CALAS, Huguenot cloth merchant whose execution caused the philosopher
Voltaire to lead a campaign for religious toleration and reform
of the French criminal code.
Oct. 13, 1761, Calas's eldest son, MarcAntoine, was found hanged
in his father's textile shop in Toulouse. Anti-Huguenot hysteria
broke out among the local Roman Catholic populace, and Calas was
arrested and charged with having murdered his son to prevent or
punish his conversion to Catholicism. At first he attributed the
crime to an unknown intruder, but he later insisted that his son
had committed suicide. Found guilty by the local magistrates,
he was condemned to death by the Parlement (appellate court) of
Toulouse on March 9, 1762. The following day he was publicly broken
on the wheel, strangled, and then burned to ashes. His son was
buried as a martyr to the Catholic faith.
friends of the family in Geneva interested Voltaire in the case,
and through a vigorous press campaign the philosopher convinced
large segments of European public opinion that Calas's judges
had allowed their anti-Huguenot prejudices to influence their
verdict. As a result, a 50-judge panel was appointed to review
the case. The panel reversed Calas's conviction on March 9, 1765,
and the government paid the family an indemnity. The Calas affair
greatly strengthened the movement for criminal law reform and
religious toleration in France, but the actual reforms were not
instituted until the 1780s.