Coroner's Report: Guillotine

Coroner's Report: Guillotine

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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?

Where Found

County Record Offices (Many offices have compiled name indexes from coroner’s reports in local newspapers. Find the details of a local UK archive from a searchable list of over 2,500 archives hosted by The National Archives)

Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI holds Coroner’s Inquest papers relating to over 25,000 people who died in Counties Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone between c.1872 and 1999. They also hold Coroners’ Registers which contain a summary entry for a corresponding inquest which may not survive. Search the eCatalogue for full descriptions of available coroner records)

British Library Newspapers (The aim of the collection is to acquire all newspapers published in the United Kingdom and in the Republic of Ireland. The newspapers are held in print form, as microfilm copies and as digital copies)


Why was the guillotine considered a “humane” killing machine? What did sufferers of the Black Death experience? How did mobster Al Capone die? Explore these mysteries and more in the HISTORY web series Coroner’s Report:


Coroner's Report — Articles, Video, Pictures and Facts

The pus-filled lymph nodes, which threatened to rupture and kill the patient through septicaemia. Some people were quarantined in wooden huts or ‘ludges’, for anything from two to six weeks or until death, whichever came the soonest.

With the limited and often dangerous medical treatments of the time, doctors could do very little to help. Like others, they would have worn herb-filled, beak-like, masks to try to protect themselves but many died. John Paulitious, Edinburgh’s first official plague doctor, was one such victim. However, the risks were not without compensation. Dr George Rae, replaced him on 13 June 1645.

Dr Rae dressed from head to toe in thick leather, a bird-like mask (with the "beak" filled with herbs which were thought to act as an air filter), long leather cloak and gloves when visiting plague victims. At the time, it was believed the plague was spread by miasma - what was thought to be 'bad air' - and the doctor's cloak was designed to prevent miasma from reaching his skin. It has since been shown that the plague was actually spread by flea bites, and that the leather prevented the patient's fleas from biting


The use of beheading machines in Europe long predates such use during the French Revolution in 1792. An early example of the principle is found in the High History of the Holy Grail, dated to about 1210. Although the device is imaginary, its function is clear. [5] The text says:

Within these three openings are the hallows set for them. And behold what I would do to them if their three heads were therein . She setteth her hand toward the openings and draweth forth a pin that was fastened into the wall, and a cutting blade of steel droppeth down, of steel sharper than any razor, and closeth up the three openings. "Even thus will I cut off their heads when they shall set them into those three openings thinking to adore the hallows that are beyond." [5]

The Halifax Gibbet was a wooden structure consisting of two wooden uprights, capped by a horizontal beam, of a total height of 4.5 metres (15 ft). The blade was an axe head weighing 3.5 kg (7.7 lb), attached to the bottom of a massive wooden block that slid up and down in grooves in the uprights. This device was mounted on a large square platform 1.25 metres (4 ft) high. It is not known when the Halifax Gibbet was first used the first recorded execution in Halifax dates from 1280, but that execution may have been by sword, axe, or gibbet. The machine remained in use until Oliver Cromwell forbade capital punishment for petty theft. It was used for the last time, for the execution of two criminals on a single day, on 30 April 1650.

A Hans Weiditz (1495-1537) woodcut illustration from the 1532 edition of Petrarch's De remediis utriusque fortunae, or "Remedies for Both Good and Bad Fortune" shows a device similar to the Halifax Gibbet in the background being used for an execution.

Holinshed's Chronicles of 1577 included a picture of "The execution of Murcod Ballagh near Merton in Ireland in 1307" showing a similar execution machine, suggesting its early use in Ireland. [6]

The Maiden was constructed in 1564 for the Provost and Magistrates of Edinburgh, and was in use from April 1565 to 1710. One of those executed was James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton, in 1581, and a 1644 publication began circulating the legend that Morton himself commissioned the Maiden after he had seen the Halifax Gibbet. [7] The Maiden was readily dismantled for storage and transport, and it is now on display in the National Museum of Scotland. [8]

