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Crimes of Passion: An Unblinking Look at Murderous Love

Crimes of Passion: An Unblinking Look at Murderous Love


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For the second time, celebrated crime-fiction writer Howard Engel turns his hand to non-fiction. This time he leads us on a riveting and spectacular journey through the murky passages of criminal law to the places where love and murder intersect.

Setting out in the nineteenth century, Engel travels from France and England to Canada and the United States, with engaging detours along the way. As he discovers, le crime passionnel, a concept originating in France, has a special place in many legal codes around the world. Someone who has suddenly or unexpectedly been betrayed by a loved and trusted partner, even in an illicit relationship, is rarely treated as a common murder.

In Crimes of Passion, Engel explores more than twenty-five classic, infamous and still unresolved cases. With the elegant flair and penetrating insight of a novelist, he brings the victims and perpetrators to life in remarkable detail. Ruth Ellis (the last woman hanged in England), OJ Simpson (the football star), Juliet Hulme (the writer Anne Perry), Jean Liger ("the hungry lover") and Jean Harris (the headmistress) are just a few of the intriguing characters you'll meet along the way.

The result is a wonderfully eclectic investigation — complemented by more than forty illustrations and photographs — into the strange, tragic, world of passion and murder. Love, lovers, loss, and lingering malice combine in this emotional volume, sure to thrill any crime fan or historian.

Praise for Howard Engel and his earlier book Lord High Executioner

"...a born writer, a natural stylist...a writer who can bring a character to life in a few lines."
- Ruth Rendell

"...morbidly fascinating (and strangely lively)..."
- The
Washington Post

"Engel writes compassionately and well, with a novelist's eye for detail."
- The Spectator (U.K.)

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781552975848
Publisher: Firefly Books, Limited
Publication date: 03/02/2002
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.75(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Howard Engel is the author of the best-selling Lord High Executioner: An Unashamed Look at the Hangman, Headsmen and Their Kind and the celebrated Benny Cooperman mysteries. He has received the prestigious Arthur Ellis Award for Crime Fiction and the Crime Writers of Canada Derrick Murdoch Award. As well as being an accomplished author, Engel is a regular contributor to the book pages of several journals. He lives in Toronto.

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Crimes of Passion

An Unblinking Look at Murderous Love

By Howard Engel


Copyright © 2001 Howard Engel
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-3148-6


The French Have a Word for It: Crime Passionnel

Yvonne Chevallier

France is the only country that effectively recognizes crime passionnel. Yvonne Chevallier's murder of her war-hero husband is a classic example. It happened in the great city of Orléans on the Loire River, the city that still celebrates its delivery from an English siege by St. Joan in 1429, holding an annual "Fête Nationale de la Pucelle d'Orléans." In this story public and private lives become confused. Here public officials and private ambitions are entangled, and the use married people make of one another is mixed with an ample portion of melodrama, politics and a fair measure of irony. It is also a useful example of timing in a murder story: if things had not happened exactly when they did, they might not have happened at all.

Dr. Pierre Chevallier was a French war hero. He earned his reputation not at the front, but in the underground Resistance or "maquis," during the German occupation. His exploits were the stuff of the sort of movies that came out during and just after the war: L'Arc de Triomphe, Joan of Lorraine, Casablanca, Odette, Paris Underground. When the forces of General Jacques Leclerc's Second Armored Division and the U.S. Fourth Infantry Division broke into Paris, they found that the City of Light was largely in the hands of the Resistance. It was a similar story in cities like Orléans, seventy miles to the south. It was heroes of the Resistance who supplied the politicians for the reborn republic: men like Pierre Mendès-France and Dr. Pierre Chevallier. The doctor was awarded the Croix de Guerre and, in 1945, elected mayor of Orléans on a wave of euphoria. He proved to be a born politician, as he shouldered the huge job of rebuilding his war-ravaged city. So able was Chevallier that he was elected to the National Assembly the following year and re-elected mayor the year after that, to continue his restoration of Orléans to a peacetime economy. His local popularity recommended him in higher places. When in August 1951 France's fourteenth government since the war was being formed by the former minister of defense, who was a friend and colleague of Chevallier's, the doctor was able to help select members of the fledgling cabinet. He even was given a junior portfolio himself. At forty-two, in a country usually governed by much older men, he was young for such responsibility; Pierre Chevallier's future was assured. He was bound to succeed in politics; he seemed to have both the talent and the energy to make himself noticed.

