Thursday, 30 July 2020

The "hideous wen" of Jacques-Louis David

Here is another famous medical affliction, the growth which disfigured the face of the painter Jacques-Louis David. 

Maquette of a posthumous bust of David by François Rude, 22.5 cm.
 High Museum of Art, Atlanta, purchased in 2013

As a student, probably in 1773-4, David was involved in a fencing accident.  His opponent's foil pieced his left cheek which began gradually to swell:  as a result his face became asymmetrical, his mouth was pulled out of shape and  his speech, which was already affected by a speech impediment, became embarrassingly distorted.  

The growth - which earned David the nickname "la grosse joue" - is clearly visible in surviving portraits and self portraits.  In 1965, in a study which is still widely referenced, the art historian Jacques Wilhelm, drew attention to David's peculiar physiology as a means of identifying his image.  [Jacques Wilhelm, "David et ses portraits" Art de France, IV (1964), p.158-173] 

Biographers have generally referred a little vaguely, to a "benign tumour" or an "exostosis" . However, David's affliction has recently come under scrutiny from the medical profession.  One might suppose that a condition of this sort would be easy for modern medicine to diagnose, but, surprisingly, there has been disagreement.  Within the space of a year, in 2007 and 2008, the prestigious Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine published two, quite contradictory, analyses.

A trauma?

The first paper, by Hutan Ashrafian of Imperial College, presents an account of David's "post-traumatic facial pathology".  Ashrafian argues that  David suffered from an "underlying pathology" which was the direct result of his injury rather than a consequence of the tumour which developed.

Ashrafian notes that David received  a "deep left peri-oral" sword wound which led to the loss of the "left nasolabial groove", that is the line between his nostril and the corner of his mouth. 

 Self-portraits show a visible scar at the "left labiomarginal solcus" extending for a short distance laterally into the midface. This is likely to have damaged the buccal branches of the facial nerve, so compromising facial movement around the jaw, lips and nasal muscles.  This would have rendered  David's expression asymmetrical, distorted his speech and made it difficult for him to eat in public

Hutan Ashrafian seems less certain about the nature of David's "tumour". It  arose as a "complications of midface soft tissue injury":  perhaps it was a "foreign body granuloma" or "a post-traumatic neuroma" (ie. an abnormal growth specifically of the nerve tissues)

Hutan Ashrafian, "Jacques-Louis David and his post-traumatic facial pathology",
J R Soc Med. 2007 Jul; 100(7): 341–342..

An adenoma?

The second paper is a collaboration between  Humphrey Wine, then Curator of French Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Paintings at the National Gallery, and  the UCL cancer specialist Michael Baum. Their analysis returns to the tumour, which they diagnose as a "pleomorphic adenoma" or swelling of the parotid gland - a condition totally unrelated to the fencing injury.  It is noted that this possibility was suggested by Jacques Wilheim as long ago as 1961. 

The parotid gland,  the most important of the four salivary glands, is the gland which swells up in mumps.  It is situated at the angle of the jaw, and has two lobes, separated by the facial nerve.  A pleomorphic adenoma or "mixed parotid tumour" usually occurs in the superficial of the two lobes and nowadays can be removed surgically without complication.  David's example gives a rare opportunity to follow the pathology of an untreated case.  The different portraits and self-portraits chart the gradual growth of the accretion.

The study concludes that  David eventually developed a  parotid cancer which resulted in his death.  "In about 10% of untreated cases" (where does that statistic come from?) the adenoma can transform into a malignant tumour ("adeno-carcinoma") which invades the facial nerve and creates a facial palsy. This is what happened to David:  "After about 20 years David's physiognomy changes as he develops the characteristic signs of a facial palsy, a drooping of the lip and flaccidity of the affected side of his face".  The late onset of the palsy makes it unlikely that it could have been caused by the fencing injury.  

 David died on 29th December 1825 at the age of 77.In the previous summer he had begun to experience breathing difficulties.  By November 1825 he was experiencing a continual choking sensation and was unable to walk.  The autopsy concluded that he had died of "hypertrophia" of the heart". The paper deduces that the parotid cancer occluded his airways.

Humphrey Wine, Michael Baum, "Jacques-Louis David’s tumour: an opportunity to study the natural history of a pleomorphic adenoma of the parotid gland", 
J R Soc Med. 2008 Dec 1; 101(12): 583–586


Here are some references which I have collected (with no pretensions to have found everything.) 

The testimony of Jules David:

According to the biographical notes compiled by David's grandson Jules: 

It was in his final years as a student that the accident happened which deformed his face.  His children say that he was in a fencing match when a foil wounded his upper jaw.  The injury, which was badly cared for, led to an exostosis which never ceased to enlarge and which added to his difficulties in speech.
Jules David, Le peintre Louis David 1748-1825: souvenirs et documents inédits (1880). p.8.

The incident is generally considered to have taken place in 1773 or 1774.   The passage makes several points clear:
  • The affliction was identified by contemporaries as a tumour or "exostasis".
  • It was the result of a sword wound David had suffered
  • It continued to grow
  • It affected his speech.

James Northcote, 1778/9(?):

The English artist James Northcote made the acquaintance of David in Rome in 1778/9, when the two young artist spent long hours 
sketching in the Vatican together.  Northcote, perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, recalled that David always carried secret-pocket pistols and that "all his conversation was tinctured with blasphemy in respect to religion, and licentiousness in regard to government." Among his manuscript memoirs in the British Library is this sketch, which clearly shows David's enlarged cheek.  

See: William Hauptman, "'The Blood-stained brush':  David and the British circa 1802", The British Art Journal (2009/10) vol.10: p.78-97. [on JStor]

Nathaniel Marchant in 1784/5:
The English engraver Nathaniel Marchant met David in Rome in 1784/5, and later remarked to the artist Farington, that "One side of his face is much larger than the other and appears as if swelled." [Quoted in Wine and Baum (2008)]

A caricature by David from 1786(?)
According to Ewa Lajer-Burcharth (1999), p.36-8, in 1786 David produced a caricature of himself which featured  a "huge swelling".  There is an illustration (fig.15) but, unfortunately, it cannot be seen in the Google preview.

The self-portraits (1791 and 1794)

The  two attested self-portraits date from 1791 (or possibly May 1790) and from David's period of imprisonment in the Luxembourg in 1794. The artist was then in his early to mid forties. 

Most art-historians think that David chose deliberately to minimise his disfigurement in both canvases by depicting the affected side of his face in shadow.  

This is not quite the same as saying that David falsified his natural appearance. The scarring on his cheek looks faithfully rendered, as does the droop of his mouth. The swelling, though not huge, is plainly visible, particularly in the later portrait.  I think it  quite likely that this is how David looked at the time.

There are various discussions:
T. J. Clark, "Gross David with the swoln cheek: an essay on self-portraiture" in Rediscovering History, Politics, and the Psyche, ed. Michael S. Roth (Stanford 1994) [Not on the internet/ not consulted]

Ewa Lajer-Bucharth, Necklines: the art of Jacques-Louis David after the Terror (Yale UP 1999), p.36-38. [For Ewa Lajer-Bucharth there is  a generalised asymmetry in the 1794 portrait - mouth, hair, eyebrows, cravat - which expresses David's sense of disorientation at this time, a "physiognomic disjunctiveness absent from the 1791 self-image" (p.37)] 

Jessica Cresseveur, "The politics of rebirth:  Jacques-Louis David's 1794 self-portrait" [2012 conference paper; available on Academia]

David's mirror images flipped

A report in the Archives nationales, dated 28th July 1795. 

