Was he a sadistic mass killer who lured innocent people to their deaths, or a hero of German-occupied Paris who liquidated members of the Gestapo and helped persecuted Jews escape from tormented France? This was the question as one of the twentieth century's most sensational murder cases came to trial in Paris in 1946. Thomas Maeder meticulously reconstructs one of the most horrifying true stories in the annals of crime: the vile crimes themselves (presumably Dr. Petiot dismembered his victims, then buried them in a lime pit), an incisive psychological portrait of the doctor, and a re-creation of his Daumieresque trial, in which he was charged with luring twenty-seven people with the promise of escape, then murdering them for plunder. Just how the murders were committed was a secret Dr. Petiot took to his grave; why he committed them remains to this day a chilling mystery.
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About the Author
A graduate of Columbia University, Thomas Maeder has also written Crime and Madness, Adverse Reactions, and Antonin Artaud, a biography of the poet and drama theorist that first piqued his interest in the infamous Dr. Petiot when he came across a story of the case in an old Paris newspaper. Mr. Maeder lives near Philadelphia.
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The Unspeakable Crimes of Dr. Petiot
By Thomas Maeder
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1980 Thomas Maeder
All rights reserved.
THE BODIES IN THE RUE LE SUEUR
On March 6, 1944, thick, greasy, foul-smelling smoke began pouring from the chimney of an elegant private house at 21 rue Le Sueur in Paris. It was a three-story, nineteenth-century building with stables and courtyard located near the Etoile in the wealthy sixteenth arrondissement, and was the former residence of Princess Maria Colloredo de Mansfeld, who had moved out in 1930 and allowed dust and dilapidation to take over. Since its purchase in 1941 by a Dr. Marcel Petiot, the building had remained uninhabited, though neighbors noticed several curious events. Almost every day, a man on a bicycle, dressed like a workman, arrived towing a wagon. Two trucks had come during the previous year — one removed forty-seven suitcases, and the other unloaded thirty or forty heavy sacks inside the double coach door. Otherwise no one entered or left the building. Neighbors would later tell police that a horse-drawn cart had stopped in the street at 11:30 every night for the previous six months. They believed it had stopped at number 21, and some even reported hearing the doors open and close; but since it was wartime and the city was blacked out at that hour for fear of Allied bombings, nothing was actually seen, and the significance of this occurrence was never made clear.
The smoke increased in volume over the next few days, and on Saturday, March 11, a contrary breeze kept the suffocating stench in the rue Le Sueur hovering at the level of Madame Andrée Marçais's fifth-floor apartment across the street. When her husband returned from work that evening, she insisted that he do something about it. Jacques Marçais knocked at number 21 several times before noticing the worn paper fastened to the door: Away for one month. Forward mail to 18 rue des Lombards in Auxerre. At 6:25, Monsieur Marçais telephoned the police.
Two uniformed, bicycle-mounted policemen, Joseph Teyssier and Emile Fillion, tried the door and shuttered windows, then made inquiries at the neighboring houses. The concierge next door told them number 21 was owned by Dr. Marcel Petiot, who lived two miles across Paris at 66 rue Caumartin. She even had his telephone number: Pigalle 77.11. Teyssier ran to the Crocodile, a café on the corner, and phoned the doctor's home. A woman who identified herself as Madame Petiot answered and passed the receiver to her husband. "Have you entered the building?" he asked Teyssier after being told there was a fire. "Don't do anything. I will be there in fifteen minutes with the keys."
Half an hour later, no one had arrived. The smoke grew worse and the firemen were called. Fire Chief Avilla Boudringhin climbed to a second-floor window, pried open the shutters, smashed a windowpane, and entered with a few men. After searching the upper floors, they followed the stench to the basement. When they emerged from the coach door several minutes later, one of the young firemen leaned against the doorway and vomited, while a pale and shaken Boudringhin stepped up to the two policemen and said, "Gentlemen, I think you have some work ahead of you."
