Jean Calas  

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"By the mid- 1760s, after the affaire Calas, Voltaire and his informed contemporaries expressed the confident belief that torture and other bestialities practiced on subjects or enemies were passing forever from civilized society. Like the Black Death and the burning of witches, these somber atavisms from primitive and prerational ages would not survive the new temper of European enlightenment. Secularization was the key. Torture and the annihilation of hu- man communities, argued the philosophes, sprang directly from religious dogmatism." --In Bluebeard's Castle (1971) by George Steiner

"In this strange incident we have to deal with religion, suicide, and parricide. The question was, Whether a father and mother had strangled their son to please God, a brother had strangled his brother, and a friend had strangled his friend; or whether the judges had incurred the reproach of breaking on the wheel an innocent father, or of sparing a guilty mother, brother, and friend." --Treatise on Tolerance (1763) by Voltaire

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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. Calas was a Protestant in an officially Catholic society. Doubts about his guilt were raised by opponents of the Catholic Church 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 Catholic country; Catholicism was the state religion. While the harsh repression of Protestantism initiated by King Louis XIV had largely receded, Protestants were, at best, tolerated. Louis, one of the Calas' sons, converted to Catholicism in 1756. On October 13-October 14, 1761, another of the Calas' sons, Marc-Antoine, was found dead on the ground floor of the familial 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 marauder. 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.

On March 9, 1762, the parlement (appellate court) of Toulouse sentenced Jean Calas to death on the wheel. On March 10, he died tortured on the wheel, while still very firmly claiming his innocence. Voltaire, contacted about the case, after initial suspicions that Calas was guilty of anti-Catholic fanaticism had subsided, began a campaign to get Calas' sentence overturned.

On March 9, 1765, Jean Calas was found not guilty.

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