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  • It was the end of the 18th century, and for France, they would be going out with no shortage

  • of blood.

  • The French Revolution of 1789 brought a new government to the country, led by a National

  • Assembly that overhauled their laws and stripped the King and the Catholic Church of power.

  • But more radical elements in the revolution were growing stronger, and they didn't just

  • want the old powers removed - they wanted them dead.

  • The execution of King Louis XVI in January 1793 was the beginning.

  • But it would be far from the last execution - and that led one woman to decide it had

  • to be stopped.

  • The National Assembly was initially led by the Girondins, a loosely affiliated group

  • of activists who supported the end of the Monarchy.

  • They were considered moderates and were affiliated with American revolutionaries like Thomas

  • Paine.

  • But another group was growing tired of the moderate pace, and wanted more aggressive

  • action against the old powers.

  • They were called the Jacobins, and on May 31st, 1793, they got their opportunity.

  • It would be three days of bloody conflict - and a new power would emerge.

  • They were the Montagnards, and their rise launched what would become known as the Reign

  • of Terror.

  • And with this shift in power, the French Revolution changed from an instrument of reform to one

  • of revenge.

  • The Committee of Public Safety, led by Georges Danton and later by Maximilien Robespierre,

  • aimed to hunt down enemies of the Revolution both foreign and domestic - and it didn't

  • take much to make that list.

  • But many thought the most powerful figure in the revolution wasn't those in the government.

  • It was the man who spread their word.

  • His name was Jean-Paul Marat, and few names struck more fear into the French's hearts.

  • A journalist and political theorist, Marat was one of the most radical supporters of

  • the revolution, and he was known for his relentless defense of the sans-culottes.

  • This radical worker-led group made up the bulk of the revolutionary army - and had no

  • problem getting their hands dirty and handling executions personally.

  • His newspaper, L'Ami du Peuple, frequently advocated violence against enemies of the

  • revolution and led many to accuse Marat of being a dangerous man - a claim he likely

  • wouldn't dispute.

  • Marat had been deeply sick in 1788 - but hearing that Louis XVI's reign was in trouble, he

  • claimed to be given a new burst of life.

  • But few factions would be radical enough for Marat.

  • Originally aligned with the Girondins, Marat quickly left and aligned with Danton.

  • His newspaper led attacks against members of Louis XVI's court, forcing them to flee

  • the country.

  • His paper also published alarmist articles about the threat of counter-revolutionaries,

  • and he had only one solution to this problem - executions, and plenty of them.

  • For the first few years of the revolution, he was repeatedly forced into hiding as an

  • outlaw.

  • But soon enough, his brand of politics would get their day in the sun.

  • Marat was heavily involved in the Insurrection of August 10th, 1792, which led to the abolition

  • of the Monarchy.

  • And with that, Marat gained more influence - including becoming the head of a Committee

  • on Surveillance that targeted those they felt weren't loyal enough to the revolution.

  • Over four thousand were soon arrested - but Marat wasn't satisfied with this, and advocated

  • that the prisoners all be burned alive.

  • This was voted down due to the threat of spreading fire.

  • But he would get his wish for blood soon enough.

  • On September 2nd, 1792, thousands of prisoners were brought out of the prison and impromptu

  • trials were held in a courtyard.

  • Those found guilty would be butchered, speared, or decapitated by ruthless bands of mercenaries

  • brought in to oversee the punishment.

  • When the initial massacres were done, they went into the prison and killed people in

  • their cells.

  • No one was safe - with Priests and young people accused of being counter-revolutionaries falling

  • victim.

  • This would be known as the September Massacre, and many in Paris were horrified at what was

  • being done in the name of the Revolution.

  • But no one was more horrified than Charlotte Corday.

  • A minor aristocrat, Corday lost her mother and sister at a young age.

  • Her father sent her away to live in a convent, but that gave her a unique benefit - access

  • to a library.

  • As a girl, she read the works of philosophers like Plutarch, Voltaire, and Rousseau.

  • A small woman, she became the sole heir to a moderate estate - and had reason to fear

  • that the Revolution's excesses would eventually reach her.

  • As it started, she sided with the Girondins - and watched in horror as they were eventually

  • purged by the Montagnards and their allies.

  • The September Massacres were the last straw.

  • Something needed to be done.

  • Corday viewed Marat not as a revolutionary leader, but as an enemy of France.

  • She was shocked by the execution of the King, and thought that Marat was likely to incite

  • a full-on civil war in France that could leave countless dead - and as the Reign of Terror

  • ramped up, she feared she was being proven right.

  • On July 9th, 1793, she left her cousin's home and headed for Paris - carrying a long

  • knife.

  • Marat was a powerful man - but he had one weakness.

  • He had suffered from a painful skin condition for years, and treating it had been difficult.

  • This had forced him to retire from active politics, and many members of the leadership

  • were distancing themselves from him.

  • There was only one thing that alleviated the symptoms - long soaks in a bath treated with

  • minerals and medicine.

  • By the time Corday came looking for him, he spent most of his time in the bath.

  • And there he soaked on July 13th - when a young woman appeared at his apartment.

  • She claimed to have information on fugitives - enemies of the revolution!

  • Marat's wife Simone had suspicions, but Marat was obsessed with finding any enemies

  • of France.

  • He invited Corday in and gave her an audience at his bathside.

  • She claimed to know about escaped Girondins who had escaped to Normandy, and they talked

  • for about fifteen minutes.

  • She gave him names, and Marat boasted to her that within a fortnight, they would all be

  • arrested, tried, and guillotined.

  • Marat didn't have the power to guillotine anyone anymore - but that didn't matter.

