July 27

1794 — Robespierre arrested


“In the days of the axe, it was customary for family members of the condemned to bribe the executioner, to ensure that the blade would be sharpened.  That way, it would cut the head clean off for a swift, painless death.”

The black-hooded man swung a replica of an executioner’s axe through the air, creating a shrill whistle through air until it embedded in a heavy wooden block at the front of the stage.  Many audience members gasped in shock.  A few of them actually raised their hands to their necks, as if checking to see their heads were still attached.

“I haven’t received any bribes lately,” the speaker joked, to the accompaniment of scattered, nervous laughter.  “But no matter.  The axe is no longer in use.”

In response to his cue, the wooden block began to wheel away — seemingly of its own accord — taking the embedded axe with it.

With a rumble of wheels along the floor, a much larger contraption began to roll onstage.  It was a memorable and menacing shape from horror movies, wax museums, or paintings that depicted the worst part of the French Revolution.  The structure reached almost to the stage proscenium; at the top of the contraption, a heavy wedge-blade glimmered, locked in place yet ready to plummet down the runners and slice through the head-restraining base below.

“I’m sure you recognize our friend from the Reign of Terror at the end of the 18th Century. I say ‘friend’ in a non-ironic way, if you can believe it.  True, the number of executions was horrible, with nearly 17,000 deaths.  But they were all clean deaths.  Quick, efficient, and relatively painless, with no need for a second or third swing of a dull-edged or poorly aimed axe.”

At this, the masked gentleman reached into the basket that was positioned in front of the headstock, and he lifted out a small cantaloupe.  Opening the headstock, he placed the melon inside then secured it in place.

“Now,” he said, stepping to the side of the guillotine and raising his hand to the release latch, “imagine how clean a slice this would be through a condemned man’s neck.”

He pulled the latch, and the blade rocketed down the length of the device, cleaving the cantaloupe in two with an explosive clap of thunder.

Everyone in the auditorium jumped in their seats.  This time, even more hands shot up to tender necks, seeking reassurance.

The masked man lifted both halves of the melon and walked the stage, giving the audience a good look at the precise division.  A few seeds spilled out of the hollow middle, and drips of juice dripped onto the stage floor, but the “flesh” of the melon was cut perfectly.

“You see how efficient the blade is.  The guillotine was the cleanest cut possible.  At the time.”

He paused for effect before continuing.

“The cleanest cut possible…before lasers.”

More gasps from the audience members, more hands shooting up to throats.  A thin, precisely targeted line of red light began to appear across exposed throats, or along spread fingers of hands that vainly tried to protect them.

“I hope you enjoyed the performance,” the executioner said.  “The next group of traitors will enter, as soon as we’ve cleaned up the auditorium.”

As heads fell off shoulders, some eyes stayed open as long as ten more seconds.