October 07, 2007
Main street, village of Villeneuve-sur-Yonne. It was here that Dr. Petiot murdered for the first time.
Sixty-one years after Dr. Marcel Petiot, dubbed "Dr. Satan" by French newspapers, was guillotined for the murder of 26 people, he remains France's most prolific murderer.
"Gentlemen, don't look, this won't be very pretty." It was one minute before five on a spring morning in Paris. Marcel Petiot, a physician by profession, was living his last few minutes on earth. The men he had addressed those words to gave no indication that they had heard him. They had come to watch, to witness the guillotine make him pay for his crimes. They were wishing that they were elsewhere, anywhere, but not there in the front courtyard – the cour d'honneur or ceremonial courtyard, as it was known - of La Santè prison on Paris's Left Bank.
Some of the men had been on the prosecution team that had decided that "Dr. Satan," as the media had dubbed Petiot, was to die; others had been on his defense team. Present also were a couple of prison warders, a couple of uniformed policemen, the prison chaplain, and Paris's chief medical examiner and autopsy surgeon, Dr. Albert Paul. The latter would have to verify, after the guillotine's lethal caress, that the recipient had not survived. Dr. Paul would never tire of saying that he found having to do that such an unnecessary thing – as if anyone could survive the guillotine.
It was May 25, 1946: a Saturday morning. Dr. Petiot, 49, had stood trial at the Assize Court at the Palais de Justice for the murder of 27 people. He had been found guilty of the murder of 26. The police had thought, though, that he had murdered many more: 200 was the number they suggested. "To be on the safe side, I'll settle for 150," one of the police investigators had said.
As required by French law, on the opening morning of the trial, the judge who was to preside over the proceedings (Marcel Leser) had confronted Petiot in an ante-chamber. "You are going to be tried for the premeditated assassination of 27 people. If you are found guilty you will be executed by guillotine," he had warned. "Not 27," Petiot had replied, arrogance in his voice. "I liquidated 63 persons, but all were enemies of France!" "Very well, Petiot, but we will start with 27 and the verdict may do for the others as well," Leser had retorted.
Whether Dr. Petiot had killed 26, 27, 63, 150, 200 or more, he holds the title, if "title" is the word, of France's Most Prolific Murderer. How he had killed his victims, the police and pathologists had been unable to establish, but they had thought that after their deaths he had decapitated them before he had cut off their limbs, doing both in a most skilful manner. He had then mutilated the severed heads before scalping them and cutting away the eyebrows, lips and ears. He had also disemboweled the bodies. Then, finally, he had tried to get rid of the remains with fire and quicklime.
Marcel André Henri Félix Petiot was born on Jan. 17, 1897, in the town of Auxerre (pronounced Oser) in the wine-making county of Burgundy. He was his parents' first child and for 12 years, until the birth of his brother Maurice, he remained the only one. Félix and Clémence Petiot were both postal workers: She sorted the mail and he laid telephone lines and installed telephone exchanges. His work often took him away from home, a three-storied terraced house at No 100 Rue de Paris, Auxerre's main street. When Marcel, a beautiful, bright, loveable, loving child with wavy black hair and black eyes was 2 years old, Clémence decided that she wanted to accompany her husband on his trips. The boy was therefore sent to live with Clémence's elder sister, Henriette Bourdon. Bourdon was a spinster and she shared her home with Marie Gaston, also a spinster and described as Bourdon's "maid."
The two women knew nothing about bringing up a child, especially not one as lively and inquisitive as their charge turned out to be. Over the years, they would tell stories about him. They said he sulked; he threw tantrums; he pulled their hair; he bit them; he trampled on the flowers in their garden; he impaled insects on their knitting needles; he imprisoned tiny birds and did not feed them so that he could watch them die of starvation, though, some days he did let a bird go free but not before he had stuck pins into its eyes to blind it. And, they said, he smothered his cat, after he had unsuccessfully tried to drown it in broiling water. They also said that he was incontinent of both the bladder and bowl.
Later in life, as an adult, Petiot had things to say about the two spinsters as well. He said that whenever they thought he had been naughty they had dragged him off to early morning mass, and they had kept the garden gate locked at all times. Those early morning masses would turn him into an atheist: (When the prison chaplain offered him the last rites on the morning of his execution, he turned it down with the words, "No thank you. I am an infidel.") As for the locked gate: He never locked a door, or at least, he only ever locked one door, the front door of the Paris townhouse where he murdered his unsuspecting victims.