Back in 1935, when he was a twenty-six-year-old medical student, Pierre had fallen in love with, and lived with, a young midwife, Yvonne Rousseau, the daughter of a well-to-do farmer. She was shy, stolid and, except for attractive green eyes, rather homely. Her young man, on the other hand, was attractive and outgoing enough for both of them, and in addition, he came from an old and socially prominent family in Orléans. Living together without benefit of clergy was rarer in provincial France then than it is now, but, after a rather bohemian beginning, Pierre made an honest woman of Yvonne. In the early days of their marriage, society and the greater world beyond Orléans seemed unimportant. Pierre worked hard at the hospital, completing his internship; Yvonne made him a happy home, which in due time included a bright, bustling nursery.

Then came the war and the Occupation, during which Pierre's unforeseen avocation came to the fore: he found that he had a talent for espionage and organizing guerrilla warfare. This was the beginning of Pierre's hegira from the routine career of a provincial doctor. Yvonne remained the homemaker and mother; she was happy to see Pierre's horizons widening, but when he entered politics after the war, she was left behind. She didn't think she belonged in this world. She knew little of fashion, possessed a practical but not wide education and was largely uncultured. She was, frankly, gauche and uncultivated. She retained her initial shyness, feeling uncomfortable, embarrassed and unwanted in the bigger world Pierre was discovering. As Pierre spent more and more time away from the family home — weeks at a time, when he was helping to build René Pleven's government — Yvonne became more and more despondent. She received anonymous poison pen letters saying that Pierre was not totally immersed in political activities, he had other interests and someone to share them with. One day, Pierre's office contacted her, telling her to get dressed for a major diplomatic evening party. She did as she was told and waited. Pierre forgot to fetch her. Then, a month before the fatal event, Yvonne discovered a crumpled letter in a pocket of one of her husband's suits. Like the wife in Truffaut's film La Peau Douce, she found what she'd feared she'd find. "Without you, life would have no beauty or meaning for me," it read in part. The letter began "Dear Pierre," and concluded, "Jeannette." She suspected that she knew who Jeannette might be: not a Parisian coquette or typist at the ministry, but Jeanne Perreau, the wife of an Orléans department store owner, who was several years younger than Mme Chevallier.

One can imagine Yvonne Chevallier's state of mind at this point. Like the backstage wife of a matinee idol, Yvonne found her self-worth sorely challenged. Her telephone calls to the National Assembly went unreturned. A secretary treated her calls with indifference bordering on hostility. Or so it seemed to her. She took the train northeast to Paris, but even there she could not get word through to her husband in his endless meetings that seemingly dragged on through the night, nor could she find him at the Assembly. Yvonne waited for him all night at their Paris apartment but Pierre did not come back. She returned home unsatisfied, feeling desperate. She reported to one of her maids that she had suspected that her husband was with another woman, but "I know it now," she said.

It was shortly after this incident that Yvonne applied for and got a gun permit. She explained since her husband's political success she had felt unsafe; there had been some disturbing threats both in the mail and over the telephone. She felt that their lives were at risk. Taking the permit with her to a sporting goods store, she looked at several handguns, asking which was the most dangerous, "the one which kills without any doubt." M. Meunier, the proprietor, picked out a 7.65 mm Mab automatic, a gun with a lot of stopping power. Mme Chevallier left the store undecided. The following morning, she returned to the shop and bought the "most dangerous" handgun in the store, explaining, "I'm very frightened. Who knows what may happen now that my husband is an important political figure."

