I’m going to interrupt this blog’s usual content about life during the 1870–1871 Siege of Paris, to travel back nearly eight decades from the Siege, to the French Revolution and the turbulent years that followed. A few days ago, I saw something so extraordinary from that time that I have to write about it!
It all started at the Musée Grévin, the Parisian equivalent of Madame Tussaud’s. I’d never been, but my brother-in-law was in town and wanted to see it, and why the heck not? In fact, between my interest in history (the building is a classified historical monument), oddities, and opportunities for funny selfies, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t visited it before.
While we roamed around the French History section, I discovered there was something else at the wax museum that would have drawn me there ages ago: the actual bathtub in which Revolutionary extremist Jean-Paul Marat was assassinated. The tub is associated with Marat, but also his assassin, one of my favorite historical figures: Charlotte Corday.
The tub is currently featured in a tableau inspired by numerous paintings of the assassination. Its strange shape meant that it covered as much of Marat’s skin as possible — he was suffering from a skin disease and needed to take medical baths, which he soaked in for hours while writing. It seemed like it might just be a boast of the museum, but articles like this one show that there are records of the sale and provenance.
This source explains that the tub was kept by Simone Evrard, Marat’s fiancee, long after his death. But she was forced to sell it for financial reasons to her neighbor, a certain Monsieur de Saint-Hilaire, who brought it to his house in Sarzeau. After his death, his daughter gave it to the local curé, who sold it to the Musée Grévin in the mid-1880’s.
It was amazing to see this bathtub, and I just can’t stop thinking about it. I wanted to share the story of the assassination and, more particularly, the story of Charlotte Corday, an assassin, but also a misguided hero. Here’s a blog post I wrote about her several years ago. I hope you enjoy it:
Charlotte Corday: Revolutionary hero and assassin
Oh, my country! Your misfortunes tear my heart; I can give you only my life!
On July 13, 1793, a beautiful young woman wearing a fashionable black top hat descends from a carriage onto a street in Paris’s busy Latin Quarter. With a decided pace, she walks quickly to the courtyard of the building across the way, passes the angry concierge, and goes up the stairs to a second-storey apartment.
She knocks on the door. “I would like to speak to Monsieur Marat,” she tells the woman who answers. The latter refuses to let her in, and the young lady insists, saying she has important information to give to the Revolutionary.
From inside, Marat’s voice tells the woman to let the young lady enter. She’s led to a small room where the man in question is in his bathtub, a wooden plank across it to serve as a desk. He was too unwell to attend a session at the Convention Nationale; his old skin disease is plaguing him so much that he has to stay in the water. The young lady sits in a chair beside him.
About fifteen minutes later, Marat’s lover, his sister, and a man who helps him publish his notorious news journal, L’ami du peuple, hear him cry out, “My dear friend — come to me!” They rush to the room and find him lying, unmoving, in the now blood-filled bathtub. On the red-splattered floor is a knife, its silver blade covered in crimson. The young woman, Marie-Anne-Charlotte de Corday d’Armont, known to history as Charlotte Corday, stands near the window. It had taken only one decisive plunge of the knife into his chest. Marat is dead.
Marie-Anne-Charlotte de Corday d’Armont (today commonly called “Charlotte Corday”, despite the fact that she herself preferred “Marie” as her first name) was born to a poor noble family on July 27, 1768. A direct descendant of the great dramatist Corneille, Corday grew up during the Enlightenment, in a family and society where women were expected to be educated and well-read. She attended a convent school, and was allowed access there and in her father’s library to books by Voltaire, Rousseau, and other philosophers of the age.
When she finished school, she went to live with a cousin in the city of Caen.
At the start of the Revolution (1789), Corday agreed with many of its basic principles. But as time went on, its ideology became increasingly extreme. On June 21–22 1791, King Louis XVI and his family tried to flee the tense climate of Paris for a royalist area in northeast France, from which they might start a counterrevolution. They were caught en route, and the consequences were disastrous.
Until then, popular opinion had been that the royal family could be integrated into the new France, perhaps by creating a constitutional monarchy. But their escape attempt changed everything. Within a little more than a year and a half, both Louis and his wife Marie-Antoinette had been guillotined. Their friends and advisors were rounded up and imprisoned. On several days in September 1792, over a thousand people imprisoned on charges of royalist sentiments and/or for refusing to renounce the Roman Catholic faith, were killed by mobs.
An era called “The Terror” had begun. Tens of thousands of people would lose their lives (the exact amount remains unclear today). The hunt for enemies of the Revolution became so severe that it was said if someone thought or claimed you’d so much as muttered “Vive le roi”, you could be executed for treason.
Charlotte Corday saw the madness of her time. In Paris, a popular journalist named Jean-Paul Marat was making incendiary speeches and publishing L’ami du peuple (“The People’s Friend”), a widely read newspaper that called for measures even more extreme than what most other public figures seemed to be suggesting. He wanted all “enemies of the people” — that is, anyone he saw as a counterrevolutionary — to be killed. Though many people were responsible for the butchery and mentality of the Terror, Corday considered Marat its main cause. As she pointed out in her writings and at her trial, she didn’t think of him as a man, but a monster.
And one day, she decided that since no one else was doing anything about it, she would have to slay the monster herself.
Using money from her allowance, she bought a stagecoach ticket to Paris, and told her cousin that she was going to visit her father, who lived in the countryside. She told no one about her real intended destination. On July 9, 1793, Corday boarded the coach to Paris alone.
