The Revolutionary Tribunal’s Use of the Guillotine

This description of the proceedings of the revolutionary tribunal, and of the physical setting of the Place de la Révolution where the guillotine stood, by an unsympathetic English observer gives the flavor of the workings of revolutionary justice. The site of hundreds if not thousands of executions, this public space is now called the Place de la Concorde, "the place of peace," and is situated between the Ministries of the Army and Navy and the new meeting place of the National Assembly.


In the centre of the hall, under a statue of justice, holding scales in one hand, and a sword in the other, with the book of laws by her side, sat Dumas, the president, with the other judges. Under them were seated the public accuser, Fouquier-Tinville, and his scribes. Three coloured ostrich plumes waved over their turned-up hats, à la Henri IV, and they wore a tri-coloured scarf. To the right were benches on which the accused were placed in several rows, and gendarmes, with carbines and fixed bayonets by their sides. To the left was the jury.

Never can I forget the mournful appearance of these 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 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 cart 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 [recorder] and his clerk, whose duty it was to witness the execution, and then return to Fouquier-Tinville, the Accusateur Public [public prosecutor], to report the execution of 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, the other reposing on 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, as they were formerly called, but now denominated élèves de l'Executeur des hautes oeuvres de la justice [students of the executor of the great works of justice]; 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; and 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 closed in by a moving board, when the head passed through what was called in derision, la lunette republicaine [the republican telescope]; 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.

Source: John Gideon Millingen, Recollections of Republican France, from 1790–1801 (London: H. Colburn, 1848), 204–7, 221.