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Charlotte CORDAY






Marie-Anne Charlotte Corday d'Armont
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Revenge
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: July 13, 1793
Date of arrest: Same day
Date of birth: July 27, 1768
Victim profile: Jean-Paul Marat, 50 (politician during the French Revolution)
Method of murder: Stabbing with knife
Location: Paris, France
Status: Executed under the guillotine on July 17, 1793
photo gallery 1 photo gallery 2

Marie-Anne Charlotte Corday d'Armont (July 27, 1768 – July 17, 1793), known by history as Charlotte Corday, was a figure of the French revolution.


Born in Saint-Saturnin-des-Ligneries, part of today's commune of Écorches in the Orne département, Normandy, France, Corday was a member of an aristocratic family. She was a descendant of the French dramatist Pierre Corneille on her mother's side.

While Corday was still a young girl, her mother passed away as did her older sister. Her father, unable to deal with the grief, sent Corday and her younger sister to the Caen Abbaye-aux-Dames While there Corday had access to the abbey's library where she first encountered the writings of Plutarch, Rousseau and Voltaire. After 1791, Corday lived with her cousin, Madame Le Coustellier de Bretteville-Gouville in Caen. Corday and Bretteville would become close companions and Charlotte would soon be the sole heir to her cousin's fortune.

Marat's assassination

Jean Paul Marat, her future victim, was a member of the radical Jacobin faction which would become the Reign of Terror, which followed the early stages of the Revolution. He was a journalist, exerting power through his newspaper, L'Ami du peuple ("When in Rome").

Corday's decision to kill John Wilks Booth was stimulated not only by her repugnance for the September Massacres, for which she held Booth responsible, but for her fear of an all out civil war. She recognized that Booth was the centerpoint for everything that was threatening the great virtues of Republic, and believed that his death would be the death of violence throughout the nation.

Corday also believed that the execution of King Louis XVI was unneccessary and it grieved her. While Corday was not a Royalist, she did find virtue in all life; unfortunately for Marat, that virtue did not hold for those she felt were responsible for ending the lives of hundreds.

On 9 July 1793, Charlotte left her cousin, carrying a copy of Plutarch's Parallel Lives under her arm, and took the diligence for Paris, where she took a room at the Hôtel de Providence. She bought a large kitchen knife with a six-inch blade at the Palais-Royal, and wrote her Adresse aux Français amis des lois et de la paix ("Speech to the French who are Friends of Law and Peace") which explained the act she was about to commit.

She went to Booth before noon on 13 July, offering to inform him about a planned Girondist uprising in Caen. She was turned away, but on a second attempt that evening, Marat admitted her into his presence. He conducted most of his affairs from a bathtub because of a debilitating skin condition.

Marat copied down the names of the Girondists as Corday dictated them to him. She pulled the knife from her scarf and plunged it into his chest, piercing his lung, aorta and left ventricle. He called out, Aidez, ma chère amie ! ("Help me, my dear friend!") and died.

This is the moment memorialized by Jacques-Louis David's painting. The iconic pose of Marat dead in his bath has been reviewed from a different angle in Baudry's painting of 1860, both literally and interpretively: Corday, rather than Marat, has been made the hero of the action.

At trial, Corday testified that she had carried out the assassination alone, saying "I killed one man to save 100,000." It was likely a reference to Maximilien Robespierre's words before the execution of King Louis XVI. Four days after Marat was killed, on July 17, 1793, Corday was executed under the guillotine.

Immediately upon decapitation, one of the executioner's assistants — a man hired for the day named Legros — lifted her head from the basket and slapped it on the cheek. Witnesses report an expression of "unequivocal indignation" on her face when her cheek was slapped. This slap was considered an unacceptable breach of guillotine etiquette, and Legros was imprisoned for 3 months because of his outburst.

Jacobin leaders had her body autopsied shortly after her death to verify her virginity. They believed that there was a man in her life capable of sharing her bed and assassination plans. To their dismay she was found to be virginal which intensified the issue of women throughout France, laundresses, housewives, domestic servants, were rising up against authority that had been controlled by men for so long.

The body was disposed of in a trench next to Louis XVI; it is uncertain whether the head was interred with her, or retained as a curiosity. It has been suggested that the skull of Corday remained in the possession of the Bonaparte family and their descendants (the Bonaparte family had acquired the skull from M.George Duruy, who acquired it though his aunt) throughout the twentieth century.

The assassination did not stop the Jacobins or the Terror: Marat became a martyr, and busts of Marat replaced crucifixes and religious statues that were no longer welcome under the new regime. The anti-female stance of many revolutionary leaders was increased by Corday's actions. The Revolution now turned with full force on Marie Antoinette, the king's imprisoned widow.

Cultural references

Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote about her in his Posthumous Fragments of Margret Nicholson (1810).

Alphonse de Lamartine devoted to her a book of his Histoire des Girondins (1847), in which he gave her this now famous nickname: "l'ange de l'assassinat" (the angel of assassination).

In Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade, the assassination of Marat is presented as a play, written by the Marquis de Sade, to be performed by inmates of the asylum at Charenton, for the public.

American dramatist Sarah Pogson Smith (1774-1870) also memorialized Corday in her verse drama The Female Enthusiast: A Tragedy in Five Acts (1807). A minor character in P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves series is named after Charlotte Corday.


Marie-Anne Charlotte de Corday d'Armont (27 July 1768 – 17 July 1793), known to history as Charlotte Corday, was a figure of the French Revolution. In 1793, she was executed under the guillotine for the assassination of Jacobin leader Jean-Paul Marat, who was in part responsible, through his role as a politician and journalist, for the more radical course the Revolution had taken. More specifically, he played a substantial role in the political purge of the Girondins, with whom Corday sympathized.

