Okay you’ve seen the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, The Arc de Triomphe, now what? Although not somewhere I normally might have ventured into on my own, I’m glad I found my way into the Police Museum of Paris. Looking for unknown gems in Paris, I stumbled upon this small museum located inside the police department of the 5th arrondissement.

 

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Mannequins taking a mugshot of a seated, shackled prisoner.

 

This museum is definitely a good spot for any history buff looking for a small (free!) excursion. Whether you are just passing through Paris, or are a native, the history of the progression of the police program in Paris dating back to 1254 is intriguing. Laid out in chronological order on the third floor of the station, it is easy to follow the story of the maturing of the “Prefecture de Police.”

 

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Wax head of the guillotined Henri Pranzini.

 

My personal favorite part of this afternoon excursion was the exhibit on the guillotine. The museum is home to a real life twenty pound guillotine blade that was used in during the Revolution (in Place de Greve, to be exact.) This interesting artefact prompted me to do some research of my own on the subject. What I then found to be fascinating is that Paris can actually claim to be the birthing place of the first guillotine, a killing tool that then went on to be used by various countries for decades to come.

 

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The came about during the Revolution as an alternative, more “humane” form of killing those sentenced to death. In today’s society, given all of the modern technology that we have, it seems ghastly to think of a beheading as a humane way to kill someone. However, if you consider the alternatives at the time to be stoning and burning at the stake, killing someone by simply chopping off their head does then seem like a much quicker and more painless way to end their life. Many of the early tests to the prototype were done right here in Paris, not far from Odeon. Schmidt (the true inventor of the guillotine,) did many trial runs on lambs, and cadavers before deeming the new machine ready for use in 1792. The first was resurrected at Place de La Concorde and the second in Place de la Nation. Resulting from the historical context of the time period, it was natural that no one was to feel safe in society. People were not to get to comfortable and to ensure this there were frequently public executions putting these guillotines to good use. There were over 2,000 beheadings within the next couple of years ranging from children aged 14 to adults aged 90. There was no limit to how gruesome this terror would be. Bodies accumulated in mass graves, until this reign of abuse was ended in 1794 when the executioner himself was charged of treason and beheaded.

This was not the end of the guillotine. These machines were still fully operational for another 200 years until captal punishment finally become contrary to the law in France in 1981. At this point they were dismantled and sold for their parts, which is how the blade from one of the aforementioned guillotines ultimately ended up at the Police Museum. Another noteably interesting fact coming to mind, learned through both the museum and my research, is that although there are no still full standing operational guillotines there are a few replicas that still may be found. One of the most prominent is located in – you guessed it – the police museum. However, this replica, even though it looks sizeable enough, is not actually large enough to behead a human being, it would not even be large even to behead one of the sheep that Schmidt had originally practiced with! Perhaps it would be just the right size to behead a teddy bear. Keep this in mind when gazing at this replica in the museum.

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In a city so rich with history, the Police Museum is a good place to find information about the roots of politics and government that are still very evident in French society today. You may even find a fun relic here that will lead your to delve into curiosity of your own, as it did me.

One thought on “Hidden Attractions: Prefecture’s Museum Edition

  1. David Reid Chenault says:

    Abigail: I loved your piece. Had always heard of the Paris Police Museum, but never got to go there. As to the final disposition of the official guillotines, there apparently were three (3), only one of which had remained on the mainland. Upon their decommissioning, one of the two that were left on France’s island possessions was placed in a museum (called the ‘Guillotine Museum’) that was run by their former executioner, on that island. The one that had been trucked all over France for over a hundred years, and never left, was offered to many Paris museums, each of which refused it. Until, finally, a small museum at the corner of one of Paris’ main parks (I forget which) agreed to take it, in its many crates, disassembled. (They would not exhibit it.) Eventually, it wound up on a military base, north of Paris. In 2010, at the request of the man who had prodded Mitterand and the legislature to ban all executions, it was displayed, fully assembled once more, at the Musee D’Orsay. I do not know its current disposition. I have read that both the ‘Guillotine Museum’ model and its other island cousin were eventually returned to the French mainland, and are somewhere stored. (I know that’s vague.) I believe that all three (3) of these machines were Leon Alphonse Berger Model 1872 units. You are correct, in that, the original revolutionary guillotines all rotted away. Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum on Marleybone Street in London, per my understanding, does possess one of those blades, plus the bascule (tilting board), and some other parts (including the ‘lunette’ or half-moon neck piece) given to them by one of the descendants of Charles-Henri Sanson (executioner of the high works at the time of the revolution). After the revolution, literally hundreds of guillotine blades, each certified to have beheaded either Marie Antoinette or ‘Louis Capet’ (Louis XVI), were peddled all over France for big money. As to the final Model 1872s, the executioner of that era, Berger, tired of many of the older designs’ foibles. He lowered its height by several feet, put metal tracks in its slots, used skate wheels (with bearings) on the ‘mutton’ (literally ‘sheep’ — it held the blade) to speed the fall, and installed ‘bumpers’ of sorts at the bottoms of the uprights. This was to kill the ‘sickening double bounce’ he detested. I am not aware of the materials chosen, but think ‘rubber’. At best, he succeeded in reducing the bounce to just one. As an afternote, one enterprising individual here in the United States actually obtained original engineering drawings of the Model 1872, and built his own guillotine to those specifications. He erected it outside his house for photographs. Don’t know his name or location, but he posted it online back about 1993. Obviously, it hasn’t been used, or we’d have heard about it. Cheers.

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