Louis XVI Offered The Designer of the Guillotine Tips on the Machine That Would Later, Ironically, Behead Him

Louis XVI Offered The Designer of the Guillotine Tips on the Machine That Would Later, Ironically, Behead Him

Wyatt Redd - July 20, 2018

Citizen Louis Capet rose early on a cold morning in January of 1793. At 5 AM, he dressed with the help of his valet and went to mass. He received communion, and at 7 he stepped aside for a few quiet words with the priest. There was a small matter of what to do with the few possessions he had left. First, his wedding ring was to go to his wife, Marie Antoinette. Second, his royal seal was to go to his young son. For you see, Citizen Capet had another name: Louis XVI, King of France and Navarre. And he had a date that morning with the most feared woman in France, Madame La Guillotine.

Over 1000 pounds of wood and steel and with an 88-pound blade, the guillotine was a terrifying instrument of execution. It consisted of two upright posts, between which hung a razor-sharp blade. Victims would be laid face down on a bench between the posts as their heads were secured by a wooden board with a circular hole that fastened around their neck. The executioner would then release a rope, dropping the blade. The heavily-weighted blade fell, guided by grooves in the posts, and severed the victim’s head in a fraction of a second.

Louis XVI Offered The Designer of the Guillotine Tips on the Machine That Would Later, Ironically, Behead Him
Louis XVI. Wikimedia Commons.

It sounds barbaric, but the guillotine was actually meant to make executions more humane. And compared to some of the earlier methods of execution used in France, it did. First, there was “breaking on the wheel.” It was a particularly gruesome way to die, with the condemned being tied to a circular wheel as the executioner methodically smashed their bones with a hammer or iron bar. And if not sentenced to the wheel, those condemned to die could look forward to being hanged, burned alive, boiled alive, or dismembered depending on their crime.

When you consider the alternatives, simply being beheaded was seen as getting off easy. Of course, that had its own risks. It wasn’t uncommon for a drunk or inexperienced executioner to require four or five strokes with an ax or sword to decapitate someone. It was considered smart, if not even just simple courtesy, for the family of the condemned to bribe the executioner to make sure that his blade was sharp before the beheading. And in France, as in many countries in Europe, beheading was generally seen as a punishment reserved for the rich.

Louis XVI Offered The Designer of the Guillotine Tips on the Machine That Would Later, Ironically, Behead Him
People being broken on the wheel. Wikimedia Commons.

But in 1789, driven by hunger and new ideas about things like “equality” and “personal liberty”, the French rose up in revolt against the king. After several major defeats, Louis XVI reluctantly agreed to respect the will of a new “National Assembly” that could draft laws and check his absolute power. In October, Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin presented a proposal to this assembly. In line with the new spirit of equality, everyone in France should be entitled to a beheading if they were sentenced to die. The best way to do this, he suggested, would be by machine. No drunk executioners. No dull blades. No bribes. No wavering. Just steady, pitiless, instant death.

Louis XVI Offered The Designer of the Guillotine Tips on the Machine That Would Later, Ironically, Behead Him
Dr. Guillotin. Wikimedia Commons.

By 1791, the issue of how to execute people was becoming a serious concern for the Assembly. They didn’t want to use the traditional methods of executions since they were trying to separate themselves from the injustices of the old regime. But the quick revolutionary justice of hanging people from lampposts that the radicals in the street were fond of wasn’t going to work for an established new government either. So the Assembly decided to take a closer look at Dr. Guillotin’s proposal for a machine that could execute people quickly and humanely.

Prominent physician Antoine Louis was soon placed in charge of a committee to design this new method of execution. He was joined by Dr. Guillotin, and together, the committee began working up a prototype. According to Henri Sanson, grandson of the official state executioner, Charles Sanson, the king himself had a hand in its design. He fancied himself a bit of a tinkerer, and rather than the crescent-shaped blade they were using, the king suggested an angled one instead. That way, it could accommodate anyone’s neck regardless of size. He even offered up his own as an example.

