The Guillotine (Part Two: The Citizen)

Les Freres Agasse Allant au Supplice, Leurs Corps Rendus A Leur Famille (The Brothers Agasse to Their Deaths, Their Bodies Returned To Their Family) — Tableaux historiques de la Révolution française — N-34 — Jean Louis Prieur
Apres l’execution des deus freres Agasse, leurs corps sont remis a leurs familles (After the execution of the two Agasse brothers, their bodies are handed over to their families.) — Gravures historiques des
principaux événemens depuis l’ouverture des états généraux de 1789, Jean François Janinet

Amidst assassinations, massacre, and confiscation, perpetrated or mediated, they are forming plans for the good order of future society. Embracing in their arms the carcases of base criminals, and promoting their relations on the title of their offences, they drive hundreds of virtuous persons to the same end, but forcing them to subsist by beggary or by crime.

The Assembly, their organ, acts before them the farce of deliberation with as little decency as liberty. They act like the comedians of a fair before a riotous audience

The Execution of Damiens, (

Death was reduced to a visible, but instantaneous event. Contact between the law, or those who carry it out, and the body of the criminal, is reduced to a split second. There is no physical confrontation; the executioner need be no more than a meticulous watchmaker… The guillotine takes life almost without touching the body, just as prison deprives of liberty or a fine reduces wealth. It is intended to apply the law not so much to a real body capable of feeling pain as to a juridical subject, the possessor, among other rights, of the right to exist. It had to have the abstraction of the law itself.

…without some precautions… the act of decollation will be horrible to spectators. It will either prove the spectators to be monsters if they are able to bear such a spectacle; or the executioner, terrified himself, will be exposed to the fury of the people

…one could never get through an execution by sword without the certainty of dangerous accidents.

After one execution, the sword will be no longer in a condition to perform another… It would then be necessary then to have a sufficient number of swords all ready. That would lead to great and almost insurmountable difficulties…

It is to be considered that, when there shall be several criminals to execute at the same time, the terror that such an execution presents, by the immensity of blood which it produces and which is scattered all about, will carry fright and weakness into the most intrepid hearts of those whose turn it is to come… the execution, if persisted in, will become a struggle and a massacre.

…in order to fulfil the humane intentions of the National Assembly, some means should be found to avoid delays and assure certainty, by fixing the patient so that the success of the operation shall not be doubtful.

By this the intention of the legislature will be fulfilled, and the executioner himself protected from any accidental effervescence from the public.

Machine proposee a l’assemblie nationale pour le supplice des criminelles. Par M. Guillotine

“A scaffold, when it is erected and prepared, has indeed a profoundly disturbing effect. We may remain more or less open-minded on the subject of the death-penalty, indisposed to commit ourselves, so long as we have not seen a guillotine with our own eyes. But to do so is to be so shaken that we are obliged to take our stand for or against. (…) The guillotine is the ultimate expression of Law, and its name is vengeance; it is not neutral, nor does it allow us to remain neutral. He who sees it shudders in the most confounding dismay. All social questions achieve their finality around that blade. The scaffold is an image. It is not merely a framework, a machine, a lifeless mechanism of wood, iron, and rope. It is as though it were a being having its own dark purpose, as though the framework saw, the machine listened, the mechanism understood; as though that arrangement of wood and iron and rope expressed a will. In the hideous picture which its presence evokes it seems to be most terribly a part of what it does. It is the executioner’s accomplice; it consumes, devouring flesh and drinking blood. It is a kind of monster created by the judge and the craftsman; a spectre seeming to live an awful life born of the death it deals.”



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