The Guillotine is a magic trick where the blade of a guillotine passes through a person's neck without harming him/her.
The blade of a guillotine is shown to be sharp and real, usually by cutting a vegetable or something similar. A person kneels behind the guillotine and inserts their head into the stocks. The blade is released and passes through their neck and out the bottom. In some versions of the illusion, the apparatus also has a bench attached to the uprights at the same level as the neck stocks, on which the "victim" lays down - usually in a face-down position - rather than kneeling behind the guillotine.
The Guillotine is probably the most famous member of a family of illusions featuring the decapitation of a person or other living subject. Decapitation illusions have a long history, with the first documented example dating from the reign of Khufu in ancient Egypt, when a magician named Dedi apparently decapitated and restored birds and other livestock.
A method for performing a decapitation illusion, where a person's head is severed and displayed on a plate next to their headless body, was described in The Discoverie of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot, published in 1584. A decapitation illusion involving the apparent beheading of two boys and a dove was also recorded as being performed by Jacob Philadelphia in 1765.
Due to the air of secrecy surrounding the art of magic, it is very difficult to trace the origins of the modern guillotine illusion, and no reliable information is available concerning its inventor or the details of the first performance.
The traditional Guillotine illusion
In its most familiar form, the illusion uses an apparatus which is a stylised version of the type of guillotine historically used for executions. This has two uprights, with a stock at their lower end to restrain the neck of the "victim". The inner faces of the uprights contain tracks within which runs a narrow blade, and the upper end of the uprights supports a mechanism for raising, holding and then releasing the blade.
This variation uses a larger version of the prop that more closely resembles a real guillotine. It features a very large blade that drops over the volunteer’s neck but doesn’t come out underneath. The blade must be pulled upwards before undoing the stock and letting the assistant free.
Rather than having a blade pass through their neck, this illusion features the assistant's head apparently getting visually cut off. The assistant is made to lie down on a board attached to the guillotine, their head is locked into place, and the blade released. As the blade passes through the neck stock, the assistant's head apparently drops into a large wooden box attached to the front of the guillotine. Often, their head is then removed from the box hidden under a cloth, and then placed on a table next to the guillotine before being revealed to still be alive.
This version of the illusion has sometimes been presented as an escape, with the magician themselves being locked into the guillotine, and having to attempt to free themselves before the blade falls. As this is usually performed, the magician apparently fails to free themselves in time and their head is apparently severed by the falling blade, only for the magician to dramatically reappear unharmed elsewhere in the theater.
This is the most realistic version of the illusion, as it uses a very authentic copy of a genuine French guillotine. It is also the only version where the assistant's head is genuinely severed and separated from the rest of their body. In place of the fixed board attached to the guillotine as used in the Guillotine Extreme, it copies the original French design and has a tilting board (known as a Bascule). It also uses a separate wicker basket to catch the falling head in place of the attached box. The assistant is secured to the Bascule by straps, usually after having had their hands tied behind their back. The Bascule is then lowered into place, positioning the assistant's neck below the blade, and the stocks closed around their neck. When the blade is released, instead of passing through the neck stocks, it passes in front of them and the assistant's severed head can clearly be seen to drop into the wicker basket below. Their head is then retrieved from the basket, usually without being covered, and shown to still be alive. As the assistant really is beheaded by the guillotine, this is by far the most dangerous version of the illusion, and a number of fatalities have occurred over the years.
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This is a smaller version of the illusion, invented as an "illusionette" for cabaret magicians. In this version of the illusion, the large uprights are removed and the blade attached to a handle. Using this handle, the magician manually drives the blade through the assistant's neck.
- When Tommy Cooper performed this version on Michael Parkinson's talk show, he was so drunk that he forgot to activate the secret safety device before attempting to guillotine Parkinson. Fortunately, a stagehand noticed his error and was able to activate it covertly before Cooper released the blade.
- When Simon Drake performed this version of the illusion on one of his TV specials, he had to go to the hospital immediately afterwards due to three cracked ribs. He never performed the illusion again after this incident.
- The secret to this version of the illusion was revealed by the Masked Magician.
- Paul Daniels performed the French Guillotine on Debbie McGee on his TV show. McGee, wearing a black body stocking, was lowered into the guillotine face up, and was side on to the audience so they could clearly see her head had been cut off. She was not restored.
- Elle Macpherson was beheaded by Princess Tenko during her appearance in a Japanese TV special.
- Melinda Saxe included the French Guillotine in her Disney TV special, Disney's Melinda: First Lady of Magic.
- This version of the illusion was often performed by David Copperfield on his then-wife, supermodel Claudia Schiffer. Claudia described the illusion as the scariest one she ever performed with Copperfield, saying that she never really got used to the feeling of her severed head tumbling into the basket.
- Stephen Mulhern performed this version on his Tricky TV show twice.
- Jennifer Ellison was beheaded with a guillotine for a Halloween episode. For the end credits, her head left sitting on a sword on a throne, shouting for someone to put her back together.