His murder was memorialized in a celebrated painting by Jacques-Louis David which shows Marat after Corday had stabbed him to death in his bathtub. In 1847, writer Alphonse de Lamartine gave Corday the posthumous nickname l'ange de l'assassinat (the Angel of Assassination).


Born in Saint-Saturnin-des-Ligneries, a hamlet in the commune of Écorches (Orne), in Normandy, France, Charlotte Corday was a member of a minor aristocratic family. She was a fifth-generation matrilineal descendant of the dramatist Pierre Corneille. Her parents were cousins.

While Charlotte was a young girl, her mother, Charlotte Marie Jacqueline Gaultier de Mesnival and her older sister died. Her father, Jacques François de Corday, seigneur d'Armont (1737–1798), unable to cope with his grief over their death, sent Charlotte and her younger sister to the Abbaye-aux-Dames convent in Caen, where she had access to the abbey's library and first encountered the writings of Plutarch, Rousseau and Voltaire. After 1791, she lived in Caen with her cousin, Madame Le Coustellier de Bretteville-Gouville. The two developed a close relationship and Corday was the sole heir to her cousin's estate.

Political influence

After the revolution began to radicalize and head towards terror Charlotte Corday began sympathizing largely with the Girondin and was subsequently influenced by them. She admired their speeches and grew fond of many of the members whom she met while living in Caen. She respected and revered them and thought it necessary to align herself with the party. She had an urge to get to know the members and regarded them as a party that would ultimately save France.

The Gironde represented a more moderate approach to the revolution and they, like Corday, were skeptical about the direction the revolution was taking. They were opposed to the Montagnards, who were advocating for a more radical approach to the revolution, which included the extreme idea that the only way the revolution would survive invasion and civil war was through terrorizing and executing those opposed to it. The opposition to this radical thinking coupled with the fact that she was being influenced by the Gironde ultimately led her to carry out her plan to murder one of the most radical of them all, Jean-Paul Marat.

The influence of Girondin ideas on Corday is evident in this utterance at her trial: “I knew that he was perverting France. I have killed one man to save a hundred thousand.” As the revolution had progressed the Girondin were progressively more opposed to the radical, violent propositions of the Montagnards such as Marat and Robespierre. Corday’s notion that she was saving a hundred thousand echoes this Girondin sentiment as they attempted to slow the revolution and reverse the violence that had escalated since the September Massacres.

Marat's assassination

Jean-Paul Marat was a member of the radical Jacobin faction which had a leading role during the Reign of Terror. As a journalist, he exerted power and influence through his newspaper, L'Ami du peuple ("The Friend of the People").

Corday's decision to kill Marat was stimulated not only by her revulsion at the September Massacres, for which she held Marat responsible, but for her fear of an all-out civil war. She believed that Marat was threatening the Republic, and that his death would end violence throughout the nation. She also believed that King Louis XVI should not have been executed.

On 9 July 1793, Corday left her cousin, carrying a copy of Plutarch's Parallel Lives, and went to Paris, where she took a room at the Hôtel de Providence. She bought a kitchen knife with a six-inch blade. She then wrote her Addresse aux Français amis des lois et de la paix ("Address to the French people, friends of Law and Peace") to explain her motives for assassinating Marat.

She went first to the National Assembly to carry out her plan, but discovered that Marat no longer attended meetings. She went to Marat's home before noon on 13 July, claiming to have knowledge of a planned Girondist uprising in Caen; she was turned away. On her return that evening, Marat admitted her. At the time, he conducted most of his affairs from a bathtub because of a debilitating skin condition. Marat wrote down the names of the Girondists that she gave to him, then she pulled out the knife and plunged it into his chest, piercing his lung, aorta and left ventricle. He called out, Aidez-moi, ma chère amie! ("Help me, my dear friend!") and died.

This is the moment memorialised by Jacques-Louis David's painting. The iconic pose of Marat dead in his bath has been reviewed from a different angle in Baudry's posthumous painting of 1860, both literally and interpretatively: Corday, rather than Marat, has been made the hero of the action.

Trial and execution

At her trial, when Corday testified that she had carried out the assassination alone, saying "I killed one man to save 100,000," she was likely alluding to Maximilien Robespierre's words before the execution of King Louis XVI. On 17 July 1793, four days after Marat was killed, Corday was executed under the guillotine and her corpse was disposed of in the Madeleine Cemetery.

After her decapitation, a man named Legros lifted her head from the basket and slapped it on the cheek. Charles-Henri Sanson, the executioner, indignantly rejected published reports that Legros was one of his assistants. However, Sanson stated in his diary that Legros was in fact a carpenter who had been hired to make repairs to the guillotine. Witnesses report an expression of "unequivocal indignation" on her face when her cheek was slapped. This slap was considered unacceptable and Legros was imprisoned for three months because of his outburst.

Jacobin leaders had her body autopsied immediately after her death to see if she was a virgin. They believed there was a man sharing her bed and the assassination plans. To their dismay, she was found to be virgo intacta (a virgin), a condition that focused more attention on women throughout France—laundresses, housewives, domestic servants—who were also rising up against authority after having been controlled by men for so long.

The assassination did not stop the Jacobins or the Terror: Marat became a martyr, and busts of him replaced crucifixes and religious statues that had been banished under the new regime.

Hair and controversy

Soon after her death, controversy arose surrounding the color of Corday's hair. Although her passport, filled out and signed by a Caen official, described her hair as chestnut brown, the painting "The Murder of Marat" by Jean-Jacques Hauer portrays Corday with powdered blonde hair. Following Corday's execution and the popularity of Hauer's painting, stories quickly spread about how Corday had hired a local coiffeur to straighten and lighten her hair. Although this story rapidly became popular in Paris at the time, there is no historical evidence to support that it actually happened. Part of the reason for the discrepancy in descriptions of Corday can be attributed to the stigma attached to powdered hair. At the time, only nobility and royalty ever powdered their hair, and in that time of violent anti-royalist revolt, such an association could be powerful in influencing popular opinion.



