Thursday, June 24, 2010
The Lady Killer of France
The frightening fairytale of Bluebeard dates back to the seventeenth century. Penned by French writer Charles Perrault, the story begins with the inevitable “once upon a time” and details a man named Bluebeard who has married many women but all have disappeared. After meeting with his neighbor, a beautiful young woman, Bluebeard asks for her hand in marriage. She is hesitant, but is swept off her feet by his unmistakable charms. Soon after their marriage, Bluebeard is called away for business. He gives his new bride the keys to his castle, explaining that she may enter every room except for the basement. Alone in the castle, the woman turns the keys over and over in her hands, wondering if she should obey her husband. But curiosity consumes her and she eagerly rushes down the stairs to visit the forbidden and dark basement. Putting the key into the lock, she gingerly opens the heavy door. As her eyes adjust to the darkness, she slowly begins to see what her husband was hiding from her.
Hung from hooks on the wall are the rotting corpses of Bluebeard’s previous wives. The entire room is thick with the stench of death, and the ground is flooded with blood. In her haste to escape from the monstrosity, the young woman drops her keys. Retrieving them, she quickly shuts the door and flees from the basement. On the top of the stairs, she tries to catch her breath and steady her rapidly beating heart. When she looks at the keys in her shaking hands, she finds the keys covered in sticky and what seems to be fresh blood. The young woman washes them for an hour and soon discovers that the one key that will not wash clean is the basement key. It is stained dark red, and her attempt to rid the discolored key fail again and again.
Bluebeard arrives back at the castle early and greets his wife with a kiss and an embrace. When he finds the damning evidence that the forbidden key has been used, he becomes enraged and vows that his wife will soon join the others on a hook in the basement room. Bluebeard roughly drags his wife through the castle, intending to kill her upon reaching the basement. But the woman begs for mercy, asking her murderous husband to grant her fifteen minutes to pray to God. Bluebeard agrees and locks her in the highest tower of the castle, allowing him time to finely sharpen his knife.
In the deserted room, the young woman runs to the window where she immediately sees her two brothers riding their horses back to their home next to the castle. She is able to flag them down by waving her arms violently, and the two men hasten their arrival. When the fifteen minutes pass, Bluebeard opens the door and forces his wife down the stairs to the basement. Raising his knife in the air, he is interrupted by her two brothers who have quietly snuck in through the front door. They are able to disarm Bluebeard and after a short struggle, Bluebeard is killed by the two brothers. The young woman is freed from the castle and goes on to inherit the wealth of her late husband.
This children’s tale is known throughout history, the lesson presumably being that one should not heed the human instinct of curiosity, rather be cautious instead, for inside the door of truth may be a grim and horrifying sight. In the early twentieth century, France met the new Bluebeard, a man that was not depicted in worn and tattered children’s books. Henri Désiré Landru was Bluebeard in the flesh, a man without remorse, a villainous and greedy creature who murdered his wives and stalked the streets of Paris with an air of undeserved dignity. Short and bald with a distinctive scraggly red beard, Landru predominantly relied on his fantastic intelligence and charm to infatuate the women he wanted. He relentlessly hunted middle-aged wealthy and trusting women, finding that they were the perfect target to satisfy his infinite greed. With men away fighting World War One, Henri found the task of snaring women in his lethal trap an easy one.
Henri Désiré Landru was born on April 12, 1869 to poor but happy and hardworking parents. After bearing a daughter, they longed for a son, and Henri was a welcome and tremendously joyful edition to the family. Henri’s middle name Désiré is French for the term “much desired”. From an early age, Henri was taught to be a good natured and honest young man. His father worked as a book salesman and his mother was a dressmaker. Schooled by monks, Henri was an intelligent and well spoken boy who sang in the church choir and took great pleasure in being an altar boy. The Landru family was very close, and Henri’s parents worked hard to bring him up proper and well-behaved.
Henri served in the French military from 1887 to 1891, earning himself the proud title of sergeant. It seems that he could have led a very prosperous and decent life, but Henri soon learned how to lie, cheat, and steal. Growing up underprivileged, he realized that he would not like to remain that way throughout his life. Instead of earning his money, he found that stealing was much easier and decided to pursue a life of crime to support himself.
After leaving the military, Henri became entangled in misdeeds, befriending local hoods, pimps and thieves. He married his cousin, Remy, at 24 and had four children with her. Though he did try to work honest jobs, his preferred occupation was petty theft which landed him in jail numerous times. Police found Henri to have little to no sense of responsibility when it came to admission of his crimes. Henri’s father was so distraught over his son’s repeated felonious behavior, he became incredibly depressed. He thought he had brought up Henri as a good and respectable man, but it appeared that Henri’s defiance was unstoppable. Henri’s father then hung himself, believing he had failed Henri completely.
