liberation of Prague its remains were retrieved from the river. The guillotine was reconstructed from the parts and is currently displayed in the original execution room preserved as a Memorial to the victims of the Nazis. The Memorial is located within the still-functionning prison of Pankrác and is highly revered among the Czechs as a symbol of the sacrifices and hardships endured by the people during the war.
The three other photos (by Vladimir Sebecek) show the modern memorial with the gallows and the rebuilt fallbeil.
The wood bench and lunette are reproductions which explains why they are so different from the original ones seen in the black & white photo above.
It appears that other parts, like the head tub and winch, also were lost and have been replaced with reproductions, however the core of the fallbeil on display is still the original machine brought to Prague in 1943.
For four years after the end of World War II the death penalty remained on the books in West Germany. While the War Crimes Tribunals run by the Allies mostly used hanging as the execution method, the German courts and the court operated by the French occupation authority retained their traditional method of execution by beheading.
Although numerous fallbeils captured from Nazi prisons were available, there was some reluctance to use these instruments on common criminals and especially war criminals. Prior victims were considered martyrs and heroes by the victors and using the same instruments in this manner could dishonor their sacrifice. Some were however reused, among them the ones from Moabit and from Wolfenbuettel. The East German STASI also used one Tegel fallbeil in Dresden until the 1950s.
At least two new fallbeils were built after the war by locksmith firm Otto Tiggemann in Hamm/Westfalen. The machines were hybrids, mostly based on the old Mannhardt design but with the metal buckets of the Tegel version.
The photo on the left shows the Rastatt fallbeil which was used nine times between 1946 and the abolition of the death penalty in 1949. It is on display at the Strafvollzugsmuseum in Ludwigsburg.
On the right is the Mainz fallbeil, also known as the Rheinland-Pfälzische fallbeil, which was completed right after the abolition and never used. It is exhibited at the Landesmuseum in Koblenz.
SAINT-PIERRE ET MIQUELON
The Islands of Saint-Pierre, Miquelon and Langlade lie off the southern coast of Newfoundland in the waters of the North Atlantic. They were the only portion of "New France", the French colony in North America, that remained in French hands at the end of French and Indian War in 1763. Those windswept rocky knolls had a hidden economic value to France: they gave the French fishing fleet access to the Grand Banks and their huge cod population. The islands were occupied by the British several times between 1763 and 1815, when they were permanently returned to France. The population of the islands has fluctuated between 4,000 and 6,000 over the years and consists mostly of local fishermen and government officials dispatched from Paris for tours of duty of various lengths. Very cold winters, cool and wet summers, stormy weather, rocky coastlines and lack of vegetation makes the land inhospitable and life for the fishermen of the 19th century was not easy. Many split their time between forrays into the dangerous waters of the North Atlantic and drinking binges in the few local taverns on the islands.
The picture on the left is a detail of a huge painting (24Ftx100Ft) showing life on the island, made for the Saint-Pierre and Miquelon pavillon at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris. The original has been returned to Saint-Pierre and now hangs in the exhibit hall of the Musee de l’Arche. Photo on right shows the bay of Saint-Pierre and part of the town in winter around 1890 when the Neel affair took place.
On december 30th, 1888, two fishermen, Louis Ollivier and Auguste Neel, after a night of heavy drinking, decided to go eat dinner at the cabin of Francois Coupard, Louis’ fishing boat captain. The cabin, located on l’Ile aux Chiens, across the bay from the harbor of Saint-Pierre, was expected to be vacant. The two arrived to find the door locked. Dismayed they proceeded to kick in a window and, crawling inside, they came nose-to-nose with Coupard, knife-in-hand, ready to defend his property. Neel disarmed the old man, picked up the knife and stabbed him. Ollivier did the same, at the instigation of Neel, who wanted his companion to share the blame for the attack. The two drunken men then got into an argument over whether Coupard was fat or just big. In an effort to find out they mutilated the body, then left it under a sail in the corner of the cabin. They stole whatever they could find then took Coupard’s boat to sea in an attempt to reach Newfoundland. The wind and the rough seas threw them back on the coast of Saint-Pierre where they were arrested the next day.
Their trial was held in February 1889 and resulted in a sentence of death for Neel and ten years Hard Labor for Ollivier. Neel’s sentence seemed harsh considering that the murder was not premeditated and not committed for the purpose of robbing Coupard but the horrible mutilation of the body seemed to have weighed heavily on the court. His appeal was rejected and the Governor of the islands made a recommendation of "no clemency" to the President, because it was felt that a rise in criminality on the islands had occurred since a few recent death sentences had been commuted because of a lack of means to carry them out. French law in 1889 not only required that "tout condamne a mort aura la tete tranchee" – every person sentenced to die shall have his head severed – but also that the sentence must be carried out in a public venue near the place where the crime was committed. Despite the inconvenience an example had to be made. The President rejected the clemency and the Governor then requested that Louis Deibler, Executeur des Hautes Oeuvres de la Republique, be sent, with his equipment, to Saint-Pierre to carry out the sentence. This request was turned down (Deibler did not travel outside metropolitan France) but arrangements were made to ship a guillotine from Martinique. The Governor was also told to find a local person to perform the grim task.
Meanwhile, Neel spent his days in the prison in Saint-Pierre in the care of Sigrist, the warden and his wife. The rehabilitation of Neel, which is portrayed in the 2000 Patrice Leconte film "La Veuve de St Pierre", did not really take place neither did his "adoption" by the local population. The guillotine arrived on the island on August 22nd 1889 and Neel was executed two days later by a pair of local fishermen, of dubious reputation, who were paid 500 francs and given a pardon on a 3-month petty larceny sentence after the Governor failed to find an executioner among the local tradesmen and the military personnel stationned on the islands. The two headsmen were despised by the islanders for what they had done and everyone refused to accept their "blood money", forcing them to leave the islands before the winter.