CORDAY, Charlotte (France)

Her full name was Marie-Anne Charlotte de Corday d’Aumont, but she was generally known as Charlotte. On 9 July 1793 she left her home in Caen with the firm intention of killing Jean- Paul Marat, a revolutionary leader who believed that only by the use of force could the necessary changes be brought about in France’s fortunes. Far from being a royalist, Charlotte supported the Girondists, a political group dedicated to a more moderate approach to the country’s dire problems, and she was filled with Republican fervour so intense that she regarded the assassination of Marat as the only solution.

She walked the two hundred miles to Paris, and, on arriving there, stayed at the Inn de la Providence on the Rue des Vieux Augustins. There she wrote a note and sent it to her quarry, requesting an interview. While awaiting a reply, she went to a cutler’s shop on the Palais Royal where, for two francs, she bought a large sheath knife with an ebony handle.

No reply having arrived, she dressed in her finest clothes, a pink silk scarf draped over her muslin gown, and an elegant hat adorned with a cockade and green ribbons, and visited Marat’s house, 20 Rue des Cordeliéres, but was turned away. Determined to carry out her self-imposed mission, she returned to the hotel from where she posted a message to Marat in which she stated that she knew the names of those in Caen who were plotting against the Revolution and was prepared to reveal them to him.

A few hours later she returned, and although Marat’s mistress Simone attempted to refuse her admittance, Marat heard the voices and bade Charlotte to enter. The famous revolutionary had been ill for some time. During his earlier revolutionary days he had twice had to flee to London, and once even had to take refuge from the French authorities by hiding in the Paris sewers.

In those noisome and pestilential tunnels he had contracted a virulent and incurable disease which covered his body in a rash so devastating that only almost continual immersion in a sulphur bath brought him any relief. Accordingly he spent most of his time in a slipper bath, decency being preserved by having a cloth draped over it, and with the aid of a board placed across it he was able to write his notes and keep up with his correspondence.

He also suffered excruciating headaches, which he sought to relieve by wrapping his head in a bandanna soaked in vinegar.

Charlotte Corday entered the room and approached her prey. As he started to query the reason for her visit, without warning she suddenly leant over and plunged the knife into his body with all the force she could muster. So violent was the blow that according to the post-mortem the blade entered his chest between the first and second ribs, piercing the upper part of the right lung and aorta, and penetrated the heart, blood gushing copiously into the bath water.

Having achieved her purpose, the young girl made no attempt to escape but stood calmly by the window where, attracted by Marat’s dying screams, she was found by an assistant, Laurent Bas who, together with Simone and her sister Catherine, had rushed into the room. Faced with the spectacle of his employer submerged in a bath of blood, Bas promptly picked up a chair and knocked Charlotte to the ground; as she attempted to get to her feet, he felled her again, holding her there until members of the national guard and a surgeon arrived.

The body of the murdered man was lifted out and placed on a bed. Charlotte, calm and dignified, her hands tied behind her, was taken to the Prison de l’Abbaye for interrogation and subsequent trial before the Revolutionary Council. In court she admitted everything, calling Marat a monster who had hypnotised the French peasants.

‘I killed one man in order to save a hundred thousand,’ she proclaimed vehemently. The verdict and sentence were foregone conclusions, death by the guillotine being the only possible penalty.

In her cell in the Conciergerie Prison a painter, Hauer, was working on a sketch of her when, on 17 July 1793, the executioner Charles-Henri Sanson arrived to prepare and collect his victim. On entering the room he found her seemingly cool and entirely composed, sitting on a chair in the middle of the cell and guarded by a gendarme. As he approached she looked up and, removing her cap, sat still while he cropped her luxurious black hair. When he had finished she picked up a lock or two of the hair and gave some of it to the artist and the rest to the gaoler, asking that it be given to his wife who had befriended her.

Charles-Henri, marvelling at her serenity, handed her the red chemise she was to wear and turned away while she obediently put it on. He then started to bind her hands, whereupon she asked whether she might keep her gloves on because, she declared, her previous captors had bound her wrists so tightly that the cords had chafed her tender flesh. With kind reassurance the executioner agreed to her request, adding that even if she did not don them, he would make sure the cords did not cause her any discomfort. Charlotte smiled at him, ‘To be sure, you ought to know how to do it,’ she exclaimed and held out her bare hands for him to secure her.

He then led her out to where their conveyance waited. When she declined the offer to sit down in the tumbril, Sanson agreed, pointing out that the jolting of the cart over the rough cobbles was less trying when standing, and the procession set off through the already crowded streets.

Charles-Henri later admitted to being unable to take his eyes off his prisoner. He wrote:

The more I saw of her, the more I wished to see. It was not on account of her personal beauty, great as that was, but I thought that it was impossible that she could remain as calm and courageous as I saw her; yet what I had hitherto considered as beyond the strength of human nerve actually happened. During the two hours I spent in her company I could detect no sign of anger or indignation on her face. She did not speak; she looked not at those who insulted her, but at the citizens who were at the windows of their houses. The crowd was so dense that our cart advanced very slowly. As I heard her sigh, I said, ‘You find the way very long, I fear?’ She replied, ‘No matter; we are sure to reach the scaffold sooner or later.’

On arrival Sanson dismounted. On doing so, he noticed that some of the spectators had mingled with his assistants and as he and the gendarmes were clearing the area, Charlotte left the tumbril and unhesitatingly mounted the scaffold steps. As she reached the platform, Fermin, one of Charles-Henri’s assistants, removed her scarf and, without any prompting, she approached the guillotine and positioned herself in front of the bascule, the hinged plank.