The concierge at the Quatre Nations reports that his prisoner is ill.  David is suffering from internal pains, dizziness and fatigue and complains of a "humeur scorbutique" which has worsened "the swelling of his bottom lip on the left side".  (Quoted by Ewa Lajer-Bucharth, Necklines, p.322 nt.64)

Comments of English observers in 1802/3:

During the short-lived Peace of 1801-3, English visitors flocked to Paris.  Many took the opportunity to make the acquaintance of David and view his work.  Some have left descriptions of David's appearance, almost invariably highly coloured by political distaste:

 A person who is conversant in the science of Physiognomy, would pronounce the character of this monster at first sight.  With a hideous wen upon his lip, which shews his teeth, and for ever marks him with the snarling grin of a tyger, with features and eyes which denote a lust for massacre, he is savage by instinct, and an assassin by rule. [Henry Redhead Yorke, Letters from France, vol. 1, p.324]

[His mouth is] dreadfully distorted and turn'd almost into one cheek, so that his jaw teeth are discoverable to the front. [Catherine Wilmot, An Irish peer on the Continent, 1801-1803, p.61]

See: William Hauptman, "'The Blood-stained brush':  David and the British circa 1802", The British Art Journal (2009/10) vol.10: p.78-97. [on JStor]

Caricature by Pierre Révoil, after 1803:

This picture is reproduced by Hauptmann (2009/10) p.83.  

The inclusion of David's légion d'honneur puts the date at 1803 or thereabouts.  Presumably the piece is a wry comment on David's obsequious service to the Napoleonic regime.

Portrait by Rouget, 1813:

In about 1810 David set about creating a set of family portraits.  Georges Rouget, who had assisted him on Leonidas, painted the portraits of Eugène David and of the master himself.  This painting, probably completed in 1813, hung in the David family home as a pendant to David's own portrait of his wife.

Notice from the Neue Pinakothek, München

Philippe Brodes, Jacques-Louis David: Empire to exile (2007), p.138.

Rouget was not always so discreet.  This sketch attributed to him was bequeathed to the Cleveland Museum of Art and sold at auction in 2009.  It is thought, quite reasonably, to depict David (He is clearly wearing a very similar coat and cravat to the one in Rouget's painting.)

Walter Scott in 1815:

In 1815 Walter Scott was presented to a stranger "whose physiognomy struck him as the most hideous he had ever seen"; his disgust was reinforced when he discovered that this was David "of the blood-stained brush".  (Lockhart, Life of Sir Walter Scott, 1879, p.337)


Portrait by Navel, 1817:

Detail from the Valenciennes portrait
Photograph on Flickr by Renaud Camus
 taken 24.11.2013
This portrait was painted in September 1817 by François-Joseph Navel (1787-1869), a pupil who had followed David into exile in Brussels.  The portrait exists in at least four different versions.  This one, the first to be completed, is now in the Musée des Beaux Arts in Valenciennes.   David appears older than  in the subsequent versions, and the asymmetry of his face is more marked. 

 A note on the reverse in the artist's own hand reads:
  67-year-old Louis David, first portrait painted from life on September 7th, 1817; this one resembles him most.  Mr David made me start over again ....because I had not hidden the flaw on his cheek."  
This statement is the most direct evidence we have that David deliberately chose to conceal the full extent of his deformity.

Notice for the Valenciennes portrait:

Galerie Jean-François Heim, "Portrait of Jacques-Louis David François-Joseph Navel",

Portrait by Langlois, 1825:

Jérôme-Martin Langlois, David's favourite pupil, painted the master in the year of his death:

"Langlois, in his fine portrait of 1825 shows the elderly David as a handsome man who nevertheless cannot close his mouth properly owing to a mass on the inner side of the left cheek which drags it out of shape."  Anita Brookner  Jacques-Louis David (Chatto & Windus, 1980), p.50.

Death mask:
A photograph  of David's death mask was uploaded to Wikipedia in 2013 by Stephen C. Dickson.  There is no information as to where it is - the Edinburgh Phrenological Society collection perhaps?

There is no particular reason to doubt the identification; Jules David testifies that David's body was embalmed and a posthumous cast made of his face:
The task of embalming David's body was entrusted to Van den Corpus Lambert, a pharmacist in Brussels.  A mould was also taken of the head of the defunct, and his pupil Rude took a cast of his hand as though a precious souvenir.
 Le peintre Louis David  (1880) p.607

The evidence provided by the mask is disappointing.  The mouth appears slightly lopsided and the chin droops but, curiously, the tumour is not readily apparent.

Posthumous bust by Rude:

 The bust by François Rude (1794–1855), which exists in various different versions, is the most crucial piece of evidence for David's appearance in his later years.

Since it was posthumous, Rude no longer had the pressure of pleasing David himself though he still had the family to consider. 

Rude knew David well.  A devoted admirer,  he had followed David to Brussels in 1816 and his wife Sophie had been one of David's most esteemed pupils. In 1822 the young couple had mysteriously quarrelled with the master but Rude still acted as a pallbearer at David's funeral.  On 4th March 1825 he wrote to Eugene David soliciting permission to undertake the sculpture.   According to a letter of Sophie Rude, dated 8th May 1825, the bust (presumably a plaster version) had been completed and  approved by David's sons, who thought it "the most beautiful portrait" of their father which existed. Rude now intended to make a marble for the family.

The subsequent history of the sculpture is far from clear. According to Philippe Bordes, writing in 2007, "the status of the various versions has yet to be established". The Louvre has two marbles, one dated 1831, without drapery and one created for the museum's galleries in 1838 which shows David in modern dress.  A bronze in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Dijon is comparable to the 1831 marble.  Dijon has more recently also acquired a plaster "surmontage". 

The original plaster had long been considered lost but this too has recently re-surfaced.  It was first recorded at the Galerie d'Arenberg in Brussels in 1985-86 and is illustrated in Philippe Bordes's 2007 exhibition catalogue, where it is given as "in private hands".  The work is signed and dated 1826.

In addition, there is the beautiful little terracotta maquette, purchased by the High Museum of Art Atlanta in 2013 (in c.2008 with the London dealers Tomasso Brothers.)

Various possibilities have been put forward for Rude's original model:

1. Jules David records that Rude created a mould of David's hand, which was still in his possession at in 1852.  Perhaps he also made a death mask at this time, though, if so, this is not recorded.
2. There is some suggestion Rude may have created studies for the portrait medal of David cast by Galle on the initiative of Antoine Gros in 1820.  Again the documentation is uncertain.  However, the full face and hairstyle of the bust is very similar to the profile on the medal. 
3. In 1930 Paul Saintenoy speculated that a first plaster bust, in antique drapery, had been made in David's lifetime but rejected by the master due to the frank depiction of his tumour. The subsequent sculptures attenuated the deformity. 
Saintenoy, "Le buste disparu de Louis David par François Rude", Bruxelles : Académie royale des Sciences, des Lettres et des Beaux-Arts, 1930. - ill. [Not available on the internet]
We now have the "lost" bust, dated to 1826, so this hypothesis is disproved.

All the versions of Rude's bust  - importantly including the 1826 plaster and the terracotta maquette - all show a similar degree of facial deformity.  There is a definite rounded growth, more prominent than in the portraits by Navel and Langlois, though by no means overwhelmingly disfiguring.  