In 1914, Henri Landru, now 43, had devised a plan to assure his wealth in society. He began advertising himself as a widower, even though he was still legally married to Remy, seeking rich middle-aged women he believed would support him. Going by the name Monsieur Diard, Henri met Madame Jeanne Cuchet, 39, in December 1914. Jeanne found Henri, this small and harmless looking man, undeniably charming and courteous. He was also interested in her 18-year-old son André, something that delighted Jeanne immeasurably. Jeanne had been searching for a man to marry, but was also hoping to find a father for her son. Henri seemed like her dream come true. Without a doubt in her mind, she moved in with Henri in a house called The Lodge in Vernouillet, just outside of Paris. Jeanne Cuchet and her son disappeared soon after they began living at the home. Henri informally inherited 15,000 francs worth of Jeanne’s securities.
Moving to Villa Ermitage at Gambais, Henri was able to charm many women with his remarkably witty and enchanting appeal. Using the alias’ Monsieur Cuchet, Fremyet, Dupont, and Lucien Guillet, Henri was able to entice eight more women between 1915 and 1921. Some he lived with, some he falsely married and some he simply dated. He met these women while searching through the local singles advertisements or at fine restaurants in Paris. Henri now had wealth, and he had become accustomed to it. He was only willing to settle for an affluent lifestyle, strolling through the wealthy areas of Paris for his unlucky amour.
Among his girlfriends were Madame Louise Jaume, a 38-year-old devout Catholic separated from her husband, Andrée Babelay, a 19-year-old servant girl, divorced Madame Anne-Marie Pascal, 37-year-old Madame Marie-Therese Marchadier, Madame Anna Colomb, Madame Celeste Buisson, Madame Therése Laborde-Line from Argentina and 51-year-old Madame Désirée Guillin, a former governess with an inheritance of 22,000 francs.
Madame Pelat, Anna Colomb’s sister, became worried when she received no replies from the letters she sent to her sister at Henri’s home at Gambais. Madmoiselle Lacoste, sister of Celeste Buisson, also became suspicious when Celeste appeared to be missing. Both women contacted the Mayor of Gambais and he contacted authorities. After an arrest warrant was issued for Henri on April 11th, 1919, Madmoiselle Lacoste spotted Henri in Paris by pure chance. He was with yet another woman strolling around Rue de Rivoli. Henri had moved to 76 Rue de Rochechouart where police soon traced him. Henri, in a moment of panic, attempted to throw a book out the window, which police were able to easily retrieve. In the book were handwritten recordings of all the women he had been dating, how rich they were, and what he wanted from them.
Upon inspecting the home at the Villa in Gambais, police found approximately 290 bits of bone fragments and teeth in the fireplace. For years, suspicious dark smoke had been coming out of the chimney, and now police realized that the bodies of Henri’s victims were being burned in the kitchen stove. The method of killing was unknown, but poisoning was suspected because of Henri’s small stature, rendering him unable to overpower the women he seduced. Enormous amounts of women’s clothing and personal possessions were found in the home as well. When questioned, Henri had no answers and never admitted guilt.
At the Seine-et-Oise Assize Court in November 1921, Henri maintained his innocence and arrogantly refused to discuss the topic of the missing women on the grounds that to speak of such blasphemies would be rude and cruel to Remy, the wife he was legally still married to. He was charged with 11 murders; though it was disputed he had committed more killings in the span of 7 years. Henri attained one of France’s top lawyers, Moro Giafferi, who tried to claim that Henri was a slave trader and had sent all the women to a brothel in Brazil. This was a weak argument, for no one believed that Brazil had a terrible need for middle-aged French women.
Henri was found guilty of the 11 murders, but the jurors asked for clemency in his case. Henri was sentenced to death by the presiding judge. Attempting to comfort his attorney, Henri gave Giafferi a drawing he had scribbled while in his jail cell. On the back of the note was a confession stating, “I did it. I burned their bodies in my kitchen stove.”Before the death sentence, Henri was able to talk the warders out of shaving off his ginger beard. He also snubbed the priest on his way to the execution. His last words were “I shall be brave.” He was then guillotined on February 25, 1922.
Though Henri was not an exact depiction of the Bluebeard mentioned in fairytales, there were direct similarities. Henri Landru murdered his many “wives”, wore a striking and unforgettably long beard, and was considered by many to be a distrustful and fearful scoundrel. The lesson learned in the Landru case, if any, was to remain guarded and wary of what seemed too good to be true. For Henri, the lesson he learned while waiting for the blade of the guillotine to drop was that colossal greed brings an unfortunate end.