Petiot had his first brush with the law at the age of 17, two years after his mother died of cancer at age 36. He was caught stealing letters from mailboxes. He had made a kind of fishing rod – a stick with glue at one end – with which he nabbed the letters from the boxes. Police thought he was looking for money or money-orders he could cash. A child psychologist examined him and diagnosed hereditary mental problems. Félix Petiot, his father, was furious: "There is no insanity in the Petiot family and neither is there in the Bourdon family!" he fumed, defending his son in a backhanded way.
The psychologist's diagnosis of mental problems saved the teenage Petiot from reform school, but as his own school expelled him, he continued to study at home for his baccalauriat school-leaving diploma. Within two years he received it with a mark of honors. Proudly, he announced to his father that he wanted to study medicine. Félix Petiot laughed in his son's face: He believed his son would never amount to anything in life. But World War I was raging and the teenager, patriotic, enrolled. Later he would make certain that everyone understood that he had not waited to be called up like a coward, but that he had enrolled.
Petiot's military career was turbulent. He spent most of it – the years from 1915 to 1921 – in mental asylums, and he even did a stint in prison for having stolen army-issue blankets from one of the asylums. His mental problems resurfaced when he was hospitalized for a shrapnel wound in his left foot, a scar he proudly bore until the day he died. (Later, with Petiot on trial, Paris journalists would speculate over whether the injury was self-inflicted.)
At the beginning of 1922, Petiot arrived back in Auxerre. He had good news for his family. He was no longer just plain Monsieur Petiot: He was Monsieur le docteur Petiot, a physician. He did not show them a medical diploma, only a letter from the Paris Medical Faculty attesting that he had passed his medical thesis with honors. Up to this day, it remains a mystery how he could have studied medicine when he was in and out of mental asylums from 1915 to 1921. Even if he had benefited from the shortened and accelerated study programs which had been made available to ex-servicemen, it would still have been hard, if not impossible, for him or anyone else to obtain a medical degree in just short of two years. In 1919 he had still been in the army; in 1920 he had been institutionalized in a mental asylum in the town of Orléans, yet, if he was to be believed in December 1921, he was a "medical graduate."
Dr. Petiot, now 26, opened a practice in the village of Villeneuve-sur-Yonne - Villeneuve on the Yonne River, 27 miles from Auxerre. In 1923 it was home to 2,000 rural souls who lived in centuries-old stone houses. With his dark hair, dark eyes and a beauty spot on his right cheek, he was a good-looking man. Such looks – he looked remarkably like Johnny Depp – made him an instant success in the village. He also quickly earned the reputation of being a brilliant doctor. His patients said that he knew what was wrong with them before they had even described their symptoms. He would say, "You were treated by a stupid ass before, but you don't have to say another word as I know exactly what is ailing you." Within days a patient felt better. One such patient was Frascot, owner of the local bistro. Frascot suffered from rheumatoid arthritis: He said that for the first time in years he was able to walk upright again.
Established, Petiot took a lover, Louise Delaveau. She told a friend in the village that she was pregnant, but that Petiot wanted to perform an abortion on her. Louise disappeared mysteriously. When the headless body of a woman was fished from the Yonne River, the villagers said it was Delaveau's body and that Petiot had done her in. The local pandore – this is what the French call members of the Gendarmerie Nationale, the militarized police who are responsible for policing countryside areas and towns with less than 20,000 inhabitants – did not investigate, claiming a lack of sufficient evidence.
Despite the rumors, Petiot ran a successful campaign for mayor. Once in the town hall, he decided that he needed a wife. He found her – the 23-year-old petite, elegant, Georgette Lablais. Her father, Georges Nestor Lablais, was a successful Paris restaurateur, nicknamed "Long Arm." Lablais always boasted, "J'ai le bras long"! – "My arm is long"! - in other words, "I have clout"! Ten months later, on April 19, 1928, the couple's only child, Gerhardt Claude Georges Félix, was born.
Then, one night, a fire broke out at the local dairy. On the premises lived the owners, the Debauves. When flames were first seen shooting from the roof of the couple's home, Monsieur Debauve was having a drink at Frascot's bistro. Henriette, his wife, was home cooking dinner. When firefighters entered the burning house, they found her lifeless body lying on the kitchen floor. She had obviously been murdered: Her head was bashed in. Again, the local gendarme did not believe that he could successfully investigate the woman's murder.
