Jean Calas (1698 – March 10, 1762) was a merchant living in Toulouse, France, who was tried, tortured and executed for the murder of his son, despite his protestations of innocence. Due to Calas being a Protestant in an officially Roman Catholic society doubts were raised about his guilt and he was exonerated in 1764. In France, he became a symbolic victim of religious intolerance, along with François-Jean de la Barre and Pierre-Paul Sirven.
Calas, along with his wife, was a Protestant. France was then a mostly Roman Catholic country; Catholicism was the state religion, with no legal right for individuals to practice different faiths. While the harsh oppression of Protestantism initiated by King Louis XIV had largely receded, Protestants were, at best, tolerated. Louis, one of the Calas's sons, converted to Catholicism in 1756.
Death of Marc-Antoine Calas
On 13–14 October 1761, another of the Calas sons, Marc-Antoine, was found dead on the ground floor of the family's home. Rumors had it that Jean Calas had killed his son because he, too, intended to convert to Catholicism. The family, interrogated, first claimed that Marc-Antoine had been killed by a murderer. Then they declared that they had found Marc-Antoine dead, hanged; since suicide was then considered a heinous crime against oneself, and the dead bodies of suicides were defiled, they had arranged for their son's suicide to look like a murder.
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Trial and execution
Despite overwhelming evidence that the death was a suicide, including the testimony of Jeanne Vigneire, Calas' Catholic governess, the court in Toulouse held that Jean Calas had murdered his son. Calas was tortured in an attempt to get him to admit that he was guilty. His arms and legs were stretched until they pulled out of their sockets. Thirty pints (more than 17 litres) of water were poured down his throat. He was tied to a cross in the cathedral square where each of his limbs were broken twice by an iron bar. Yet with all this torture he continued to declare his innocence.
On March 9, 1762 the parlement (regional legislature that also tried cases) of Toulouse sentenced Jean Calas to death on the wheel. On March 10, at the age of 64, he died tortured on the wheel, while still very firmly claiming his innocence.
Voltaire's intervention and posthumous exoneration
French philosopher Voltaire was contacted about the case, and after initial suspicions that Calas was guilty of anti-Catholic fanaticism were dispelled by his investigations, he began a campaign to get Calas' sentence overturned, claiming that Marc-Antoine had committed suicide because of gambling debts and not being able to finish his university studies due to his confession. Voltaire's efforts were successful, and King Louis XV received the family and had the sentence annulled in 1764. The king fired the chief magistrate of Toulouse, the Capitoul, the trial was done over by a fair court, and in 1765 Jean Calas was posthumously exonerated on all charges, with the family paid 36,000 francs by the king in compensation. Voltaire used the case to blast the Church for its intolerant and fanatical views in his 1763 work Treatise on Tolerance.
- Buttinger, Sabine (2012). "1762, 10. März: Ein Justiskandal". Damals (in German). Vol. 44 no. 3. p. 9.
- Goldstone (2002). Out of the Flames. p. 256.
- l'Affaire Calas (in French)
- Voltaire's Traité sur la Tolérance à l'occasion de la mort de Jean Calas (in French)
- Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "The Calas Case". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Calas, Jean". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.