Less than twenty-four hours after being given his cabinet post, on the morning of 12 August 1951, Dr. Chevallier was driven to an agricultural fair at Châtillon-sur-Loire. He stopped en route at Orléans, meaning only to change his clothes upstairs and continue on immediately. But his wife was waiting for him in the bedroom. She lit into him with a catalogue of his recent bad treatment of her and the children. She upbraided him for his neglect, his discourtesy and worst of all, his unfaithfulness. She told him that she had gone to the Chamber of Deputies and had been turned away by an usher. He continued to change his clothes, getting angrier and angrier as he went on unbuttoning. "You are always busy," Yvonne said. "You seem to have forgotten that I'm your wife."

Anger gripped both of them, mounting higher and higher. Sensing that the moment had arrived, Pierre looked at the plain forty-year-old woman; she was standing in his way, heavy in gesture and speech, an anchor dragging him down. He announced that he was going to sue for divorce. She said that she was going to shoot herself, and showed him the gun. "Good!" he said, or words to that effect. "I dare you! But wait until I get out of here." It was shortly after that that young Mathieu, their four-year-old son, and others downstairs heard four loud shots. Mathieu ran into the bedroom, where his mother stood holding a smoking gun. His father had slumped to the floor.

"Papa! Papa!" he cried, "what's the matter with your chest?" Chevallier was unable to answer. Yvonne took her son's hand and took him downstairs to a servant.

"Look after Mathieu," she said. "Let him play with your child."

"What's happening?" asked the servant.

"Nothing at all," Mme Chevallier replied calmly. She climbed the stairs again. After an interval, a fifth shot rang out. Mme Chevallier had killed her husband "without any doubt," shooting him twice in the head and three times in the body.

When she was sure that he was dead, she called a family friend in the Orléans police station. She told Commissaire Gazano to please come at once. "My husband needs you urgently." Within two hours of the shooting Mme Chevallier, wearing a black dress, was sitting in a jail cell.

When news of the death of the popular hero, mayor and deputy was published, the city of Orléans went wild with revulsion and anger. The papers of the day before were full of the triumph of Dr. Pierre Chevallier. The city had lost its favorite son. The papers called Yvonne murderess, without any mitigation or hedging of language. (French libel laws are more lax than they are in Britain and North America.) Local opinion supported the view that Pierre's political enemies had invented Chevallier's affaire to discredit him. They said that Yvonne had been brooding and morose before Pierre's elevation to government office. They said that it wasn't Pierre who failed to invite Yvonne to socially prominent functions, it was Yvonne who refused to go, in a marital push-me-pull-you that had eroded relations between them to a stand-off. They added, further, that irrational jealousy was stamped on her character. It was a class thing: you can take the peasant girl out of the barnyard, but you can't take the barnyard out of the girl. There didn't have to be grounds for her suspicions; she didn't need any; she was suspicious by nature. It came with her background. Public feeling against Yvonne ran so high in the area that it was decided to hold the trial in faraway Reims, in the champagne country to the northeast.

In the original police investigation and in the assembling of the case by the examining magistrate, there was no mention of another woman in Yvonne's statements. Mme Chevallier's desperate act was triggered, so she said, by Pierre's out-of-the-blue announcement that he wanted a divorce. But it was known that she had confronted Jeannette's husband, Roger Perreau, with the accusation that her husband and his wife were having an affair. At that time she had said, according to M. Perreau, that she was going to kill her husband. He added that she knew that she could get away with it. She boasted about it to him in his own house. M. Perreau may have been speaking the truth, but he was the cuckold, after all, and he did have an axe to grind. Where would he find another friend in so high a place?

The Palais de Justice in Reims was as packed on the first day of the trial as though the venue had not been changed. It was impossible to get a hotel room. The murder of a national hero was a national concern. Everybody wanted to see, and the newspaper photographers popped their flashguns until the judge, Raymond Jadin, told them "Enough!"

