Tales of Charlotte Corday’s Head

Charlotte Corday. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

After Charlotte Corday’s execution for assassinating Jacques-Jean Marat, her body and guillotined head were said to have been buried in Ditch No. 5 of the cemetery of the Madeleine on rue Anjou Saint-Honore in Paris. Ditch No. 4 held the body of Louis XVI, and Ditch No. 6 would be readied shortly for Marie Antoinette and Philippe Egalite. However, that was not the end of the story, as years later Corday’s skull allegedly appeared in the possession of Prince Roland Bonaparte, grandson of Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother, Lucien.

The neighborhood where Corday was buried was supposedly “infected by the putrefaction of the bodies buried there,”[1] and because of that the cemetery was closed sometime after 1794. Around that same time a Monsieur Descloseaux bought the cemetery. Most of the bodies were moved, and the cemetery transformed into a pleasure garden. However, Corday’s body supposedly remained there, and, in 1804, Descloseaux claims he added a cross to mark the spot of her grave.

Plaque in the Catacombs of Paris indicating the placement of the bones transferred from the Madeleine Cemetery. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Descloseaux then maintained that in 1815, Corday’s body was exhumed and moved to the cemetery of Montparnasse. Montparnasse’s chief guardian denied that her body was there, stating:

“Our registers do not contain the slightest information that the remains of Charlotte Corday ever found a resting-place in the cemetery.”[2]

Moreover, the Chief of the Municipal Interment Service was even more adamant that Corday’s body could not be in the cemetery of Montparnasse, as it had not opened until 1824.

Prince Roland had an interest in craniology and somewhere along the way he came to possess Corday’s skull. He maintained that he acquired the skull through Georges Duruy, a nineteenth-century French historian and novelist. Duruy’s aunt married Alexandre Rousselin de Saint-Albin, a French politician, and, one day, according to Duruy, he was at his aunt’s when she opened a wardrobe closet. There he saw a skull and upon questioning his aunt about it, he learned that it had belonged to her husband, who was convinced it was the skull of Corday.

Supposedly, her late husband had purchased it from a dealer of curiosity on the Quai des Grand Augustins. The dealer had it turn bought it from an admirer of Corday, and the admirer was person alleged to have taken it from her grave. In addition, to verify its authenticity, Saint-Albin had received with the skull a document that stated:

“With regard to Charlotte Corday, a friend of mine, a man of letters and deputy, possesses in his study the authentic head of this heroine. This skull belonged originally to the learned Denon, of the Institute, who had obtained it from the executioner. I can testify as to its authenticity. (Signed) Bordet.”[3]

Although not exactly the same story as Duruy’s, this letter alluded to the dealer in curiosities from which Corday’s head was supposedly purchased. Saint-Albin was an interesting character and after he obtained the head, he decided to announce its purchase in a rather bizarre manner citing it as a “sensational surprise” to those he invited to dinner: 

“When dessert was put upon the table, he ordered a servant to bring him a glass jar enclosed in a linen cloth; this was the surprise, and indeed sensational enough, as may be readily imagined, for the cover being lifted, the jar was seen to contain the head of Charlotte Corday. Not the skull, mind you, but the entire head preserved in alcohol, with its flesh and hair … the eyes were half closed.”[4]

Louis Philippe wearing Garter regalia. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

That was not the only time Saint-Albin surprised his guests with her head. Another story was also given by another friend of Saint-Albin that stated:

“The father of this friend of his, then a minister of Louis Philippe, was one day invited to dine by … Saint-Albin, who puzzled him considerably by promising him that there would be at [the] table a great lady of the Revolution. At the dinner-hour the minister came; the guests entered the dining-room. No signs of the great lady! But underneath his table-napkin, my friend’s father discovered a skull: it was that of Charlotte Corday, so the host affirmed.”[5]

Saint-Albin’s story about Corday’s head, if authentic, was not the only tale about her head not being with her body in the grave. Another story told was that the executioner had kept Corday’s head and later sold it. There was also a story that was said to have occurred on the same evening as Corday was executed. A woman carrying something in her apron fainted in the Rue Saint Floretin, and, as she fell, the item she was carrying rolled into the gutter. Witnesses claimed it was a recently severed head, and, “on enquiry, it turned out that the woman had just come from the cemetery of the Madeleine, where the head been handed to her by one of the grave-diggers.”[6]

People also pointed out that when Corday’s body was autopsied, her head was there at the time and so they discount any story about the executioner taking it. Perhaps, as some people suggest, one of the surgeons took her head and preserved it as a curious specimen. A description about the autopsy follows:

“The body lies outstretched on a board, supported by two trestles. The head is placed near the trunk; the arms hang down to the ground; the cadaver is still dressed in a white robe, the upper part of which is bloody. One person, holding a torch in one hand and an instrument (some kind of speculum?) in the other, seems to be stripping Charlotte of her clothing. Four others are bending forward, examining the body attentively. At the head we find two individuals, one of whom wears the tricolour belt; the other extends his hands as if to say: ‘Here is the body, look.'”[7]

Prince Roland Bonaparte. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

When Duruy gave the skull to Prince Roland, Duruy remarked that “he would not be sorry to get rid of this anatomical item because it terrified Mme. Duruy.”[8] In addition, despite claims that it was Corday’s head, nothing that Duruy provided in the way of information, documents, or stories, even those obtained from Saint-Albin’s estate, proved positively that the skull in the possession of Prince Roland was Corday’s head. Still the Prince believed it was her head and displayed it in the Paris Exhibition of 1885 in the anthropological section where anthropologists stated:

“The only that which seems absolutely certain … is, that the skull which figured at the Exhibition of 1885, had never remained in the earth, nor had it been exposed to the air.”[9]

Fifteen years after the skull had been exhibited, one newspaper summed up their thoughts on the authenticity of the skull claimed to be Corday’s:

“Whether the truth will ever be known is doubtful. Prince Bonaparte is confident that it is the skull of Charlotte Corday. Many others are inclined to think that it is the skull of some person of whom the world has never heard. A diligent search is now being made through old records in the hope that in this way some light will be thrown on the mystery.”[10]

(To see the reputed skull of Charlotte Corday, the Discovering Sherlock Holmes website by Stanford University, has a picture, so click here.)

References:

  • [1] Cabanès, Augustin, Curious Bypaths of History: Being Medico-historical Studies and Observations, 1898, p. 187.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 188.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 192.
  • [4] Ibid., p. 196.
  • [5] Ibid., p. 194.
  • [6] Ibid., p. 197.
  • [7] Massumi, Brian, The Politics of Everyday Fear, 1993, p. 205.
  • [8] Cabanès, Augustin, “La Vraie Charlotte Corday – L’autopsie de Charlotte Corday,” Le Cabinet Secret de l’Histoire, 1905, p. 211.
  • [9] Cabanès, Augustin, 1898, p. 197.
  • [10] Charlotte Corday’s Head, in Burlington Free Press, 22 August 1900, p. 7.

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