Next, Frascot died suddenly. He collapsed after Petiot had given him a shot for a recurring bout of his rheumatoid arthritis. Frascot had told his patrons that he knew who had bashed Henriette Debauve's head in. It was Dr. Petiot. According to Frascot, the doctor and Henriette had been lovers.
In 1933, the three Petiots moved to Paris. The doctor left a string of accusations and court appearances on charges of theft behind in Villeneuve-sur-Yonne – he had been stealing from the town hall's coffers. In Paris, he quickly built up a prosperous practice. He had made certain that it would be so. On his arrival in the capital, he had distributed leaflets in which he made the most incredible claims. He advertised a fleet of ambulances and every modern item of medical equipment one could think of; he could cure all mental illnesses; he could cure cancer; he had a revolutionary treatment for all gynecological and drug problems. His treatment for gynecological ills was abortion; his treatment for drug addiction was to give the user whatever drug he or she craved. With his waiting room each day filled with patients in search of such "revolutionary" treatments, he could soon afford to invest in real estate. He even bought an entire apartment building where he had 21 tenants.
In September 1939, France and Britain declared war on Nazi Germany. In June 1940, France capitulated and was occupied by the Boches – this was the derogatory name the French had bestowed on the Germans during World War I and which they revived for World War II. The French government having fled, Hitler annexed that part of France that bordered Germany, and handed the area bordering Italy over to Benito Mussolini, his ally in Rome, while he divided what was left of the country into a northern occupied zone and a southern theoretically free zone, named Vichy-France after the new capital, the spa-town, Vichy. The northern zone – which included Paris – became known as Occupied France. The defeated French army was reduced to peace-keeping under German control and the police and the gendarmerie abandoned their autonomy to take orders from the Gestapo – in fact, the entire French legal machine abandoned its autonomy with judges swearing allegiance to Hitler.
While many Parisians fled the city and its new rulers, the Petiots remained behind. The doctor was virulently anti-Boches, but because of his World War I injury he would not be mobilized. He told his family that he would never let them suffer because of the war; he would provide for them. He already had a bike (he had painted it green) and now he bought a cart. Gasoline was being rationed and a man needed a cart to get his black-market purchases home. He also bought a large townhouse in Paris's elegant 16th arrondissement, the Champs-Elysées a stone's throw away. Real estate had become bargain buys because those fleeing needed cash. That the house at Number 21 Rue le Sueur was quite dilapidated – it had stood uninhabited for a few years – did not bother him; he could afford to have renovation work done.
The renovation work consisted of adding several feet to the property's back wall, converting an outhouse into a doctor's surgery, and transforming another outhouse into a small, triangular chamber. He asked the builders he had hired to do the work to cover one of the chamber's walls with a fake padded door, to fasten large metal rings to a second wall, and to insert a glass peephole in the third. He planned to open a mental asylum was his explanation for such strange requests. As he would be giving electro-shock treatment, he explained further, the padded door was necessary to soundproof the room or the cries of his patients would disturb the neighbors. The rings were for hanging equipment and he needed the peephole to make sure that nothing went wrong during the treatments.
Georgette Petiot did not like the idea of her husband opening a mental clinic. He had, she told him, enough work as it was. "If you do, Gerhardt and I will never see you," she said. She loved her husband dearly.
Petiot did not open a mental clinic: The townhouse was to serve another purpose. One March night of 1944, the Paris police would start to unravel what exactly he had been up to since he had bought the townhouse back in October 1941. On that night – it was March 11, a Saturday – neighbors had called police to Rue le Sueur because for five days a foul smoke had been pouring from the townhouse's chimney. Two patrolmen and some firefighters entered the house through a ground-floor window. What they found at the house was beyond belief. Human remains were being incinerated in an old water-boiler in a basement room. In the triangular room, at the back of the property, they found more human remains being devoured in a pit filled with quicklime. L'Affaire Petiot – the Petiot Case – had begun. Leading it was Commissioner Georges-Victor Massu, chief of the Paris criminal police based at No. 36 Quay des Orfèvres and known as "The Quay." But Petiot was on the run. So was Georgette Petiot, but she was arrested within days hiding out in Auxerre. "Marcel is the most kind, loving husband, father and doctor," she told Massu. He could never, she said, have killed anyone.
Petiot was to remain on the run for seven months. He laid low with a past acquaintance, a housepainter and gullible man, who believed that Petiot was a brave Resistance hero and French patriot.
