Hi folks this week I am sharing a rather macabre tale. I should state up front, while this tale features a real, historical figure and his death, it could very well be a tall tale. Please proceed with caution dear reader. Take this with a grain of salt. Today’s tale revolves around the final moments of Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier (26 August 1743 – 8 May 1794), aristocrat, philanthropist, and father of modern chemistry.
Among his achievements, Lavoisier defined the properties of a number of elements and set the stage for the periodic table. He was partially responsible for the metric system of measurement. Lavoisier was a campaigner for social change, advocating for better street lights in Paris, an aqueduct to bring Parisians clean water, and for cleaner air – Lavoisier believed gun powder particularly was a pollutant and dangerous to people in ways beyond the obvious. He was a man who understood the importance of science in his, and future societies – founding two schools – the Lycee Lavoisier, and the Musée des Arts et Metiers.
Unfortunately Antoine Lavoisier also lived in the time of the French Revolution. His scientific and humanitarian work should have granted him immunity from mob justice, but he owned shares in The Ferme Générale – the company who collected taxes for the crown. With poverty and taxation driving forces behind the revolution, the last thing you wanted to be come the reign of terror was a tax collector, or profiteer from public taxes.
On 24th November 1793 Lavoisier was among a group of 28 citizens arrested for tax fraud. Found guilty, he was sentenced to be executed on 8th May 1794. Lavoisier allegedly begged for clemency due to his scientific accomplishments and public works, but the judge was alleged to have said “La revolution ńà pas besoin de savants” – the revolution does not need scholars. The revolution didn’t need stenographers either apparently, so we have to trust the eyewitness accounts …. but there is something of the spirit of the reign of terror in the judge’s comment is there not?
The method of execution would be the guillotine – a newfangled decapitation device proposed as a more humane alternative to the axe, by the physician and politician Joseph-Ignace Guillotin. It was designed by another French physician, Antoine Louis. It should be noted there were earlier machines of a similar type, the 16th century Halifax Gibbet the notable example. Under the shadow of the blade, legend has it, Antoine Lavoisier had one final experiment to carry out. The following, if true, seems absolutely horrific to me – just imagine all those thousands of victims of the guillotine, in the wake of their apparent demise.
Lavoisier’s final experiment sought to answer the question what happens to a human being after their head is separated from their body? The ultimate answer is clear, but does the shock of the blade instantly end them, or does a head look up in silent horror at it’s decapitated body for a time? History is full of urban legends on the subject, all easily dismissable. Mary Queen of Scots’ lips allegedly kept moving for fifteen minutes after her beheading. Today we might put that down to the last bursts of nerves and synapses, in her time people wondered what she was trying to tell them. Similarly it was claimed Sir Everard Digby, conspirator in the Gunpowder plot to kill Mary Queen of Scot’s son, James I, loudly proclaimed his innocence for some time after his noggin was cleft from his body. Antoine Lavoisier proposed to answer this question by blinking once a second for as long as he could.
On 8th May 1794, an assistant nearby to conduct his final experiment, Lavoisier kneeled down under the blade and steeled himself for the deadly impact. The blade fell. The assistant knelt down and began to count
“Un- duex – trois – quatre… still blinking…. Sinq – six – sept – huit -nuef – dix. I have no idea if the assistant counted ‘Mississippi’s’ or not in between – onze Mississippi- douze Mississippi – treize Mississippi … but it is believed Lavoisier blinked up to 20 times before he expired. Whether there is any truth in this is anyone’s guess- though it seems far more likely than the account of Charlotte Corday, the assassin who stabbed the pro revolution polemicist Jean-Paul Marat while he took a bath. In the wake of her execution her cheeks allegedly flushed red with indignation. Cardiologists state a brain can survive four seconds without blood flow if decapitated from a standing position, and up to twelve seconds if reclined when the blade fell.
France would use the guillotine as a form of execution from 25th April 1792 to September 10 1977 – the final execution one Hamida Djandoubi, a Tunisian national who tortured and murdered his ex-girlfriend, Elisabeth Bousquet. They would officially abolish execution by guillotine in September 1981.
Hamida Djandoubi, the last person guilotined by the French.
Originally published 21st February 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow