Author: Archibald Hamilton Rowan  | Date: 1840

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A. H. Rowan 1840

The Vengeance of Dr. Guillotin



Never can I forget the mournful appearance of the funereal processions to the place of execution. The march was opened by a detachment of mounted gendarmes—the carts followed. They were the same carts as those that are used in Paris for carrying wood; four boards were placed across them for seats, and on each board sat two, and sometimes three victims. Their hands were tied behind their backs, and the constant jolting of the carts made them nod their heads up and down, to the great amusement of the spectators. On the front of the cart stood Samson, the executioner, or one of his sons or assistants. Gendarmes on foot marched by the side. Then followed a hackney-coach, in which was the Rapporteur and his clerk, whose duty it was to witness the execution, and then return to Fouquier-Tinville, the Accusateur Public, to report the execution to what they called the law.

The process of execution was also a sad and heart-rending spectacle. In the middle of the Place de la Révolution was erected a guillotine, in front of a colossal statue of Liberty, represented seated on a rock, a Phrygian cap on her head, a spear in her hand, and the other reposing in a shield.

On one side of the scaffold were drawn out a sufficient number of carts, with large baskets painted red, to receive the heads and bodies of the victims. Those bearing the condemned moved on slowly to the foot of the guillotine; the culprits were led out in turn, and, if necessary, supported by two of the executioner’s valets, but their assistance was rarely required.

Most of these unfortunates ascended the scaffold with a determined step—many of them looked up firmly on the menacing instrument of death, beholding for the last time the rays of the glorious sun, beaming on the polished axe. I have seen some young men actually dance a few steps before they went up to be strapped to the perpendicular plane, which was then tilted to a horizontal plane in a moment, and ran on the grooves until the neck was secured and dosed in by a moving board, when the head passed through what was called, in derision, la lunette republicaine [the republican toilet-seat]. The weighty knife was then dropped with a heavy fall; and, with incredible dexterity and rapidity, two executioners tossed the body into the basket, while another threw the head after it.


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Chicago: Archibald Hamilton Rowan, "The Vengeance of Dr. Guillotin—I," Autobiography, ed. A. H. Rowan in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris (Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Co., 1951), Original Sources, accessed April 14, 2024,

MLA: Rowan, Archibald Hamilton. "The Vengeance of Dr. Guillotin—I." Autobiography, edited by A. H. Rowan, in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, edited by Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris, Harrisburg, Pa., Stackpole Co., 1951, Original Sources. 14 Apr. 2024.

Harvard: Rowan, AH, 'The Vengeance of Dr. Guillotin—I' in Autobiography, ed. . cited in 1951, History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. , Stackpole Co., Harrisburg, Pa.. Original Sources, retrieved 14 April 2024, from