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Christine and Léa PAPIN

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 
 
 
Classification: Murderers
Characteristics: Mutilation (the victim's eyes had been gouged out)
Number of victims: 2
Date of murders: February 2, 1933
Date of arrest: Same day
Date of birth: Christine - March 8,  1905 / Léa - September 15, 1911
Victims profile: Their employer's wife and daughter
Method of murder: Hitting with a hammer - Stabbing with knife
Location: Le Mans, Sharte department, France
Status: Christine was sentenced to death, later commuted to life in prison. Transferred to a mental asylum at Rennes. Died in May 17, 1937  / Léa was given a sentence of ten years in prison. Released in 1941. Died in 1981
 
 
 
 
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The Papin Sisters
By Rachel Edwards and Keith Reader

 
The Facts of the Case
 
 
 
 
 
 

Christine Papin (8 March 1905 - 18 May 1937) and Léa Papin (15 September 1911 - 2001) were two French maids who murdered their employer's wife and daughter in Le Mans, France, on 2 February 1933. This incident had a significant influence on French intellectuals Jean Genet, Jean-Paul Sartre and Jacques Lacan, who sought to analyse it, and it was thought of by some as symbolic of class struggle. The case has formed the basis of a number of films and plays.

Life and crime

Christine and Léa had grown up in villages south of Le Mans. They had an elder sister, Emilia, who became a nun. Both of them spent time in institutions as a result of the breakdown of their parents' marriage. As they grew older, they worked as maids in various Le Mans homes, preferring, whenever possible, to work together.

From about 1926, they worked as live-in maids in the home of Monsieur René Lancelin, a retired solicitor, in Le Mans. The family was also made up of his wife and adult daughter, who was still living with her parents (another daughter was married). The two maids were extremely quiet and retiring young women, who kept to themselves and appeared to have no interests but each other.

On 2 February 1933, Monsieur Lancelin was supposed to meet his wife and daughter for dinner at the home of a friend. When they did not turn up, he was concerned and went back to their home. He was unable to get into the house because the doors were locked on the inside, but he could see the glow of a candle through the window of the maids' room. He then went to the police and one of them got into the house by climbing over the back wall. Inside, he found the bodies of Madame Lancelin and her daughter. They had both been beaten to the point of being unrecognisable, and one of the daughter's eyes was on the floor nearby. Madame Lancelin's eyes had been gouged out and were found in the folds of the scarf around her neck. The two maids were found in their room upstairs, in bed together. They confessed to killing the two women. The weapons used had been a kitchen knife, a hammer and a pewter pot that had stood at the top of the stairs.

The sisters were placed in prison and separated from each other. Christine became extremely distressed because she could not see Léa, but at one stage the authorities relented and let her see her sister. She threw herself at Léa and spoke to her in ways that suggested a sexual relationship. In July 1933, Christine experienced a kind of "fit", or episode, in which she tried to gouge her own eyes out and had to be put in a straitjacket. She then made a statement to the investigating magistrate, in which she said that on the day of the murders she had experienced an episode like the one she had just had in prison, and this was what precipitated the murders.

The case had a huge impact on the public and was debated furiously by the intelligentsia. Some people considered that the murders had been the result of "exploitation of the workers", considering that the maids worked fourteen-hour days, with only half a day off each week.

Trial and aftermath

The women went on trial in September 1933. Crowds gathered outside Le Mans courthouse and police had to be brought in to control them. During the trial, the girls stated that an argument had developed between Christine and the Lancelin women. Léa had then joined in the fray, and Christine had yelled at her to "tear her eyes out" in reference to Madam Lancelin. The daughter had received similar treatment, and Christine had then gone to the kitchen to get weapons that were used to finish the women off. The blows and hacks were directed almost entirely to their heads, virtually obliterating their faces. The maids gouged the eyes out with their fingers.

Medical testimony given during the trial was that Christine, who was of average intelligence, was completely the dominant person in the relationship. Léa, who was of low intelligence, had been dominated to the point where her personality had virtually disappeared into Christine's personality. There was also a history of mental illness in the family, and their father was alleged to have raped their elder sister, Emilia. The two girls were inevitably found guilty and Christine was sentenced to death. Léa was given a sentence of ten years imprisonment because she had been so dominated by Christine.

Christine's death sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment, which was common in the case of women. While in prison, she showed acute signs of madness and an intense longing for her sister. She became severely depressed, and frequently would not eat. Before long, she was transferred to a mental asylum at Rennes, where she died of cachexia ("wasting away") on 18 May 1937.

Léa Papin was released from prison in 1941, her sentence having been reduced to eight years because of good behaviour. She then lived in the town of Nantes, where she was joined by her mother and earned her livelihood as a hotel maid under a false name. She was thought to have died in 1982, but this was questioned in 2000 by the French filmmaker Claude Ventura. Ventura made a documentary film, En Quête des Soeurs Papin (In Search of the Papin Sisters), in which he claimed to have found Léa alive in a hospice in France. She was partly paralysed as the result of a stroke and could not speak, though she was shown in the film. This Léa died in 2001. It is not known if Ventura had documentation to prove the identity of his Léa.

