A gruesome legal case turned Voltaire into a crusader for the innocent.
This article was reported and written by Ken Armstrong for The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal-justice system.
On the night of October 13, 1761, cries rang from the shop of Jean Calas, a cloth merchant who lived and worked in the commercial heart of Toulouse, in the South of France. The eldest of Calas’s six children, Marc-Antoine, a moody, handsome man who was fond of billiards and gambling, had just been found dead. The family said he had been murdered—perhaps stuck with a sword by someone who slipped into the darkened boutique from the cobblestone street.
A crowd gathered outside the front door as investigators were summoned. A doctor and two surgeons, called to examine the body, found only a “livid mark on the neck.” They signed a report refuting the family’s account of some intruder with a blade, concluding that Marc-Antoine, twenty-nine, had been “hanged whilst alive, by himself or by others.”
Those last five words, “by himself or by others,” began an enduring mystery and a true cause célèbre, one that might have been the “crime of the century” for the 1700s had the cliché been in use back then. Voltaire, the philosopher, dramatist and propagandist—“the greatest amuser of his age” and the greatest polemicist—became obsessed with the case, and for years worked to eradicate what he considered to be a stain on his country, church, and courts.
Finally, a panel of forty judges sat in Paris to hear the case against Calas once again. The verdict they issued, 250 years ago this week, “echoed and re-echoed” in Europe and beyond. Voltaire, by appealing directly to the people, helped established the power of public opinion as a tool to fight injustice. To some legal scholars, the infamous case also marked the first stirrings of the global movement to end capital punishment. Read More