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[Pop Culture] Death by guillotine

An odd way to kill oneself

Greg Beato

Nothing’s simple anymore, is it? It’s not really Christmas until your outdoor lighting display is intricate enough to require an electrician’s touch. In upscale enclaves all across the country, parents spend more time planning their daughters’ 16th birthday parties than the Pentagon spent choreographing the invasion of Iraq. Even suicide is no longer a matter of a rash slash, a quick squeeze of the trigger. To elevate yourself a cut above everyday self-annihilation, you need a guillotine.

In September, a 41-year-old Michigan man built a guillotine in the woods near his house and beheaded himself. He left no note, just store receipts for the building materials he used to create his 7-foot-tall death machine. “I can’t even tell you how long it must have taken him to construct,” the local police chief exclaimed. “This man obviously was very determined to end his life.”

Of course, if he were just “very determined” to give himself the ultimate layoff, a shotgun would have been faster. At the very least, he could’ve purchased construction plans for the field-tested design of a traditional guillotine, perfected by the French government in 1792 and now available via a guillotine-hobbyist website for only $38. Instead, the Michigan man chose to do himself in with quintessential do-it-yourself panache, designing and building his device from scratch, a true child of the Home Depot age.

Since 1999, at least five other men—four of them English, one American—have committed suicide in similar fashion. What’s driving them? If you’re ambitious enough to design a guillotine of your own invention, if you’re patient enough to build one and then perform all the necessary quality assurance, doesn’t that signify a certain engagement with the world? Doesn’t that betray a certain pleasure or pride in one’s mechanical skills that would make life worth living?

The fact that none of these men seemed especially publicity-hungry only makes their actions more mysterious. They do not seem to have left any video manifestos or MySpace pages behind; most didn’t even bother with the traditional suicide note. They were, at least based on newspaper accounts of their deaths, private, unassuming men. One lived in a mobile-home park in New Hampshire for more than a decade, and yet few of his neighbors knew him. One built a guillotine in his backyard garden; another in the outdoor stairway to his cellar; a third inside his bedroom in the small house he shared with his father. In all three cases, they somehow managed to avoid detection, or at least intervention. Clearly, these were men who were good at keeping a low profile.

And yet despite this fact—or perhaps because of it—they chose for that most intimate of acts, suicide, a method commonly associated with public spectacle. And, ultimately, it doesn’t matter how discreetly you go about the business of killing yourself—if your means of ending it all is a homemade, Enlightenment-era execution device that creates a shockingly morbid tableau for whoever discovers you and a major sewing job for the embalmer, you’re going to attract attention.

Since 1981, when the French government officially retired the guillotine, it has existed mostly as a stage prop for magicians and Alice Cooper. In its latest incarnation, it continues to function as a kind of magic trick. Some of the conjuring involves physical laws—the blade that one Englishman used to kill himself was so heavy it reportedly took three men to lift it, so how had he been able to handle it himself? But mostly the magic of guillotine suicide is of the metaphorical sort, instantly transforming those willing to perform this stunt from the anonymous to the noteworthy.

Indeed, with the guillotine’s storied history as an instrument of justice—and not just any justice, but the swiftest, most incontrovertible justice the state could mete out—one can’t help but wonder: What terrible crimes did these men think themselves guilty of to deserve such a theatrical end? Were they so much more despondent and hopeless than the usual run-of-the-mill suicide that they required something orders of magnitude more horrible than a noose or a bottle of rat poison to adequately convey their misery? In life, they might have been mundane, afflicted with all the usual failures and disappointments—divorce, death of a loved one, money woes. In death they’ve become grimly fascinating, forever mysterious, simply because of the manner in which they chose to terminate themselves.

And, of course, they offer a kind of reassuring consolation, too. Even if we sink into an inescapable quicksand of despair, they teach us, even if we become unknowable, irrational, our will to live replaced by a fierce, alien, unfathomable will to die, we’ll still have our vanity to comfort us.

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