On this day - 9th Mar 1765: Jean Calas pardoned

250 years ago today a man called Jean Calas was posthumously pardoned for the murder of his son. 


Public Doman via Wikimedia Commons

In 1761 Jean Calas son, Marc-Antoine, was found dead, hanged by the neck, and although the family initially blamed an unknown murderer, they later admitted that Marc-Antoine had committed suicide. Suicide in 18th century France was a serious crime which brought great shame on the family of the victim and so they had attempted to pass it off as a murder to prevent Marc-Antoine’s body being defiled and his soul damned. Shortly after the revelation of the suicide the Calas family was brought into custody. In a shocking twist however it not for attempting to conceal the suicide of Marc-Antoine but in fact because his father, Jean Calas, was now suspected of his murder. 

The shock and grief to the family was very great indeed but despite being frequently and horribly tortured, Jean Calas never ceased protesting his innocence. Less than five months after his son’s death, on 9th March 1762, Jean Calas was sentenced to be broken on the wheel. He was executed the following day. How could such a sophisticated legal system come to this conclusion? Particularly when taking into account the overwhelming evidence, consistently presented from many quarters, that it had in fact been suicide. Voltaire later used his considerable influence to have the sentence overturned and the family’s fortunes restored to them, alongside considerable compensation for what had occurred. On 9th March 1765 Jean Calas was officially pardoned but although his family benefitted greatly by this turn of events, it could have no effect on him, he had already been dead for three years. 

Carmontelle - Calas

The Unfortunate Calas Family
By Jean-Baptiste Delafosse (1721-1775) after Carmontelle (Louis Carrogis, 1717–1806) (Bibliothèque nationale de France [1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Such a miscarriage of justice can be addressed in part by examining the complicated religious situation in France at the time of Jean Calas’ trial. Jean Calas was a Protestant in a predominately Catholic country. Although Protestants were no longer being openly persecuted, they were by no means accepted. To complicate matters even more, one of Jean Calas’ other sons had recently converted to Catholicism, to the displeasure of his family. Marc-Antoine had appeared to be following suit just before this death and it was supposed that Jean had killed him upon discovering his desire to abandon the Protestant faith. The crippling gambling debts Marc-Antoine had accumulated and consequent failure at university which threatened his whole livelihood was barely taken into account. 

Jean Calas is visited in his cell by his family as a warder Wellcome V0039242

Jean Calas is visited in his cell by his family as a warder loosens the shackles on his leg and a man in a cowl enters the room.
Engraving by Andreas Leonhard Moeglich after Daniel Chodowiecki.
V0039242 Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org 1790 Published: 1790 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

It would be a sad thing to say that Jean Calas died, indirectly, because of his faith. An even sadder thing that he was deliberately accused  and executed because of religious intolerance. But the saddest thing of all, I believe, is the barbaric manner of his death. This was after all only 250 years ago. It was not millennia ago, it was not even the medieval era. This was only 250 years ago. It was during the “Enlightenment” for goodness sake! During this period human thought and understanding was making leaps and bounds forward. Philosophers and thinkers all over Europe were advocating humanity. These people thought in very similar ways to ourselves. The elite of society who wrote and enforced the laws were for the most part intelligent thinkers. Yet this is what they decreed. That a  64 year old man was to be strapped to a large wheel and physically beaten with iron bars until his limbs gave way (the gaps between the spokes providing the means). His body was broken and he was left to die of shock, pain and exhaustion. There were cases when it took a man four whole days to die. Even if Jean Calas had been definitely, irrevocably guilty, this legal form of brutality must surely be every bit as barbaric as murder. “Enlightenment” hardly seems the appropriate word.


Death of Jean Calas
Public Doman via Wikimedia Commons

Execution in various forms, both “humane” and horrific, still takes place around the world today. Arguments in favour of it range from justice for victims and their families to being a deterrent for other would-be criminals. Execution has been in existence for millennia. So has crime. Unless I’ve missed something, execution has not stopped crime yet and, having researched the account of the death of Jean Calas and others executed on the wheel, I think there is strong argument for execution being seen as a crime itself. Who has the right to decide who lives or dies? Once it is done, it cannot be undone. It is this fact that is so doubly sad in Jean Calas’ case. He died, not only for a crime he did not commit, but also five months after the horrific grief of losing a child in tragic circumstances. He should have experienced the compassion not the condemnation of society. In the hurry to uphold law and justice an innocent man was sent to his death. How many more must die before this is universally understood as wrong?

© Isla Robertson 2017