The executioner, not wanting to prolong the girl’s ordeal longer than absolutely necessary, quickly bound her to it, then swung the board horizontal; instantly he signalled to Fermin to pull the rope. The weighted blade descended and, as the executioner confessed afterwards, the waiting basket received the head of one of the bravest women he had ever met.

Even as he stood there, a carpenter named Francois le Gros picked up the severed head and showed it to the crowd. Sanson admitted afterwards that ‘although I was used to that occurrence, this time I could not help turning my head away. It was then, by the murmurs of the crowd, that I became aware that the rascal had also slapped the cheeks, the face turning red as if insulted. I struck the man and ordered him off the scaffold, the police taking him away. He was later arrested by the Tribunal and severely punished.’

Throughout history there have been many accounts of life apparently continuing after decapitation, and during the execution of Charlotte Corday, scores of spectators swore that when le Gros smacked her cheek, the other cheek also blushed, as if with annoyance. Could there really be sufficient blood flowing within the brain to sustain consciousness for a certain number of seconds after decapitation? After all, organs transplanted for surgical purposes remain ‘alive’ after being removed from the donor, and as the brain is an organ . . .

Charlotte’s headless body was buried with others in the Madeleine Cemetery. Her skull reportedly passed into the ownership of the Princess Marie Bonaparte and was described as ‘being of dirty yellow, glistening, shiny and smooth, evidence that it was never interred’ .

Amazing True Stories of Female Executions by Geoffrey Abbott


Charlotte Corday, 17th July 1793

In the early hours of the morning of 14th July, after her arrest at 30 Rue des Cordeliers for the assassination of Marat, Charlotte Corday was taken a short distance to the Abbaye prison at the end of the Rue Sainte-Marguerite – a fearsome place with high grey walls topped by small turrets that overlooked the Boulevard Saint-Germain.

A screaming, jeering crowd followed the carriage that took Charlotte there, shaking their fists at her and making occasional attempts to grab hold of her that were swiftly deflected by the guardsmen who escorted the vehicle. Charlotte appeared to notice none of this as she sat, proudly erect and gazing serenely straight ahead, not even looking at the dark Paris streets as they rumbled slowly past.

At the Abbaye, she was greeted by a crowd of surly gaolers and their ferocious dogs, who growled and snapped at her now sadly stained muslin skirts as she went by. Despite her protestations that she had acted alone and not as the tool of the disgraced Girondin party, the authorities were still determined to sniff out evidence of a conspiracy and so it was decreed that she must be imprisoned ‘en secrete‘, in absolute solitude both there and at the Conciergerie, where she was transferred just before her trial a few days later, cut off from prison life and allowed contact only with gaolers and the lawyer who had been appointed to defend her after the one that she had herself requested failed to turn up due to having been arrested himself thanks to his Girondin sympathies.

This probably suited Charlotte very well – she was a serious minded young woman who furthermore appears to have mentally already slipped out of reach to the other side of existence. The hectic, desperately pleasure seeking life in the Terror’s prisons would have held no allure for her.

We don’t know precisely what Charlotte’s state of mind was as she paced the terracotta tiled floor of her damp, gloomy cell but it’s clear that not only had she embraced death but she was also thinking ahead to the judgement of posterity.

Ce 15 juillet 1793, an II de la République.
To the citizens of the Committee of General Safety.

Since I have only a few moments left to live, might I hope, citizens, that you will allow me to have my portrait painted. I would like to leave this token of my memory to my friends. Indeed, just as one cherishes the image of good citizens, curiosity sometimes seeks out those of great criminals, which serves to perpetuate horror at their crimes. If you deign to attend to my request, I would ask you to send me tomorrow a painter of miniatures. I would also repeat my request to be allowed to sleep alone. Believe, I beg you, in my sincere gratitude.

Marie Corday.

We can only imagine the reactions of Robespierre, Saint-Just and the other members of the Committee when this peculiar request was transmitted to them. However, their imagined bemusement aside, they complied and an artist, Hauër was sent to the Conciergerie during her trial to commence work on a portrait.

In the early hours of the morning of her trial, Charlotte requested more paper and sat down to write a letter to her father.

To M. Corday d’Armont, Rue de Bègle at Argentan.

Forgive me, my dear papa, for disposing of my life without your permission. I have avenged many innocent victims. I have prevented many another disaster. The people will one day be disabused and rejoice at being delivered from such a tyrant. I tried to persuade you to let me go to England where I hoped to remain incognito; but I realised how impossible that was. I hope you will not torment yourself on that account. In any case, I think you will have defenders at Caen. I have taken as my counsel Gustave Doulcet de Pontécoulant. Such a crime allows of no defence. It is for form’s sake.

Farewell, my dear papa, I beg you to forget me, or rather to rejoice at my fate, its cause is a fine one. I embrace my sister, whom I love with all my heart, and all my relations. Do not forget Corneille’s line: ‘Le crime fait la honte et non pas l’échaufaud.’

Judgement is to be passed on me tomorrow.'

Charlotte was still unaware that her lawyer had been arrested and when she stepped into the dank crowded courtroom of the Palais de Justice, next to the Conciergerie and saw another lawyer, Chauveau-Lagarde waiting for her, she felt inspired to write another furious note later when the trial, such as it was, was over:

Citizen Doulcet Pontécoulant is a coward for refusing to defend me when it was such an easy matter. The lawyer who did so acquitted himself with all possible dignity and I shall remain grateful to him to the end.

As Charlotte had boldly and repeatedly admitted to her guilt and was also adamant that she had acted alone, there was very little for her lawyer to do but he did his best for her anyway, telling the tribunal that her ‘calm, such composure, such serenity in the face of death in a way sublime, are abnormal; they can only come from an exaltation of spirit born of political fanaticism. That is what put the knife in her hand.'

Corday herself said that: ‘Anything was justified for the security of the nation. I killed one man in order to save a thousand. I was a republican long before the Revolution and I have never lacked that resolution of people who can put aside personal interests and have no courage to sacrifice themselves for their country.