Contrary to widespread reports, the execution was rather uneventful, although the head did remain attached by a thread that the executioner had to sever with a knife. The protocol followed "standard" French procedure, with the awakening before dawn, the mass, a glass of wine and a bowl of tea, the "toilette", a chew instead of the traditional last cigarette, the ride in a carriage to Place de l’Admiral Courbet where soldiers formed a square around the guillotine and most of the population of Saint-Pierre had come to see the event. Neel thanked the Sigrists for their care, told unlookers "Learn this lesson: I killed and now I will be killed, don’t do like me" and then said to the executioner "Do not miss" before being basculed.
The above statement of facts is a summary of the full report, written in 1938, by an eyewitness and member of the court, Emile Sasco. The full report (in French) can be downloaded here.
Sasco indicates that the guillotine was an old machine from the French Revolution but the machine that I found in Saint-Pierre is a newer "Berger-type" machine of post 1872 vintage. The Museum personel assured me it was the machine used for the 1889 execution. Subsequent research, by Mr.Rodrigue G., irrefutably proves that the guillotine arrived in the island in 1890, nearly a year after the execution of Neel. He also uncovered a February 1890 article in a local St Pierre paper describing SIX guillotines lined up in the famous garage, Rue de la Folie Regnault, waiting to be tested by Monsieur Deibler. The six new Berger machines were ordered by the Justice Ministry and destined for Cochinchine, Tonkin, Tahiti, St Pierre & Miquelon, St Laurent and Cayenne. Workers were painting numbers on the machines to facilitate assembly and prevent the mixing up of the parts. The explains the number "4" painted everywhere on the machine I saw in St Pierre. It turns out this guillotine was never used and has remained on the island since 1890. It was stored in a museum basement for a number of years but is on display since June 2008.
I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to examine "La Veuve de Saint-Pierre" in detail by Le Musee de l’Arche . I spent two days measuring and photographing the machine and was also given access to some documents dating back to the time of Neel’s trial and execution. In exchange, I was able to identify the machine, which was thought by most on the islands to date back to the French Revolution – per the eyewitness account referenced above. I also uncovered a few minor assembly errors and pointed out a couple of missing parts. I am in the process of producing a full documentation package on the machine for the museum. The guillotine is exhibited at Musee de l’Arche, open to the public during the summer months, and is to my knowledge the only place in North America where a real guillotine can be seen. Access to Saint-Pierre is a bit difficult (ferry or small plane from Newfoundland) but well worth a detour if you want to experience a French village in the middle of North America and see "The Guillotine".
The guillotine is exhibited in the stairwell of the museum making it difficult to take a full height photo. The headtub is missing as is the hinged sideboard and the ladder. These parts are all listed on the shipping list that came with the machine. On the other hand the blade case, the toolbox which contains the various bolts and pins needed to assemble the machine and the large zinc-lined cane basket were all there, but are currently not exhibited with the machine. The hooks for the rope are not installed but I found them in the museum warehouse. The wood is in very good condition with no sign of rot or insect damage, just a few cracks and splinters here and there resulting from rough handling. The original paint includes a series of stenciled letters and numbers on the parts matching the ones on the assembly instructions. The number "4" also appears repeated on nearly every part.
For safety reasons the mouton has been locked in place with wood sticks screwed into the tracks on both sides so I had to forego an actual blade drop test. One of the blade nuts is missing and has been replaced with a new nut of smaller size. One fact that makes this machine very interesting is that, unlike other Berger guillotines, this one is known to be in its original 1889 state having never been used or modified. Like all the newer machines the mouton is equipped with brass rollers, disproving the claim by several authors that Anatole Deibler was the one that had the rollers added to the mouton. Due to age, a few of the bolts are a bit tough to thread like this one on the bascule pedestal.
The braces are hinged as on all the pre-1900 Berger type guillotines. The hinge pins have a kind of "side barb" to facilitate removal using only a hammer. I verified that, when the bolt securing it to the frame is removed, the brace pivots out in a 90 degree arc. On the next picture you can see that for once, the C-brace got installed in the proper position! The spring buffers have much shorter springs than on the 1907 guillotine. Contrary to the newer machine they have no rubber anvils. These were probably an improvement added later to remedy the ever-present problem with broken springs.
The brass tracks are asymetrical, which I had never realized before. On this machine they are held by two rows of twelve screws. The release handle is made of forged steel and can be removed so the post is easier to handle during transportation. Here it is secured with two of the cylindrical brace bolts, but this is an error. When they assembled the machine they came up short two of these bolts for the cross brace, but had square head bolts left over… From the well known 1907 picture it appears that the lever should be attached with the square head bolts and the cross brace with the two last cylindrical bolts.
The folding shield that surrounds the head tub served a double purpose of protecting the executioner’s first aide from splashing blood and hiding the most graphic view of the execution from onlookers. The folding sides overlap thanks to a small wood block offset on the right panel that allows the contraption to fold completely flat. The massive grab that hold the mouton in place. The top mounted pulley that was used to hoist the mouton and blade up to the grab. The rope should have been tied to an "8-shaped "ring, as was clearly explained in the operating instructions, but the ring is missing. As I suspected the pulley frame is forged of one straight length of steel bar.