July 13, 1793 – Charlotte Corday stabbed to death Jean-Paul Marat, a leader in both the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, in his bathtub.
Later that year, French master-painter Jacques-Louis David painted The Death of Marat -- one of the greatest paintings of the 18th century.
Marat was born in Boudry in the Prussian Principality of Neuchâtel (now Switzerland) on May 24, 1743. He was short and profoundly ugly, and his middle-class parents gave him an educated upbringing. He left home for France at the age of 16, he studied medicine in Paris, and two years later emigrated to England. He earned a medical degree from the University of St Andrews in 1775, while writing radical leftist political tracts and mingling with artists. He returned to Paris, and in 1777 was named physician to the bodyguard of the comte d'Artois, Louis XVI's youngest brother. He became a noted scientist, working in a wide range of fields (including optics).
Marat's outrage at how the common people (the Third Estate) were treated never waned, however. In 1788, he quit all his medical and scientific posts and began writing inflammatory tracts attacking the nobility, press, clergy, and Constituent Assembly. By this time, he was suffering from dermatitis herpetiformis, a chronic and painful blistering skin condition that covered most of his torso and head.
Marat founded a newspaper, Friend of the People (L'ami peuple), where he continued his radical attacks on the establishment. Under attack by the nobility, he hid in the Paris sewers in 1790, continuing to publish his newspaper.
Marat emerged from hiding only during the insurrection of 10 August 1792 -- one of the defining events of the French Revolution. A nobleman had called for harsh repression of the Revolution, and the National Guard and Third Estate stormed the Tuileries Palace. King Louis XVI and the royal family were forced to seek protection from the Legislative Assembly and the monarchy was suspended in favor of a new National Convention. The next month, the September Massacres occured as thousands of political prisoners across France were killed by the National Guard for fear that these monarchists would escape and raise armies to stop the Revolution.
Marat was elected to the National Convention in September 1792. France was declared a republic on September 22, and immediately put the deposed king Louis XVI on trial. Marat was fiercely independent, and said it was unfair to try Louis for any crimes committed before his speech in which he accepted the French Constitution of 1791. Nevertheless, he called for Louis' death.
Louis XVI was guillotined on January 2, 1793. Political turmoil followed as the Revolution was no longer unified in its opposition to the king. A very significant minority of the National Convention belonged to the Jacobin Club, a group which supported republicanism, the rule of law, radical reform of French society and economics, banishment of Catholic clergy, and war with Austria (whom they felt would eventually invade France to restore the monarchy).
There were two factions in the Jacobin Club, the Girondists (who wanted war) and the more radical Montagnards (who wanted radical domestic reform first). The Montagnards were led by Maximilien Robespierre, a politician and lawyer. A series of parliamentary maneuvers allowed the Montagnards to seize more and more power in the National Convention, and in May 1793 they fostered a coup (backed by the Paris mob) in which they toppled the government and began the Reign of Terror. Thousands would be guillotined (including 200 Girondist leaders), and the Montagnards would establish a "Republic of Virtue" in which almost every aspect of French society was reformed (right down to the name of months, and whether women should breastfeed). The Reign of Terror itself collapsed in July 1794, after which the Jacobin Club -- now leaderless -- ceased to exist.
It was as the Montagnards rose to power that Marat began his most vicious attacks on the Girondists, whom he felt were betraying the Revolution and seeking a restoration of the monarchy. Although not a Montagnard, he allied with them and began calling for the Third Estate to rise up and eliminate the Girondists. The Girondists managed to have him arrested, but Marat gave such a decisive and powerful speech during his trial that he was acquitted of all charges.
Charlotte Corday was a member of a minor aristocratic family in Normandy, born in 1768. Nuns took care of her when her mother died, and she read extensively in their library -- which included the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire. She moved to Caen, where she inherited some wealth upon the death of her cousin.
Corday became increasingly influenced by Girondist newspapers and political tracts, and was horrified by the September Massacres of 1792. On July 9, 1793, Corday moved to Paris, where she rented a room at the Hôtel de Providence and bought a six-inch kitchen knife. She planned to assassinate Marat in front of the entire National Convention, but discovered that his skin disease had so disabled him that he no longer attended its meetings.
Just before noon on July 13, Corday appeared at Marat's home, claiming to have knowledge of a Girondist plot. Marat's wife turned her away. She returned that evening, and Marat told a servant to admit her. To alleviate the pain from his skin disease, Marat spent most of his time in a large copper bathtub, his head wrapped in a bandage soaked in vinegar. Corday was admitted to Marat's bathing room. He asked her to write down the names of the Girondist plotters, and she did so. This apparently put the servants at ease, who withdrew.
Then she pulled out the knife and plunged it into his chest, piercing his lung and heart. He called out, "Aidez-moi, ma chère amie!" ("Help me, my dear friend!") and died. Servants rushed in, and Corday -- who offered no resistance -- was arrested.
Marat was buried at the cemetery of the church of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont.
Charlotte Corday was put on trial the same day. She defended herself in Girondist style, declaring that Marat was fostering a civil war. "I knew that he was perverting France. I have killed one man to save a hundred thousand!" she declared. On July 17, 1793, Corday was found guilty and guillotined a few hours later. Her corpse was disposed of in a mass grave in Madeleine Cemetery.
The assassination of Marat helped fueld the Montagnard coup, bringing about the very Reign of Terror which Charlotte Corday had hoped to avoid.
Marat's tub was in the shape of an old-fashioned high-buttoned shoe and had a copper lining. After Marat's death, his wife sold to a neighbor, who sold it to the writer Saint-Hilaire. It was inherited by his daughter, who sold it to a French clergyman. The clergyman sold the tub to the Musée Grévin, where it remains today.