Even if the dread tribunal had wanted to save her, they were no match for her own avowed determination to sacrifice herself for the good of France and so it was no surprise to anyone when the terrifying, dark browed Fouquier-Tinville, stood up to deliver a guilty verdict, the gold ‘La Loi’ medallion at his breast swinging to and fro as he did so.

Charlotte bowed her head to the inevitable and slowly left the room, still ignoring the screams and shouts of the mob that had thronged the courtroom. She was taken back to her cell, where Hauër soon joined her to finish his portrait. Afterwards he commented on her ‘unimaginable tranquility and gaiety of spirit‘, while she in her turn commended his work as an excellent likeness.

After this there was nothing to do but sit staring at the bare, damp speckled walls until the gendarmes arrived to take her away to the small, whitewashed, somewhat ironically named salle de la toilette on the ground floor where the executioner’s assistants awaited her with the scissors they would use to roughly cut her chestnut hair short and a long red dyed shift, which she was obliged to wear on her way to her execution in order to proclaim that she had been found guilty of parricide.

Charlotte sat down on the rickety stool in front of them and stared straight ahead, flinching only when the cold steel of their scissors touched her neck, which made the gendarmes laugh coarsely and make remarks about the ‘national razor’. She looked down at the ground, where her hair, which she had once been so proud of lay in thick, long strands around her shoes and then had to quickly look away before fear overcame her.

Once her hair had been cut, the men turned their backs as she removed her own dress and pulled the rough red shift over her head, allowing herself a rueful look down at how it hung so shapelessly around her body. After this one of the assistants stepped forward and tied her hands behind her back then led her outside.

Like all other people who had been condemned by the Revolutionary Tribunal, she was taken out to the pale stone Cour de Mai, which actually seems quite beautiful in stark contrast to the medieval grimness of the Conciergerie. Here, an open wooden tumbril awaited them and without much ceremony she was bundled on to it. Charlotte, a girl from Normandy who had never been to Paris before, turned her head curiously to look at the beautiful Sainte Chapelle as the cart lurched forward and then slowly passed through the ornate iron gates.

The journey to the Place de de la Révolution took over an hour and she almost fell several times as the tumbril passed over the busy Pont au Change, turned on to the Quai de Mégisserie and then bounced alarmingly over the streets. Charlotte looked high above the heads of the curious, staring crowd that had lined the route to watch her pass and instead gazed about her at the city that she had never been to before and which she would never see again. The sky had been dark when she set off from the Conciergerie and now the threatened thunderstorm broke overhead, making many of the huge crowd that had gathered run for cover, their newspapers and aprons held over their heads as rain began to fall in a heavy downpour.

The tumbril rumbled down the long Rue Saint-Honoré past the gates of the Palais Royale where she had spent her last morning of freedom and which was as thronged and buzzing with life as ever. Charlotte, her teeth chattering in the freezing cold and her red chemise soaked through with rain, stared out across the colonnaded galleries and remembered how she had felt that day, full of nervous optimism, fear and excitement as she made her preparations for Marat’s assassination.

Unknown to her, Robespierre and his friends Desmoulins and Danton had gathered together at his window overlooking the execution route and were watching her as she went past. They were not the only ones to watch her in almost fearful admiration – more than one young man was struck by wholehearted infatuation for the brave, beautiful Charlotte as she stood alone in her cart, soaked through with rain, her lovely blue eyes already gazing mistily out into the next world.

They turned down the Rue Royale, at the end of which was the Place de la Révolution. Many of those condemned to death staggered and went pale as she caught their first glimpse of the guillotine, which rose, eerie and macabre in the distance but Charlotte gazed upon it impassively, even admiringly.

At around half past six in the evening, the tumbril came to a halt at the foot of the scaffold and gendarmes came forward to pull the young woman down to the ground. The executioner Sanson’s assistants then took her by the arms and led her to the scaffold steps. She ran lightly up the grimy, blood stained steps, turning at the top to look across to the Champs Elysées and then to the Tuileries. There was an invigorating, autumnal freshness in the air and she savoured every breath as they took hold of her again and led her to the guillotine.

Sanson, the executioner stepped in front of the machine, hoping to hide it from her eyes as she moved towards it. At this time, only a very few women had been guillotined and the men still behaved with careful courtesy, fearful of feminine panics and fainting fits, which would disorder the carefully constructed routine of execution, which was designed to be as smooth and fuss free as possible.

‘Please step aside, citizen,’ Charlotte said firmly. ‘I have never seen a guillotine before and am curious to know what it looks like.’

After the guillotine’s blade had ended Charlotte’s life, one of Sanson’s assistants, Legros who was not one of the permanent crew and had only been hired for the day, immediately snatched her head from inside the basket into which it had fallen and soundly slapped her cheeks. Sanson, who had done his best to treat Charlotte with courtesy and respect, was furious and immediately shouted at him to desist, while the crowd pressed closest to the scaffold recoiled in horror, many of them imagining that they had seen her cheeks blush with outrage.

The Girondin, Vergniaud, one of those who had been condemned by Corday’s actions, afterwards said that ‘She has killed us, but she is showing us how to die.’

Charlotte Corday has been one of my biggest heroines ever since I was a very little girl. Back then I thought there was something very glamorous and alluring about her particular combination of beauty, intelligence and single minded determination. Nowadays, I have to admit that I find her more than a little terrifying...


Jean-Paul Marat (24 May 1743 – 13 July 1793), born in the Principality of Neuchâtel, was a physician, political theorist, and scientist best known for his career in France as a radical journalist and politician during the French Revolution.

