Most anyone with a perfunctory knowledge of world history knows about the French Revolution. The ten-year upheaval in France started in 1789 and was inspired by the American Revolution. It heralded egalitarianism, liberty, and brotherhood for all. But the average person may not be familiar with Charlotte Corday and the role she played in the French Revolution.
Who is Charlotte Corday? History has labeled her the "Angel of Assasination" and she is known to most casual students of history as the aristocrat who murdered French Revolution leader, Jean-Paul Marat, in his bathtub. Marat's death is most famously depicted in Jacques Louis David's painting "The Death of Marat."
Casual historians would label Corday's act as a tragic setback for the revolutionary cause in France at the time. But diving deeper into the story of this educated, young noblewoman reveals a fascinating and complex character in what is usually seen as black and white historical event. Here's everything your history teacher skimmed over in class about the cunning revolution assassin, Charlotte Corday.
The Murder Weapon Was A Six-Inch Kitchen KnifePhoto: Public Domain/Rebull / Wikimedia Commons
Originally, Corday had hoped to kill Marat in a public place, but she heard he was at home due to illness and wrote for an appointment to see him. He refused her twice until she wrote up a letter saying she would give up the name of Girondists Marat was especially hoping to find and kill.
Marat had a serious skin condition, one which was temporarily relieved by soaking in a bathtub. He set up a desk over his bath so he could work while he soaked. When Corday was allowed in, she did as requested and told Marat what he wanted to know. He was pleased and proclaimed his intentions to kill those she'd just told him about. This propelled Corday into action. She pulled out a sharp, six-inch kitchen knife and stabbed him repeatedly in the chest.
Horrified, Marat cried out "Aidez-moi, ma chère amie!" ("Help me, my dear friend!") He died quickly and, ironically, Marat was known for recommending the use of knives for revolutionaries to kill their aristocratic adversaries.
Corday Sat For Her Portrait Hours Before Her ExecutionPhoto: Public Domain/Jean-Jacques Hauer / Wikimedia Commons
Despite impending execution, Charlotte Corday wanted a record of her appearance after she'd murdered Marat. Right after she was sentenced (only four days passed between her arrest and her execution), she asked permission from the court to have a portrait of herself commissioned. She claimed she wanted the portrait to provide evidence of her "true self."
Permission was granted, and artist and National Guard officer, Jean-Jacques Hauer produced the portrait.
She Was More Educated Than The Average WomanPhoto: Public Domain/Tony Robert Fleury / Wikimedia Commons
Charlotte Corday's family was of noble stock, but of modest means. Still, they managed to send her to a convent to receive an education. She had already received some education at home, but then spent five years at the Abbaye aux Dames, in Normandy, where she received a first rate academic education. An abnormal amount of time spent in education for the time period.
Her writing, rhetoric, and analytical skills would come in handy as a revolutionary.
Witnesses Claim Her Decapitated Head Scowled When SlappedPhoto: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons
Charlotte Corday was sent to her execution on July 17, 1793. Her demeanor as she arrived at the scaffold was described as calm and collected, despite the efforts of Parisian fishwives hurling words and blows to her as she approached the executioner.
The executioner was a moral man who didn't draw out the execution but his assistant felt the affair needed more show. He picked up Corday's head and slapped it across the cheek. Witnesses stated that when Corday's face was slapped, it took on a look of fierce indignation. As for the executioner's assistant? He was convicted by the same tribunal that doomed Corday, and sentenced to 12 years in prison.