Bordes Jacques-Louis David (2007) fig. 110:
Rude, Bust of David in antique dress, 1826
Plaster. 80.5cm. Private collection. 


Nicolas Alpach, "Oeuvres méconnues du Louvre: les portraits sculptés de David" PointCulture, 23.10.2014.
Philippe Bordes, Jacques-Louis David: Empire to exile (2007), No.57, p.334-6: "Portrait of Jacques-Louis David by François Rude (1784–1855)"
Louis de Fourcaud, François Rude, sculpteur: ses oeuvres et son temps (1784-1855), 1904, p.449: "Buste de Louis David" 


The evidence is difficult to interpret: No description of David is simply a description, no portrait simply a portrait.  David sought to conceal or diminish the blemish in approved images; conversely, the pictures and comments of his enemies are coloured by malice and probably exaggerate his deformity.

The conclusions of the medical experts remain speculative:

1. Dr Ashrafian argues that the sword injury damaged to David's facial nerve. This is possible, but  the visual evidence and descriptions concentrate on the tumour itself.

2. There is no secure means to diagnose the tumour.  Prima facie it seems unlikely  that it was unrelated to the sword wound as Wine and Baum contend.  David's family certainly thought it resulted from a "poorly tended" injury.  

6. I t is also difficult to decide how large or debilitating the tumour really was. According to Jules David it continued to grow throughout David's life - though it must have done so quite slowly.  We may surmise that  Rude's posthumous bust shows its full extent but, even this is uncertain.  Presumably it was concealed to some extent within the cheek cavity and was more obtrusive when David tried to eat or speak. 

2. Did David really develop a facial paralysis later in life? According to Wine and Baum, the onset of a palsy, signalling the development of parotid cancer, occurred "after twenty years".  This chronology is vague - when did the adenoma appear in the first place? There is no evidence for a sudden deterioration; nor am I convinced that the portraits really show David's "transition from handsome middle age to a deformed old man".  

3. It cannot be proven that David died from occluded airways; admittedly he suffered bouts of breathlessness, but the autopsy noted only an enlarged heart.  If parotid cancer killed him, it took a long time to do so since he lived to be 77 years old..

To end this post, here is a short video from High Museum, with some good shots of the Rude maquette and some suitably non-committal comments on David's condition:

Sunday, 26 July 2020

The blood of Marat

I can't believe I managed to miss this story!!! 

Here is yet another quest in historical anthropology from "France's most famous forensic sleuth", Philippe Charlier. This time the object of his attention was the blood-soaked pages of the journal annotated by Marat on 17th July 1793 at the moment when Charlotte Corday plunged her fatal knife into his heart.  The aim was to isolate Marat's DNA from the stains and, potentially, to throw light on his medical condition

As with the gourd containing the blood of Louis XVI, the work was carried out in conjunction with the Spanish paleo-geneticist Carles Lalueza-Fox in Barcelona.  The final report was published in January this year. The investigation claimed a couple of firsts: "the oldest successful retrieval of genetic material from cellulose paper.", and, more portentiously, "the first retrospective medical diagnosis to include the genetic analysis of a historical figure".

The evidence

The object of under scrutiny is one of the iconic "treasures of the Bibliothèque Richelieu":

These bloody sheets from  l’Ami du Peuple (numbers 506 and 678 from 30th June 1791 and 13 August 1792)  were said to have been preserved by Marat's sister Charlotte Albertine. They came into the possession of  the collector François-Nicolas Maurin  in 1837 and  subsequently passed to the baron Carl de Vinck, whence in 1906 to the national collection.  The BN has welcomed the opportunity to have the claims authenticated.  In December 2019 Philippe Charlier was invited to present his findings at an INHA Trésors de Richelieu conference.

The DNA of Marat

The first goal was to identify a sample of the genetic material of Marat.

Charlier explains that pattern on the paper is characteristic of blood stains, with a combination of  greasy spots, thinning out more liquid in the surrounding areas.  The stains soaked through several pages, consistent with a large amount of blood; we know that Marat bled out rapidly - witnesses record that the gore splashed out into the room and into the water of the bath.

The laboratory in Barcelona was able successfully to isolate human genetic material from the bloodstain, which is identified as that of Marat on the following grounds: 

1. It is old DNA, which is highly fragmented and consistent with a date at the end of the 18th century.  The experts are confident that it does not represent material introduced by subsequent handling.
2. The subject is male.
3. Comparison with the laboratory's extensive database of historical samples from different locations, suggests that the DNA belonged to someone with a Franco-Italian geographical pedigree
4. There is associated evidence of an extremely severe skin disease.

According to Charlier, these factors, taken together, represent a "concordance of objective arguments" in favour of this being the blood of Marat.  The bloodstained paper is genuine; a forgery created before 1837, even a sophisticated one, could not have yielded this result.

More precise analysis of the DNA is impossible due to lack of comparative data - the body of Marat is no longer extant;  the sample is too degraded and the potential for error too great to enable comparison with living relatives.

Marat's Medical Condition

The investigation discovered traces of several pathogens which could have been responsible for Marat's debilitating skin complaint.  The most likely culprit was the fungus Malessezia restricta, which causes the opportunistic skin infection seborrhoeic dermatitis.  Also present were two bacteria, staphylococcus aureus and, in more substantial quantities, cutibacterium acnes, which causes acneThese latter would have created secondary infections which compounded Marat's misery.  There was no evidence of other conditions - syphilis, leprosy, thrush and scabies -  which have been suggested and which may now be ruled out.
According to the National Eczema Society, seborrhoeic dermatitis is form of eczema, which primarily affects the face, scalp and chest, where there are large numbers of grease-producing sebaceous glands.  It is an inflammatory reaction to species of Malassezia yeasts, which are present on normal skin, but  can trigger symptoms in susceptible individuals.  The condition is not contagious or related to diet, but can be aggravated by illness, psychological stress, fatigue and general poor health.  It presents as red inflamed areas of skin with greasy-looking white or yellow scale, particularly on exposed areas.  These can be itchy and, in extreme cases (and Marat's was certainly that) sore.


How does this square with existing medical opinion?

There  has been a lot written about Marat's skin condition, much of it in subscription-only medical journals.  One of the few accessible article (Lipman & Lipman, 1958) does indeed come down in favour of  seborrhoeic dermatitis.  More recent experts have favoured a  rarer condition, dermatitis herpetica, but everyone agrees that diagnosis remains speculative.

The historical record offers some confirmation for the new findings, though I think seborrhoeic dermatitis, even compounded by bacterial infections, may not be the whole story :

1. The origins of Marat's illness

 The date for the onset of Marat's illness is not certain. 1788 or 1790 is usually stated.  It is clear that he suffered poor health from an earlier date. In the 1770s he found himself in a state of debilitating exhaustion;  in 1782 he wrote to Brissot that he has been laid low by "a long and cruel illness", the nature of which is not specified; constant relapses made it difficult for him to work.

 In the Revolutionary years Marat specified that he was suffering an "inflammatory malady", seemingly recent in origin, since he traced its onset to his time hiding from the authorities in cellars and  sewers, that is in 1790 and 1791. This claim has to be approached with caution,  since the patriotic sacrifice of his health soon became a component in Marat's self-dramatisation as Friend of the People.  However, crises in his health are clearly documented: 

In 1791, a fortnight after the flight of the king, Marat was obliged to take to his bed.  A second, more severe bout of illness occurred immediately prior to his assassination, in June-July 1793.