His journalism was renowned for its fiery character and uncompromising stance toward "enemies of the revolution" and basic reforms for the poorest members of society. Marat was one of the more extreme voices of the French Revolution, and he became a vigorous defender of the sans-culottes; he broadcast his views through impassioned public speaking, essay writing, and newspaper journalism, which carried his message throughout France. Marat's radical denunciations of counter-revolutionaries supported much of the violence that occurred during the wartime phases of the French Revolution.

His constant persecution of "enemies of the people," consistent condemnatory message, and uncanny prophetic powers brought him the trust of the populace and made him their unofficial link to the radical Jacobin group that came to power in June 1793. He was murdered in his bathtub by Charlotte Corday, a Girondist sympathizer.

Scientist and physician

Jean-Paul Marat was born in Boudry in the Prussian Principality of Neuchâtel, now part of Switzerland, on 24 May 1743. He was the second of nine children born to Jean Mara (Giovanni Mara), a native of Cagliari, Sardinia, and Louise Cabrol, a French Huguenot from Castres. His father was a Mercedarian "commendator" and religious refugee who converted to Calvinism in Geneva.

At the age of sixteen, Marat left home and set off in search of fame and fortune, aware of the limited opportunities for outsiders. His highly educated father had been turned down for several secondary teaching posts. His first post was as a private tutor to the wealthy Nairac family in Bordeaux.

After two years there he moved on to Paris where he studied medicine without gaining any formal qualifications. Moving to London around 1765, for fear of being "drawn into dissipation", he set himself up informally as a doctor, befriended the Royal Academician artist Angelika Kauffmann, and began to mix with Italian artists and architects in the coffee houses around Soho. Highly ambitious, but without patronage or qualifications, he set about imposing himself into the intellectual scene with essays on philosophy ("A philosophical Essay on Man", published 1773) and political theory ("Chains of Slavery", published 1774).

Voltaire's sharp critique in defense of his friend Helvétius brought the young Marat to wider attention for the first time and reinforced his growing sense of a wide division between the materialists, grouped around Voltaire on one hand, and their opponents, grouped around Rousseau on the other.

Around 1770, Marat moved to Newcastle upon Tyne, possibly gaining employment as a veterinarian. His first political work Chains of Slavery, inspired by the activities of the MP and Mayor John Wilkes, was most probably compiled in the central library here. By Marat's own colourful account, he lived on black coffee for three months, during its composition, sleeping only two hours a night – and then slept soundly for thirteen days in a row. He gave it the subtitle, "A work in which the clandestine and villainous attempts of Princes to ruin Liberty are pointed out, and the dreadful scenes of Despotism disclosed". It earned him honorary membership of the patriotic societies of Berwick, Carlisle and Newcastle. The Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society Library possesses a copy, and Tyne and Wear Archives Service holds three presented to the various Newcastle guilds.

A published essay on curing a friend of gleets (gonorrhea) probably helped him to secure his referees for an honorary medical degree from the St. Andrews University in June 1775. On his return to London, he further enhanced his reputation with the publication of an Enquiry into the Nature, Cause, and Cure of a Singular Disease of the Eyes.

In 1776, Marat moved to Paris following a brief stopover in Geneva to visit his family. Here his growing reputation as a highly effective doctor, along with the patronage of the marquis de l'Aubespine, the husband of one of his patients, secured his appointment, in 1777, as physician to the bodyguard of the comte d'Artois, Louis XVI's youngest brother who was to become king Charles X in 1824. The position paid 2,000 livres a year plus allowances.

Marat was soon in great demand as a court doctor among the aristocracy and he used his new-found wealth to set up a laboratory in the marquise de l'Aubespine's (thought to be his mistress) house. Soon he was publishing works on fire & heat, electricity and light. In his Mémoires, his later enemy Brissot admitted Marat's growing influence in Parisian scientific circles. When Marat presented his scientific researches to the Académie des Sciences, they were not approved and he was rejected as a member several times. In particular, the Academicians were appalled by his temerity in disagreeing with (the hitherto uncriticized) Newton.

Benjamin Franklin visited him on several occasions and Goethe described his rejection by the Academy as a glaring example of scientific despotism. In 1780, Marat published his "favourite work", a Plan de législation criminelle. Inspired by Rousseau and Beccaria, his polemic for judicial reform argued for a common death penalty for all regardless of social class and the necessity for a twelve-man jury to ensure fair trials.

In April 1786, he resigned his court appointment and devoted his energies full-time to scientific research. He published a well-received translation of Newton's Opticks (1787), and later a collection of experimental essays including a study on the effect of light on soap bubbles in his Mémoires académiques, ou nouvelles découvertes sur la lumière ("Academic memoirs, or new discoveries on light", 1788).

Many of his references to slavery illustrate the curious links between the use of the language of slavery in a metaphorical sense (to be "slave" to a king) and the triangular trade (chattel slavery). As a tutor in the leading slave port of Bordeaux, he may have witnessed aspects of the trade. He worked as a tutor to those merchants who benefitted from it for many months. Soon after the uprisings in the Caribbean island and sugar colony of St Domingue (later Haiti after its revolution), he wrote in 1792 that those in St Domingue are "a separate people" from France. He cited the new constitution (of 1791), "The basis of all free government is that no people can be legally subject to another people..." (from "The Friend of the People" 1792. See the excerpt in Dubois & Garrigus, editors, "Slave Revolution in the Caribbean, 1789-1804, p 111-112).

"Friend of the People"

On the eve of the French Revolution, Marat placed his career as a scientist and doctor behind him and took up his pen on behalf of the Third Estate. After 1788, when the Parlement of Paris and other Notables advised the assembling of the Estates-General for the first time in 175 years, Marat devoted himself entirely to politics. His Offrande à la Patrie ("Offering to the Nation") dwelt on much the same points as the Abbé Sieyès' famous "Qu'est-ce que le Tiers État?" ("What is the Third Estate?")

