History: Head Roller Derby

Mozelle Martin

Okay, so it wasn't really a derby that Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin created, but it sure appeared that way. Like a twisted version of the bowling alley game, more than 10,000 people lost their heads during the Reign of Terror between January 1793 and July 1794.

The infamous guillotine machine's masterminds were Antoine Louis, the French doctor who drew up the initial design in 1792, and Tobias Schmidt, the German piano maker who built it.

Joseph-Ignace Guillotin's contribution came a bit earlier.

As a delegate to France's National Assembly of 1789, he proposed the novel idea that if executions could not be banned entirely, the condemned should at least be entitled to a swift and relatively merciful ending. Moreover, he argued that all criminals - regardless of social status - would participate mostly unwillingly in the head roller derby.

The last point may seem obvious, but before the French Revolution, wealthy villains who were up to be offed could slip the "prosecutors" a bit of money to guarantee a "first class" departure guillotine-style (the speedy process). By contrast, poor villains were forced to depart via "coach class". This meant that a horse was strapped to each of his limbs while they pulled him apart as if they were attached to his body with velcro.

In April 1792, the Assembly used its new guillotine for the first time on a platform in Paris's Place de Greve. Two vertical wooden beams, standing about 15 feet high, served as runners for the slanted steel blade. At the bottom of the pair of beams, two boards with a round hole called the lunette locked the condemned person's head in place. The blade was hoisted to the top with pulleys and released by the pull of a lever. After a few grisly mishaps, "prosecutors" learned to grease the grooves on the beams with tallow to ensure that nobody was left in a half-and-half state, so to speak.

The first head in the roller derby was of Nicolas Jacques-Pelletier, a common thief. The daily parade of "participants" drew crowds of gawkers. Journalists printed programs, vendors sold refreshments, and nearby merchants rented chairs with unobstructed views. This barbaric period of time ended with the rolling head of Robespierre, one of the Revolution's leaders and an early advocate of the guillotine.

France continued using the guillotine in capital punishment cases through the 19th and 20th centuries. However, the last derby took place on September 10, 1977.

Because they were embarrassed by their association with this horrific derby, the descendants of Joseph Guillotin petitioned France's government to change the machine's name. The government declined to comply, so the family changed its name instead and passed into obscurity.

The same cannot be said for the apparatus itself. Though it is now relegated to museums, this device remains a grim symbol of power, punishment, and the repercussions of participants, willing or not.

Perhaps even more twisted is that toymakers also jumped in on the action. They created toy replicas that children used to cut food at the supper table. What may be worse is that they are still sold today.

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