Three of the Girondin refugees—Pétion, Barbaroux, and Buzot—found protection in Caen, a northern stronghold of the “federalist” reaction against Parisian domination of the national government. They made speeches, denounced the sansculottes and especially Marat, organized parades of protest, and planned an army to march upon the capital.
Charlotte Corday was among their most ardent auditors. Descendant of the dramatist Pierre Corneille, born of a titled, impoverished, strongly royalist family, she was educated in a convent and served two years as a nun. Somehow she found opportunity to read Plutarch, Rousseau, even Voltaire; she lost her faith and thrilled to the heroes of ancient Rome. She was shocked on hearing that the King had been guillotined, and she was roused to indignation by the fulminations of Marat against the Girondins. On June 20, 1793, she visited Barbaroux, then twenty-six and so handsome that Mme. Roland had likened him to the Emperor Hadrian’s inamorato Antinous. Charlotte was nearing her twenty-fifth birthday, but she had other things than love on her mind. All she asked was a letter of introduction to a deputy who might arrange her admission to a meeting of the Convention. Barbaroux gave her a note to Lauze Duperret. On July 9 she left by stagecoach for Paris. Arriving on July 11, she bought a kitchen knife with a six-inch blade. She planned to enter the Convention chamber and slay Marat in his seat, but she was informed that Marat was sick at home. She found his address, went there, but was refused admittance; Monsieur was in his bath. She returned to her room.
The bath was now Marat’s favorite desk. His disease, apparently a form of scrofula, had worsened; he found relief from it by sitting immersed to the waist in warm water to which minerals and medicines had been added; a moist towel was thrown over his shoulders, and a bandana soaked in vinegar bound his head. On a board spanning the tub he kept paper, pen, and ink, and there, day after day, he wrote the material for his journal.32 He was cared for by his sister Albertine and, since 1790, by Simonne Evrard, who began as his servant and, in 1792, became his common-law wife. He married her without benefit of clergy, “before the Supreme Being, … in the vast temple of Nature.”33
From her room Charlotte sent a note to Marat appealing for an audience. “I come from Caen. Your love for the nation ought to make you anxious to know the plots that are being laid there. I await your reply.”34 She could not wait. On the evening of July 13 she knocked again at his entrance door. Again she was denied entry, but Marat, hearing her voice, called to let her in. He received her courteously, and bade her be seated; she brought her chair up close to him. “What is going on at Caen?” he asked (or so she later reported their strange conversation). “Eighteen deputies from the Convention,” she answered, “rule there in collusion with the département” officials. “What are their names?” She gave them; he wrote them down, and passed sentence on them: “They will soon be guillotined.” At that point she drew her knife and drove it into his chest with such force that it penetrated the aorta; blood poured from the wound. He cried out to Simonne, “À moi, ma chère amie, à moi!—To me, my dear friend, to me!” Simonne came, and he died in her arms. Charlotte, rushing from the room, was intercepted by a man who beat down her resistance with a chair. Police were called, came, and took her away. “I have done my duty,” she said; “let them do theirs.”35
Marat must have had some good qualities to have won the united love of two rival women. His sister dedicated her remaining years to sanctifying his memory. Once a prosperous physician, he left at his death nothing more than some scientific manuscripts and twenty-five sous.36 He had been a fanatic, but a man fanatically devoted to the masses whom nature and history had forgotten. The Cordeliers Club preserved his heart as a sacred relic, and thousands came to view it with “breathless adoration.”37 On July 16 all the remaining deputies, and many men and women from the revolutionary sections, followed his corpse to its burial in the gardens of the Cordeliers. His statue, carved by David, was set up in the hall of the Convention; and on September 21, 1794, his remains were transferred to the Panthéon.
Charlotte’s trial was short. She acknowledged her deed, but no guilt; she said she had merely avenged the victims of the September Massacres, and other objects of Marat’s wrath; “I killed one man to save a hundred thousand.”38 In a letter to Barbaroux she frankly claimed that “the end justifies the means.”39 Within a few hours after her conviction she was executed on the Place de la Révolution. She received proudly the curses of the attending crowd, and rejected the offer of a priest to give her a religious end.40 She died before she could realize how fatal her deed would be to the Girondins whom she had thought to serve. Vergniaud, speaking for them, realized this, and forgave her: “She has killed us, but she has taught us how to die.”41