Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Guillotine Definition:

A machine designed to inflict capital punishment by dropping a blade onto the neck, thus quickly severing of the head from the body.

Related Terms: Death Penalty

A form of capital punishment by using a shearing device called a "guillotine" after its inventor (Joseph Ignace Guillotin), developed in France, to "humanely" inflict the death penalty through instant decapitation by the dropping of a weighted and sharp metal blade onto the restrained neck of a person.

"Dr. Joseph Ignace Guillotin's device for the infliction of instantaneous death by decapitation. This instrument (a modified form of the English "Halifax maiden"), had at least the merit of making the method of execution equal for all, by superseding the various forms of executions which had so long prevailed, and which permitted varying degrees of torture and prolonged suffering."1

The first use came on April 25, 1792 when Nicolas-Jean Pelletier, a thief, lost his head.

The guillotine's heyday the French Revolution:

"In January, 1794, a year after doing away with the king, its output rose to the record high for the years of the Terror with 3,517 executions in that month alone."2

guillotineUniversity of North Carolina professor James Megivern wrote:

"One son whom the Revolution did not manage to devour was Dr. Guillotin. He lived through the Terror, the Thermidor, and the rise as well as the fall of Napoleon, and died peacefully twenty years after Robespierre. But he always regretted the fact that, because of a suggestion made early in the National Assembly, his name was permanently attached to the infamous head-chopper that was later created by others. At his funeral on March 28, 1814, a fellow physician, Dr. Bourru, eulogized Dr. Guillotin, lamenting the fact that his "philanthropic motion" in the Assembly, which was motivated by his humane idealism, had led ironically to the introduction of the machine to which "le vulgaire" applied his name."

In 1981,  France abolished the death penalty and retired the guillotine. Then-Minister of Justice, Robert Badinter remarked:

"Now, at last, we do away with justice that kills."


  • Bishop, George, Executions - The Legal Ways of Death (Los Angeles: Sherbourne Press, 1986), page 40-41.
  • Megivern, James, The Birth of the Death Machine, 10 CJE 2 (1991 - NOTE 2)
  • Shipley, Maynard, Abolition of Capital Punishment in France, 41 Am. L. Rev. 561 (1907) [NOTE 1]

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