Etymology Edit

For a period of time after its invention, the guillotine was called a louisette. However, it was later named after French physician and Freemason Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, who proposed on 10 October 1789 the use of a special device to carry out executions in France in a more humane manner. A death penalty opponent, he was displeased with the breaking wheel and other common and gruesome methods of execution and sought to persuade Louis XVI of France to implement a less painful alternative. While not the device's inventor, Guillotin's name ultimately became an eponym for it. The beliefs that Guillotin invented the device and that he was later executed by it are not true. [9]

Invention Edit

French surgeon and physiologist Antoine Louis, together with German engineer Tobias Schmidt, built a prototype for the guillotine. According to the memoires of the French executioner Charles-Henri Sanson, Louis XVI suggested the use of a straight, angled blade instead of a curved one. [10]

Introduction in France Edit

On 10 October 1789, physician Joseph-Ignace Guillotin proposed to the National Assembly that capital punishment should always take the form of decapitation "by means of a simple mechanism." [11]

Sensing the growing discontent, Louis XVI banned the use of the breaking wheel. [12] In 1791, as the French Revolution progressed, the National Assembly researched a new method to be used on all condemned people regardless of class, consistent with the idea that the purpose of capital punishment was simply to end life rather than to inflict unnecessary pain. [12]

A committee formed under Antoine Louis, physician to the King and Secretary to the Academy of Surgery. [12] Guillotin was also on the committee. The group was influenced by beheading devices used elsewhere in Europe, such as the Italian Mannaia (or Mannaja, which had been used since Roman times), the Scottish Maiden, and the Halifax Gibbet (3.5 kg). [13] While many of these prior instruments crushed the neck or used blunt force to take off a head, devices also usually used a crescent blade to behead as well as a hinged two-part yoke to immobilize the victim's neck. [12]

Laquiante, an officer of the Strasbourg criminal court, [14] designed a beheading machine and employed Tobias Schmidt, a German engineer and harpsichord maker, to construct a prototype. [15] Antoine Louis is also credited with the design of the prototype. France's official executioner, Charles-Henri Sanson, claimed in his memoirs that King Louis XVI (an amateur locksmith) recommended that the device employ an oblique blade rather than a crescent one, lest the blade not be able to cut through all necks the neck of the king, who would eventually die by guillotine years later, was offered up discreetly as an example. [16] The first execution by guillotine was performed on highwayman Nicolas Jacques Pelletier [17] on 25 April 1792 [18] [19] [20] in front of what is now the city hall of Paris (Place de l'Hôtel de Ville). All citizens condemned to die were from then on executed there, until the scaffold was moved on 21 August to the Place du Carrousel.

The machine was deemed successful because it was considered a humane form of execution in contrast with the more cruel methods used in the pre-revolutionary Ancien Régime. In France, before the invention of the guillotine, members of the nobility were beheaded with a sword or an axe, which often took two or more blows to kill the condemned. The condemned or their families would sometimes pay the executioner to ensure that the blade was sharp in order to achieve a quick and relatively painless death. Commoners were usually hanged, which could take many minutes. In the early phase of the French Revolution before the guillotine's adoption, the slogan À la lanterne (in English: To the lamp post! String Them Up! or Hang Them!) symbolized popular justice in revolutionary France. The revolutionary radicals hanged officials and aristocrats from street lanterns and also employed more gruesome methods of execution, such as the wheel or burning at the stake.

Having only one method of civil execution for all regardless of class was also seen as an expression of equality among citizens. The guillotine was then the only civil legal execution method in France until the abolition of the death penalty in 1981, [21] apart from certain crimes against the security of the state, or for the death sentences passed by military courts, [22] which entailed execution by firing squad. [23]

Reign of Terror Edit

Louis Collenot d'Angremont was a royalist famed for having been the first guillotined for his political ideas, on 21 August 1792. During the Reign of Terror (June 1793 to July 1794) about 17,000 people were guillotined. Former King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette were executed at the guillotine in 1793. Towards the end of the Terror in 1794, revolutionary leaders such as Georges Danton, Saint-Just and Maximilien Robespierre were sent to the guillotine. Most of the time, executions in Paris were carried out in the Place de la Revolution (former Place Louis XV and current Place de la Concorde) the guillotine stood in the corner near the Hôtel Crillon where the City of Brest Statue can be found today. The machine was moved several times, to the Place de la Nation and the Place de la Bastille, but returned, particularly for the execution of the King and for Robespierre.