Teyssier, Fillion, and a civil-defense officer who chanced to be passing by were led down to the basement, where they found two coal-burning stoves. The one on the left was cold, but the smaller one, to the right, was going full blast, and a human hand, apparently female, dangled from the open door. From the light of the fire the three officers discerned a pile of coal and the bottom steps of a short staircase on which were littered a head, skulls, arms, two nearly complete skeletons, shattered rib cages, feet, hands, jawbones, large chunks of unrecognizable flesh, and a quantity of small bones. They left hurriedly and Teyssier again ran to the Crocodile, this time to call his superiors.
As Teyssier was returning, a hatless man in a gray overcoat rode up on a green bicycle and dismounted in front of number 21. He was in his early to mid-forties, with piercing eyes of such dark brown as to look black. He seemed surprised to find the doors to the building ajar, but with an air of confidence and authority approached Fillion and identified himself as the brother of the building's owner. Teyssier returned from the café, and the two agents led the man into the building; he began climbing the steps toward the main floor, but they quickly motioned him downstairs. Gazing calmly at the litter of human remains in the basement, the man said: "This is serious. My head may be at stake." The policemen were scarcely surprised. They accompanied the man back to the street to escape the smell of decayed and burning flesh. He turned to them and asked, "Are you Frenchmen?" Teyssier indignantly asked the reason for this strange and offensive question.
"The bodies you have seen are those of Germans and traitors to our country," he replied. "I assume you have already notified your superiors and that the Germans will soon learn of your discovery. I am the head of a Resistance group, and I have three hundred files at my home which must be destroyed before the enemy finds them."
By March 1944, Paris had already suffered nearly four years under the Occupation and German military rule. There were two Gestapo offices in the neighborhood of the rue Le Sueur, and a brothel reserved for German officers was just around the corner. The man spoke with conviction, and it seemed obvious to the French policemen that the carnage was the result of systematic executions by an organized group. Teyssier tipped his cap to a patriot and advised him to flee, promising not to mention the visit when his superiors arrived. And thus Dr. Marcel Petiot — for it was he himself — climbed back on his bicycle and rode off into the night.
Brigadier Henri Chanel soon arrived with three men from the local police station and, after briefly inspecting the still-burning stove, ordered the firemen back to their station and called the police commissaire for the quartier of Porte Dauphine and the appropriate judicial authorities. The commissaire arrived fifteen minutes later and promptly called back the firemen to extinguish the stove and remove some of the remains. He then examined the rest of the building.
Upon first entering the double front door of 21 rue Le Sueur, one came to a short vaulted passageway. Steps to the right off the passage led into the ground floor of the house, but if one continued straight along the corridor for thirty feet, one arrived in a flagstone-covered courtyard surrounded by the building on three sides and a four-story wall on the other; the yard was thus totally concealed from the neighbors' view. The house was large and had once been elegant, with six bedrooms, a spacious dining room and basement kitchen, half a dozen salons and other large rooms, and a library. It was presently in a state of filthy disrepair, and it was obvious no one had lived there for many years. A thick coat of dust covered everything, and most of the rooms were crammed with an incredible assortment of furniture, art objects, chandeliers, and gadgets stored in chaotic piles.
The outbuildings, located on the opposite side of the court from the main body of the house and connected on two floors by a narrow passage, had originally housed the stables and the servants' quarters. A second library was there now, as well as the only clean and orderly spot in the place: a doctor's consultation room. The commissaire found it odd that with dozens of large rooms in the house from which to choose, the owner had decided to repair a cramped, L-shaped passageway — little more than six feet wide and situated between a staircase, a storeroom, and the stable — and to neatly furnish it with a cabinet full of medical supplies and knickknacks, a tidy desk, a small round table, and two comfortable armchairs.
In the garage next to the consultation room, the commissaire discovered a pile of quicklime — fourteen feet long, eight feet wide, and three feet high at its peak. Interspersed throughout the pile were fragments of flesh and bone, among which he recognized a jawbone and a detached human scalp. In the adjacent stable he found a former manure pit; a block and tackle was rigged above it and a wooden ladder propped inside. Leaning over, the commissaire discovered it was half filled with several more cubic yards of lime and human remains. On a landing of the staircase leading from the courtyard down to the basement he found a canvas sack containing the headless left side of a human body, complete but for the foot and internal organs. At the bottom of the stairs, next to the mound of coal and corpses, was a hatchet covered with rust-colored stains and, a short distance away, a shovel.