At the INHA conference Philippe Charlier was asked whether Marat could really have contracted seborrhoeic dermatitis in the sewers.  He replied that so severe a case was likely to have been more longstanding.  Seborrhoeic dermatitis is also not particularly associated with unhygienic conditions.   Perhaps Marat suffered an unusually severe "flare-up" of a chronic condition?  According to Charlier the associated bacterial infection may well have originated in the sewers, and perhaps resulted in more acute symptoms.

Marat by Jean Garneray, Musée Lambinet

2. Pattern and Nature of his Skin Complaint

The presentation of Marat's skin complaint is broadly consistent with seborrhoeic dermatitis, which affects the greasy areas of the body, such as genital folds, the chest and face.  The primary symptom is inflammation and itching, rather than a rash or visible sores. 

The physician Joseph Souberbielle informed Augustin Cabanès that Marat had been tormented by an incessant itching which had begun in the genital region, indeed that the Friend of the People was "being devoured by a horrible impetiginous affection of the perineo-scrotal region" (Marat inconnu, p.178; Secret Cabinet, p.149).  Other witnesses talk about an inflammation which  particularly afflicted his left side. 
Marat's face was also badly affected. (For this reason  Cabanès discounted "scabies" which does not normally affect the face; he diagnosed quite accurately, a form of eczema. Secret Cabinet, p.149).   At one point during his period of hiding, he was afflicted with swollen eyelids (blepharitis), which he blamed on a poorly ventilated oil stove; this is common in seborrhoeic dermatitis sufferers.  In 1791 it was reported that his whole head was swollen.

Souberbielle described Marat's condition as a "dartre". This is a vague term, but implies a dry scaly skin condition, such as herpes or ezcema.

On the other hand, there are no explicit references to spots, acne, rashes or unsightly sores in descriptions of Marat, even by his enemies.  Portraits, like the one by Jean Garneray in the Lambinet, show a complexion which is free from obvious blemish, though it is easy to imagine that this might be a man prone to eczema.   Fabre d'Eglantine in his funeral eulogy described Marat tellingly as having the "thick complexion and withered skin" of a typical eczema sufferer.

In Marat's final months, however, the swelling, inflammation and blotching of his skin clearly became visible and disfiguring.  Marat was suspected, with some malice, of suffering from leprosy.  Chabot testified to the aversion felt by his colleagues in the Assembly who would move away and shrink from his touch. (reference?).  The artist David, who was part of a delegation sent from the Jacobins on 12th July 1793 also stated that Marat suffered from a "leprosy".

3. Was his complaint of  nervous origins?

Much ink has been wasted on discussion of whether Marat's violent disposition caused his skin complaint or was merely exacerbated by it.  The most that can be said is that seborrhoeic dermatitis is known to be triggered by psychological stress.  Marat obviously did himself no favours with long hours, sleep deprivation and a heavy consumption of coffee.  

3. Other complications?

Marat's symptoms, particularly in the final crisis, do suggest he may have suffered bouts of illness more acute than just the flare-up of a skin complaint.  He is described in 1791 as "tormented by an appalling migraine and devoured by a burning fever".  In June 1793 he described himself as "burning up inside", his stomach "would support only liquids"; he suffered a chronic thirst which he attempted to sooth by water "mixed with almond paste and clay".  David reported not only that  "leprosy" covered the body of the Friend of the People, but that his blood was burning (Moniteur, session of 15 July).  After the assassination, Marat's blood decomposed so rapidly that it was feared the corpse would disintegrate before it could be displayed.  I don't know what this implies - maybe some sort of blood poisoning or sepsis? Perhaps the result of the bacteria present in his system?  Just how dangerous Marat's condition really was, remains difficult to assess  (see below).

4. Treatments

Marat soothed his skin by soaking in a bathtub.  This is consistent with seborrhoeic dermatitis - wet compresses and baths have long been standard treatments for eczema.  According to Brissot, during his time as a doctor Marat had developed his own "eau pour dartres".

How ill was Marat?

This is a question worth asking.  It is easy to assume, with Marat's 19th-century biographer Alfred Bourgeart, that Charlotte Corday's knife only hastened his inevitable demise. In contrast Marat's modern political editor Jacques De Cock, thinks he was not so very ill; certainly he was not so sick as to abandon all political action.   

A detailed look at the timing provides some illumination. Marat fell ill in 1793 almost immediately after his triumphal acquittal on 24th  April.  At this time he ceased to provide original copy for his journal and attended the Convention on only two occasions, for the crucial accusation of the Girondins.  After their exclusion on 2nd June, he took to his bed and his journal became "a veritable bulletin on the health of Marat" (Bourgeart, Marat,  vol. 2 p. 254) 

 Marat characterised his condition as an "inflammatory malady". If it was painful and necessitated treatment at home, but it did not disrupt his editorial work, his contacts or his correspondence.  His withdrawal from the Convention may have been partly tactical.  Nor was he entirely confined to bed: on 9th June he attended a meeting of the  Bon Conseil section.  Speculation on his state of health oscillated wildly but at the end of June the journal La Quotidienne, gave regular bulletins, mostly signalling his recovery.

 Marat's condition now seems to have entered a crisis.  He was too ill to attend  sessions of the Cordeliers on 20th June and 5th July.  In a letter to Thuriot, president of the Convention, dated 4th July, he threatened to have himself brought to the Assembly in his bed.  Nonetheless he still received visitors.  On 9th July he was with several activists from the Marseille section, when Jacques Roux burst into his lodgings to demand the retraction of Marat's accusations against him.  (So vituperative was his outburst that, following Marat's assassination, he was questioned by the Committee of General Security  as a suspect.)

On 11th-13th July several journals were again speculating that Marat was seriously ill and close to death.  However,  it would seem the danger had passed. On 12th July a deputation from the Jacobins was pleased to find Marat up, working from his bath, as later in the day did Hébert.  Maure reported, perhaps a little optimistically, that the Friend of the People suffered only an "indisposition" not a true sickness.  There was no question that he was about to die of natural causes.

Further projects?

Having taken the analysis of Marat's blood sample as far as possible, Philippe Charlier mentions a couple of other possible projects for the future:

1. Analysis of the residue in Marat's bath in the musée Grévin to establish its authenticity and investigate the remedy that Marat was using.
2. Creation of  an authentic portrait of Marat which takes into account his medical condition (remembering  that horrible virtual Robespierre, I'm not looking forward to this .....).


Report:  "Metagenomic analysis of a blood stain from the French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat (1743-1793)
Toni de-Dios et al. Final version, posted 27.01.2020.


 INHA Trésors de Richelieu: "Le Sang de Marat", conference of 17.12.2019  [With Corinne Le  Bitouzé and Philippe Charlier]

Marc Gozlan, "Des biologistes moléculaires font parler le sang du révolutionnaire Marat", Le Monde, 08.11.2019.

Erin Blakemore, "What can 200-year-old DNA tell us about a murdered French revolutionary?" National Geography, 22.11.2019.

General sources on Marat's health

Summary list of articles on Marat - PubMed

J. H. Lipman Cohen and E. Lipman Cohen, "Doctor Marat and his skin", . 1958 Oct; 2(4): 281–286.

Augustin Cabanès, "La maladie de Marat" in Marat inconnu (1891), p.196-206
The Secret Cabinet of History (English translation, 1897), p.147-153.

Jacques De Cock, Action politique de Marat pendant la Révolution: (1789-1793), 2003. p.442-444: Illness of 1791; p.885-892  :3rd to 13th July 1793.


