The Timbers of Justice
The guillotine is undoubtedly the most potent image of revolutionary France, the tool whereby a whole society was "redesigned". Yet what came to be seen as an instrument of terror was, paradoxically, introduced as the result of the humanitarian feelings of men intent on revising an ancient and barbaric penal code. Robert Frederick Opie takes the reader on a sometimes terrifying journey through the narrow streets of 18th-century Paris and beyond. Initially scorned by the revolutionary mob for being insufficiently cruel, the swift and efficient guillotine soon became the darling of the crowd, despatching as many as 60 people a day beneath its blade. But the Razor of the Nation was to remain the chosen instrument of capital punishment until the 1970s, only finally being banned in 1981. This work traces the development of the guillotine over nearly two centuries, recounting the stories of famous executions, the lives of the executioners and the scientific research into whether the head retained consciousness after it was separated from the body that continued into the 1950s. The story recounts some diabolical uses of human inventiveness, but also many touching pleas for mercy.
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What Reviewers Are Saying
Packed with information about this form of judicial killing, this is not a book for the squeamish or fainthearted. Some of the events related by crime historian Opie are harrowing, though he approaches his subject in a dispassionate way that avoids gruesomeness for its own sake. In his trawl through the centuries he has amassed many little-known facts about the death machine, those who used it and those who died beneath its various types of blade. Most people associate the guillotine with the French Revolution but its history goes back much farther. Indeed, the revolutionaries were at first opposed to use of the guillotine as they thought it too merciful for their enemies, but the machine soon became popular because of its ability to despatch so many victims in a short time. Those who attended the public beheadings felt they were getting their money's worth. The guillotine - an invention wrongly attributed to the humanitarian Dr Joseph-Ignace Guillotin - took many forms and was in use in France until the 1970s. The greatest slaughter by way of the guillotine came not in France, however, but in Nazi Germany. Hitler was an advocate of its 'clean' method of dealing with civilians who opposed his regime. In revealing how the guillotine came into being and how its various parts were introduced, Opie shows that certain refinements came about due to botched jobs. He also reveals that the French had a passion for carrying out experiments on decapitated heads. Even into the 1950s there were tests to find out if the victim retained consciousness after the blade fell. That question was never satisfactorily answered although there were many reports of bodies twitching for a considerable time after execution. The photographs that accompany the text show some executions in progress, including the last public decapitation in Paris. This is a great reference book for those with an interest in the history of capital punishment, but it doesn't make for light reading. (Kirkus UK)