Commissaire Georges Massu had just climbed into bed at 10:00 P.M. when headquarters called. Massu was a thirty-three-year police veteran with 3,257 arrests to his credit, and after recently solving a spectacular case he had been promoted to chief of the Criminal Brigade of the Police Judiciaire — a detective force that does for the Paris region what the Sûreté Nationale does for the rest of France. Massu had participated in most of the major criminal affairs of the past three decades, including the celebrated case of Eugen Weidmann, who murdered six people for profit and whose death on the guillotine in 1939 was the last public execution in France. Ten years earlier, Massu had befriended the young mystery writer Georges Simenon, who was then looking for realistic atmosphere to improve his novels, and the taciturn and methodical Massu was gradually transformed into the fictional commissaire Maigret. Massu himself claimed the pipe and habits of Maigret were more like Simenon, but details of some cases were so close to his own that Massu's own memoirs seemed redundant when they appeared. On this evening in 1944, Massu was awakened to investigate what he was later to call "the greatest criminal affair of the century."
Thirty minutes later, Massu arrived at the rue Le Sueur with his son Bernard, a seventeen-year-old law student who worked as a part-time inspector under his father whenever there was a case more interesting than his studies. Georges Massu stared at the piles of remains. He took off his overcoat and climbed into the pit; the bones crunched sickeningly under his shoes and his trousers became covered with lime. In the basement kitchen he noticed that the large double sink was just long enough for an outstretched body and that its sloping bottom was steep enough for blood to flow down without coagulating before reaching the drain.
Meanwhile, the other investigators had found, joined to the consultation room by a small corridor, a triangular chamber — six feet on the short side, eight feet on the longest, and completely empty except for eight heavy iron rings fixed in one wall and a naked light bulb attached to the ceiling. Opposite the entrance was a double wooden door, and beside it an electric doorbell. Given the layout of the building, the doors presumably led to a street in the rear, but when Massu forced them open he found that they were attached to a solid wall. The wires of the bell led nowhere. A zealous policeman began to remove the room's wallpaper and was rewarded by the discovery of the wide end of a spyglass such as those placed in apartment doors to identify visitors. The eyepiece was just over six feet off the ground in the stable on the other side of the wall, and next to it were two light switches: one for the stable itself, the other for the triangular room. As an experiment, Bernard Massu positioned himself between the eight iron rings in the room as though lashed to them. Through the viewer in the stable, the commissaire saw his son's enlarged face perfectly framed in the field of vision. On his way to the stable, Georges Massu noticed that the door to the triangular room had no knob on the inside.
As yet, there was no indication of who the victims might be nor why they had been killed, but the death scenes the house's arrangement conjured in Commissaire Massu's mind grew increasingly horrifying. Under some pretext, he imagined, the doctor instructed a patient to leave his consultation room by the back door. The patient, already drugged or poisoned — gas, perhaps, or an injection — entered the triangular room, whose one true door, virtually soundproof, he could not reopen once it closed. Perhaps Petiot lashed his victims to the rings, then watched their death agonies from the stable. The room seemed arranged especially for this purpose, though the viewer was placed inconveniently high, the white plaster wall of the stable was unblemished by dirt from the face and hands of a peering observer, and, most puzzling of all, the wallpaper had obviously been placed over the lens many years ago. There were no marks indicating a captive trying to escape his prison, nor any signs of struggle in the triangular room or elsewhere. There were no poisons or drugs in the consultation room — no needles, no gas, nothing of use to a murderer. To Massu and everyone else involved, this would remain the most puzzling aspect of the Petiot affair; and no one would ever discover how the victims were killed or what purpose was served by the triangular room, which the press found the most sinister and horrifying aspect of the case, and around which they spun the most gruesome hypotheses.
