The Last Public Execution by Guillotine

Dec 1, 2021 5 comments

On the morning of 17 June 1939, a crowd gathered outside the doors of the Saint-Pierre prison, in the center of Versailles. They had come to watch the execution of Eugen Weidmann, a serial killer who had been convicted of multiple kidnappings and murders.

The first spectators began arriving shortly after midnight. Because executions usually took place before sunrise, being early afforded spectators front-row seats and better visibility of the action. By the time the first rays of the sun broke out across the still dark sky, the crowd had swelled to six hundred people. The mood was boisterous.

The execution of Eugen Weidmann. Photo: France National Archives

“There were catcalls and jests with the Mobile Guards and occasion­ally a wave of cheering and whistling,” reported the International Herald Tribune. “In two brightly lighted cafes waiters joked and perspired and piles of sausage sandwiches, prepared in advance, went steadily down.”

A little after 4 a.m., Weidmann emerged from the prison, his eyes tightly shut, his face flushed and his cheeks sunken. His hands were tied behind his back. “His thin blue shirt had been cut away across his chest, and his shoulders ap­peared startlingly white against the dark polished wood of the machine upon which he was pushed,” wrote the International Herald Tribune.

Ten seconds later, he was dead.

Among those watching was actor Christopher Lee, who would later gain recognition playing the role of Dracula. Lee was then 17. He was attending with a friend of his family who was a journalist. In his autobiography, he described the "powerful wave of howling and shrieking" that greeted Weidmann’s appearance on the street.

Lee said he could not bring himself to watch Weidmann’s execution. "I turned my head, but I heard," he told a documentary in 1998.

Eugen Weidmann being led to the guillotine. Photo: France National Archives

The blade falls. Photo: France National Archives

As soon as Weidmann’s decapitated head fell and the rest of his body slouched to the ground, some spectators rushed to the corpse to soak handkerchiefs and scarves in the blood spread on the pavement, as a souvenir.

The guillotine was quickly dismantled, and the pavement washed with water. The crowd dispersed. A few lingered on to discuss what they had just witnessed. Life resumed its course "with the passage of the first tram and the reopening of the two neighbouring cafes.”

Unbeknownst to Parisian prison officials, a film camera had been set up in one of the apartments overlooking the Place Louis-Barthou. The film recorded Weidmann’s execution and by the next morning photographic stills appeared on the cover of nearly every French newspaper. The spectacle of bloodlust and the unruly behavior of the savage crowd horrified the public. The government was embarrassed.

A crowd watched the execution of Eugen Weidmann. Photo: France National Archives

Weidmann’s execution was one of a series of public executions in France where the the crowd showed unhealthy obsession. In 1909, when a notorious gang of four bandits were sentenced to death in the northern city of Béthune, tens of thousands gathered for the public execution. They came from all over France, and even from Belgium and Germany. The taverns remained open throughout the night by special permission of the police. Despite the cold and a steady rain, the city of Béthune was said to have the “air of a holiday”. As the executioner assembled the guillotine, crowds pushed past barriers. They filled the gardens next to the entrance to the prison, climbing trees for a better view, smoking, drinking and singing songs. Hundreds of cavalry and infantry, together with gendarmes, held the crowd at bay with difficulty. They shouted ‘Vengeance’ and ‘Death!’ and cheered when the blade came down. The crowd’s unbridled emotions and their misdirected curiosity scandalized the public.

In a paper published in Cultural History, Gregory Shaya writes:

From the 1860s to the 1910s, a host of commentators sounded off on the degraded spectacle of the public execution. They had little to say about the violence of capital punishment as such. The problem that haunted them was the crowd that gathered around the guillotine. In these years the execution crowd was a mystery and an obsession, the object of literary surveillance, parliamentary inquiry, scientific study and journalistic examination. These commentators saw a crowd without dignity, a crowd full of unhealthy emotions, a crowd of morbid curiosity and misplaced revelry. Who was this crowd? What emotions did its participants feel at the spectacle of punishment?

The crowd on the Place de la Roquette, in Paris, waits for the execution of Troppmann. Photo: Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

After the execution of 1939, the government banned all public executions, and Weidmann went down in history as the last man in France to be guillotined publicly. However, the government did not do away with execution and the particularly violent method of carrying it out. Rather, guillotining was hidden away behind prison walls.

The guillotine remained the official method of execution in France until the death penalty was abolished in 1981. The final guillotining took place on 10 September 1977 in Marseille when torturer-murderer Hamida Djandoubi was put under the blade. Djandoubi's death was the last time that the guillotine was used for an execution by any government.

# “1939: France’s Last Public Guillotining”, International Herald Tribune
# Stassa Edwards, “Photographing the Guillotine”, The Appendix
# “Eighty years since Versailles execution stopped public guillotine spectacles,” Euro News
# Gregory Shaya, “The Unruly Emotions of the Execution Crowd and its Critics in Late Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century France”, Cultural History


  1. How could the public be scandalized? That was the public. Like Pogo possum said, " We have met the enemy and they are us"

  2. Guillotine is still the best, quickest, and most foolproof method of execution. In the USA it seems we prefer a long death by drugs that don't always work, or take a long time to.

    1. I wonder if the Smithsonian has a guillotine we could borrow for Trump and friends? Surely justice would be served.

    2. So you want to execute people that don't hare your political beliefs? Real mature Mr. Lefty Lunatic.

  3. This sort of crowd would have been expected in 17th Century England, but not in France, and not in 1939.


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