In Paris, she found a hotel. Over the next few days, she took care of some business, rested, and wrote her “Adresse aux Français amis des loix et de la paix” (“Address to the People of France, friends of laws and peace”) explaining her motives and urging the people to continue to fight the oppression and senseless killing of the Terror. It ends with these lines: “If I don’t succeed in my goal, people of France! I have shown you the path, you know your enemies; rise up! March! Strike at them!”
On the morning of July 13, she went to the Palais Royal, a sort of proto-shopping mall that had been created by the king’s brother and was open to all. After wandering around for a while, she went into a shop and purchased a kitchen knife. Then, she went to find Marat.
Corday had expected he’d be at a government meeting. But she learned that, due to his failing health — a recurrent skin problem that was possibly an extremely severe case of eczema — he no longer left his home. She easily got his address and headed there.
After being turned away, Corday returned that evening. This time, she was refused entry, first by the building’s concierge, who she got past, then by Marat’s sister at the door of his apartment. Court testimonials show that Marat’s household was already on its guard against assassins; when Corday was finally allowed to see Marat, after the man himself called out to let her enter, his sister took care to remove a plate of food from the room, in case the young woman decided to poison it.
The court documents pertaining to Marat’s assassination are an amazing resource. If you speak French, you can read them here. They include several eyewitness accounts of the events before and after the crime. And there’s the testimony of Corday herself.
In it, one of the most interesting things we learn is this: Corday was able to see Marat because she had had two letters delivered to him in which she claimed she knew about a conspiracy to overthrow the Revolutionary government. When she came into the room and took a seat, Marat asked her if she could give him the names of the conspirators, and she began to list them. He wrote them down.
All this time, Corday could have done what she’d planned to do, but she just continued talking. When she’d given all of the names, Marat looked at the list and said, “These men will be brought to Paris and guillotined.” It was then that Corday reached into her bodice, where she’d concealed the knife, and fatally stabbed him.
What might have happened if Marat hadn’t said the alleged conspirators would be guillotined — if he’d replaced the violent, certain end, with “tried”? In the court transcripts, Corday declares multiple times that she was killing Marat for the crimes he’d already committed (among other things, she blamed him for the September Massacre) and for the deaths she said she knew he would cause in the future. So for her, his fate was probably sealed. Still, it does make you wonder.
The people of the time found it hard to believe that a young woman could do such a thing for such a reason. They were convinced she’d been influenced by a man — maybe a lover. But Corday denied this repeatedly. It wasn’t until it was confirmed that she was a virgin that it was fully believed she’d acted alone. Corday also denied that anyone among her family and friends knew of her intentions. This was found to be true, as well.
Corday’s answers at her trial ring out with the sense of knowing exactly what she’d done, and exactly what fate she would face for having done it. She was even asked if she’d thought about escaping from the window they’d found her standing near just after the murder. Maybe not without a sense of humor, Corday said she wouldn’t have thought to jump out of the window, but if the door had been unguarded, she would have tried that.
She didn’t escape, of course, and at the end of her trial, she was punished as anyone at that time would have expected: death by the blade of the guillotine. She would go to the scaffold wearing a red tunic, the traditional garb of murderers.
Corday faced her death with dignity. But we do see a human side, a knowledge of the sacrifice she’d made, in letters she wrote during her imprisonment. For me, the most touching one is a short request to the Committee of Public Safety, asking that she might have a portrait made by a miniaturist before her death. Her request was granted. After completing his pastel portrait a few hours before her death, the artist, Jean-Jacques Hauer, stayed with her until she was removed from the Conciergerie prison and taken to the guillotine at the Place de la Révolution (present-day Place de la Concorde).
Corday faced her death in front of a large crowd. Beneath the red tunic, the curves of her beautiful body were leered at or admired. After the guillotine blade came down, a carpenter who regularly repaired the guillotine picked up her head to show it to the crowd and gave it a slap on the cheek. Witnesses say Corday seemed to blush in reaction. This is one of the most famous testimonials of a guillotined head still showing signs of life for a few seconds after being severed from its body.
Marat, meanwhile, had a lavish state funeral, organized by the painter Jacques-Louis David, who also created his famous canvas “The Death of Marat” in honor of the Revolutionary, who was a personal acquaintance. The painting was carried in Marat’s funeral procession. The image is still studied in art history courses today for its interesting use of negative space, unique in French art at the time, and in the way the artist deals with the subject, refusing to show Corday, yet acknowledging the facts by having one of her letters to Marat in the dead man’s hand.
Ultimately, Charlotte Corday’s sacrifice did nothing to stop the Terror, which continued until late 1794, when fanatical leader Robespierre was himself guillotined.
Marie-Anne- Charlotte de Corday d’Armont was an assassin, but also a misguided hero. She sacrificed her life to save thousands of others….even though things didn’t go the way she’d hoped. Her desperate, violent act reveals the kind of times she lived in.
I’ll be back soon with another blog post about the Siege of Paris. I hope you enjoyed this trip even further into the past.
A Beauty and the Beast retelling set during the 1870–1871 Siege of Paris, Hearts at Dawn has been selected as a Historical Novel Society Editors’ Choice book. It’s currently available in Kindle and paperback formats and is part of the Kindle Unlimited Library. I hope you’ll give it a read!
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Until next time!