Marat's physical appearance: 

Marat was  45-50 years of age when he died, short of stature, scarcely five feet high ... a firm, thick-set figure, without being stout.... Upon a rather short neck he carried a head of a very pronounced character. He had a large and bony face, aquiline nose, flat and slightly depressed, the under part of the nose prominent; the mouth medium-sized and curled at one corner by a frequent contraction; the lips were thin, the forehead large, the eyes of a yellowish grey colour, spirited, animated, piercing, clear, naturally soft and ever gracious and with a confident look; the eyebrows thin, the complexion thick and skin withered, chin unshaven, hair brown and neglected
Fabre d'Églantine, Portrait de Marat, (1793), p.6-7.

Marat's period in hiding:

Marat could find no hiding place; he looked underground, and took refuge in the quarries of Montmartre....More wretched than Diogenes in his barrel, he was deprived of light.  Often, in those humid places, he had nowhere to lie down to sleep. Racked by extreme poverty, he covered his body with a simple blue coat, and his head with a handkerchief - a handkerchief which alas was almost always soaked in vinegar in order to calm the fever of his brain, which could not bear the torpor of the friends of liberty.  A writing box in his hand, a few sheets of paper, on his knees, which were were his only table....
Guiraut, Oraison funèbre de Marat, p.7

Most often he hid in cellars to avoid the domiciliary visits authorised by the virtuous Bailly.  There, working all day by the little small amount of light which penetrated the basement window, his eyelids became inflamed;  he almost lost his sight; the infected odour of oil from a lamp almost continually alight; lack of air; humidity; privations of all sorts; the fatigue of endless work, almost continuous insomnia, moral anxieties, so many burdens imposed on a man whose health was already fragile, of nervous temperament, gave him a dartre from which he suffered unheard of torments; which grew worse and worse each day, and  invaded his whole body, and finally made him repulsive to look at, which led to great sufferings, and resulted in outrages.  One can read what Roland said about him, in the ministerial council surrounded by his platonic admirers.  The Counter-Revolutionaries took pleasure in the rumours, often exaggerated, of the terrible state of health of their common enemy; they congratulated themselves on their murderous triumph:  "If we cannot finish him off, they said, then death will".
 Alfred Bougeart Marat, ami du peuple, 1865. Vol. 1, p.287

Illness of July 1791

Letter of Blondel, citizen of the section of Mauconseil
Arrogant men who claim that the Fatherland is not a passion...would soon change their tune if they were at the bedside of the Friend of the People;  if they could see him on his bed of pain. He is tormented by an appalling migraine and devoured by a burning fever; his head is swollen up and his whole left side is inflamed. Vesicatories [ie.heated plasters - a form of treatment?] cover his thighs, and he has been unable to change position for days.  His only complaint is the damage to his vigilance over public safety; in his dreams he talks only of affairs of state; he profits from the slightest respite to dictate to a friend articles for his paper.
L'Orateur du peuple, July 1791. Quoted, De Cock, p.443.  Marat remained discreet about this episode; the worst of the crisis seems to have been on the 8th to 9th July.  On the 9th he describes himself as "tormented by a violent migraine"  For 9th the Orateur du peuple carried a speech by Robespierre and on the 10th it did not appear. On 11th July, Marat  reported that he had risen from his"bed of pain".

Marat's last illness

We believe that he was mortally sick, for his blood was boiling, his body was covered with scabs ("dartres") as a result of this internal inflammation; he was literally devoured by fever. To relieve his burning head, he covered it with vinegar water compresses; his stomach would only take liquids, and to muster strength, to gain a day, to write one more page, he drank strong coffee, so adding to the inextinguishable fire that invaded all his organs.
Bourgeart, Marat, vol. 2, p.259

Comments by Marat: 
I was only able to attend the sessions of the Convention on two days;  an inflammatory illness, the result of the torments to which I have exposed myself ceaselessly for four year in defence of the cause of liberty, has afflicted me for five months and confines me at  present to my bed. 
Marat in Le publiciste de la République, June 1793, quoted by Bourgeart, vol. 1 p.258-9. 

Perhaps they come to see the dictator Marat, but they find a poor devil in his bed, who would give all the honours of the world for a few days health; yet he is still a hundred times more occupied by the troubles of the people than by his own illness.  Marat, quoted in De Cock, p.887

Report by Maure to the Jacobins, on behalf of the deputation of 12th July.
We have just visited, on your behalf, our brother Marat; we found him in the bath, a table, an inkwell, papers, books beside him, busy as usual with public affairs.

It is not an illness, it is an indisposition that never affects his limbs on the right side; there is a huge amount of patriotism compressed inside that little body.  The efforts that he makes on its behalf are killing him.
Journal de la Montagne, 15th July 1793. Reproduced  De Cock, p.891

Testimony of Hébert
Yesterday I spoke for the first time with Marat.  I saw him in the bath, weighed down by a grave illness.  Exhausted by sickness, Marat was working for the people;  he was putting in order authentic proofs of a conspiracy which had been denounced to him, and it was probably this work that cost him his life.  Reproduced De Cock, p.892

Testimony of David
I found him in a striking position.  He had by him a block of wood, on which he had placed paper and ink, and with his right hand out of the bath, he was writing his latest thoughts for the safety of the People.. Yesterday the surgeon who embalmed his body,  asked how it should be arranged for public viewing in the church of the Cordeliers.  No part of his body can be uncovered; for he had a leprosy, and his blood was totally inflamed; but I thought it interesting to present him in the attitude with which I found him, writing for the happiness of the people.   Reproduced De Cock, p.891

Monday, 20 July 2020

The head of Charlotte Corday

The skull of Charlotte Corday is arguably the most resonant relics of the French Revolution.  In recent times it has inspired both the creative writer Leslie Dick ["The Skull of Charlotte Corday,1997]  and the artist Marlene Dumas [The Skull, 2005]. Its authenticity however, remains one of those irreducible - if ultimately trivial - historical mysteries.

The skull revealed

The  supposed skull of Charlotte Corday first surfaced  at  the Universal Exhibition of 1889.  Lenotre describes how he was at the pavilion of Liberal Arts, in the anthropology section, when he found himself confronted by a curious glass display case. It contained bones found during the construction of the Eiffel Tower, plus several skulls, one of which bore the label "the skull of Charlotte Corday.  Belonging to the prince Roland Bonaparte" (See Lenotre, p.182)

"The skull of French Revolutionist Charlotte Corday, murderess of revolutionary leader Marat, exhibited in the Geographical Society, Paris." (Photo by Henry Guttmann Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)."

6 photos of the skull of Charlotte Corday from the collection of prince Roland Bonaparte

Prince Roland Bonaparte, great-nephew of Napoleon, President of the Geographical Society in Paris, was a great enthusiast for  the fashionable pseudo-science of "craniology"; he had photographed and measured both Norwegian Sami and Australian aboriginals.  Various experts - Topinard, Lombroso, Benedikt -  pronounced sententiously on the supposed "skull of Charlotte Corday" in his possession  and published their conclusions in learned journals.  Predictably, the results proved contentious.  Bonaparte himself later remarked that he had shown the skull to five eminent specialists, two of whom  declared that it could not possibly have belonged to a criminal whilst the other three declared the opposite. (Lombroso claimed to have found no less than thirty-three "criminal anomalies" in the skull's dimensions!)