It was a bitter piece of historical coincidence considering what was to happen next. By 1792, the year the guillotine was officially introduced in France, the Revolution was beginning to spiral out of control. Radicals inside the country began to advocate for war to violently spread the fire of liberty to other countries across the continent and destroy counter-revolutionary forces abroad. In April, France declared war on Austria. Prussia soon joined the war on Austria’s side. In July, a Prussian army crossed the Rhine with the stated purpose of returning Louis to the throne. As the disorganized French armies melted in the face of their enemies, there seemed to be little to stop them from doing just that.

Word soon spread that the king and his Austrian-born wife, Marie Antoinette, had encouraged the enemies of France to invade. In August, an armed mob gathered outside the Tuileries Palace where the king was living under house arrest. The king and his family fled to the nearby National Assembly building while the crowd stormed the walls of the palace. The king’s guards were hacked to death with axes. Many had their bodies mutilated. Others had their genitals cut off and stuffed into their mouths. The crowd then turned its fury on the National Assembly.

Louis XVI Offered The Designer of the Guillotine Tips on the Machine That Would Later, Ironically, Behead Him
The attack on the Tuileries Palace. Wikimedia Commons.

With an angry mob surrounding the building, the National Assembly had little choice but to give in to their demands. The Assembly voted to strip the king of what little power he still had and declared that it would disband, with new elections to replace it following shortly. France was now a republic. King Louis XVI would from then on be known simply as Citizen Louis Capet. In December, the new government put Capet on trial and found him guilty of high treason. He was sentenced to death by guillotine.

Louis XVI Offered The Designer of the Guillotine Tips on the Machine That Would Later, Ironically, Behead Him
The execution of Louis XVI. Wikimedia Commons.

On January 21st, Capet was escorted under guard from his cell to a waiting carriage. The carriage carried the former king through the twisting streets of Paris as thousands turned out to watch his progress. At 10 AM, he arrived at the Place Louis XV, named after his father. Though at the time of his execution, it had been renamed the “Place de la Révolution.” Over 100,000 of his former subjects were there to witness the execution of the man who had been the king. Capet left the carriage and climbed the steps of the platform towards the waiting guillotine.

From the platform, he tried to address the crowd before a sudden drumroll from the military band quickly drowned him out. According to witnesses, he did manage to get out a final message in a clear voice. “I die innocent of all the crimes laid to my charge. I Pardon those who have occasioned my death, and I pray to God that the blood you are going to shed may never be visited on France,” he declared. With those words, he turned to walk towards his executioners. Henri Sanson later described what he heard from his father, Charles, who was at the scene.

The former king he claimed, was informed that his executioners were going to tie his hands. The king balked. This was an affront to his dignity as a monarch. This resulted in a brief moment of confusion as the executioners rushed forward to take control of the king. Then, according to Sanson, one of the executioners calmly approached the king and said, “With a handkerchief, sire.” Being addressed as a king again had a profound effect on Capet. At the same time, his priest stepped forward and reminded him that Jesus himself had offered up his hands to be tied on Good Friday. ‘So be it, then, that too, my God,’ Capet said.

And so the last absolute ruler of France went to the guillotine with his hands tied. Capet’s head was placed beneath the hanging blade. Moments later, the blade dropped, severing it from his body. As the former king’s head rolled across the platform, the executioner lifted it up and showed it to the crowd. Together with his body, it was then taken to a small church in Paris where two priests held a short service over it before finally laying Capet to rest.

Louis XVI Offered The Designer of the Guillotine Tips on the Machine That Would Later, Ironically, Behead Him
A 19th-century execution by guillotine. Wikimedia Commons.

His last words proved to be prophetic. The situation at the front had begun to stabilize, but shortly after Capet’s execution, the Vendée region of France rose in revolt against the revolutionary government. Thousands were killed in a violent crackdown on the region while the rest of France descended into The Reign of Terror. Under Maximilien Robespierre, the new “Committee of Public Safety” began arresting and trying thousands of citizens they accused of counter-revolutionary crimes. The guillotine was put to use again, and beheadings became an almost daily event in Paris. 17,000 people would be executed during this period. The guillotine itself would remain in official use in France until 1981, with the last person to share Louis XVI’s fate on the machine he helped design being executed in 1977.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Reign of Terror”. Editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. December 2017.

“French Revolution”. Editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. February 2018.

“The Bloody Family History of the Guillotine”. Edward White, The Paris Review. April 2018.