Maine’s Governor Paul LePage says he wants to bring back the guillotine for drug traffickers. In a radio interview Tuesday, LePage expressed his concern that increasing prison sentences for traffickers is insufficient, and instead floated out the idea that, “We could have public executions and we could even have which hole it falls in.”

LePage, who made headlines earlier this month for comments about out-of-state drug dealers impregnating “young white girls,” may simply be pandering to his increasingly frustrated electorate. Maine’s heroin epidemic ranks among the worst in the country, spurred by increasing demand for affordable opiates in the wake of a statewide crackdown on prescription drugs in 2005. 

But regardless of whether or not the governor should be taken seriously, his recent comments bring up some interesting questions about our country’s relationship to the death penalty. And as a general rule, when the most powerful executive of a state calmly endorses cutting the heads off American citizens, it can’t hurt to take a step back and consult some history. 

Why Don’t We Bring Back the Guillotine?

This is actually a bit more nuanced than you might imagine. Though the guillotine is now symbolic of the gruesome murder campaigns of the French Revolution, it was originally intended to serve as a humane method of execution. Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, the device’s namesake, actually sought to eliminate the death penalty in France, and believed that his quick and painless machine might serve as an interim step in that direction. 

According to most reports, Dr. Guillotin would fall victim to the very people who made his guillotine famous. As Frederick Douglas notes in an 1848 article for The North Star, “he was indeed imprisoned during the Jacobin reign of terror, his crime being, it is said, that he testified an indiscreet indignation of a proposition made to him by Danton, to superintend the construction of a triple guillotine.”

 

The guillotine never made it to the United States, though it has come close a few times. In 1996, legislation was introduced in Georgia to legalize use of the guillotine, the intention being that executed prisoners could become organ donors (electrocution and lethal injection render organs unsuitable for transplant). That bill never made it to a vote.  

Just last year, following the botched execution of a death-row inmate in Oklahoma, both critics and advocates of the death penalty began suggesting the reintroduction of the guillotine. Both sides argue that it’s the most efficient and painless method of execution, with those on the anti-death penalty side making the point that we should bear witness to the barbarity of our policy choices. Considering the prevalence of botched executions in the United States, the always dependable guillotine may actually present the smallest likelihood of “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Now, we can probably assume that LePage’s comments had little to do with organ harvesting or cruelty reduction, which brings us to the next question…

Why Doesn’t the United States Hold Public Executions?

For much of the country’s early history, opinions on the practice of public execution were sharply divided. By the early 19th-century, many had come to recognize the cruelty of the practice, and in 1835, five states passed laws providing for private hangings. Others, meanwhile, saw the public execution as a national tradition, a community event that could bring people together. 

Laura Randa, author of Society’s Final Solution: A History and Discussion of the Death Penaltywrites of the emotions that such gatherings inspired:

“Sometimes tens of thousands of eager viewers would show up to view hangings; local merchants would sell souvenirs and alcohol. Fighting and pushing would often break out as people jockeyed for the best view of the hanging or the corpse! Onlookers often cursed the widow or the victim and would try to tear down the scaffold or the rope for keepsakes. Violence and drunkenness often ruled towns far into the night after 'justice had been served.’” 

In 1890, New York became the first state to use the electric chair as a means of execution, a method that soon caught on among other states. That same year, the Supreme Court ruled that states could ban public access to executions, leading to a sharp increase in the number of executions taking place “behind 'enclosures' in order to 'exclude public view.'”

The last American public hanging

In 1936, Rainey Bethea was hanged in Owensboro, Kentucky. Bethea, who was black, was accused of raping and murdering a 70 year old white woman. Twenty thousand people flocked to this event, drawing national media attention that disparaged the carnival-like atmosphereone headline read: “Death Makes a Holiday: 20,000 Revel Over Hanging.” According to many scholars, the spectacle was so barbaric that the United States was forced to outlaw public hangings. No prisoner has been executed publicly by the state since. 

And that brings us back to Governor LePage, who, for all his bombast, might actually be onto something. Can you imagine the reaction to news of a guillotine being wheeled out into the public square? Safe to assume that any illusions Americans held about the killing of captive prisoners or the gravity of the opioid crisis would dissolve in an instant. 

“The guillotine is the ultimate expression of Law, and its name is vengeance; it is not neutral, nor does it allow us to remain neutral.” 

― Victor Hugo, Les Misérables