L'ange de l'assassinat: Charlotte Corday and the Death of Marat

13 July 1793 l'ange de l'assassinat Charlotte Corday stabbed the mortally ill radical journalist Jean-Paul Marat to death in his bathtub.

“The Commandant-general of the national guard, Henriot, soon came to confirm the news. “Yes, tremble all," he said, "Marat is dead, assassinated by a young girl, who glories in the blow she has given. Redouble your vigilance over your own lives. The same danger surrounds us all. Distrust green ribbons, and let us swear to avenge the death of this great man!" (Alphonse de Lamartine “History of the Girondists”)

Jacques-Louis David’s iconic “La Mort de Marat“

Marie-Anne Charlotte de Corday d'Armont, descendant of the dramatist Pierre Corneille and daughter of an impoverished Norman member of the lesser nobility, was 20 when the Revolution begun in France, educated in a convent school for young ladies, her head full of ideas of heroes from antiquity from Plutarch’s “Parallel Lives” and the Age of Enlightenment á la Rousseau, at first an enthusiastic supporter of the Gironde, the moderate wing of the Revolutionaries, soon became aghast at the horrors the up-and-coming radical Montagnards, especially the Jacobins wreaked on the country.

Jean-Paul Marat allegedly lay already on his deathbed in 1788 but resurged when a friend told him about the events of the brewing Revolution. Five years later, the Jacobin was the influential editor-in-chief of France’s most celebrated radical newspaper, “L'Ami du peuple“, and was at least responsible for heating up the chaos that lead to the September Massacres in Paris when 1.200 counterrevolutionaries were slaughtered by an angry mob. Due to his ill health, Marat had already resigned from his post as editor and tried to cure his skin disease by taking therapeutic baths at home when he received an ominous letter from a young lady who wanted to denounce a Girondist from her hometown of Caen. Charlotte Corday indeed attended meetings of Girondists in Caen who had fled there after their demise in June and decided to end the terrors of the now ruling Jacobins and the Revolution with a single stroke by removing the head of one of the Jacobin leaders. Charlotte had singled out Marat whom she saw as the driving force, completely overestimating his role and his influence, and moved to Paris to put her plan into operation.

Baudry: Charlotte Corday (1860)

According to witnesses, beautiful, auburn-haired Charlotte refused a marriage proposal of a young man who travelled with her in the stagecoach from Caen to the Capital en route, and, having learned that Marat no longer attended sessions of the Convent where she originally planned to murder him á la Brutus, came up with a new plan to visit him at home bought a knife with an 8’’ blade and went to 20 Rue des Cordeliers but was refused twice by Marat’s live-in girlfriend Simone Évrard and finally wrote the letter, kicked up a row with Simone at the door, was overheard by Marat himself and asked to come in. They talked for a quarter-hour, Charlotte reported a planned uprising by Girondists in Caen, Marat made notes on his writing board covering the tub and when he finally stated he’d take care to have the ringleaders arrested and guillotined, she drew her knife and stabbed him twice, fatally.

Charlotte Corday being conducted to her execution. By Arturo Michelena, 1889

Charlotte was arrested on the spot, put immediately on trial, was sentenced to death and guillotined four days later on 17 July on the Place de la Révolution. Her executioner showed her cut-off head to the mob, slapped it and was sentenced to three months prison for this indecency. Her attempt to end the Revolution achieved, in the end, quite the reverse – the terror heightened and the worst days of Robespierre and the Jacobins were yet to come, using Charlotte’s deed, among others, as a justification for their acts. Nonetheless Charlotte Corday became a martyr of the counterrevolution – just as Marat was for the Jacobins – and inspired several works of art until the late 20th century. The probably best known, depicted above, Jacques-Louis David’s “La Mort de Marat“ was finished already in 1793.