The papers maintained their stance against Mme Chevallier at the beginning of the trial. She had murdered a national treasure, after all. His dalliance with Mme Perreau was either invented or exaggerated, they maintained. And, even if it was true, so what? Men will be men; you can't fight nature. They called Yvonne Chevallier "the Shrew," and "the Woman Who Felt Herself Inferior."

First, the judges tried to clear up the discrepancies in Mme Chevallier's statements to the examining magistrate. If she had told M. Perreau, at the time of her confrontation with him, that she intended to kill her husband, then the killing was simple murder, not a crime of passion. (She also claimed that "the gun went off by accident.") In a crime passionnel there can be no premeditation, no intent to kill before the fact.

When she entered the dock on Wednesday morning, 5 November 1952, Yvonne was wearing a simple light suit with a high-necked top. Her face was pale and haggard. "You are accused of murder," Judge Jadin told her. "If you are found guilty, you are liable to penal servitude for life." He then quizzed her on various points contained in the "act of accusation," which contained the case for the prosecution. The role of this judge, the juge d'instruction, might seem to North American or British viewers to be surprisingly prosecutorial, but this stage in the proceedings is not the trial proper, but a sort of pre-trial. This peculiarity of French procedure has led to the mistaken view that in France the prisoner is presumed guilty until he is proven innocent. However, this is no truer in France that the opposite is true in other countries, and since 1952, changes have been made to correct this impression of partiality on the part of the judge. In the case before Judge Raymond Jadin on 5 November 1952, he stated that the accused had "an animal passion" for her husband. "This passion overwhelmed your whole way of life — without your attempting to control it. I understand your Calvary, but I don't condone it."

According to David Rowan's account of the trial in his book Famous European Crimes (which I have relied on for much of my information about this case), early in the trial two things became clear: "Firstly, the public had so far heard only half the story, and secondly, the press had failed to realize the extent of popular sympathy for the accused."

It was from the judge that the courtroom heard first about the "other woman." Spectators heard about the finding of the letter signed "Jeannette," and learned that Yvonne had found further proof as to the identity of Jeannette in the Paris apartment: a railway timetable with the town where Mme Perreau was staying clearly marked by Pierre Chevallier. This was sensational news for the press. What case is not improved by the discovery of "an unknown woman"? The judge continued his examination of the accused. He wanted to know about her meeting with M. Perreau, the other woman's husband.

"You told M. Perreau that you were going to kill your husband."

"No," answered the accused.

"You added that it would be a crime passionnel and you would be acquitted."

"C'est faux! That's untrue," she said vehemently.

The judge, Raymond Jadin, then led her through what she had previously said about buying the handgun. It was a heavy-caliber weapon with a clip holding five rounds. She had purchased twenty-five rounds altogether. Here is David Rowan's account of what happened next:

Then came the fatal morning of his return home. "According to your story," the judge queried, "he said that he was going to sue for divorce and marry Jeanne Perreau?" But Mme Chevallier was now in such a state of nervous tension that she could not reply, and when Judge Jadin began to read the account of the shooting, she fell in the dock, half-fainting. The court was cleared for fifteen minutes until she had recovered.

It was a trial that needed no Otto Preminger to enhance it. One piece of testimony would move spectators to favor the accused, while the next had them pitying the martyred hero of the Resistance again. In the end, the trial turned on the question of whether the fifth bullet, the one that followed a long silence, was fired by accident or to make sure of the work advanced by the first four. Mme Chevallier said that she intended the last bullet for herself, but on seeing pictures of her children, all the wrongs of her husband flooded back into her consciousness and she fired again at the body of her already dying husband.


Excerpted from Crimes of Passion by Howard Engel. Copyright © 2001 Howard Engel. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Edward L. Greenspan, Q.C.

