Stories of the French Revolution - Walter Montgomery

Charlotte Corday

Our readers will understand by this time that there were at least two parties in the State who were bitterly opposed to each other. The Jacobins, or "Men of the Mountain," were out-and-out Republicans, bent on utterly destroying all the old landmarks of society, whether rank, property, or religion; these men were the idols of the unthinking mob, and grew in power every day. The Girondins, however, wanted a republic where property, order, and religion should be respected. We have seen how the Girondins were put down,—some being thrown into prison, and some obliged to flee from Paris to get out of the reach of their stronger rivals.

A number of these men started a newspaper at Caen in opposition to the Jacobins; and the cities of Lyons, Bordeaux, and Marseilles were all minded at one time to march on Paris and put down the National Convention. Caen seems to have been a very warm centre of this anti-Jacobin spirit. Here no less than twenty-seven Girondins at one time lodged, and were entertained by those in authority; and thence they launched their "Bulletin de Caen" at the heads of Marat, Robespierre, and others.

At Caen there lived a young lady named Charlotte Corday. She was at the time she became famous about twenty-five years old, and very handsome. She had conceived a violent hatred against the cruel Marat, and she resolved to kill him if she could, though she knew very well that her own life would be sacrificed in doing the deed. She told one of the Girondins, Barbaroux by name, that she was going to Paris on some private business; and he gave her a letter to hand over to Duperret, one of the deputies in the National Convention. Charlotte set out from Caen on Tuesday, July 9, 1793, in the diligence, leaving a note for her father, in which she said that she had gone to England and he must forget her.

The diligence was full of men who talked of nothing but politics, and who were all admirers of the Jacobin side. In this conversation Charlotte took no share. On Thursday, about noon, the coach rattled over the Paris pavements; and the adventurous young lady at once ordered a room at an inn, and went to bed.

On Friday she delivered the letter to Duperret, and paid a visit to the Convention hall, for she wished to see what Marat was like. She took much notice of the "Men of the Mountain;" but Marat was not among them: he was not well, but nursing himself at home. On Saturday morning Charlotte bought a large knife wherewith to stab her victim. Having ascertained that he was living at No. 44 in the Street of the School of Medicine, she ordered a cab and was driven to the door; but when she knocked the servant came and told her that Marat was sick and could not see her. Disappointed at this, she went back to her hotel, which was called the "Inn of Providence," and sat down and wrote a letter to Citizen Marat, in which she said she could enable him to do France a signal service. To this letter no reply was sent; and she then wrote a second letter of a more pressing kind, and carried it herself to the house where Marat lived.

Charlotte Corday


It was about seven o'clock in the evening of July 13 when a cab might have been seen driven along that street, and at length stopping opposite No. 44. It was the eve of a great revolutionary festival; for on the 14th, four years ago, the people of Paris stormed the Bastille. On that day Marat had distinguished himself by his conduct in the eyes of the mob, and from that day he had been growing in power. He was now, as we have said, ill, and nursing himself at home. At the very time when Charlotte Corday reached the house Marat was having a warm bath. He was waited on by a poor woman, and he had only about twenty cents in the house. He had not, therefore, grown rich by the Revolution; and in that respect we cannot but admire the man, for no doubt he might have "feathered his nest" well by this time, had he been a covetous man.

Charlotte was determined to see Marat, and argued with the woman at the door. "I must see Citizen Marat; I can put it into his power to do France a great service." The woman was for shutting the door in Charlotte's face; but Marat, hearing her earnest voice from his slipper-bath, bade the servant admit the visitor, and she was accordingly allowed to enter the house. The sick man told her to sit down and tell him what she came about.

"I am from Caen," she said, "and I have matters of importance to tell you."

"Well," said Marat, "and what are the traitors doing at Caen now? Who are there?"

Charlotte told him the names of several,—Barbaroux, Petion, Louvet, Duchatel, and others.

"Ah, they shall be guillotined within a fortnight," exclaimed the eager Marat; and he took up his notebook, which lay on a three-legged stool close by, to write down their names. Charlotte carefully noted his actions; and as his eyes were fixed on his notebook, and his nimble fingers were writing down the names Barbaroux, Petion, and Louvet, she drew out her bright new knife from its sheath, and drove it, with sure aim and with all the strength of her Norman right arm, deep into the heart of the "People's Friend."

He could give only one cry, "Help, my dear!" and then all was over. Marat was a dead man, and the Revolution had lost forever one of its ablest and perhaps, we may say, one of its purest leaders. For, bloody-minded as he was, he was not a selfish man; he did not overturn thrones and kill aristocrats to enrich himself, but, as he supposed and wrongly supposed, to benefit a long-suffering nation of poor, struggling laborers.

It is quite impossible to imagine, still less to describe, the rage and terror which agitated the mighty heart of Paris that Saturday evening. One weak woman had suddenly leaped into world-wide notoriety, and had made the greatest city on earth reel to and fro as if there had been an earthquake. One deputy, pale as a sheet, rushed into the Convention, shouting out, "We are all going to be murdered!"

Paler yet lay the dead Marat; but calm and cool, her pulses beating quietly as ever, was the young woman who had treacherously and cruelly, and yet, as she believed, righteously, stabbed a man to death. The woman who came in at Marat's dying shriek ran out frantic, and alarmed every house in the street with her cries; and in a few minutes the place was crowded, and Charlotte had to defend herself from their vengeance by placing herself behind some chairs and tables, until the soldiers arrived. She was then carried away to the Abbaye Prison, to await her trial. This took place on Wednesday, July 17, and did not last long; for she said, "All these details [about the purchase of the knife, etc.] are needless. . . . It was I who stabbed Marat." And when Tinville asked her why she had done a deed so strange and terrible, she replied: "I killed him because of his crimes; I killed him to save a hundred thousand. I killed a wild beast, to give quiet to my distracted country."

As she thus confessed her guilt and declared she was alone in it, nothing more was to be said or done except to order her condemnation to death that same Wednesday evening; and about half-past seven she was led forth from her prison, habited as a murderess, in a red gown. The city, now well used to such painful sights, was more than ever crowded with people, who regarded her as she was carried to her doom with mingled feelings. Some saluted her as a martyr, by taking off their hats; and others howled at her as a devil in human shape, who had put out one of the bright lamps of the Revolution.

Beautiful, indeed, Charlotte Corday looked, on her way to the Place de la Revolution, and as calm and serene as a summer day. She died with unfaltering courage, with a smile on her face, and "her cheeks tinged with a blush of maidenly shame," caused by the executioner's stripping her fair neck of the handkerchief which was around it.

She did the best she could for the peace of France in killing, as she thought, a wild beast; but Marat, dead in that lawless manner, was worse for France than Marat living and legislating. Nevertheless, it is a wonderful story of the energy and resolution which can sometimes find a lodging in a young woman's breast; and while there is very much in her deed to condemn, there is also something we cannot but admire.