The day before the fourth anniversary of Bastille Day — July 13, 1793 — proved to be the last day of French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat’s life. When a woman knocked at the door claiming to have information about his enemies, Marat called for her to be admitted, even though he was soaking in a medicinal bath in a tub shaped like a wooden shoe. Charlotte Corday pulled a knife from her corset and stabbed Marat in the heart. Within seconds, he was dead.
Corday was guillotined for her crime just a few days later; her victim, meanwhile, rose to near sainthood in the public’s imagination. But Marat, one of the most influential men of the revolutionary movement that transformed France, was also a scientist, a doctor and an author — and today, his role in overthrowing France’s monarchy is often overlooked.
During her trial, she told the court she “killed one man to save 100,000.”
“In terms of what science meant 200 years ago, he was a legitimate part of the scientific community, but historians say he was a total charlatan,” says Clifford Conner, author of the 2012 biography Jean Paul Marat: Tribune of the French Revolution. That’s not necessarily a function of Marat’s scientific acumen: He was a popular doctor and had a lab funded by aristocratic patrons. Marat’s reputation, Conner reckons, was besmirched owing to his politics.
After the counterrevolution in France, which began in July 1794, a year after his death, it became illegal to write positive things about Marat. Alfred Bougeart, the first biographer to show him in a positive light, spent several months in jail in 1865 for doing just that, and in the decades preceding that many historians created a legende noire — a “black legend” — tarring not only Marat’s revolutionary writings and leanings, but also his scientific experiments, which Conner admits weren’t particularly earth-shattering.
Marat, who suffered from a chronic skin condition that some modern doctors theorize may have been dermatitis herpetiformis, credited his mother’s passionate social conscience for his own revolutionary politics, and had been arguing for more equality for much of his life. He’d become a doctor well-known among France’s aristocracy. But in 1789, when the revolution came, he dropped his scientific experiments about heat and light, as well as his medical career, to become a full-time radical at the age of 46. Marat, who was known as an abrasive, unfunny man, became second only to Maximilien Robespierre in the revolutionary movement, a passionate member of the radical Jacobin faction, which found itself opposed to the more moderate Girondins.
Corday, a country-born minor aristocrat who was 24 when she stabbed Marat with a 6-inch kitchen knife, was committed to the Girondin cause. During her trial, she told the court she “killed one man to save 100,000,” as she believed Marat would hasten France’s descent into civil war. More than that, she hoped to cripple the Jacobins — in fact, she wound up destroying many on her own side, because 22 Girondins were rounded up as a result of Marat’s murder, put on trial and executed within months of Corday being guillotined. She had originally intended to kill him in public — “If I had thought I could have succeeded in that way, I should have preferred it to any other method,” she said at her trial, explaining that she would have preferred to die anonymously at the hands of the mob — but Marat’s skin condition meant he had stopped attending Convention sessions, so she was forced to change her plan, gaining entrance by telling Marat she would pass him intelligence about a planned Girondin uprising, then killing him with a single knife blow.
A painting may not be worth a thousand words. But Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat, painted shortly after his death as both a depiction of a crime scene and a propaganda tool to enshrine Marat as a martyr, has in many ways outlasted the memory of Marat himself in the public imagination. Painted in minute detail — the knife, the paper in Marat’s hand — it nonetheless depicts the 50-year-old revolutionary without the blistered, itchy skin that sent him into the bath in the first place. In death, Marat was the picture of health. Corday lives on too: After she was sentenced to death by the court, she requested that a portrait be made before her death. She chose the artist herself, a military officer named Jean-Jacques Hauer, and had a chance to see and critique the painting before she was driven to the guillotine in the rain. There, she was executed, and in a final indignity, had her face slapped moments after her death by a guillotine repairman who was subsequently sentenced to jail time for his rudeness.
Today, Corday is not remembered as a revolutionary hero or as a monster — simply another anecdote in the revolution. As for Marat, Robespierre’s right-hand man, she succeeded at least in partially neutralizing his legacy, turning him into that guy in the turban who died in the bath.