You might never have heard of brother Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, but you have probably heard of the method of execution that carries his surname. Born in May 1738, Guillotin was a French physician who is best known for introducing a new, less painful device to carry out dea.th penalties in his native France during the eighteenth century.
While he didn’t invent the guillotine [that honor goes to Tobias Schmidt], his name became an eponym for it, and his influence within Royal circles was the driving factor behind the introduction of the killing apparatus.
Guillotin was actually against the dea.th penalty.
It’s remarkable that the man who had the guillotine named after him, was vocally and actively opposed to the dea.th penalty throughout his life. His experiences as a medical doctor led him to oppose capital punishment, and he widely campaigned for the dea.th penalty to be abolished in France.
When he was unsuccessful, he tried to at least encourage executions to be more humane. At the time in France, beheading was reserved for the nobility and was carried out by either axe or sword. For commoners, the method of dea.th was hanging, burning at the stake, dea.th by boiling, or even dismemberment.
He proposed the ‘guillotine’ as a more humane method of achieving capital punishment.
In a six-article proposal, he suggested that decapitation of a criminal should be achieved by the means of a simple mechanism. He hoped that the new device would also reduce the numbers of enthusiastic viewers that came to watch public executions.
Towards the end of the Reign of Terror, he was informed that the device that he introduced would be named after him. He was deeply saddened by this fact, and it inhibited his efforts to outlaw capital punishment, as people couldn’t believe that a man who had an execution device named after him could possibly be serious about opposing capital punishment.
Guillotin as a Freemason.
Guillotin was initiated into the first degree of Freemasonry in 1765, at La Parfaite Union lodge in Angouleme. Throughout his medical practice, he was very active as a Mason, and would go onto join several other lodges in France.
He was influential in the creation of the Grand Orient of France, and was a regular attendee at its conventions until 1790. In 1773, he became Worshipful Master of the lodge La Concorde Fraternelle in Paris.
While his story doesn’t have the happiest of endings, it’s another intriguing example of how Masons have played influential roles in the shaping of history. For those interested in exploring the life of Guillotin further, Netflix released a crime drama series called La Revolution, portraying him as the hero late in 2020.