  • Corday had heard enough.

  • She pulled the long knife out of her corset, stabbing Marat directly in the chest.

  • This caused massive bleeding and Marat died in only seconds after crying out to his wife

  • for help.

  • Simone rushed into the room, alongside one of Marat's distributors, and Corday was

  • taken into custody quickly.

  • While two neighbors tried to revive Marat to no effect, an angry crowd gathered, ready

  • to murder Corday on the spot.

  • But the local officials wouldn't have it.

  • They wanted her to stand trial - as an enemy of the revolution.

  • Corday had not expected to come back from her mission, and she sent a letter to her

  • father.

  • It was intercepted, and would be read at her trial.

  • She claimed that she had avenged many innocent victims and prevented far worse, and this

  • was used as evidence by the prosecutors that she was not a simple madwoman - but an assassin

  • who had planned her killing of a political figure.

  • When interrogated, she stated her support for the revolution and its republican ideals,

  • but not for the actions of radicals.

  • But many suspected a bigger conspiracy.

  • The prosecution and many high-ranking revolutionary figures thought Corday might have been a pawn

  • of the Girondists who had escaped and were plotting to overthrow the government.

  • They argued that Corday had killed Marat too effectively to not be trained.

  • But Corday maintained her story throughout the trial - she had worked alone, creating

  • the plan and executing it alone.

  • She claimed luck alone guided her knife.

  • She knew what awaited her - and she was unafraid.

  • Her initial choice of a lawyer wasn't informed in time, and her court-appointed lawyer had

  • no luck.

  • Corday was quickly convicted and sentenced to death, and only four days after she stabbed

  • Marat, she would face the guillotine.

  • During her trial she made her motivations clear.

  • She believed Marat was a dangerous man, and her quote became famous - “I killed one

  • man to save 100,000”.

  • But to the supporters of Marat's faction, she was the greatest monster in France - and

  • they would see vengeance.

  • With only a few days to live, Corday asked to have her portrait painted so she would

  • be recorded for history.

  • Her painter, Jean-Jacques Hauer, took pains to protect himself from reprisals by putting

  • in minor details in the art that would make Corday look like a vain aristocrat.

  • He had to be careful to ensure that no ally of Marat's would take offense - because

  • anything could get him sent to the guillotines right after her.

  • Corday's execution would be the biggest event in paris.

  • On July 17th, 1793, she faced the guillotine alone wearing the traditional clothing to

  • denote a condemned traitor.

  • Executions were so common during this period that their clothing was used to indicate what

  • they were being executed for in some cases.

  • The execution went smoothly, with her head falling off in a single stroke - but that

  • wasn't the end of the affair.

  • A man named Legros approached the basket and picked her head up, slapping it in front of

  • the crowd.

  • While some claimed that Corday's face reacted, there is no evidence that people survive even

  • seconds after being decapitated.

  • Who did react?

  • The crowd, outraged at this insult to a dead woman even if she was a murderer.

  • Legros wound up being sent to prison for three months.

  • Corday's act would have wide-reaching impacts - but not the one she was hoping for.

  • The Jacobins and their allies in power used Marat's death to increase their grip on

  • France.

  • Marat became a martyr, with a bust of him being placed in a prominent position and building

  • names being changed to honor him.

  • Female activists in France were quick to distance themselves from Corday, fearing that the murder

  • would lead the Jacobins to crack down on feminism in France.

  • Women's political clubs were soon banned, and there seemed to be an increase in the

  • execution of female activists who were seen as Girondin supporters.

  • But not all of the French condemned Corday.

  • Andre Chenier, a French poet, wrote a controversial poem about Corday that talked about the supposed

  • masculinity she possessed, and mocked all the men who wouldn't have the strength to

  • do what she did.

  • This was a risky move, and sure enough he soon aroused the ire of powerful people in

  • the Montagnards for insulting their fallen hero's memory.

  • He wound up following her to the guillotine - being executed only days before the Reign

  • of Terror would come to an end.

  • But there would be one last twist to Madame Guillotine's reign.

  • The Reign of Terror had long since grown out of control with even early leader Georges

  • Danton being sent to face the guillotine after being accused of being too lenient against

  • enemies of the revolution.

  • By now, Robespierre was the undisputed leader of the revolution - and arrests and executions

  • ramped up massively.

  • He even tried to found his own new state religion.

  • Eventually, his cruelty grew too much for the government to bear, and they secretly

  • voted him out of office - followed quickly by his arrest and execution.

  • And July 28th, 1794 marked the end of the Reign of Terror.

  • Charlotte Corday had not lived to see it - but her legacy would endure.

  • Marat's death would be immortalized in a painting by Jacques-Louis David, with many

  • criticizing it for making Marat look like a martyr and glorifying him.

  • Other media would be more sympathetic to Corday - especially after the fall of Robespierre.

  • Poems, songs, plays, operas, and movies have been made about the case.

  • You can even solve Marat's murder in a level of the Assassin's Creed video game.

  • Charlotte Corday's killing of Marat may not have stopped the Reign of Terror in its

  • tracks - but it may have pushed it towards its inevitable self-destruction as the leadership

  • became increasingly paranoid and brutal.

  • A full year and eleven days passed between her death and Robespierres, and today a lot

  • of people look at her and say she knew what was coming - and gave her life to try to stop

  • it.

  • For more on this chaotic period, check outThe French Revolution in a Nutshell

  • or watch this video instead.

It was the end of the 18th century, and for France, they would be going out with no shortage

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Why She Killed 1 Man to Save 100,000

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    Summer posted on 2021/08/08
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