One - The French Have a Word for it: Crime passionnel:
- - Yvonne Chevallier

Two - When Lovely Woman Stoops to Folly:
- - Ruth Ellis
- - Jean Harris

Three - oh, beware, my lord, of jealousy.
It is the green-eyed monster...:
- - Alan Norman
- - John Sweeney
- - O.J. Simpson

Four - Those Old Love Letters:
- - Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters

Five - The Media:
- - The Mannings
- - Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray

Six - When Newspaper Editors Were in Season:
- - Henriette Caillaux

Seven - Unhappy Valley and the Red Armchair: Noblesse Oblige:
- - Lord Broughton
- - The Marquis de Bernardy de Sigoyer

Eight - Disguises and Disappearances:
- - Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen
- - Cyril Belshaw
- - Peter Hogg

Nine - The Hunger of Love and a Slice of America:
- - Jean Liger
- - Lorena Bobbitt

Ten - By Love Obsessed. Hell Hath No Fury...:
- - Pauline Dubuisson
- - Mary Eleanor Pearcey

Eleven - Families, I
hate You!:
- - Alpna Patel
- - Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme (Anne Perry)
- - Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb
- - Lizzie Borden
- - Susan Smith

Twelve - Provocation and Responsibility
- - Elizabeth Martha Brown
- - Elizabeth Workman
- - Violet Watkins
- - Ralph Klassen
- - Kenneth Peacock
- - Patricia Ann Hawkins




In all of the annals of criminal law, there is no record more fascinating, more intriguing, than that of crimes of passion. They are interesting for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that crimes of passion are offenses not normally committed by criminals, but by ordinary people, who are criminalized only by these acts. Both sexes and all classes and races commit these crimes. Their perpetrators are nonentities and celebrities, laborers and socialites, school-dropouts and Ph.D.'s. By ordinary people, I mean not some political abstraction, but rather all the rich and wide variety that people come in. The full diapason of mankind.

The study of crime offers a special tool to the social historian. Through a study of the offenses that societies, throughout history, have chosen to criminalize, prosecute and, at the end of the process, punish, we get some notion of how people behave in extremis. When the heat is on. Here is society caught at a disadvantage, with its hair in curlers, still in its bathrobe at eleven o'clock in the morning. The study of crime cuts a trench into the tumulus of human existence. While interesting enough in its own right, such a study allows a unique look at changing behavior. Here we can learn about the structure of the society, the classes, the power base and the mentality of not only the offenders, but also of those who judge them. just as the archaeologist digs a trench into a mound to turn up a slice of an ancient civilization, the study of a particular crime allows the criminologist and anyone else interested in looking to see a slice of a micro-civilization that existed surrounding a peculiar group of circumstances. It's like lifting up a single rock and studying the insect life beneath it. Such an investigation interrupts a series of events and exposes a drama that would otherwise be hidden from us.

Further, such a study crosses the barriers between disciplines. Crimes of passion have inspired not only legends and literature, including the plays of great playwrights, but also novels, symphonic works, operas and the graphic arts. Think of the murder of the king that fuels the action in Hamlet. Think of Carmen. Remember Agamemnon. In fact, it is difficult to imagine art, literature or music without the violent outpouring of passion and the stories of human struggles that gave them birth. Without crimes of passion, grand opera would be impossible, and the great art galleries of the world impoverished.

Anna Freud said "a crime of passion is an action committed without the benefit of ego activity. The term means that the passion, the impulse, is of such magnitude that every other consideration apart from its fulfillment is disregarded." In other words, a large part of what is regarded as normal mental functioning shuts down, becoming unavailable to the perpetrator.

The very term "crimes of passion" evokes deep-seated, atavistic responses in every reader's heart. These are the crimes that are born in the emotional core of men and women pushed to do the unthinkable. They are at the end of their tether, au bout de souffle. There is hardly ever any crass consideration of financial gain here, no taint of the marketplace, of reward: only release. These crimes are direct responses to unbearable betrayal, broken hearts, destroyed characters, ruined lives and injured pride. Jealousy, envy and the rest of the Seven Deadly Sins enter through this door, and, like as not, if you are looking at older records, end on the scaffold.

