The earliest of killing machines was the rock that Cain used to kill Abel out in the meadow. Thus began the long and glorious history of man’s search to perfect killing, which led us quickly from the flinty axe and polished stone knife to the iron sword, the Bronze Age, and the endless reign of steel. Man clambered up the killing wall, crawled out of the slime and into shining armor, but beneath the polished facade the thirst for violence was ever-present, covered only by the veneer mandated by Arthur’s Camelot. Like the knight returned from the Holy Land in The Advocate, the plague of death lay hidden within, waiting to spread at the slightest provocation.
Man quickly graduated from the sword and spear to weapons of propulsion, and let the killing commence on a grand scale. Rifles, cannons, mortars, grenades, artillery shells, and weapons of mass destruction all got trotted out and played with by the pundits and the power mad, to our infinite regret. Yet, oddly enough, during this time of escalating violence, this 6,000 years of war and bloodshed, the methods by which men formally put each other to the penalty remained as archaic and clumsy as they ever were.
Until a short time ago — less than 400 years — the axe was the chosen implement of execution in polite society. To the shock of all Europe, King Charles I lost his head to the axe on 27 January 1649, as did Mary Queen of Scots, Sir Thomas More, the Countess of Salisbury, and countless other forgotten members of the nobility. In Shakespeare’s King Richard III the English monarch memorably shouts out “Off with his head!!” in the Tower of London after accusing former ally Lord Hastings of plotting to destroy him, a cry which finds its mate in modern times in the crazed screeching of Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen. Who among us will forget the psychotic pumpkin-headed glory of Helena Bonham Carter reprising the role in Burton’s Alice in Wonderland?
The human obsession with eliminating a contender through removal of its main feature — killing the hydra by chopping off its head — continued in various forms from axe to sword until the French perfected the guillotine. Although older narratives may tell you that the guillotine was invented in the late 18th century, most recent accounts recognize that similar decapitation machines have a long history. The most famous, and possibly one of the earliest, was the Halifax Gibbet, a monolithic wooden structure which was supposedly created from two fifteen foot high uprights capped by a horizontal beam. The blade was an axe head, attached to the bottom of a four and a half foot wooden block that slid up and down via grooves in the uprights. Starting in 1280, executions took place in the town’s Market Place on Saturdays to much cheering and fanfare, and the machine was not retired from use until April 30th, 1650 — probably in reaction to the beheading of Charles I the prior year.
The guillotine itself, as known to Americans through our avid study of French history and feckless love of Dicken’s Tale of Two Cities, played a central part in the bloody reign of terror that provided the spark for our own revolution. Madame Guillotine decapitated more than 15,000 heads between 1791-1798, including those of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, but the French — being egalitarian — decreed that all those condemned to death should die by the blade rather than the hangman’s noose, and scholars estimate that fully 80 percent of its victims were commoners. When death by blade was no longer reserved for the ruling class, it seems that everyone wanted to get in on the act.
I leave you to mull over this bloody topic at your leisure, with two grim jests to leaven the mood. First, I note with some surprise that there is a patent for the guillotine — the one used by magicians when they artfully pretend to cut off their beautiful assistant’s sparkling head in the “decapitation illusion.” (Patent No. 5605508). Second, I give you Monty Python’s medieval jocularity on chivalrous punch-ups.
And with that, I’ll just head off.