The Zurich guillotine was tested on a sheep in 1836. Illustration by Marco Heer
The Zurich Guillotine was tested on a sheep in 1836. Illustration by Marco Heer

The guillotine maker

Johann Bücheler was a regular carpenter from Kloten. In 1836, he was commissioned by the canton of Zurich to build a guillotine. That proved the end of “normality” as he knew it.

Michael van Orsouw

Michael van Orsouw

Michael van Orsouw has a PhD in history and is a performance poet and author. He regularly publishes historical books.

Johann Bücheler made chairs, tables and wardrobes in his wood workshop – until he received a sensitive order from the canton of Zurich police chief. He was to go to Geneva to study Switzerland’s first guillotine. The Liberal-Radicals had not long been in power in the canton of Zurich and they wanted to end the gruesome spectacle of manual beheadings. Professional beheading is hard to do and it didn’t always work. Zurich decided to opt for a more clinical, efficient method in the form of the French guillotine. Mechanised execution by blade was recognised as a proven procedure following the French Revolution and Zurich was ready to adopt it.
Following the French Revolution, the guillotine became a common execution method all over Europe.
Following the French Revolution, the guillotine became a common execution method all over Europe. Wikimedia
That’s how Johann Bücheler found himself going to Geneva by stagecoach on 28 January 1836 – as Melinda Nadj Abonji and Michael Marti researched in 1996 and published in Das Magazin. However, Bücheler was not the first choice: another carpenter called Danner had already been to Geneva, but he was afflicted by “such severe depression”, that he had to pull out, as recorded in the archives. Danner didn’t want to sacrifice his “previously positive disposition” to this delicate undertaking. Johann Bücheler had no such qualms, he inspected the Genevan killing machine closely, had its workings explained to him and measured its constituent parts with his assistants, which enabled them to start replicating the guillotine. Bücheler the “mechanicus” stayed in the Hotel Lion d’Or where he ate and drank well and paid generous bonuses to his assistants. The upright frame within which the blade was dropped and raised was made of oak. Bücheler used a rope to initiate the drop mechanism. It worked and the device was completed in six weeks: 3.93 metres high, 74 centimetres wide and 2.12 metres long. The assistants dismantled the guillotine, packed it in wooden boxes and Bücheler took it back to Zurich.
The Lucerne Guillotine.
The Lucerne Guillotine. © MUSEUM LUZERN / photo: Theres Bütler
In the Oetenbach Prison, the inmates assembled the killing machine in March 1836. The police chief watched the first trial run with interest. The authorities chose a sheep as the guinea pig. The experiment worked, the animal was neatly beheaded and the machine proved it was fit for purpose. Bücheler received 160 Swiss francs for his work. The guillotine cost the canton of Zurich a total of 1,555 Swiss francs including all salaries, costs, material and accommodation. As it was so large, the execution device was dismantled again and stored in boxes, which were kept in the loft of the Zurich prison.
The Oetenbach Prison in Zurich on a painting from 1900.
The Oetenbach Prison in Zurich on a painting from 1900. Wikimedia
When Lucerne decided to follow the example of Zurich and abandon manual beheadings by sword or blade, Bücheler approached the canton of Lucerne and offered them his construction. In September 1836, the carpenter took his inconspicuous wooden boxes to Lucerne – and sold a new guillotine. As a test run, they tied a ram down beneath the blade; the axe fell, but it was “not a clean drop” and it failed to behead the animal completely. Two manual workers examined the device. They realised that the groove in which the blade was placed needed to be free of oil paint, instead “molybdenum and soap” were to make the blade fall faster. That helped and Bücheler returned to Zurich satisfied.

No-one likes an executioner

Bücheler’s work on the guillotine made him something of an outcast, as people saw him as the new executioner. When he went looking for work in the mechanical workshops of Escher Wyss & Comp., he was turned down in spite of his experience. The orders soon dried up altogether as he was shunned in the same way as executioners before him had been. The device, he wrote to the chief of police, had brought him into “an unfortunate situation”, he was unable to “get any more work”, although he had a wife and child to feed. The police chief recommended a position in the prison, however the governor was unable to offer him anything: he said a guillotine maker did not qualify as a public servant. The carpenter signed his despairing letters “Bücheler der Unglückliche” (“Bücheler the unfortunate”). His fortunes didn’t change either: following the Züriputsch of 1839, the wind of political change blew through the canton of Zurich. The conservatives came to power and turned the clock back. Execution by guillotine was abolished and the executioner’s sword came into favour again. Bücheler’s apparatus stayed where it was: in storage somewhere.
During the Old Zürich War, 62 men were beheaded in Greifensee in 1444. Following the “Züriputsch”, the Zurich authorities revived this execution method.
During the Old Zürich War, 62 men were beheaded in Greifensee in 1444. Following the Züriputsch”, the Zurich authorities revived this execution method. e-rara
Bücheler developed existential concerns. So, he built a new guillotine in his workshop in 1840, it was just 150 centimetres high and 60 centimetres wide – a fully functional display model. Bücheler won over the cantons of Thurgau and St.Gallen with his new model and they hired his services. Prior to that, he had been displaying the bonsai version to an interested public, first on the street from Zurich to Kloten, then in the restaurant Löwen in Kloten. He used celery sticks for his demonstrations and the audience gave him some coins in return.
Model of the Lucerne Guillotine.
Model of the Lucerne Guillotine. © MUSEUM LUZERN / photo: Theres Bütler
Bücheler’s machine, the full-size version, was eventually used in Zurich as the political wind changed course yet again. The two robbers and murderers Jakob Lattmann and Heinrich Sennhauser were sentenced to death and Bücheler’s killing machine was unpacked, assembled and refitted. On 15 July 1845, the guillotine blade dropped twice. Bücheler had offered to perform the executions himself, but professional executioners from Rheinfelden and Geneva were preferred. So, Bücheler was merely one of the many spectators in Zurich’s old “Schanzengebiet”. Not much is known about the rest of Bücheler’s life. He moved to Basel-Landschaft, and shortly after that the rumour in Kloten was that Bücheler had gone to France. In any case his family ended up living on social welfare – a sad ending to an unfortunate story.

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