The name “guillotine” dates to the 1790s and the French Revolution. The guillotine, the notorious killing machine of the French Revolution, was used to behead thousands, including King Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. Why was it a humane form of execution for its time, and did victims' brains continue functioning after decapitation?

During the Reign of Terror of the mid-1790s, thousands of “enemies of the French revolution” met their end by the guillotine’s blade. Some members of the public initially complained that the machine was too quick and clinical, but before long the process had evolved into high entertainment.

Many people offered sarcastic quips or defiant last words before being executed, and others danced their way up the steps of the scaffold. Fascination with the guillotine waned at the end of the 18th century, but public beheadings continued in France until 1939.

The guillotine remained France’s state method of capital punishment well into the late 20th century. Convicted murderer Hamida Djandoubi became the last person to meet his end by the “National Razor” after he was executed by the guillotine in 1977. 

Hamida Djandoubi was a Tunisian sentenced to death penalty in France. He was a Tunisian agricultural worker and convicted murderer. He moved to Marseille, France, in 1968 and six years later he kidnapped, tortured and murdered 22-year-old Élisabeth Bousquet, his former girlfriend.

He was sentenced to death in February 1977 and executed by guillotine in September that year. He was the last person to be executed in Western Europe, and he was the last person to be lawfully executed by beheading anywhere in the Western world. He was not however, the last person sentenced to death penalty in France. Marcel Chevalier served as chief executioner.

Still, the machine’s 189-year reign only officially came to an end in September 1981, when France abolished capital punishment for good.