10 Historically Pivotal Murders


Jean-Paul Marat

Trouble in the bath for Marat! © Lebrecht Music & Arts/Lebrecht Music & Arts/Corbis
Trouble in the bath for Marat! © Lebrecht Music & Arts/Lebrecht Music & Arts/Corbis

After the abolition of the French monarchy, several factions fought for control of the new republic. Jean-Paul Marat belonged to the Jacobins, one of the most radical political groups, and used his influence as a journalist to garner popular support for violence against other groups, most notably the more conservative Girondins.

Charlotte Corday was a young woman with Girondin sympathies who had been horrified by the violence of the Jacobins during the revolution. On July 13, 1793, she visited Marat, claiming to have information about Girondin plotters. Marat, who suffered a skin condition, received her in his bath. After a brief interview, she pulled out a kitchen knife hidden in her clothes and stabbed Marat in the chest. He died almost instantly. At her trial, she testified that she had killed one man in order to save 100,000.

She may have been disappointed with the results. Far from ending the Terror, Marat's death elevated him to martyr status. Maximilien de Robespierre, the most powerful Jacobin and a major instigator of the Terror, used Marat's death as an excuse to purge even more political enemies, inflaming fear and distrust among the revolutionaries. Surviving Girondins were executed, and counter-purges followed. The Hébertists, the Dantonists and finally, following a coup a year later in 1794, Robespierre himself was executed. Estimates of the death toll during the Terror run between 16,000 and 25,000 for those officially executed across France, but as high as 200,000 for those who died in the ensuing mob violence [source: Linton].