Over those seven months Commissioner Massu would hear of how a man had been visiting the uninhabited townhouse for the previous two years. This man had come to the house either on foot or on a green bike. On some of the days when he was on foot, he had brought other people with him. Those people had never been seen again. They must, though, have stayed on at the house because noises had come from it. Strange noises: crying, banging. One night, a neighbor, walking past the house after the night-time curfew had already sounded, had even heard a man's voice calling out. Just one word: "Help!" The man on the green bike was Dr. Marcel Petiot. He was invariably described by his cronies, patients, wife and family as "respectable," "respected," "loving," "kind," "a wonderful husband, father and family physician," and "totally innocent of the crimes he was being accused of."
The story of Dr. Marcel Petiot's life and crimes that Massu was to put together chilled him, and everyone else, to the bone.
Petiot, a poor man's son, craved wealth, wealth and respectability. He believed that respectability was wealth's natural companion. He had already made a pretty packet from doing abortions and supplying drugs, but once the Germans had occupied Paris, he hit on the idea of pretending that he was a member of the French Resistance and that he could assist people to flee France. He would charge them, charge them quite a bit. He would also tell them to bring along whatever they had that was valuable – gold bullion, jewels, fur coats – in order to set themselves up in their "new" country: Argentina. They would, though, be going nowhere, but only he would know that; only he would know that the offered "escape route" would begin and end at his townhouse. It was an idea, a plan, he just knew would make him a wealthy man, a wealthy and respected man. Forthwith, he claimed his Resistance nom de guerre was "Dr. Eugène" and he headed a Resistance cell code-named "Fly-Tox."
Petiot's first victim was a Polish-born Jewish furrier, his neighbor at the family apartment. His takings came to hundreds of thousands of francs in cash, several items of extremely expensive jewelry and three mink pelts. So easy was it to make so much money so rapidly, that he told two of his cronies, a certain Raoul Fourrier (a barber) and an Edmond Pintard (an out-of-work cabaret singer), of the "escape route." Could they send it "clients," he wanted to know. Sure they could, they told him, becoming his recruitment agents. He handed a percentage, only a small one though, of the fee he charged the "clients" over to the two. Other cronies also became recruitment agents. One was Eryane Kahan, a vivacious Romanian-born woman with hair dyed the color of vintage champagne. Fourrier and Pintard sent Petiot gangsters and their molls, all Gestapo informers but as scared of the Boches as any other Parisian. Kahan sent him Jews, Jews desperate to get away from the Nazis. Jewish herself, she defiantly refused to wear the obligatory yellow Star of David.
Petiot's killing spree had abruptly ended in May 1943; that was 10 months before the discovery of the human remains at his townhouse. It ended because one Robert Jodkum of IV-B4, the Jewish Affairs Department of the Gestapo, had learned from an informer that a "Dr. Eugène" was assisting people to flee from France. The informer also knew of Fourrier and Pintard and led the Gestapo to Fourrier's barbershop. It was at the barbershop that Petiot "collected" his victims to escort them to the townhouse. The two, once arrested, quickly revealed the true identity of "Dr. Eugène" and Petiot was arrested as well. The three were held for seven months at Fresnes prison south of Paris before they were released without charge. Maurice Petiot had bribed Jodkum to let his brother go, but no such bribe had been necessary for the release of the other two. Considered useless low-lifes, they were told they could go too.
On his release – that was in February 1944 – Petiot faced the task of "cleaning up" his townhouse. The Gestapo had tortured him, yet he had not broken down to admit running an "escape route" and neither had he revealed the existence of the townhouse. As far as cleaning up was concerned, he had a willing assistant, his brother Maurice who even supplied the quicklime. Maurice had been to the townhouse while the Gestapo was holding Dr. Petiot and had come across the bodies. Ashen in the face and unable to keep his discovery to himself, he had told a mutual friend, one René Nézondét, that bodies "as black as the black plague" were at his brother's house. Nézondét, shaking like a leaf in a strong wind, had also passed the terrible news on, telling his girlfriend and the girlfriend's friend. He had, as he was to tell Commissioner Massu later, even told Petiot's wife, Georgette, that her husband was killing people, informing Massu that she had fainted three times while listening to him.
Petiot was arrested on the last day of October that year of 1944. Paris had been liberated in August and the Germans had fled. As soon as firing had broken out in the capital, Petiot had left his hide-out and had joined the French Forces of the Interior (FFI), as the reconstructed French army was called, with false identity papers in the name of Dr. Henri Valeri. He was therefore arrested wearing the black armband of a Fifi, as FFI members were called. The arrest was made by a fellow Fifi: ironically, the man, a Collabo, was himself hiding out in the FFI and would make a runner soon afterwards.
