[DROP HEAD TITLE.] LOI RELATIVE À LA PEINE DE MORT, et au mode d’exécution qui sera suivi à l’avenir. Donnée à Paris, le 25 mars 1792. [A Paris, de l’Imprimerie Royale
1792. 4to, pp. 4; with woodcut head-piece; a little foxed and spotted with some dust-soiling (mainly marginal), and some light finger-soiling visible to fore-edge; with contemporary inscription above head-piece ‘Bon pour imprimeur chez M. Descamps Douay le 12 avril 1792’; stitched in later marbled wrappers, and with plain paper outer dust-wrapper, title and date in manuscript florid calligraphic hand, believed to be in the hand of Quarré-Reybourbon, with his book-label ‘Collection Quarré-Reybourbon, Lille’ on inside cover of front marbled wrapper; very good. First edition of this important legal document announcing the approval for use of a mechanical beheading device, first called a ‘louisette’, but more infamously later renamed after Joseph-Ignace Guillotin (1738-1814).
Whilst not the first such capital punishment device, the guillotine became synonymous with the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, although it was invented with the intention of making executions more humane and less painful, in accordance with Enlightenment thought. Previous methods were substantially more gruesome and often prone to error.
Guillotine first proposed the use of a more humane device on October 10th 1789. A death penalty opponent, he sought to persuade Louis XVI to implement a less painful alternative, and proposed to the National Assembly that capital punishment should always take the form of decapitation ‘by means of a simple mechanism’. It was, however, the French surgeon and Royal physician Antoine Louis (1723-1792), together with the German engineer Tobias Schmidt (1755-1831), who built the first prototype, Louis as Perpetual Secretary of the Academy of Surgery having been appointed as head of a committee to investigate the matter. The eventual machine was deemed successful, and soon replaced the more traditional methods of beheading by sword or axe, or hanging.
The present pamphlet announces the passing of the decree by the National Assembly on March 20th 1792, and transcribes Dr. Louis’ text, ‘Avis motivé sur le mode de la décolation’: ‘The mode in use in the past to cut off the head of a criminal exposes him to a more dreadful torture than the simple deprivation of life... The execution must be done in an instant and only one blow... It is necessary for the certainty of the process, that it depends on invariable mechanical means, of which one can also determine the force and the effect... The back of the instrument must be strong enough and heavy enough to act effectively like the ram which is used to drive in pillories... It is easy to have such a machine built, the effect of which is unmistakable, the beheading will be done in an instant... ‘
What makes the present example of particular appeal to printing historians, is the contemporary inscription found above the woodcut head-piece ‘Bon pour imprimeur chez M. Descamps Douay le 12 avril 1792’, and noting ‘1400 placards, 1500 in 4to’, suggesting that the present copy was used as a template for a provincial impression. There is a further signature - ‘Delval Lagache’, and who we believe to be Antoine Joseph Delval Lagache (1749-1822), at the time appointed by Paris as a leading administrative figure in Douai, and who would no doubt have been in charge of the distribution of National Assembly decrees throughout the region (see Duthilloeul, Galerie Douaisienne, 1844, ff. 96). François Descamps (1760-1794) was a printer in Douais. Initially rallied to the ideals of 1789, he subsequently became disillusioned with the anti-religious policy of the Revolution and began publishing critical essays and verses. In 1794 he was denounced by the revolutionary committee of Douai, and was put to death - by guillotine - on April 21.
The present example was once in the collection of the noted French historian and collector Louis François Quarré-Reybourbon (1824-1906). He amassed an impressive collection of objects and works relating to the département du Nord, Hainaut and Artois.
Bibliography: See https://www.cairn.info/revue-du-nord-2001-4-page-777.htm for information about Descamps.