Saint-Albin, Revolutionary Collector

But where had this skull come from?  When Augustin Cabanès badgered him, the prince revealed that he had acquired it from the writer and historian Georges Duruy (1853-1918).  The  latter had chanced upon it at the home of an elderly relative, who was the widow of the politician Alexandre Rousselin Corbeau de Saint-Albin (1772–1847). There were said to be documents confirming its authenticity.  

Saint-Albin had been a flamboyant figure  - in  youth friend and secretary to Danton,  former Terrorist (in Troyes) and later writer of Revolutionary biographies.  He had amassed a valuable library and a notable collection of curiosities, mainly mementos of the Revolution.   He seems to have regarded the skull as nothing more than an amusing conversation piece.  Duruy later passed on the relic to Bonaparte (in fact it frightened his wife so much, that he was pleased to part with it.).  However, the latter denied that he had ever possessed the papers.

Lenotre's conviction that the relic was genuine, was reinforced by the unpleasant revelation that Saint-Albin had once owned not merely the skull, but the WHOLE HEAD preserved in alcohol.  In a letter cited by Cabanès, Lenotre relates how Saint-Albin had once surprised his dinner guests by serving up this delight with the dessert. After the dinner-party he had the skull cleaned of its remaining flesh.  Lenotre does not give his source for this nasty story and it might seem doubtful.  However, in a letter of 1923 Lady Dorothy Stanley recounts that her mother too had seen the head in its entirety in the 1830s.  The novelist Alphonse Esquiros also encountered it - on this occasion Saint-Albin had tastelessly rigged up the jaw to move by the mysterious power of "galvinism".  

The experts all agreed that the skull had never been buried or exposed to the open air, but had probably been prepared in a workshop or laboratory.

How had Saint-Albin come by the skull? 

In one of the elusive papers, Saint-Albin claimed that he had bought the skull from an antiquarian on the quai des Grands-Augustins, who had himself acquired it at auction.  The original owner was said to have been "a fervent admirer of Charlotte Corday who had been able to have her remains exhumed and kept the skull".  The suspicion was that Saint-Albin was not being entirely truthful.

Who could be the hypothetical "fervent admirer"? One obvious candidate was that inveterate collector of Revolutionary relics, Vivant Denon.   Cabanès found letter of 1861 in the collection of Charles Vatel asserted tantalisingly that the skull had belonged to Denon who had "obtained it from the executioner" (Cabanès, p.192 nt.)  However, this line of enquiry led nowhere: there is no mention in the catalogues for the Denon sales in 1825, nor in the memoirs of Sanson, whether real or apocryphal.

It was noted that Danton was a personage well-placed to have acquired and made a present of the head to his friend - after all, he had not baulked at exhuming his own wife. 

The fact that several teeth were missing post-mortem suggested to Lenotre that they had been given as gifts to ensure complicity.

Lenotre was left with three possibilities:

1. The head had been sold by the bourreau
Perhaps Sanson, was simply too ashamed to mention the deed in his memoirs. The head might have been retained as evidence for the hearing of Legros (the assistant who had notoriously "slapped" the cheeks and caused them to blush) - but  this is to add a whole new layer of supposition.

 2. It had been removed from the cemetery
A member of the family or some other individual (such as Danton)  might have rescued it on the day of the burial.  There no means to investigate this hypothesis. There are no contemporary records of the disposal of the body.  The tradition which had Charlotte Corday's  buried alone in "Fosse 5" of the Madeleine derives only from Descloseaux's plan of 1804.  Nineteenth-century historians regularly placed her in the wrong cemetery.

3. The head was retained (and pickled) at the Hôpital de la Charité
 According to some accounts, before burial, the remains of Charlotte Corday had been  taken to the Hôpital de la Charité to be examined. The investigation confirmed that she had been a virgin. The event was verified by two early biographers,  the lawyer and former Lyon Federalist Louis Caille, who had gathered documentation for a potential publication, and Cheron de Villiers, who wrote in 1865 that he had seen a report by the doctors concerned, though he could no longer locate it. (Cabanès, p. 180).  However, Cabanès found no official order, and no reference in CharlesVatel's extensive collection.  Other references come from dubious sources - Montjoie, Harmand de la Meuse, Rétif de la Bretonne. In Montjoie's version from 1795 the painter David is said to have been present, together with several of his pupils.  Guillaume Mazeau has recently concluded that the whole episode was probably fictious.  He points to the new importance of display, funerals and autopsies as means of  authentication in the Revolution; also the analogy in Catholic hagiography with the trial of virtuous nuns and abbesses.

It would seem that all the speculation leads nowhere.....

The skull was last seen by the public in 1966 at the Goya Museum in Castres, alongside the death mask of Marat, in an exhibition  entitled "Marat, Medicine and the Revolution".  It was lent for the occasion by prince André Radzivill,  son of Eugénie of Greece, the granddaughter of prince Roland.  The exhibit had an accompanying card: 

"Skull of Charlotte Corday.  The executioner Sanson gave this skull to Danton who presented it to his friend Rousselin Corbeau de Saint Albin, whose daughter was Mme Achille Rubinal, the mother of M. Georges Duruy.  This latter gave it as a present to S.A. Mgr. le Prince Roland Bonaparte". [In fact Saint-Albin's daughter was Duruy's mother-in-law rather than his mother.]

"May 05, 1966 - Killer And Victim: The Ghastly Looking Skull Is What Remains Of Charlotte Corday, The Girl Who Stabbed to Death Marat, One Of The Bloodthirsty Leaders Of The French Revolution. The Death Mask Is The One Of Marat. Both Relics Are Now Being Exhibited At The Goya Museum In Castres." (Credit Image: Keystone Pictures USA/ZUMAPRESS)

This statement of provenance is all very neat but adds very little.  There still no verifiable link to Danton or Sanson. 

The current whereabouts of the skull is unknown.  Prince Radziwill owned the Nieborów Palace in Poland, which came into state control after World War II.  The Palace still contains a boudoir with a picture of Charlotte; but of the skull itself there is no trace.

A second skull.....

Rops, Sale of 13.09.2009: Mobilier, Objets d’Art, Peintures Lot 347.

The website Sur les pas de Charlotte Corday, draws attention to another, completely different "Skull of Charlotte Corday" which was offered for sale in 2009 by the Naumur auction house Rops.  Also in the lot was a small piece of bone stamped "JP Marat". 

The skull purports to come from the Madeleine Cemetery.  A plaque in copper or brass states that during the excavations of  1815, Descloseaux's  daughter Madame de Daujou(sic) uncovered the complete skeleton of a woman, at about 1.7 metres depth, in the location identified as the grave of Charlotte Corday.  The site was 25 metres from the gate in the wall onto the rue d'Anjou and perpendicular to it.  The bones were in their correct place apart from the head which was on the chest to the left. There were no other burials in the vicinity, and Mr. Descloseaux was certain that this was indeed the virgin of Caen.  

Again there is not much to suggest this is real. The supposed location of the grave is easily found on Descloseaux's published plan. The use of metric measurements, which were abandoned in the Restoration, counts against its authenticity.

See "Cimetière de la Madeleine", Sur les pas de Charlotte Corday,


Well, there isn't much to substantiate the authenticity of either skull!  I was going to state robustly that the skull once owned by Saint-Albin had to be a fraud: the idea that Charlotte Corday's head could have been sold/ exhumed / preserved  is too gruesome and inherently unlikely.   But, keep reading the accounts, and you get less sure.....