- Stephen's Ministry of Mayhem co-presenter and occasional illusion assistant Holly Willoughby was beheaded in character as "Polly with her Trolley": she was strapped into the guillotine and then beheaded. After the end credits rolled, Stephen lifted the cover from Polly's trolley to reveal her grinning head underneath it.
- Las Vegas magician Brandon Silverfield performed this version in his stage show. For a short period in mid-2007, he performed it a number of times on his special guest assistant and then-girlfriend, actress Mischa Barton.
- When Lady Gaga appeared on the German TV show Germany's Next Top Model performing her latest song, Edge of Glory, the performance ended with her being guillotined in this version of the illusion. Unusually, she was guillotined in a face-up position, rather than the more usual face-down position. She later commented in an interview that she found this a particularly scary experience during early rehearsals, as it meant she was able to see the blade dropping towards her. She also admitted that, once she had gotten over her initial nerves and rehearsed the illusion a number of times, she found it a particularly thrilling experience.
- Stephen Mulhern performed the guillotine as part of his Magic Numbers TV show, using it to behead Louie Spence.
- In February 2012, magician Hans Klok worked with model Kate Moss on a number of illusions for the London Fashion Week 2012 show of designer Stella McCartney, including this version of the guillotine. However, before Kate was forced to drop out of the show due to illness and be replaced by Alexa Chung for the other illusions, it had already been decided not to include this illusion in the final version of the show.
Appearances in popular culture
As it provides such a realistic depiction of an actual guillotine execution, the French Guillotine version of the illusion is often used in movies and TV shows when a character is to be beheaded and the director wishes for their head to be seen to fall into the basket.
- In the 1999 Hornblower episode, The Frogs and The Lobsters, a French Guillotine provided by a local Portuguese magician was used for the scene where Hornblower's love interest Mariette, played by Estelle Skornik, is executed on the guillotine. Although she was offered the use of a stand-in from the stunt team, Estelle declined the offer and so she was the one who was strapped into the guillotine and beheaded when the scene was shot. Estelle had a second encounter with a French Guillotine in Ce jour là, tout a changé: L'évasion de Louis XVI (2009), when she played Marie Antoinette and one was used for the scene where she is beheaded.
- A French Guillotine was also used for the final scene of the 2001 movie The Affair of the Necklace where Marie Antoinette, this time played by Joely Richardson, is beheaded.
- Anther movie which featured the use of a French Guillotine in a scene depicting the execution of Marie Antoinette was La Révolution Française (1989), where Marie was played by Jane Seymour. As with Estelle Skornik in Hornblower, Jane was offered the use of a stand-in for the beheading scene, but decided to go under the blade herself.
- At the start of the 2000 movie Quills, a French Guillotine was used for the opening scene in which Mademoiselle Renard, played by Diana Morrison, is beheaded. In this scene, a mini camera was mounted on the weight attached to the guillotine blade, providing an unusual view from above of Diana's severed head tumbling into the basket.
- In the 2004 French movie A Very Long Engagement (Un long dimanche de fiancailles), the scene where murderess Tina Lombardi, played by Marion Cotillard, is executed used a French Guillotine. Filmed as one long shot with no cuts, the scene is based on the film of the last public guillotining in France.
- In the 1988 French Revolution movie Chouans!, the scene in which Olympe de Saint-Gildas, played by Charlotte de Turckheim, is guillotined used a French Guillotine.
- A modified French Guillotine, customised to look like a German "Fallbeil" device, was used for the beheading scene in Sophie Scholl (2005). Actress Julia Jentsch insisted on the use of a French Guillotine as she wanted her performance to be as accurate and respectful to the real Sophie as possible, and wanted the audience to see her severed head actually tumble into the basket at the end of the execution scene.
- In the Criminal Minds episode Drive (season 11, episode 12), a French Guillotine is used for the scene where a serial killer posing as a taxi driver uses a home-made guillotine to behead the character of Amy Gibb, played by actress Jenna Willis. As in Quills, the camera is mounted above the guillotine blade as it falls and, as Amy is face-up in the guillotine, it allows the audience to see her terrified reaction as the blade descends. Jenna Willis commented in interviews that very little acting was required on her part, as seeing the blade falling towards her was a genuinely scary experience.
- Historian Suzannah Lipscomb was beheaded with the French Guillotine as part of a programme about Marie Antoinette.
- In the 2013 movie In Secret, a French Guillotine is used for the scene where the character of Thérèse Raquin, played by Elizabeth Olsen, is beheaded for murder. The final part of the scene, from the bascule being tipped forward to place Thérèse's neck beneath the blade to the blade falling and her head dropping into the basket was filmed as one continuous shot from in front of the guillotine. As this precluded the use of a dummy or stunt stand-in, it was Elizabeth herself who went under the blade, and so it is her head that is seen to tumble into the basket at the end of the scene.