by Rebecca Rosenberg
In CHAMPAGNE WIDOWS, Barbe-Nicole Clicquot witnessed heads rolling from the guillotines of their town square during the Reign of Terror. 16,500 French men and women were executed by guillotine from September 1793 to July 1794. Guillotines are one of the most gruesome methods of execution, and continues to horrify and fascinate us. Did you know that Marie Antoinette was executed via guillotine blade right in the middle of Place de la Concorde?
1. The guillotine was not actually invented by Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin. Guillotin was actually against the death penalty, but advocated pain-free methods of execution. True to the founding principles of the Revolution: Liberté, Egalité et Fraternité (Liberty, Equality and Fraternity), he believed that everyone should be treated equally in life as in death. Prior to the Revolution peasants convicted of crimes were tortured and hanged, while their aristocratic counterparts were dispatched swiftly, and mercifully, by a swordsman. The Guillotine was seen as ‘the great equalizer’ as well as the defender of Revolutionary principles. Guillotin worked with Dr. Antoine Louis (French surgeon) to design the first prototype, and it is actually credited as being invented by Dr. Louis, hence the common other nickname Louisette. Guillotin’s relatives were so embarrassed that their family name was associated with decapitation that they requested for the device’s name to be changed. Upon the French government’s refusal, the Guillotin family changed their own name.
2. It wasn’t the first decapitation device. Since the Middle Ages the British had been using a decapitation device dubbed the ‘Halifax Gibbet’. The gibbet differs from the guillotine in that a rope must be cut for the blade to descend.
3. People booed after witnessing the first public guillotining. Many people turned up at Place de Grève (now place de l’Hotel de Ville, Paris) out of curiosity on April 25, 1792 to witness the first public execution using the new mechanized device. The crowd was not impressed with the anti-climactic swiftness of the blade. In a few seconds, it was over, and they felt cheated out of a hours of entertainment they got with torture and hanging.
4. Guillotine earrings? During the height of the first French Revolution, executions were so frequent in Paris that they attracted large crowds. People even brought their children to witness these events, and industry popped up around the scaffolds. A group of ladies called ‘les Tricoteuses’ (the knitters) would spend the whole day knitting while watching the blade crash. These fervently patriotic ladies actually wore guillotine earrings.
5 . Nazis slaughtered over 16,000 people by guillotine. We normally associate the guillotine with the severe brutality of the French Revolution. 16,549 men and women were executed by the guillotine. However, Hitler ordered the guillotine as a method of execution in the 1930s. According to Nazi records, the guillotine was used to execute some 16,500 people between 1933 and 1945.
6. It was briefly ‘banned’ from 1906 – 1909. There was a growing unease about capital punishment in French society in the early 20th century. President Armand Fallières, who was against capital punishment pardoned all those previously sentenced to death, and this caused a public outcry. The newspaper ‘Le Petit Parisien’, polled their readers about the death penalty. They received 1,412,347 responses in total, and the results indicated that 74% of readers were pro-guillotine.
7. The last public execution in France took place in 1939. Eugen Weidmann and two other men were implicated in a serial kidnapping, robbery and murder ring. A large crowd gathered outside of the Saint-Pierre Prison in the town of Versailles to witness the spectacle. Instead of the usual silence and solemnity, they were boisterous and hysterical. After the execution was carried out, members of the frenzied crowd launched themselves onto the blood-soaked ground in order to dab various items in it for macabre souvenirs.
8. France’s love/ hate relationship with the guillotine ended in 1981 with the abolition of capital punishment.
9. Seven seconds ’til death. Perhaps the guillotine was a little ‘too good’ at its job due to the swiftness and efficacy of the blade. The executioner would hold up the head of the victim for the crowd. There were numerous reports of facial twitches, eye and lip movements in the severed heads. In the 1950s French doctors Piedelievre and Fournier concluded that death by guillotine was not instantaneous. It takes 7 seconds before the brain ceases to function due to blood and oxygen deprivation.
10. You can see the last guillotine blade in Paris at the Musée de la Préfecture de Police.
CHAMPAGNE WIDOWS, First Woman of Champagne, Veuve Clicquot, by Rebecca Rosenberg
ABOUT THE BOOK:
“The twinned plots of Clicquot and Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise and fall are filled with detail that give life to this far-off time. The prose is light, yet detailed, and peppered with moments of wry humor. Napoleon’s characterization is well-crafted and give his character new life. Clicquot’s character is charming, and readers will love getting to know her. Rosenberg has a superb eye for blending humor with drama.” Publisher’s Weekly Booklife Prize
Twenty-year-old Barbe-Nicole inherited Le Nez (an uncanny sense of smell) from her great-grandfather, a renowned champagne maker. She is determined to use Le Nez to make great champagne, but the Napoleon Code prohibits women from owning a business. When she learns her childhood sweetheart, François Clicquot, wants to start a winery, she marries him despite his mental illness. Soon, her husband’s tragic death forces her to become Veuve (Widow) Clicquot and grapple with a domineering partner, the complexities of making champagne, and six Napoleon wars, which cripple her ability to sell champagne. When she falls in love with her sales manager, Louis Bohne, who asks her to marry, she must choose between losing her winery to her husband, as dictated by Napoleon Code, or losing Louis. In the ultimate showdown, Veuve Clicquot defies Napoleon himself, risking prison and even death.
Available for purchase here.
BOOK CLUB SPECIAL: Champagne Swag bag sent with all book club bookings in October for CHAMPAGNE WIDOWS! Signed (ARC) paperbacks, champagne jellybeans, champagne bubbles, champagne bath bombs, bookmarks, and champagne flute earrings for reviewers! Just book through Novel Network in October, for any date in the future through 2022!