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.

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.