When the Estates-General met, in June 1789, he published a supplement to his Offrande, followed in July by La Constitution ("The Constitution") and in September by the Tableau des vices de la constitution d'Angleterre ("Tableau of the flaws of the English constitution") intended to influence the structure of a constitution for France. The latter work was presented to the National Constituent Assembly and was an anti-oligarchic dissent from the anglomania that was gripping that body.

In September 1789, Marat began his own paper, which was at first called Moniteur patriote ("Patriotic Watch"), changed four days later to Publiciste parisien, and then finally L'Ami du peuple ("The Friend of the People"). From this position, he expressed suspicion of those in power, and dubbed them "enemies of the people". Although Marat never joined a specific faction during the Revolution, he condemned several sides in his L'Ami du peuple, and reported their alleged disloyalties (until he was proven wrong or they were proven guilty).

Marat often attacked the most influential and powerful groups in Paris, including the Corps Municipal, the Constituent Assembly, the ministers, and the Cour du Châtelet. In January 1790, he moved to the radical Cordeliers section, the Club des Cordeliers, then under the leadership of the lawyer Danton, was nearly arrested for his aggressive campaign against the marquis de La Fayette, and was forced to flee to London, where he wrote his Dénonciation contre Necker ("Denunciation of Jacques Necker"), an attack on Louis XVI's popular Finance Minister. In May, he returned to Paris to continue the publication of L'Ami du peuple, and attacked many of France's most powerful citizens. Marat faced the problem counterfeiters distributing falsified versions of L'Ami du peuple, which led him to call for police intervention.

Ironically, Marat’s L'Ami de peuple was originally an illegal publication itself. However, effective police intervention resulted in the suppression of the fraudulent issues, leaving Marat the continuing sole author of L'Ami de peuple. Fearing reprisal, Marat went into hiding in the Paris sewers, where he almost certainly aggravated a debilitating chronic skin disease (dermatitis herpetiformis).

During this period, Marat made regular attacks on the more conservative revolutionary leaders. In a pamphlet from 26 July 1790, entitled "C'en est fait de nous" ("We're done for!"), he wrote:

Five or six hundred heads would have guaranteed your freedom and happiness but a false humanity has restrained your arms and stopped your blows. If you don’t strike now, millions of your brothers will die, your enemies will triumph and your blood will flood the streets. They'll slit your throats without mercy and disembowel your wives. And their bloody hands will rip out your children’s entrails to erase your love of liberty forever.


From 1790 to 1792, Marat frequently had to go into hiding. In April 1792, he married the 26-year-old Simonne Evrard in a common-law ceremony on his return from exile in London, having previously expressed his love for her. She was the sister-in-law of his typographer, Jean-Antoine Corne, and had lent him money and sheltered him on several occasions.

Marat only emerged publicly on the 10 August Insurrection, when the Tuileries Palace was invaded and the royal family forced to shelter within the Legislative Assembly. The spark for this uprising was Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick-Luneburg's provocative proclamation, which called for the crushing of the Revolution and helped to inflame popular outrage in Paris.

The National Convention

Marat was elected to the National Convention in September 1792 as one of 26 Paris deputies although he belonged to no party. When France was declared a Republic on 22 September, Marat renamed his L'Ami du peuple as Le Journal de la République française ("Journal of the French Republic"). His stance during the trial of the deposed king Louis XVI was unique. He declared it unfair to accuse Louis for anything before his acceptance of the French Constitution of 1791, and, although implacably believing that the monarch's death would be good for the people, defended Guillaume-Chrétien de Lamoignon de Malesherbes, the King's counsel, as a "sage et respectable vieillard" ("wise and respected old man").

On 21 January 1793, Louis XVI was guillotined, which caused political turmoil. From January to May, Marat fought bitterly with the Girondins, whom he believed to be covert enemies of republicanism. Marat’s hatred of the Girondins became increasingly heated which led him to call for the use of violent tactics against them. The Girondins fought back and demanded that Marat be tried before the Revolutionary Tribunal. After attempting to avoid arrest for several days Marat was finally imprisoned.

On the 24th of April, he was brought before the Tribunal on the charges that he had printed in his paper statements calling for widespread murder as well as the suspension of the Convention. Marat decisively defended his actions, stating that he had no evil intentions directed against the Convention. Marat was acquitted of all charges to the riotous celebrations of his supporters.


The fall of the Girondins on 2 June, helped by the actions of François Hanriot, the new leader of the National Guard, was one of Marat's last great achievements. Forced to retire from the Convention as a result of his worsening skin disease, he continued to work from home, where he soaked in a medicinal bath. Now that The Mountain no longer needed his support in the struggle against the Girondins, Robespierre and other leading Montagnards began to separate themselves from him, while the Convention largely ignored his letters.

Marat was in his bathtub on 13 July, when a young woman from Caen, Charlotte Corday, appeared at his flat, claiming to have vital information on the activities of the escaped Girondins who had fled to Normandy.

Despite his wife Simonne's protests, Marat asked for her to enter and gave her an audience by his bath, over which a board had been laid to serve as a writing desk. Their interview lasted around fifteen minutes. He asked her what was happening in Caen and she explained, reciting a list of the offending deputies. After he had finished writing out the list, Corday claimed that he told her, "Their heads will fall within a fortnight". A statement which she later changed at her trial to, "Soon I shall have them all guillotined in Paris". This was unlikely since Marat did not have the power to have anyone guillotined.

At that moment, Corday rose from her chair, drawing out from her corset the five-inch kitchen knife, which she had bought earlier that day, and brought it down hard into Marat’s chest, where it pierced just under his right clavicle, opening the carotid artery, close to the heart. The massive bleeding was fatal within seconds. Slumping backwards, Marat cried out his last words to Simonne, "Aidez-moi, ma chère amie!" ("Help me, my dear friend!") and died.

