The Papin Sisters: France's Crime of the Century

Jun 19, 2010 - by Jessica Mason

the Papin sisters

The Papin sisters

The strange case of the Papin sisters is notable not only for its shocking violence but because the gender of both the perpetrators and victims was female. The case became a media sensation in France with its lurid undertones of lesbianism and incest; the motive for the crime was never quite clarified – was it simply raving madness or was it the calculated (and some would say righteous) revenge of two working-class girls against their oblivious employers?

by Jessica Mason

The Papin Family 

Even by the hardscrabble standards of early 20th century French peasant life, Christine and Léa Papin experienced a particularly dismal childhood. Their father Gustave was an abusive alcoholic and their mother Clémence was a flighty and promiscuous woman with little maternal instinct who, in 1901, was forced to marry their father only because she was pregnant with their first child, Émilia. After her second child Christine was born in 1905, Clémence decided that she could not handle two children and sent the baby off to live with Gustave’s sister. In 1911, Clémence bore a third child, Léa. Soon after the birth of Léa, Clémence discovered that her husband had raped their eldest daughter, Émilia, who at the time was only 10 years old.

Clémence immediately sought and obtained a divorce from Gustave. Her actions, however, were not taken out of concern for her daughter's welfare, but a desire to punish her husband for his infidelity. Clémence apparently believed that Émilia had seduced her father and in order to discipline her, sent her to an orphanage, run by the convent of Le Bon Pasteur, that was known for its harshness. In addition, she pulled Christine out of the care of her aunt and also placed her in Le Bon Pasteur. She also relieved herself of the burden of caring for Léa, who was but a toddler at the time, by giving her over to the care of a great uncle.

Émilia and Christine grew very close to each other in the orphanage and when Émilia became a nun as soon as she was old enough Christine had every intention of following in her sister’s footsteps. However, Clémence, who was depending on her daughters to help support her as soon as they were legally able to work was furious with Émilia for denying her a third of that potential income and forbade Christine from doing the same. She immediately pulled Christine out of Le Bon Pasteur and found her work as a maid in the bourgeois households of Le Mans. Because the sisters of Le Bon Pasteur had tutored her in cleaning, mending and cooking, she was very well-suited to the life of a domestic worker. However, Christine changed employers many times in the first years of her career because the wages they paid were never enough to suit her mother.  Like her older sister, Léa was taken from the care of her relative and put to work as soon as she was able and the two sisters, who though they had been separated, were still very fond of each other and attempted to work together whenever possible.

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