G. Lenotre,  "The dress, the hair and the skull of Charlotte Corday", chapter 2 of  Paris in the Revolution p.189-

Augustin Cabanès, Curious Bypaths of History: Medico-Historical Studies and Observations (1898), p.131-198.

Eugène Defrance, Charlotte Corday et la mort de Marat: documents inédits sur  l'histoire de la Terreur (1909)

Modern accounts:
Jean-Claude Ferrand, "Sur les pas de Charlotte Corday" [website]

Guillaume Mazeau, "Le procès Corday : retour aux sources"  Annales historiques de la Révolution française, janv-mars 2006.

Clémetine Portier-Kaltenbach, "Le crâne de Charlotte Corday", in Histoire d'os et autres illustres abattis (2012).

19th-century collectors
Tom Stammers, "The bric-a-brac of the old regime: collecting and cultural history in post-revolutionary France", French History, 2008, Vol. 22(3), September 2008, p. 295–315,

Paul Fontaine, "Le Mystérieux Comte de Saint-Albin (1772-1847)", Histoire de la Bibliophilie [blog], post of 30.08.2018.

Images of Charlotte Corday 

Kindleberger, Elizabeth R., "Charlotte Corday in Text and Image: A Case Study in the French Revolution and Women's History",  French Historical Studies, vol. 18, no. 4, 1994, pp. 969-999.

Nina Rattner Gelbart, "The blonding of Charlotte Corday", Eighteenth-Century Studies, 2004, vol.38(1): p.201-221 [Available on JStor]

Hannah Proctor, "Charlotte Corday's Skull / Ulrike Meinhof's Brain: Gender, Matter and Meaning - a Postmortem" in Objects of Feminism edited by Maija Timonen and Josefine Wikström

MARLENE DUMAS: Skull [of a Woman] (2005) was inspired by an article I had for a long time, about the skull of Charlotte Corday and she was a young woman who assassinated Marat, in the French Revolution.
So apparently, you know, after she was guillotined, they put her brain and the skull in a bottle and they did all kinds of examinations. And you see it in other political stories too, I mean real life stories, that the woman is still seen as a bit of strange creature.


Lenotre encounters the skull at the Universal Exhibition of 1889

At the Exhibition of 1889 there was, on the first floor of the Liberal Arts, in the section of anthropology, a show-case which was rather forsaken — there were so many other more gay attractions! This show-case contained some human bones found in the ground in the course of laying the foundation of the Tower of 300 metres .... Beside these bones were arranged some skulls, and on one of them a little ticket gave this information : " Skull of Charlotte Corday, belonging to the Prince Roland Bonaparte."

Prince Roland Bonaparte reserves the right of saying one day how this relic came into his possession, and on what probatory certificates its authenticity rests. He possesses, it appears, on this point documents which cannot leave any doubt.  Let us merely say that Charlotte's skull had been seen, about 1840, by Esquiros, at the house of M. de Saint-Albin. It passed afterwards, I believe, to M. Duruy, who presented it to Prince Roland Bonaparte.
Lenotre, ,Paris in the Revolution p.189-90

How Georges Duruy acquired the skull
" Well ! I must tell you without hesitation that there is nothing to prove that the skull I gave to Prince Roland, after he had expressed an intense desire to have it, is really the skull of the angel of assassination ....
" How did it come into my hands ? Oh! simply enough.
" One day, paying a visit to a relation of mine, Mme.  Rousselin de Saint- Albin, I perceived through the half-opened door of a cupboard, a skull!
"'Hullo! What's that?'
" ‘That, why it's the skull of Charlotte Corday! '
" ‘And you leave it there at the back of a cupboard?'
" 'It is probable that if I were to put it in full view on a sideboard my visitors might pull a long face, and besides, it would not be a very pleasant sight for my children.'
" 'But how did you get it ? And what evidence have you that it is indeed the skull of Charlotte Corday?'
" 'I inherited it from my husband, Rousselin de Saint- Albin, who used always to assure me that it was Charlotte's skull. It is a tradition preserved in the family.   That is all I can tell you.  Mr. Rousselin firmly believed it to be the skull of Charlotte Corday and I have no reason to doubt his word.'
" 'Yes, but you must admit that your belief does not settle the question.  Are there any proofs? '
" ' There are,' she replied, ' documents connected with the skull, which prove its authenticity.'
" My venerable relative then handed me some papers that were in the famous cupboard. As far as I can recollect,  there was nothing very precise in them.
Account by Georges Duruy, given to Cabanès on 10th November 1895 (Cabanès, p.192)

The comments of Prince Roland....
Prince Roland Bonaparte, being consulted on this subject by a reporter of the Eclair, made the following statement:
" Alas!" said his Highness, "I do not possess the certificates alluded to by Dr. Cabanes.
* One day my friend Duruy offered me a skull which he said was that of Charlotte Corday. He appeared," added the Prince laughing. " not to be sorry to get rid of this anatomical specimen which seemed rather to frighten Mme. Duruy.
" He added a manuscript note in which he said that the skull had been given to him by Mme. Rousselin de Saint- Albin, who herself received it from her husband, who had always sincerely believed that it had belonged to the 'Norman maid.'

"Unfortunately", continued his Highness, " there exist no conclusive proofs of the authenticity of the skull in my possession. Besides, it is not possible that any such should exist; for whatever number of certificates I might be able to produce, they could establish no cer- tainly. An absolute proof cannot possibly exist, and we must content ourselves with the tradition.
" Further, even anthropological science leaves a large margin for doubt. For instance: in 1869 I showed the skull of Charlotte Cordaj- to five phrenologists, without letting them know its origin, asking them if it was the skull of a criminal. Three of them answered affirmatively and the other two said, no: which are we to believe?"

 Cabanès, p.193 nt.


Saint-Albin, the collector

The late Corbeau de Saint-Albin has left an interesting collection and a fine library of books  The collection is remarkable for its portraits in oil of all the members the Committee of Public Safety, of which he himself was one, and for the skull of the heroic Charlotte Corday which came to him as one of the most ardent partisans of Marat.
J.-M. Quérard , Les supercheries littéraires dévoilées, vol.4 (1852), p.180

Who conserved revolutionary souvenirs, and for what reasons? How widespread was the practice? For those whose career peaked during the Revolution, or who knew some of its leading actors, the urge to collect obviously overlapped with autobiography. Thus the conventionnel Portiez de l’Oise accumulated a large collection of decrees and political posters, which were sold off after his death by his widow.  Similarly, Corbeau de Saint-Albin, friend of Desmoulins, secretary to Bernadotte, and eventual founder of the liberal newspaper the Constitutionnel, threw himself into piling up mementos and portraits of the Committee of Public Safety. He drew directly on his own collections when penning his popular biographies of Napoleonic military heroes. 

 Equally strange is the odyssey of Charlotte Corday’s skull. Although uncertainty surrounds how it was first acquired, the cranium of Marat’s murderer passed through several hands until around 1840 it served as a grim table-decoration, terrifying select dinnerguests at the house of the aforementioned prankster Corbeau de Saint-Albin.
Tom Stammers in "The bric-a-brac of the old regime"

Saint-Albin and the skull

In one of these documents [ie. the documents deposited with the skull]  R. de Saint-Albin related how he had purchased the skull from a dealer of curiosities on the Quai des Grands Augustins, who had himself bought it in a sale, he added, from a fervent admirer of Charlotte Corday, who had been able to have her remains exhumed and had kept the skull. 
(Testimony of Duruy, Cabanès, p. 192-3)

As for Rousselin de Saint-Albin, there is no doubt that he always believed in its authenticity, as may be testified by the following anecdote, related to me by one of his friends.
The father of this friend of his, then a minister of Louis Philippe, was one day invited to dine by Rousselin de Saint-Albin, who puzzled him considerably by promising him that there would be at table a great lady of the Revolution. At the dinner-hour the minister came ; the guests entered the dining-room. No signs of the great lady ! But underneath his table-napkin, my friend's father discovered a skull: it was that of Charlotte Corday, so the host affirmed.
(Testimony of Roland Bonaparte,  Cabanès, p. 194 nt.)