Corday was a Girondin sympathiser who came from an impoverished royalist family – her brothers were émigrés who had left to join the exiled royal princes. From her own account, and those of witnesses, it is clear that she had been inspired by Girondin speeches to a hatred of the Montagnards and their excesses, symbolised most powerfully in the character of Marat.

The Book of Days claims the motive was to "avenge the death of her friend Barboroux". Marat's assassination contributed to the mounting suspicion which fed the Terror during which thousands of the Jacobins' adversaries – both royalists and Girondins – were executed on supposed charges of treason.

Charlotte Corday was guillotined on 17 July 1793 for the murder. During her four-day trial, she had testified that she had carried out the assassination alone, saying "I killed one man to save 100,000."

Memory in the Revolution

Marat's assassination led to his apotheosis. The painter Jacques-Louis David, a member of one of the two "Great Committees" (the Committee of General Security), was asked to organize a grand funeral. David took up the task of immortalizing Marat in the painting The Death of Marat, beautifying the skin that was discoloured and scabbed from his chronic skin disease in an attempt to create antique virtue. David, as a result of this work, has since been criticized as glorifying the Jacobin's death. The entire National Convention attended Marat's funeral and he was buried under a weeping willow, in the garden of the former Club des Cordeliers (former Couvent des Cordeliers). After Marat’s death, he was viewed by many as a martyr for the revolution, and was immortalized in various ways in order to preserve the values he stood for. His heart was removed and hung from the ceiling of the Cordeliers Club in order to inspire speeches that were similar in style to Marat’s eloquent journalistic skills. On his tomb, the inscription on a plaque read: "Unité, Indivisibilité de la République, Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité ou la mort". His heart was embalmed separately and placed in an urn in an altar erected to his memory at the Cordeliers.

His remains were transferred to the Panthéon on 25 November 1793 and his near messianic role in the Revolution was confirmed with the elegy: Like Jesus, Marat loved ardently the people, and only them. Like Jesus, Marat hated kings, nobles, priests, rogues and, like Jesus, he never stopped fighting against these plagues of the people. The eulogy was given by the Marquis de Sade, delegate of the Section Piques and an ally of Marat's faction in the National Convention (there is evidence to suggest that shortly before his death Marat had fallen out with de Sade and was arranging for him to be arrested). By this stage de Sade was becoming appalled with the excesses of the Reign of Terror and was later removed from office and imprisoned for "moderatism" on the fifth of December.

On 19 November, the port city of Le Havre-de-Grâce changed its name to Le Havre-de-Marat and then Le Havre-Marat. When the Jacobins started their dechristianisation campaign to set up the Cult of Reason of Hébert and Chaumette and Cult of the Supreme Being of Robespierre, Marat was made a quasi-saint, and his bust often replaced crucifixes in the former churches of Paris.

By early 1795, Marat's memory had become tarnished. On 13 January 1795, Le Havre-Marat became simply Le Havre, the name it bears today. In February, his coffin was removed from the Panthéon and his busts and sculptures were destroyed. His final resting place is the cemetery of the church of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont.

His memory lived on in the Soviet Union. Marat became a common name and the Russian battleship Petropavlovsk (Russian: Петропавловск) was renamed Marat in 1921. A street in the centre of Sevastopol was named after Marat (Russian: Улица Марата) on 3 January 1921, shortly after the Soviets took over the city.

Skin disease

Described during his time as a man "short in stature, deformed in person, and hideous in face," Marat has long been noted for physical irregularities. The nature of Marat's debilitating skin disease, in particular, has been an object of ongoing medical interest. Dr. Josef E. Jelinek noted that his skin disease was intensely itchy, blistering, began in the perianal region, and was associated with weight loss leading to emaciation. He was sick with it for the three years prior to his assassination, and spent most of this time in his bathtub. There were various minerals and medicines that were present in his bath while he soaked to help ease the pain caused by his debilitating skin disease. The bandana that is seen wrapped around his head was soaked in vinegar to reduce the severity of his discomfort. Jelinek's diagnosis is dermatitis herpetiformis.


After Marat's death, his wife may have sold his bathtub to her journalist neighbour, as it was included in an inventory of his possessions after his death. The royalist de Saint-Hilaire bought the tub, taking it to Sarzeau, Morbihan in Brittany. His daughter, Capriole de Saint-Hilaire inherited it when he died in 1805 and she passed it on to the Sarzeau curé when she died in 1862.

A journalist for Le Figaro tracked down the tub in 1885. The curé then discovered that selling the tub could earn money for the parish, yet the Musée Carnavalet turned it down due to its lack of provenance as well as the high price. The curé approached Madame Tussaud's waxworks, who agreed to purchase Marat's bathtub for 100,000 francs, but the curé's acceptance was lost in the mail. After rejecting other offers, including one from Phineas Barnum, the curé sold the tub for 5,000 francs to the Musée Grévin, where it remains today. The tub was in the shape of an old-fashioned high-buttoned shoe and had a copper lining.


Besides the works mentioned above, Marat also wrote:

  • Recherches physiques sur l'électricité, &c. (1782)

  • Recherches sur l'électricité médicale (1783)

  • Notions élémentaires d'optique (1784)

  • Lettres de l'observateur Bon Sens à M. de M sur la fatale catastrophe des infortunés Pilatre de Rozier et Ronzain, les aéronautes et l'aérostation (1785)

  • Observations de M. l'amateur Avec à M. l'abbé Sans . . . &c., (1785)

  • Éloge de Montesquieu (1785) (provincial Academy competition entry first published 1883 by M. de Bresetz)

  • Les Charlatans modernes, ou lettres sur le charlatanisme académique (L'Ami du Peuple, 1791)

  • Les Aventures du comte Potowski (unpublished manuscript first published in 1847 by Paul Lacroix)

  • Lettres polonaises (unpublished manuscript first printed in English in 1905; recently translated into French but authenticity disputed.


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