The last public execution by guillotine, France

Last public execution by guillotine, France, 1939

In the early morning of 17 June 1939, Eugène Weidmann became the last person to be publicly executed by guillotine. He had been convicted of multiple kidnappings and murders, including that of a young American socialite.

Beginning with the botched kidnapping of an American tourist, the inspiring dancer Jean de Koven, Eugen Weidmann murdered two women and four men in the Paris area in 1937. His other victims included a woman lured by the false offer of a position as governess, a chauffer, a publicity agent, a real estate broker, and a man Weidmann had met as an inmate in a German prison. On the surface, his crimes seemed in most cases to have a profit motive, but they generally brought him very small winnings. Born in Frankfurt-am-Main in 1908, Weidmann early showed himself to be an incorrigible criminal; he had been sent to a juvenile detention facility and then served prison terms for theft and burglary in Canada and Germany prior to his arrival in Paris in 1937.

In the days following the execution, the press was especially indignant at the way the crowd had behaved. Paris-Soir denounced the crowd as “disgusting”, “unruly”, “jostling, clamoring, whistling.” The unruly crowd delayed the execution beyond the usual twilight hour of dawn, enabling clear photographs, and one short film to be taken. After Weidmann’s execution outside Versailles prison, women awaited the departure of police to dip their handkerchiefs in Weidmann’s blood, which stained the sidewalk. After the event the authorities finally came to believe that “far from serving as a deterrent and having salutary effects on the crowds” the public execution “promoted baser instincts of human nature and encouraged general rowdiness and bad behavior”. The “hysterical behavior” by spectators was so scandalous that French president Albert Lebrun immediately banned all future public executions.

Interesting stuff:

  • The Guillotine was developed with the idea of creating the most humane way to execute people. People don’t feel pain, the death is near instant and cannot fail. It leaves less chance than an actual executioner and hanging can take a while if the neck doesn’t snap. Just a quick reminder, in England, they still executed people by hacking the neck with an axe.
  • The guillotine was heavily used during the Reign of Terror (June 1793 to July 1794) with an estimated death toll range between 15,000 and 40,000 people.
  • British actor Christopher Lee was present at this last public execution. He was 17.
  • Executions by guillotine in France continued in private until September 10, 1977, when Hamida Djandoubi was the last person to be executed.