We have seen this head in the cabinet of M. de Saint-Albin; but dried, ugly, without flesh, the head of a skeleton,  fit only for the experiments of scientists.  The shape of the skull is prominent at the location in the brain of devotion, and not at all at the place of murder; this woman was no assassin.  Galvanism was used to make the jaws move; I thought for an instance that understanding and speech would return to this mouth without lips; already I was listening out to know from this death's-head what might be thought in the hereafter, about revolutions.
Alphonse Esquiros, Charlotte Corday (1841) p.30

One evening, during the reign of Louis Philippe, Saint-Albin had invited to his table, under pretext of a sensational surprise, some friends known to be curious about matters connected with the Revolution. When dessert was put upon the table, he ordered a servant to bring him a glass jar enclosed in a linen cloth : this was the surprise, and indeed sensational enough, as may be readily imagined, for the cover being lifted, the jar was seen to contain the head of Charlotte Corday.  Not the skull, mind you, but the entire head preserved in alcohol, with its flesh and hair . . . the eyes were half closed.  It had remained in this state ever since 1793 ; but Saint-Albin having decided to have it prepared — excuse these lugubrious details — wished before that operation to show to his friends this affecting spectacle. This explains why the anthropologists discovered that the said skull had never sojourned in the earth nor been exposed to the air.

Rousselin de Saint-Albin thought fit to say that he had bought it from a dealer in curiosities. Well and good: but Saint-Albin knew the ins and outs of many things, and like all those who know a good deal, he said but little. He never would say through whom or how the head of Charlotte Corday had come into his possession; and that is all. 
Letter of Lenotre to Georges Montorgueil, quoted by Cabanès, p. 192 nt. 

M de XXX wanted to see "the pretty English girl".  He received her in an apartment which was dark, cluttered with furniture, books and papers.... M. de XXX seemed very happy to see her.  He was very old and was wearing a dirty flannel dressing gown.  He pecked her on the cheeks saying "It is good of you to visit a poor old man.  As a reward I will show you something that I don't show people very often - something that you will never forget.  Wait a moment."
He went into another room and came back with a box: he slipped off the cover and my  mother saw inside the head of a woman, brown and dried out, the colour of fungus, my mother said.  "That, little one", said he, "is the head of Charlotte Corday!"  The young girl stared, with tears in her eyes, at the head of this other young girl who had shown such great courage.
My mother could find no trace of her beauty.  Death and Time, both so cruel, had snatched the beauty of candid youth from the young girl.  But my mother -  as Mr. de XXX had said - never forgot the sad relic.
Lady of Dorothy Stanley to Lenotre, dated 1923. 
See Sur les pas de Charlotte Corday

Lady Stanley's mother, Gertrude Collier Tennant (1819-1918), had been brought up in France during the July Monarchy when she had met several well-known figures., including Monsieur de XXX was without doubt an elderly Saint-Albin.

Lenotre speculates on the origins of the skull
But, in the absence of authentic data the skull itself relates its history; at any rate, the savants who have studied it, MM. Topinard and Benedikt, have revealed to us certain peculiarities which are not lacking in interest.  In extracting from the report of their labours, written from the technical point of view, some information intelligible to simple mortals, we learn that the colour of the skull, of a dirty ivory yellow, glistening and smooth, indicates beyond question that Charlotte's head was never buried. This skull has never sojourned in the earth, nor been exposed to the fresh air, but, on the contrary, prepared by maceration, then preserved for a long time in a drawer or chest — sheltered, in a word, from atmospherical changes. That is a rather singular discovery.  Was there, then, in 1793, a fanatic enthusiastic enough to have risked his life by going, during the night which followed the execution, to exhume the head of the heroine? Or are we to believe that someone bought from the executioner himself this sanguinary souvenir?  Or, what seems more probable, should we give credence to a tradition always denied, and which has had up to the present only the value of gossip, according to which — for what purpose one is unable to say — the Government of that time gave orders for Charlotte's body to be conveyed to the dissecting-room, and to be examined carefully?  We might then suppose that the head had been "prepared" by some doctor and preserved as a curious specimen.

It has never been said that Charlotte's remains passed, from 1793, to the position of relics. Nevertheless, the fact is accomplished, and here is another proof of it. The person, whoever he was, who preserved the skull must have excited envy in many people, and generously distributed the teeth. The first five on either side have been, in fact, extracted after death. Behind, on the left, is a large hole corresponding to the second big molar, which was decayed and extracted some time before death ; the same observation applies to the right. The subject had evidently had two decayed teeth extracted shortly before her execution.

The ensemble of the skull is normal — that is to say, of average size — without trace of artificial or pathological deformation, save one or two cells, or of irregularity. The forehead is low, as in the most beautiful Greek statues of women; the ensemble is regular, harmonious, with the finesse and the curves a little soft, but correct, of female skulls. However, Dr. Benedikt found in the part of the forehead above the nose the appearances of a man's skull. To sum up, says he, there are anatomical peculiarities which do not correspond entirely to typical perfection, but which do not seem to authorise the classification of this specimen between the pathologicals and atypiques.
Lenotre, ,Paris in the Revolution p.189-90

Was there an autopsy of Charlotte Corday?

When she had been executed, David, member of the National Convention, accompanied by several of his colleagues, and a surgeon, conducted an examination of this unfortunate woman, believing they might find traces of libertinage; but they were deceived in this hope; they were convinced that she died a virgin.
Monjoie, Almanach des gens de bien pour l'année 1795, p.34-35.

The body was transported to one of the hospitals of Paris, la Charité  I think.  Two doctors were assigned to the investigations.  Their procès-verbal, or at least an authentic copy, existed a few years ago in the personal collection of a distinguished physician.  It has proved impossible to rediscover this piece.  This last outrage had no other result than to officially confirm the innocence and virginity of Marie de Corday.
Pierre-Théodore Chéron De Villiers, Marie-Anne Charlotte de Corday, vol. 2 (1865), p.411

Cabanès found in the Vatel collection the following reference to a picture, which has not been traced:
Under the title of Iconographie we met with the description of a drawing, representing:  Charlotte Corday after her execution, 17th July 1793, an assembly of doctors attesting her virginity; N.fecit (sic). There follows as description of the drawing:

The body, extended on a plank, is supported by two wooden props. The head has been replaced above the trunk; the arms are hanging; the body is still enveloped in a white gown the top of which is reddened with blood. A personage holding in one hand a light and in the other an instrument (a sort of speculum?) seems to be occupied in removing the garments from the body. Four other persons stoop and examine attentively.  At the head of the corpse stand two other persons, one of whom appears to wear a tricoloured sash ; the other extends his hands as if saying : ' Here is the body, look.' " 

It may be that the artist meant to indicate two members of the municipality while the other persons assisting were doctors! 

They are all wearing cocked-hats, broad skirted coats with facings, and top-boots. 
"The last indignity", Curious Bypaths of History, p.180-181.

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