By 1:30 A.M. Massu had learned all he could at the scene, and was about to leave with two inspectors for Petiot's apartment at 66 rue Caumartin when a telegram arrived from police headquarters: ORDER FROM GERMAN AUTHORITIES. ARREST PETIOT. DANGEROUS LUNATIC. Word had filtered up through the hierarchy, and some German bureau had communicated this enigmatic order to the director of the Police Judiciaire. Massu hesitated. At the time of the Occupation, the police had been faced with the choice of abandoning their posts or remaining at them under German rule. The first alternative would have compelled the enemy to use its own soldiers as policemen; the latter, the police reasoned; kept civil disputes among Frenchmen, and incidentally left room for sabotage. The Germans, however, did not adhere strictly to their agreement to leave domestic crimes and those only to the French police, who thus sometimes found themselves forced to chase "criminals" and "terrorists" whose only crime was allegiance to France. When the Germans showed particular interest in a case, the police tactic now was to display considerable oversight and error. Thus, when Massu received his telegram and learned how eager the Germans were for Petiot's arrest, his suspicions were aroused. Pleading exhaustion, he instructed the two inspectors to wait until the following morning and went home to bed.
The next morning, the police contrived to waste several hours on irrelevant details of the case. They seemed in no hurry to capture Petiot. As they knew 21 rue Le Sueur had previously belonged to the Princess Colloredo de Mansfeld, they went to find the princess. Her house on the rue de la Faisanderie had been requisitioned by the Secretary of the Navy, and it was some time before they tracked down the sixty-seven-year-old princess on the avenue de Friedland. She informed them that she had lived at the rue Le Sueur from 1924 to 1930, that subsequently friends had lived there, that the actress Cécile Sorel had used it to store her costumes, and that she had sold the building to Dr. Petiot via the Simon agency in 1941 and had not seen him since signing the agreement of sale.
An express letter had been found at 21 rue Le Sueur addressed to "Camille," asking him to come fetch his delivery cart. Inspectors soon persuaded themselves that they believed Petiot had sublet his luxurious house to a deliveryman. They spent two hours tracking down the sender of the letter, Raymond Lion, and the intended recipient, Camille Vanderheyden, who worked with him at the Maison Lepesme. Lion, not knowing his fellow employee's exact address, had randomly written "21," whereas Vanderheyden actually lived in a small apartment at 20 rue Le Sueur, where he was nursing a head cold when the police made their dramatic entrance. He had never even heard of Petiot, and it took the police some time to make him understand why they were there. They did not tell him they were there only to waste time — but they were.
Excerpted from The Unspeakable Crimes of Dr. Petiot by Thomas Maeder. Copyright © 1980 Thomas Maeder. 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.
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Table of Contents
ContentsA Note on French Currency,
1 The Bodies in the Rue Le Sueur,
2 The First Identified Victims,
3 The Investigation,
4 The Escape Network,
5 The Weight of the Evidence,
6 Departures without End,
7 Marcel Petiot: The Dossier,
8 Dr. Petiot and Mr. Mayor,
9 The Doctor in Paris,
10 The Arrest,
11 Captain Henri Valéri,
12 Petiot: Hero of the Resistance,
13 "I Wish to Explain Myself in Court",
14 Petiot on Trial,
15 Monsieur de Paris,
Selected List of Characters,
About the Author,
What People are Saying About This
"Maeder's book is about such a remarkable scoundrel, such a tricky bastard, such an extravagantly rotten human being, and is so well-written, with so much involvement, so much tact and wit, that I read it with unwaning fascination and excitement."
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
My introduction to Doctor Petiot was when I found this book while wandering through Barnes and Noble. I found the book very interesting and a quick read. The author's research into the victims, while some times a bit dry, certainly added to the curiosity of Petiot's choices, particularly if one is attracted to the doctor's side of the story. A friend told me he found the book dull and that it didn't provide much new information. However, he was well acquainted with this story. But for a newbie to this bit of history, I can recommend the book even with the not-entirely-engaging style. The mystery and thrist to know the end of the story overcame that for me. A brief search turned up no other book on Petiot, so certainly this fills a gap. There is plenty of info on the internet, which only tells the story briefly. So if you are familiar with Petiot or only want the surface story, this is not the book for you. If you haven't heard of Petiot and like true crime stories, while not an outstanding book, it's worth a read.