For a time, executions by guillotine were a popular form of entertainment that attracted great crowds of spectators, with vendors selling programs listing the names of the condemned. But more than being popular entertainment alone during the Terror, the guillotine symbolized revolutionary ideals: equality in death equivalent to equality before the law open and demonstrable revolutionary justice and the destruction of privilege under the Ancien Régime, which used separate forms of execution for nobility and commoners. [24] The Parisian sans-culottes, then the popular public face of lower-class patriotic radicalism, thus considered the guillotine a positive force for revolutionary progress. [25]

Retirement Edit

After the French Revolution, executions resumed in the city center. On 4 February 1832, the guillotine was moved behind the Church of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie, just before being moved again, to the Grande Roquette prison, on 29 November 1851.

In the late 1840s, the Tussaud brothers Joseph and Francis, gathering relics for Madame Tussauds wax museum, visited the aged Henry-Clément Sanson, grandson of the executioner Charles-Henri Sanson, from whom they obtained parts, the knife and lunette, of one of the original guillotines used during the Reign of Terror. The executioner had "pawned his guillotine, and got into woeful trouble for alleged trafficking in municipal property". [26]

On 6 August 1909, the guillotine was used at the junction of the Boulevard Arago and the Rue de la Santé, behind the La Santé Prison.

The last public guillotining in France was of Eugen Weidmann, who was convicted of six murders. He was beheaded on 17 June 1939 outside the prison Saint-Pierre, rue Georges Clemenceau 5 at Versailles, which is now the Palais de Justice. Numerous issues with the proceedings arose: inappropriate behavior by spectators, incorrect assembly of the apparatus, and secret cameras filming and photographing the execution from several storeys above. In response, the French government ordered that future executions be conducted in the prison courtyard in private. [ citation needed ]

The guillotine remained the official method of execution in France until the death penalty was abolished in 1981. [3] The final three guillotinings in France before its abolition were those of child-murderers Christian Ranucci (on 28 July 1976) in Marseille, Jérôme Carrein (on 23 June 1977) in Douai and torturer-murderer Hamida Djandoubi (on 10 September 1977) in Marseille. Djandoubi's death marked the final occasion that the guillotine would ever be employed as an execution method by any government in the world.

In Germany, the guillotine is known as the Fallbeil ("falling axe") and was used in various German states from the 19th century onwards, [ citation needed ] becoming the preferred method of execution in Napoleonic times in many parts of the country. The guillotine and the firing squad were the legal methods of execution during the era of the German Empire (1871–1918) and the Weimar Republic (1919–1933).

The original German guillotines resembled the French Berger 1872 model, but they eventually evolved into sturdier and more efficient machines. Built primarily of metal instead of wood, these new guillotines had heavier blades than their French predecessors and thus could use shorter uprights as well. Officials could also conduct multiple executions faster, thanks to a more efficient blade recovery system and the eventual removal of the tilting board (bascule). Those deemed likely to struggle were backed slowly into the device from behind a curtain to prevent them from seeing it prior to the execution. A metal screen covered the blade as well in order to conceal it from the sight of the condemned.

Nazi Germany used the guillotine between 1933 and 1945 to execute 16,500 prisoners, a figure which accounts for 10,000 executions between 1944 and 1945 alone. [27] [28] One political victim the government guillotined was Sophie Scholl, who was convicted of high treason after distributing anti-Nazi pamphlets at the University of Munich with her brother Hans, and other members of the German student resistance group, the White Rose. [29] The guillotine was last used in West Germany in 1949 in the execution of Richard Schuh [30] and was last used in East Germany in 1966 in the execution of Horst Fischer. [31] The Stasi used the guillotine in East Germany between 1950 and 1966 for secret executions. [32]

A number of countries, primarily in Europe, continued to employ this method of execution into the 19th and 20th centuries, but they ceased to use it before France did in 1977.

