Like the gas chamber, the guillotine was first introduced to the world as a humane form of execution. Evan Andrews at History notes the guillotine was named after Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin in late 1789. Guillotin personally didn’t agree with the whole idea of capital punishment, but he argued that decapitation by machine would be much more humane than decapitation Game of Thrones style with a sword or axe. At the time, sword or axe beheadings were frequently botched and, in essence, inhumane.
The first guillotine execution was revolutionary not only as a new method of execution. The method was first used during the French Revolution, which was notorious for having at least 40,000 people killed by guillotine. Some of those executed famously included King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Maximilien Robespierre, one of the initial leaders of the French Revolution and the catalyst behind the Reign of Terror, was also executed by guillotine. Between June and July of 1794, 1,400 enemies of the French Revolution were killed by the guillotine.
But the first person killed by guillotine wasn’t a member of a royal family or anyone remotely famous. It was a common criminal and highwayman named Nicolas Jacques Pelletier. Pelletier, according to Marc Estier in The Good Doctor Guillotin, was convicted for attacking a traveler and killing him.
This is the story of the first execution by guillotine, and the precedent it set for the guillotine throughout history.