On the evening of the fourth anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, a 24-year-old woman, with one purpose in mind, visited the French journalist and radical Jacobin, Jean-Paul Marat. She was described as
“rather tall — her admirably proportioned figure full of native grace and dignity. The chief expression of her fair and oval countenance were sweetness and modesty; her clear, open brow, shaded by rich curls of brown hair, enhanced the transparent purity of her complexion — her dark and well-arched eyebrows and eyes of a deep gray … added to her thoughtful and meditative appearance. Her nose was straight and well-formed — her mouth, though rather grave, exquisitely beautiful and her smile full of fascination.”
The woman was Marie-Anne Charlotte de Corday d’Armont, better known today as Charlotte Corday.
Corday was a heroic, although somewhat misguided girl, who was intent on killing Marat. At the death of her mother, her father had sent her and her younger sister to the Abbaye-aux-Dames convent located in Caen. There she read enlightened works and became politically active, sympathizing largely with the Girondins. She also garnered the attention of young man named Monsier de Franquelin, who perhaps to impress the fair Corday, armed himself and enlisted in the battalion of Caen. From a balcony she watched as his battalion passed by and she was so impressed, it confirmed her resolve to do whatever it took to support the Girondins. Moreover, at the time, Corday wanted to prevent what she believed was an impending civil war and she wanted to get even for the September Massacres that she blamed on Jean-Paul Marat, the man she also considered “the most formidable foe of the Girondins.”
Corday had given much thought about how to kill Marat. Her initial plan was to murder him in front of the National Convention, knowing full well that she herself would then be murdered by Marat’s infuriated defenders. Having settled on what she considered a full-proof plan, she made one last visit to her father, told her sister she loved her, and headed to Paris. Unfortunately, when Corday arrived in Paris she discovered her plan was thwarted: Marat was ill. His health was rapidly declining and he was severely suffering from a skin disorder. He could not attend meetings at the National Convention, and the only people he was receiving were those who visited his home.
On 13 July 1793, four years from the day that the Bastille was stormed, Corday arrived at Marat’s home. She was turned away and told to return later that evening, which she did. When she met Marat he was sitting, of all places, in a shoe-shaped bathtub filled with warm water. She approached his tub, “his hideous visage turned towards the side opposite the door, his right arm out of the water, resting on a block of wood, on which were a sheet of paper, an inkstand and a pen, Marat was writing; [and] without lifting his eyes, he desired … Corday to wait a moment.” When at last he looked up, his questions were innocuous, nothing more than ordinary curiosity about the state of Normandy. But then his voice grew demanding, and he ordered that she provide him the names of all the Girondin deputies at Caen.
There was no quivering or terror in Corday’s reply. She listed the Caen deputies, pronouncing each name clearly, and she watched as Marat carefully wrote each name down with satisfaction. When the list was completed, Marat proudly exclaimed, “Before another week be past they shall have met the guillotine.” Marat’s words tore at Corday’s heart and inspired by revenge she sprang at him, burying a kitchen knife deep in his heart. Marat let out one tortured cry for help before his arms fell, his head sank, and his eyes closed forever. As the tub began to fill with blood, Corday attempted escape but she barely reached the door of the apartment before she was secured by Marat’s faithful servants.
Captured and taken before the Revolutionary Tribunal, Corday received a sentence of death, and, on the appointed day, at the appointed time, she took the preparations for her death in stride. She was said to be consumed by serenity and completely composed. She was dressed in “the red chemise of the condemned,” and the executioner cut her hair and bound her hands behind her back. According to some witnesses, the red chemise had the effect of enhancing her wondrous beauty, and it supposedly caused one man to become so entranced, he followed her straight to the scaffolding. He also later declared a monument should be erected to her “with the inscription — ‘Greater than Brutus‘” and for that, he also become a victim of the guillotine.
One other oft told tale about Corday’s execution is what happened after her decapitation. Reports indicate that a carpenter who worked on the guillotine named Legros lifted Corday’s head from the basket the moment it fell and “undeterred by the smile of content[ment] on the beautiful dead face, struck it repeatedly with his open hand.” (At that time many people believed that for a short time after a beheading, the beheaded person retained consciousness.) Witnesses claimed Legros’s slap produced an expression of “unequivocal indignation” upon Corday’s face. But Legros’s actions were not approved by the crowd, and, in fact, the Revolutionary Tribunal imprisoned Legros for a short time for his actions, deeming them as inappropriate.
As for Marat’s legacy and the appropriateness of his death, it all depended on party affiliation. The Montagnards, a radical group that vehemently opposed the Girondins, were appalled at Corday’s actions and “sought to cover her name with opprobrium.” Royalists looked upon Corday as a martyr, while the Girondins found her deed heroic but also “deprecated the useless crime.” In the end, Corday’s actions did nothing to help the Girondin cause, and, some people asserted her act hastened the Girondins’ fall and did nothing to stop the Jacobins or the Terror. Some years later, Alphonse de Lamartine, a French writer, poet and politician who was instrumental in establishing the foundation of the Second Republic, wrote a book praising the Girondins and stated this about Charlotte Corday: “‘She slays us — but teaches us, at the same time, how to die.'”
- Alstine, Jeannette Van, Charlotte Corday, 1890
- “Charlotte Corday,” in Staffordshire Advertiser, 14 August 1847
- Museum of Foreign Literature, Science and Art, Vol. 19, 1831
- The Knickerbocker, Vol. 23, 1844