Guillotine, c. 1800

The guillotine was named after the French doctor Joseph-Ignace Guillotin (1738 – 1814). In 1789, the year of the storming of the Bastille in Paris, he proposed to the French National Assembly introducing this ‘decapitation machine’. Guillotin’s chief argument was that decapitation by guillotine was a more humane method of execution, as the angled blade falls so quickly that death must be almost painless. It was not a new method of execution, but it gained notoriety through its large scale use during the French Revolution.

Use of the guillotine in the Netherlands

The guillotine was also used in the Netherlands: the first three executions were carried out on 15 June 1812 on the Nieuwmarkt in Amsterdam. The guillotine was also used twice in The Hague. On 17 September 1812, a man who had been convicted of manslaughter was executed by guillotine. The second victim was 19-year-old Adriana Bouwman. She was convicted of theft and arson, and executed on 1 May 1813. The guillotine shown here was not used in the Netherlands, but presumably in France and Italy.

Humanisation of criminal law

Corporal punishment was very common in the Middle Ages. In some cases, death sentences were actually carried out, for example by beheading. Often the rich were treated differently to the poor. Punishments were intended to serve as a deterrent, which is why they often took place in public. While awaiting their punishment, prisoners were kept behind bars, for example here in the Prison Gate. Under the influence of the Enlightenment in the 18th century, more attention was paid to humanity in criminal law. However, it was not until 1811 that all forms of torture were abolished in the Netherlands. At that time, the Kingdom of Holland had been annexed into the French Empire. The French code of law, the Code Pénal, was introduced here and with it the first steps towards equal justice for all. The guillotine was also introduced. When the Netherlands regained its independence in 1813, the guillotine was abolished. From then on, capital punishment was carried out by hanging or the sword. The French Code Pénal remained in use until 1886 when the Dutch Penal Code was introduced, which is still used today. Following the abolition of branding and lashing (1854) and the death penalty (1870), long term prison sentences remained the only principal sentence for serious offences. By that time, the Prison Gate was no longer in use as a prison. In 1828, the prisoners were transferred to a larger prison on Prinsegracht.