In Antwerp, the last person to be beheaded was Francis Kol. Convicted of robbery and murder, he received his punishment on 8 May 1856. During the period from 19 March 1798 to 30 March 1856, there were 19 beheadings in Antwerp. [33]

In Switzerland, it was used for the last time by the canton of Obwalden in the execution of murderer Hans Vollenweider in 1940.

In Greece, the guillotine (along with the firing squad) was introduced as a method of execution in 1834 it was last used in 1913.

In Sweden, beheading became the mandatory method of execution in 1866. The guillotine replaced manual beheading in 1903, and it was used only once, in the execution of murderer Alfred Ander in 1910 at Långholmen Prison, Stockholm. Ander was also the last person to be executed in Sweden before capital punishment was abolished there in 1921. [34] [35]

In South Vietnam, after the Diệm regime enacted the 10/59 Decree in 1959, mobile special military courts were dispatched to the countryside in order to intimidate the rural population they used guillotines, which had belonged to the former French colonial power, in order to carry out death sentences on the spot. [36] One such guillotine is still on show at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. [37]

In the Western Hemisphere, the guillotine saw only limited use. The only recorded guillotine execution in North America north of the Caribbean took place on the French island of St. Pierre in 1889, of Joseph Néel, with a guillotine brought in from Martinique. [38] In the Caribbean, it was used quite rarely in Guadeloupe and Martinique, the last time in Fort-de-France in 1965. [39] In South America, the guillotine was only used in French Guiana, where about 150 people were beheaded between 1850 and 1945: most of them were convicts exiled from France and incarcerated within the "bagne", or penal colonies. Within the Southern Hemisphere, it worked in New Caledonia (which had a bagne too until the end of the 19th century) and at least twice in Tahiti.

In 1996 in the United States, Georgia State Representative Doug Teper unsuccessfully sponsored a bill to replace that state's electric chair with the guillotine. [40] [41]

In recent years, a limited number of individuals have died by suicide using a guillotine which they had constructed themselves. [42] [43] [44] [45]

Ever since the guillotine's first use, there has been debate as to whether or not the guillotine provided as swift and painless a death as Guillotin had hoped. With previous methods of execution that were intended to be painful, few expressed concern about the level of suffering that they inflicted. However, because the guillotine was invented specifically to be more humane, the issue of whether or not the condemned experiences pain has been thoroughly examined and has remained a controversial topic. While certain eyewitness accounts of guillotine executions suggest anecdotally that awareness may persist momentarily after decapitation, there has never been true scientific consensus on the matter.

Living heads Edit

The question of consciousness or awareness following decapitation remained a topic of discussion during the guillotine's use.

The following report was written by Dr. Beaurieux, who observed the head of executed prisoner Henri Languille, on 28 June 1905:

Here, then, is what I was able to note immediately after the decapitation: the eyelids and lips of the guillotined man worked in irregularly rhythmic contractions for about five or six seconds. This phenomenon has been remarked by all those finding themselves in the same conditions as myself for observing what happens after the severing of the neck .

I waited for several seconds. The spasmodic movements ceased. [. ] It was then that I called in a strong, sharp voice: "Languille!" I saw the eyelids slowly lift up, without any spasmodic contractions – I insist advisedly on this peculiarity – but with an even movement, quite distinct and normal, such as happens in everyday life, with people awakened or torn from their thoughts.

Next Languille's eyes very definitely fixed themselves on mine and the pupils focused themselves. I was not, then, dealing with the sort of vague dull look without any expression, that can be observed any day in dying people to whom one speaks: I was dealing with undeniably living eyes which were looking at me. After several seconds, the eyelids closed again [. ].

It was at that point that I called out again and, once more, without any spasm, slowly, the eyelids lifted and undeniably living eyes fixed themselves on mine with perhaps even more penetration than the first time. Then there was a further closing of the eyelids, but now less complete. I attempted the effect of a third call there was no further movement – and the eyes took on the glazed look which they have in the dead. [46] [47]

During the span of its usage, the French guillotine has gone by many names, some of which include:

Cory Monteith's autopsy results shocked his fans

In 2013, Glee fans gathered to pay tribute to Cory Monteith (best known as jock turned Glee club member Finn Hudson), who died alone in a Vancouver hotel room at age 31. The public was shocked to learn that the actor died from a toxic reaction caused by high levels of alcohol and heroin, but those close to him claimed he had been trying to talk about his issues with substance abuse for years.

