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 "galvanism".  

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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