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In Paris with a Murderess

Drama of historical proportions, an awesome guide, and games and challenges, what more could a teen on vacation ask for? In Beware Madame La Guillotine (Time Traveler Tours, LLC) Sarah Towle offers iPhone and iPod users a tour through the streets of Paris with stops at the sites associated with the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror. Their guide? Charlotte Corday, the 24-year-old from Normandy who killed journalist and Jacobin leader Jean-Paul Marat in his bath in 1793.

A storyteller’s pacing, choice details, archival images, and music punctuate and propel Corday’s gripping first-person narration and tour forward. En route, listeners can stop to access travel directions, street and site maps, and related information about people and the times, and “challenges” that will encourage them to observe their surroundings.

When asked about this production, Towle, who conceived, wrote, and narrated Mme la Guillotine, noted, “There’s a lot out there in the travel literature for younger kids, ages 3-12, mostly in the form of enriching activities to keep them occupied as Mom and Dad take in the sites. But ‘tweens and teens have thus far been overlooked by the genre. And yet, at their age, they have perhaps the most to be gained by the travel experience….I wanted to create something expressly for them.”

Towle’s first attempt at a “new generation of travel guide” that would illuminate history through “the stories of lesser-known individuals,” was a book. “I figured if I could make the French Revolution accessible to young people, all other tours would be a piece of cake.” She piloted her guide with a group of teens, only to discover it was “cumbersome.”

“That was right about the time that Apple released the iPhone. The first time I held the device in my hand I knew that I had found the perfect medium for my project.” In the interview below Towle presents background on the app’s creation and reflects on digital media and storytelling.

Screen shot from 'Beware Madame La Guillotine' (Towle) produced by Time Traveler Tours, LLC

Paris during  the Reign of Terror through the eyes and words of Charlotte Corday, was an inspired decision. Did you begin your project thinking Corday would be our guide?
Charlotte found me. She was lurking everywhere in the history of the French Revolution, mentioned, referred to, but not fully formed. She grabbed hold of my imagination and would not let go. She wanted her story told. She needn’t have worried. The moment I met her, I knew she was the one. And she made it very easy for me to write Mme la Guillotine. Her story is just that compelling!

The app has all the hallmarks of a dramatist’s touch—the pacing, the music, the compelling details, the tension moving the narration forward, and those “bloody knives” listeners must touch to advance the story. Can you talk about some of the decisions that went into making an app for teens?
Teens are some of the smartest people on the planet. They are not easily fooled. They hate being spoken down to and they detest moralizing. They can be resistant to the suggestions of adults….For all these reasons, they need to be hooked right away and drawn in. All this influenced the making of Mme la Guillotine.

To start, the choice of narrator was very important. Charlotte is perfect because she’s beautiful and well educated; she’s relatable. Yet she committed a heinous crime. She was not much older than her intended audience when she killed a man and then was herself killed by decapitation. We want to know what would drive a 24-year-old to both murder and self-sacrifice, at least I did. We want to find out how she did it and if she felt it was worth it. Her story allows us to grapple with such age-old issues as whether violence is ever justified. It opens doors without drawing any obvious conclusions.

The details you present are incredibly vivid—the description of Marat’s skin disease; an account of Charlotte Corday washing her soiled dress, so she would not be executed with the “blood of a madman” on her clothing; and the story of Marie Antoinette’s body  “unceremoniously dumped” after her death.
Although this iteration of Mme la Guillotine is intended to be used [by tourists], the most important part of the project to my mind is the story.

Unfortunately, of the millions of apps that have come to market, few are worth buying and will not endure. The bells and whistles vie for our attention for a little while, but it’s good content that rises from the pack every time. Everyone loves a good story. And what I find particularly exciting about the new digital media is that they give us the opportunity to bring the literate and oral story traditions together in the same place at the same time.

You make so many fascinating connections for students during the tour and in the side notes, for example, the connection between “le haute cuisine” and the revolution and the origins of the political labels, left, center, and right. I was fascinated by the story of Marie Grosholz (known to us today as Madame Tussand) who was forced to sculpt a decapitated head.
There’s so much about Marie [Grosholz]’s story that I had to leave out, sadly. But hopefully you, as well as the youth who engage with the app, will be compelled to go searching for more information!

One of my intentions with this project is that users of all ages and stages will find their own fit with the app….The story is linear, but how you choose to experience the app and consume the history related to the story is up to you. That’s another thing I find exciting about this medium. It gives us the opportunity to interact with story, and each other, in myriad ways.

While the app does go into detail about the causes of the revolution and the Royalist and Republican sympathies, I suspect that students who have had no other introduction to the period may be surprised by what they learn in the epilogue, specifically the public’s reaction to Corday’s murder of Marat, and what happened to her sworn enemies, George Danton and Maximillien Robespierre, among others.
Yes, I think Charlotte would have been surprised at how her story ended as well. How could she have known that her efforts to stop the Reign of Terror would backfire so spectacularly? As the author, this was a big challenge for me. Once I chose to relate the story in the first person through the eyes and voice of Charlotte, there were things I could not tell for there were things she could not know. Like the fact that she targeted the wrong man; or that she killed a dying man, thus turning him into a martyr; and that the men she was trying to protect would be found and killed in large part due to her actions. I can only hope that the story sets you up for these surprises.

While this is a self-guided tour, I don’t think one has to be in Paris to take it. It would be a great introduction to the period for students who are reading Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, for example.
I agree…in addition to Dickens, there are wonderful connections to be made to the American Revolution, to Benjamin Franklin and Marquis de Lafayette, to the Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence. The app could also complement any survey of the history of ideas that includes the Enlightenment.

You end your tour with the comment that with no Royalists or Republicans left to rule the country power shifted to the army “in particular to a promising young general who had already distinguished himself in battle against the Austrian and Prussian Empires.…who went by the name of Napoleon Bonaparte.” The way the information is presented, it’s almost a teaser. Does this mean there is another production underway?
Yes, I have three more StoryApp Tours in development. We’re working simultaneously on the story tours that precede and follow Charlotte’s. Long Live the King’s Garden takes you to the Versailles Gardens during France’s ancien régime in the company of the Chief Botanist to the King, a real-life Indiana Jones. Day of the Dead follows Charlotte’s story tour into the Napoleonic era with gravedigger, Jean-Philippe Toulier, who was responsible for creating the Paris Catacombs and cemeteries. Then comes a journey to the Romantic era with [Félix] Nadar, France’s first photographer. I’m writing that one now and having a ball with it. Nadar is every bit as interesting as Charlotte.

But before we produce these StoryApp tours, we intend to re-launch Mme la Guillotine in a bilingual (French-English) version for both iOS and Android.

Eds. note: There are also plans to re-package Mme la Guillotine “as a virtual tour for use on the home computer or school smart board.”


  1. Great interview I am a big fan of sarah.


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