The passionate love of Francesca da Rimini and her tragic end have inspired artists as great as Dante, Leigh Hunt, Gabriele D'Annunzio, Ingres,
George Frederick Watts, Riccardo Zandonai and Tchaikovsky to new creative heights. Shed of its thirteenth-century trapping, its aristocratic setting and well-born characters, it is story for the law courts: a murder case.

Francesca was the daughter of Guido da Polenta, lord of Ravenna, and the wife of Giovanni Malatesta, called Giovanni the Lame, an heir of Verruchio, the lord of Rimini. An arranged marriage, it quickly went sour, for Francesca was already in love with Paolo, called Paolo the Handsome, younger brother of her husband. Giovanni trusted his wife and brother to spend time in one another's company. At last Francesca and her brother-in-law betrayed that confidence. When Giovanni discovered the young couple in flagrante delicto, he killed both of them on the spot. Dante, who knew some of the people in this tale, wove the tragic story into his Inferno. The shades of the lovers whisper to the poet as he wanders down and around the circles of Hell with his guide, the Roman poet Virgil. After a fashion, Paolo and Francesca bless Dante because he pities their perversity. He pities their present suffering, their eternal torment:

... if you have such a desire to know
The first root of our love, then I will tell you ...

One day, when we were reading, for distraction,
How Lancelot was overcome by love —
We were alone, without any suspicion;

Several times, what we were reading forced
Our eyes to meet ...

That day we got no further with our reading ...

The story might be taken as a paradigm of all crimes-of-passion cases. The love that they had fallen into was, in the cant phrase, "bigger than both of them." It undermined their sense of duty, loyalty and propriety. Passion undid their marriage vows and they threw caution to the winds. Dante sees their tragedy partly as the crime of allowing passion to override the dictates of reason. In the story of the opera Carmen, the gypsy girl goes to her doom relentlessly as she continues to spurn the love of the man she has ruined. Again, reason is the enemy. It is passion that fires and determines her short, violent life. A little more rational thought would have saved Carmen, but destroyed the story. It was passion in the loins of Paris for Helen, the wife of Menelaus, that fed the flames of the Trojan War. And while he and his brother Agamemnon were away on the battlefields of windy Troy, Agamemnon's wife succumbed to the blandishments of Aegisthus. When the warrior returned, victorious, to Argos, Aegisthus and Clytemnestra murdered him in order to continue their torrid affair.

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
Agamemnon dead.

Clytemnestra should have been wary of taking up with the murderer of Atreus, her father-in-law. And he, Aegisthus, should have thought twice about bedding anyone whose father was a bird.

We are all of us to a greater or lesser degree fascinated by crimes of passion. Our interest feeds the media, which produce prodigious amounts of material to satisfy our insatiable need to know more and more. The case of 0. J. Simpson is still fresh in our minds. This was a sensational glimpse of the lives of the rich and famous. Millions of people sat glued to their television sets watching a slow-speed chase: a white Bronco moving sedately down the freeway as though it were the Grand Prix. Such an ecstasy of power, abuse and control is rarely seen. But sensationalism was not invented with television and the Internet: in 1849, on a cold November morning, a crowd of over thirty thousand people stayed up all night as the gallows was built on the roof of the jail, waiting to see Marie and Frederick Manning hanged at Horsemongers' Lane Gaol for the murder of Marie's lover. The hanging of a husband and wife was a novelty not to be missed, especially when it was the ending to a sensational crime of passion that had been widely covered in the newspapers. During the 1920s, hundreds of thousands of words were written about the Ruth Snyder-Judd Gray case in which a pair of lovers murdered the spouse of one of them. Crimes of passion gave birth to and fed the tabloid newspapers that arose in the 1800s, just as more recent crimes nourish the e

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