Charlotte Corday, engraving by É.-L. Baudran after a portrait by J.-J. Hauer.
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While Corday was still a young girl, her mother Charlotte Marie Jacqueline Gaultier de Mesnival (1737-1782) passed away as did her older sister. Her father Jacques François de Corday, Seigneur d' Armont (1737-1798), unable to deal with the grief, sent Corday and her younger sister to the Caen Abbaye-aux-Dames. While there Corday had access to the abbey's library where she first encountered the writings of Plutarch, Rousseau and Voltaire. After 1791, Corday lived with her cousin, Madame Le Coustellier de Bretteville-Gouville in Caen. Corday and Bretteville would become close companions and Charlotte would soon be the sole heir to her cousin's fortune.
Corday's decision to kill Marat was stimulated not only by her repugnance for the September Massacres, for which she held Marat responsible, but for her fear of an all out civil war. She recognized that Marat was the gathering point for everything that was threatening the great virtues of Republic, and believed that his death would be the death of violence throughout the nation. Corday also believed that the execution of King Louis XVI was unnecessary and it grieved her. While Corday was not a Royalist, she did find virtue in all life; unfortunately for Marat, that virtue did not hold for those she felt were responsible for ending the lives of thousands.
On July 9 1793, Charlotte left her cousin, carrying a copy of Plutarch's Parallel Lives under her arm, and took the diligence for Paris, where she took a room at the Hôtel de Providence. She bought a large kitchen knife with a six-inch blade at the Palais-Royal, and wrote her Adresse aux Français amis des lois et de la paix ("Speech to the French who are Friends of Law and Peace") which explained the act she was about to commit. She went first to the national assembly to carry out her plan, but discovered Marat no longer attended Convention meetings. She then went to Marat's home before noon on July 13, offering to inform him about a planned Girondist uprising in Caen. She was turned away, but on a second attempt that evening, Marat admitted her into his presence. He conducted most of his affairs from a bathtub because of a debilitating skin condition.
Marat copied down the names of the Girondists as Corday dictated them to him. She pulled the knife from her scarf and plunged it into his chest, piercing his lung, aorta and left ventricle. He called out, Aidez, ma chère amie! ("Help me, my dear friend!") and died.
This is the moment memorialized by Jacques-Louis David's painting (illustration, left). The iconic pose of Marat dead in his bath has been reviewed from a different angle in Baudry's painting of 1860, both literally and interpretively: Corday, rather than Marat, has been made the hero of the action.
At trial, Corday testified that she had carried out the assassination alone, saying "I killed one man to save 100,000." It was likely a reference to Maximilien Robespierre's words before the execution of King Louis XVI. Four days after Marat was killed, on July 17, 1793, Corday was executed under the guillotine. Immediately upon decapitation, one of the executioner's assistants — a man hired for the day named Legros — lifted her head from the basket and slapped it on the cheek. Witnesses report an expression of "unequivocal indignation" on her face when her cheek was slapped. This slap was considered an unacceptable breach of guillotine etiquette, and Legros was imprisoned for 3 months because of his outburst.
Jacobin leaders had her body autopsied shortly after her death to verify her virginity. They believed that there was a man in her life capable of sharing her bed and assassination plans. To their dismay she was found to be virgo intacta which intensified the issue of women throughout France, laundresses, housewives, domestic servants, were rising up against authority that had been controlled by men for so long.
The body was disposed of in a trench next to Louis XVI; it is uncertain whether the head was interred with her, or retained as a curiosity. It has been suggested that the skull of Corday remained in the possession of the Bonaparte family and their descendants (the Bonaparte family had acquired the skull from M.George Duruy, who acquired it though his aunt) throughout the twentieth century.
The assassination did not stop the Jacobins or the Terror: Marat became a martyr, and busts of Marat replaced crucifixes and religious statues that were no longer welcome under the new regime. The anti-female stance of many revolutionary leaders was increased by Corday's actions. The Revolution now turned with full force on Marie Antoinette, the king's imprisoned widow.
Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote about her in his Posthumous Fragments of Margret Nicholson (1810).
Alphonse de Lamartine devoted to her a book of his Histoire des Girondins (1847), in which he gave her this now famous nickname: "l'ange de l'assassinat" (the angel of assassination).
American dramatist Sarah Pogson Smith (1774-1870) also memorialized Corday in her verse drama The Female Enthusiast: A Tragedy in Five Acts (1807). A minor character in P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves series is named after Charlotte Corday.