Today I tell a sad and grisly tale of torture, as domestic disputes and religious intolerance combined to form a heady, violent brew. On 10th March 1762 a protestant merchant died in agony on the wheel, bringing to a close days of torture and horrifying one of the great thinker of France into action.
Jean Calas lived in Toulouse with his prosperous family, Huguenots in a largely Roman Catholic nation. Like all families, life was not always perfect in the Calas household and in the mid 1750s one of the merchant's sons, Louis, converted to Catholicism. Although this must have been no small upheaval, Louis remained in the bosom of his family and all was quiet for several years until, in 1761, tragedy struck.
The body of Marc-Antoine Calas, another of the merchant's sons, was found dead in a private area of his father's shop. Immediately rumours began to spread that Calas had murdered his son in order to prevent another embarrassing conversion to the state faith. Believing that their son had hung himself to escape gambling debts the family took a risk and lied to save his name, claiming that he had been murdered by an unknown assailant. This only added fuel to the fire that Calas was the perpetrator and he quickly recanted, explaining that he had found Marc-Antoine hanged and, desperate to see his son given a proper burial, simply fabricated a story to save the young man's name. This version of events was confirmed by Jeanne Vigneire, a member of domestic staff who happened to be a Catholic but her words fell on deaf ears as the powers of the state moved against the Calas family.
|The cruel death of Calas, who was broke on the wheel at Toulouse, March 9th, 1762|
However, the case had reached the attention of Voltaire who saw only that a man had been heinously wronged on account of his religious beliefs. Firmly of the opinion that the protestant Calas had died as a result of anti-Huguenot fervour, he took the case before Louis XV, pleading on behalf of the dead man. The king granted the bereaved family an audience and, two years after Calas was executed, his sentence was annulled. The magistrate who had presided over the case was removed from office and a posthumous retrial was held, which found Calas innocent of all the charges laid before him. Reunited, Calas's family received over 30,000 francs in compensation as the city of Toulouse reflected on the sad case of Jean Calas.