It was on this day forty years ago, 10 September 1977, that the last legal beheading in the western world took place as France executed Hamida Djandoubi by guillotine. Djandoubi had been convicted earlier that year on charges of kidnapping and torture-murder of his former girlfriend. Because the crime was especially brutal, and because Djandoubi had attempted another kidnapping shortly after the murder, neither the courts nor the executive would extend clemency and commute his sentence. His execution, therefore marks the final operation of La Guillotine, which had been France’s only legal method of execution since the French Revolution.
It seems strange, perhaps, but the guillotine was chosen as a method that was both extremely humane and intensely egalitarian. Before the revolution, only nobility were beheaded; commoners could suffer a variety of methods of execution depending upon the crimes in question, with hanging being most common, but burning and breaking on the wheel were still legal under France’s monarchy. The guillotine was fast and effective. It remains the only form of Capital Punishment which is uniformly fatal, and within a predictable time range. Hanging, even if a body’s neck is broken, can still cause a soul to linger for 8 to 12 minutes. Gassing and other poisons are far too variable in the ranges of reactions and responses as any observer can note. The electric chair is not even to be considered. (We may as well revive burning at the stake.) Firing squads are iffy at best, even when staffed with excellent marksmen. But examine, if you will, the virtues of the guillotine: it is fast. Almost all of the blood drains from the severed head in less than a minute, guaranteeing the cessation of all brain activity within three minutes. There is no missed shot, no unexpected reaction, and no second attempt.
During France’s dire Reign of Terror, the intended “deterrent effect” was also in full force: severed heads were snatched up by the hair and shaken before the crowds to reinforce the severity of the penalty. In more modern times, all executions were carried out in rather private circumstances. And despite teh vaunted “benefits” of this method of execution, there remains something profoundly disturbing about it.
I still find it rather odd to realize that this final victim of La Guillotine was executed just one day before I left home to begin my time at college.
Flower Mound, Texas
This is a sharp Medicine, but it is a Physician for all diseases and miseries.
— Sir Walter Raleigh, contemplating the headsman’s axe