Shortly before his death Monteith starred in a disappointing indie crime flick called McCanick, winning the part of a drug-addicted convict simply by sharing stories from his own life. "He opened up quite a bit," director Josh. C Waller told People. "He was like, 'I can do this character. I know this character. I was this character. I have lived elements of this.'" Monteith had been candid about his past on several occasions, telling Parade that at one stage, he was abusing "anything and everything, as much as possible."

Despite attempting to sober up with stints in rehab, Monteith fell back into old habits, and by the time police found him collapsed on the floor of the Pacific Rim Hotel, it was too late for resuscitation. "It appeared that Mr Monteith had been dead for several hours," the coroner's report read. Paraphernalia including a "spoon with drug residue and a used hypodermic needle" was found next to his body, along with "two empty champagne bottles."

Personal identification

Angi M. Christensen , . Eric J. Bartelink , in Forensic Anthropology (Second Edition) , 2019

Both medical examiners and coroners are responsible for investigating suspicious deaths, identifying bodies, notifying next of kin, and signing the death certificate. The qualifications they have and the medicolegal systems in which they work, however, can be quite different. A medical examiner is a physician, usually certified in forensic pathology, who is appointed to their position and performs autopsies. A coroner is an elected official who typically has little to no medical training. Different jurisdictions (at the state or county level in the United States) may operate under a medical examiner or coroner system or some other medicolegal system. Some jurisdictions require coroners to be pathologists (often with a further specialty in forensic pathology), but others do not in such cases, remains may need to be sent to a medical examiner or forensic pathologist if an autopsy is required. Although sometimes contentious, many authorities advocate the medical examiner system over the coroner system, or support nationalizing the medical examiner system in the United States. It is advisable for forensic anthropologists to be cognizant of the medicolegal system and the medicolegal authority in which they practice.

Medicolegal systems in the US by state.

The most formal document produced by a coroner following the legal examination of the cause of death was the inquest itself. This was a parchment document with a brief statement of the verdict of the inquest on one side. This might include verdicts such as chance medley or felo de se (accidental death in self defence or suicide), or it could include any number of more obviously descriptive causes of death such as manslaughter, drowning, fever, etc. The name of the victim will also normally appear here, and the parish in which they died. On the reverse side of this document a formal statement of the verdict is included. This is normally quite generic in form, reproducing many stock phrases, but also including the bald details of the death, and the location of the inquest. Some formal inquest documents are pre-printed forms, with details filled in by hand, while others are entirely manuscript. The inquest document will also include the names of between twelve and twenty-four jurors empanelled to examine the body and hear witnesses. In some examples the signature and seal of each juror is also included on the inquest. In its original form, this document was folded into an envelope and used to hold other related items including the warrant and depositions.

On being notified of a suspicious death, the coroner issued a warrant to impanel a jury, and instructed the local constable to carry it out. Although coroners' juries were made up of substantial householders, the precise criteria upon which jurymen were selected remains uncertain. As the warrant took the form of a standardised piece of legal text, printed forms with the date, etc. filled in by hand, emerged from the mid-eighteenth century.

Records in other archives and organisations

Records held elsewhere

The National Archives’ catalogue contains collections and contact details of local archives around the UK and beyond. To locate these records, search our catalogue with keywords and refine your results to ‘Other archives’ using the filters.

From 1752 to 1860, coroners were required to file their inquests at the quarter sessions. Quarter sessions records are held at local archives .

Local coroners’ offices

Search for contact details in telephone directories or on the website of the relevant local authority.

Authorities Just Released George Floyd’s Complete Autopsy Report. Read It Here.

The Hennepin County, Minn. Medical Examiner’s Office on Wednesday evening released its complete 20-page autopsy report detailing the death of George Floyd. The report was released the same day three former officers were accused by prosecutors of playing a role in Floyd’s alleged murder. Prosecutors also on Wednesday upgraded charges against former officer Derek Chauvin, who now faces a new count of second-degree felony murder. Chauvin had previously been charged with third-degree murder.

