Jean-Paul Marat was a leader of the French Revolution, along with others like Danton and Robespierre. In 1793, he was assassinated while soaking in a bath—one of the most famous murders in French history. While there is no question about who killed him, the reason he was in the bath has confounded historians for centuries. And this mystery may have just been solved.
From Scientist to Radical
Marat was a scientist who contributed important research on subjects like combustion and light. But as France entered into political crisis in the 1780’s, he joined the radical forces calling for the downfall of the monarchy. His newspaper, The People’s Friend, made him a hero to France’s lower classes but also earned him powerful enemies. This forced him to spend years in hiding, including long periods in the Paris sewers, and he began to suffer from a terrible skin disease.
After the storming of the Bastille in 1789, Marat emerged from hiding and became one of the leaders of the revolution, heading groups like the Committee on Surveillance. But as his power increased, his skin condition worsened. He was forced to spend long hours in a special tub, soaking in foul-smelling minerals to sooth his oozing sores. He had a special table made that allowed him to write letters and edit his newspaper while soaking.
Marat’s constant pain and increasing isolation are believed to have affected his personality, as he bitterly denounced his enemies and called for heads to roll. He battled the revolutionary group the Girondins, and it was the Girondin sympathizer Charlotte Corday who fatally stabbed him. Marat’s death and martyrdom helped usher in the Reign of Terror, where thousands were slaughtered, starting with the Girondins.
A Mysterious Disease
Marat’s painful condition has never been identified. Like the cause of Vincent van Gogh’s mental instability, it has puzzled historians for centuries. Many possibilities have been proposed, like syphilis (a theory advanced by his enemies), scabies, and leprosy. Marat himself believed it was caused by his time in the Paris sewers. And now scientists believe they have found the answer.
Marat bled profusely when he was stabbed, and his blood soaked the papers he was working on. These were kept by his sister and eventually found their way to the National Library of France.
200-Year-Old Cold Case Solved!
French forensic scientist Philippe Charlier, working with a team of specialists, was recently able to extract DNA from these centuries-old papers. As well as finding DNA that confirmed Marat’s ancestry (French and Italian), the team found a number of non-human DNA fragments.
These fragments ruled out many of the popular theories—no syphilis, no scabies, no leprosy or tuberculosis. But there was strong evidence of an advanced fungal infection, of Malassezia restricta. This would explain his pain and sores and would probably have damaged his immune system as well, leaving him open to other infections.
While the answer can’t be known for sure, modern technology seems to have validated the belief of Marat—ever the scientist—that the sewers of Paris were his undoing.
The bathtub can be seen with its gruesome wax figures at the Musée Grevin in Paris. Quite how it came to be there, complete with the original life isn’t known.
Keith Van Sickle splits his time between Silicon Valley and Provence. He is the author of One Sip at a Time: Learning to Live in Provence and Are We French Yet? Keith & Val’s Adventures in Provence. Read more at Life in Provence.