Prominent cloth merchant Jean Calas from Toulouse, France was executed 252 years ago today. His execution led to an intervention by the respected and influential philosopher Voltaire and prompted a campaign for religious toleration and reform of the French criminal code.
How did this no-name from nowhere town get these reformation wheels a-turnin'?
On October 13th, 1761, Calas' oldest son, MarcAntoine, was found hanging in his father's textile shop from an apparent suicide. As suicide was considered a crime at the time, Calas said the death was instead a homicide by an intruder to protect his son's body from being defiled. Changing his story shortly afterwards (after all, how many hangings are a result of an intruder homicide?) Calas explained that MarcAntoine's death was indeed a suicide.
Despite the overwhelming evidence that the cause of death was suicide (MarcAntoine was said to have inescapable problems such as gambling debts and issues with his schooling that he was unable to cope with), Calas found himself in the middle of a religious predicament. Calas was a Huguenot (member of the Protestant Reformed Church of France) living in a time when Catholicism was the state religion. When it became known that MarcAntoine expressed desire to convert to Catholicism right before his death, Calas was arrested and charged with murdering his son as punishment for not "honouring thy mother and thy father." Do Protestants believe in the Ten Commandments? Anyways. They say Calas was pissed and wanted vengeance.
The 64 year old Calas was tortured and condemned to death by a vote of 8 to 5. He was sentenced "to break upon the wheel" a.k.a. being tied to a wooden wheel and having all your limbs bashed in by an iron hammer. Throughout his torture, Calas retained his innocence. After Calas' death upon the wheel, the property of his family was confiscated. His daughters were forced into a convent and his remaining sons escaped to Switzerland. MarcAntoine was henceforth considered a martyr to the Catholic faith.
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Word spread to Enlightenment writer, Voltaire, who was France's leading advocate of freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and separation of church of state. Voltaire waged a press campaign against Calas' Catholic judges who he claimed were prejudice against Huguenots. After a lengthy review, the verdict was reversed three years later. Calas' name was clear, the remaining property was restored to the family, and nearly 36,000 francs was gifted to them by King Louis XV.