There was yet another irony about Dr. Petiot's arrest. Massu was not the one at "The Quay" to slip the handcuffs over Petiot's wrists. The commissioner was himself under arrest, albeit house-arrest. He had been arrested on suspicion of having been a Collabo. It was said that he had deliberately gone slow with his investigation of Petiot as instructed by the Gestapo. That charge was later dropped, but not before an indignant Massu had tried to commit suicide by slashing his left wrist. The truth is of course that the French police were not allowed to act autonomously during the Occupation. Massu had to seek authorization for each and every action he wished to take to break the Petiot Case, or any other. He had to obtain such authorization from his immediate superior - Amédée Bussière, the politically-appointed Prefect of Paris who as chief of the police and the fire brigade was the guardian of law and order in Occupied Paris. Bussière, in turn, sought authorization from his superior – Count Ferdinand de Brinon, Vichy-France's General Delegate or ambassador to the German Military Government in Paris. De Brinon then did the same by requesting instructions from his superiors: his superiors were the Gestapo. (De Brinon would at the end of the war stand trial for "Collaboration with the Enemy." Convicted, he was shot. Bussière would face the same charge; convicted, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. Released in 1951, he died peacefully in his bed two years later.)
Petiot's interrogation lasted 11 months. During the first nine months he stuck to his claim that he was a "resistant" and that the cell of which he had been the head had "executed" Germans and French Collabos. "They were all bastards! They deserved what they got!" he said.
For the last two months he refused to reply to questions. On the first day of his "silence" he told the examining magistrate that he would not be answering any further question, and, from then on, his reply was always only "ditto." How many he had killed, how much money he had made out of his victims, indeed how he had killed them were therefore to remain a mystery; it remains so to this day.
The police and pathologists did, though, think that the most likely scenario was that he had first drugged his victims, then, he dictated letters they had to write to their families and friends to announce their safe arrival in Argentina. Next, he had probably given them another shot of some lethal substance, but decomposition, fire and quicklime had made it impossible to tell what that was.
The police did not, however, even try to establish how much Petiot had made from his victims. Journalists, though, estimated the amount to be many millions of francs. Georgette and Gerhardt had been ordered to pay FF1, 820, 000 ($172, 000 current value) restitution to the families of his victims. They paid only a fraction of this amount and after seven years, the families not having claimed the money, lost their right to it. (Georgette and Gerhardt had left France soon after Dr. Petiot's death. They went to a South American country. They never agreed to interviews.)
Having listened to the death sentence being pronounced without even blinking an eye, Petiot spent his final weeks doing embroidery, knitting, and reading. He had been an avid reader since his youth. He read mainly about murder and murderers. He also wrote a book, Le Hasard Vaincu – (Chance Defeated). It was about beating chance and winning at games like poker, yet he also philosophized in it. He wrote, "Not one of all the creations is happy with its lot. The stone is sad thinking of the oak which grows in the sun. The oak is sad when it thinks of the animals that it sees running in the shade of the woods. The animals are sad dreaming of the eagle soaring into the sky. And man is unhappy because he cannot understand why he has been put there … he is aware of all his imperfections." Georgette had the book printed in its handwritten form and Petiot took great pride in autographing it for those who had gone to assist at his trial. The book was an instant best-seller.
It was a long walk for Petiot from his cell to the guillotine. He was handcuffed and his legs were in chains. That was how he had also passed his nights in jail. The guillotine did its work swiftly and expertly. Dr. Albert Paul had to step up to Dr. Petiot's headless body, though, as tradition demanded, to announce him dead.
(Petiot's cronies – 11 had been arrested and this included Georgette and Maurice – were not prosecuted. The police concluded that they had not known what Petiot was up to and those who had known about the "escape route" had thought it was genuine. All but Maurice had faced a charge of receiving stolen property. Maurice had been charged with complicity to murder and had faced capital punishment. He was released because he was dying of stomach cancer. He died shortly after his brother had been guillotined. There had always been a very strong bond between the two brothers. Petiot was to say that until the birth of his little brother, he had loved no one, and until he had met his wife, the only other human being he had loved was his brother. Maurice was only 37.)
Asked, in the minutes before his neck was shaved in preparation for the guillotine's blow, whether he had anything to say, Petiot had replied: "No, I am one traveler who is taking all his baggage with him." So he did.