The medical examiner’s report lists Floyd’s death as having occurred May 25 at 9:25 p.m. the autopsy was conducted exactly twelve hours later at 9:25 a.m. on May 26.

As was released earlier by the medical examiner’s office, Floyd’s cause of death is listed officially as “cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression.” The full autopsy report states further that “no life-threatening injuries [were] identified.” The medical examiner’s office had also previously deemed the manner of Floyd’s death a “homicide.”

The report describes Floyd as a 󈬞-year-old man who became unresponsive while being restrained by law enforcement officers he received emergency medical care in the field and subsequently in the Hennepin HealthCare (HHC) Emergency Department, but could not be resuscitated.”

Novel Coronavirus

Floyd had contracted the novel coronavirus, sometimes called COVID-19 or 2019-nCoV. A postmortem nasal swab collected on the day of the autopsy turned out to be “positive for 2019-nCoV,” the report says. However, the medical examiner’s findings suggest that the actual infection probably occurred nearly two months earlier.

“The decedent was known to be positive for 2019-nCoV RNA on 4/3/2020,” the report goes on to say. “Since PCR positivity for 2019-nCoV RNA can persist for weeks after the onset and resolution of clinical disease, the autopsy result most likely reflects asymptomatic but persistent PCR positivity from previous infection.”

In other words, the medical examiner’s office believes that Floyd would not have been suffering from symptoms when he died.

Elsewhere, the report says Floyd’s lungs “show[ed] generally normal overall architecture, without malignancy, pneumonia, granulomatous inflammation, or polarizable intravascular foreign material.”

The report explains, in detail, injuries to Floyd’s body. “Blunt force injuries” included “cutaneous blunt force injuries of the forehead, face, and upper lip” (those are injuries affecting the skin) “mucosal injuries of the lips” (that’s generally the skin inside the lips) “cutaneous blunt force injuries of the shoulders, hands, elbows, and legs,” and “patterned contusions (in some areas abraded) of the wrists, consistent with restraints (handcuffs).”

Underlying Conditions

The report says Floyd’s autopsy revealed three “natural diseases:” (1) “arteriosclerotic heart disease,” which it described as “multifocal, severe” (2) “hypertensive heart disease,” which included a “clinical history of hypertension,” and (3) a left pelvic tumor, which it described as “incidental.” (Incidental tumors are generally benign.)

The report elsewhere said that a “cross sections of coronary arteries, though not all ideally oriented, confirm the gross impression of atherosclerotic narrowing.”

Toxicology Findings

Blood samples collected at 9:00 p.m. on May 25th, before Floyd died, tested positive for the following, the autopsy report states. (Quantities are given for those who are medically inclined.)

  • Fentanyl 11 ng/mL
  • Norfentanyl 5.6 ng/mL
  • 4-ANPP 0.65 ng/mL
  • Methamphetamine 19 ng/mL
  • Various types of THC: 11-Hydroxy Delta-9 THC 1.2 ng/mL Delta-9 Carboxy THC 42 ng/mL Delta-9 THC 2.9 ng/mL
  • Cotinine positive
  • Caffeine positive

A urine drug screen tested positive for presumptive positive for cannabinoids, amphetamines, and fentanyl/metabolite.

A urine drug screen also confirmed free morphine of 86 ng/mL.

Here is a chart of the positive findings taken from the report itself:

The full document contains detailed findings about the quantities of each of these substances and what they may mean.

Floyd’s body was accompanied to the morgue by a pair of XXL blue Nike track pants, a black ribbed sleeveless tee shirt, a pair of 3XL “Starting 5” brand black and gray sweatpants, and a pair of black dress socks: one of the socks had a gray heel and a gray toe box.

The medical examiner’s office said it released the report “with the consent and cooperation of Mr. George Floyd’s family and their legal representatives” and pursuant to Minnesota law, “which requires a court order to release an autopsy report to the public.”

READ the complete report below:

Editor’s note: this piece began as a breaking news report and has been updated several times.

Watch the video: Inside A Coroners Office: Solving Unexplained Deaths Mysterious Death Documentary. Real Stories (June 2022).

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