Works relating to the case

  • The Maids (Les Bonnes), a play by Jean Genet

  • The Maids, a film based on the play, directed by Christopher Miles

  • My Sister in This House, a play by Wendy Kesselman

  • Sister My Sister, a film version of the play directed by Nancy Meckler

  • Les Abysses, a film directed by Nikos Papatakis

  • Les Soeurs Papin, a book by R. le Texier

  • Blood Sisters, a stage play and screenplay by Neil Paton

  • L'Affaire Papin, a book by Paulette Houdyer

  • La Solution du passage à l'acte, a book by Francis Dupré

  • Paris Was Yesterday, a book by Janet Flanner

  • La Ligature, a short film by Gilles Cousin

  • Les Meurtres par Procuration, a book by Jean-Claude Asfour

  • Lady Killers', a book by Joyce Robins

  • Minotaure #3, 1933, a magazine

  • The Maids, an opera by Peter Bengtson

  • Les Blessures assassines (English : Murderous Maids), a film by Jean-Pierre Denis

  • En Quete des Soeurs Papin (In Search of the Papin Sisters), a documentary film by Claude Ventura

  • Gros Proces des l'Histoire, a book by M. Mamouni

  • L'Affaire Papin, a book by Genevieve Fortin

  • The Papin Sisters, a book by Rachel Edwards and Keith Reader

  • The Maids, an artwork by Paula Rego

  • Anna la bonne, a "spoken song" written by Jean Cocteau and performed by Marianne Oswald

Les bonnes by Jean Gennet

The play Les Bonnes, by French writer Jean Genet, is loosely based on the Papin sisters. Although many things have been changed, the play does highlight the dissatisfaction of the maids in their jobs, which manifests itself in a hatred for their mistress. Genet's fascination with the crime stemmed from his contempt for the middle classes, along with his understanding of how a murderer could glory in the infamy that came from the crime.

 
 

Murderous Maids: The Scandalous Crimes of the Papin Sisters

On a cold February night in 1933, retired lawyer Monsieur Lancelin was supposed to meet his wife and daughter Genevieve for dinner at his brother-in-law's house. When he arrived at his home to pick them up, he found the door bolted from the inside and no lights on, apart from a flickering candle in the attic window. Arriving at his brother-in-law Monsieur Renard's home, he discovered that the two women had not arrived. Returning to his home along with his brother-in-law, they brought along several policemen who forced the window to the parlor. Once inside, the men discovered that the electric lights did not work. With only a flashlight for illumination, the men crept upstairs to find a scene out of a horror film.

The two women had been beaten to a pulp, their faces unrecognizable. Their fingernails had been uprooted and most distressing, both women had had their eyes gouged out. Blood stained the carpet till it felt like red moss. When the policemen slowly approached the attic, they discovered the two family maids, Christine and Lea Papin, wearing kimonos, in one bed, clutching each other. The two women confessed readily to the crime. They had taken off their clothes which had been stained, and washed their hands and faces. They had also cleaned the murder weapons, which consisted of a carving knife, hammer, and pewter pitcher which had been so damaged as to render it useless.

The reason for their crime? The elder sister Christine (1905-1937) claimed that while ironing, the fuses blew, it was the second that week that it had occurred, which set off a confrontation between Christine and Madame Lancelin. The two sisters were arrested and marched off to the police station, still in their kimonos, despite the February weather.

The crime shocked and stunned the town of Le Mans. The two sisters had worked for the Lancelin family for six years since 1926 when Christine was 21 and Lea fifteen. The sisters had a reputation for being good workers, quiet, who kept to themselves. They had no outside friends that anyone knew off. Their work references described them as honest, industrious and proper. They had no criminal record, appeared to have no vices and were regular church-goers. Yet suddenly, and without the slightest warning, these two quiet maids had turned into monsters. The citizens of Le Mans didn't rest easy in their beds, probably wondering which one of them, might be the next victims of their servants.

Overnight, the two sisters became infamous in France. It was the crime of the century according to the French press. Janet Flanner, under her pen name, Genet, wrote about the case for The New Yorker, spreading the sisters infamy across the Atlantic. There was speculation that the two sisters were lovers because they were found in bed together. Suddenly the names of Christine and Lea Papin were known throughout the land. The case piqued the interest of intellectuals such as Jean Cocteau, and Jean-Paul Satre, who believed that the crime was evidence of a class struggle, the working class rising up against the bourgeoisie. The two women routinely worked twelve to fourteen hours a day, with only a half-day off a week. At the trial, it was revealed that Madame Lancelin routinely wore white gloves to test that the furniture had been dusted to her expectations, that she commented on Christine's cooking by having formal notes delivered to the kitchen by her youngest daughter Genevieve who still lived at home. Madame had also once forced Lea to get down on her knees to retrieve a piece of paper she had forgotten while cleaning. Madame also allowed them to have heat in their attic bedroom (how kind!), and gave them enough to eat although Christine did not know if her employer was kind because she had never spoken to them in six years of service.

While in prison, Christine exhibited extreme behavior. According to witnesses, she had extreme visions and unholy reactions. She also kept calling for her sister Lea, who had been seperated from her in the prison environment. When the two sisters were reunited, Christine's behavior was inappropriately sexual towards her sister. In July of 1933, Christine experienced some kind of episode, where she tried to gouge her own eyes out, leading her to be restrained in a straight-jacket. After the episode, she recanted her statement to police, telling them that she had had a similar episode the day of the murder, and insisting that she alone had committed the crimes, not her sister. The judge dismissed her statement as a way of trying get her sister off, and the jury at the trial treated it with the same contempt. Also, Lea insisted that she had taken part in the murders.

Eight months after their arrest, the sisters were finally tried for their crime in September of 1933. The trial was a national event, attended by vast numbers of the public and the press. Police had to be called in to control the crowds outside the packed courthouse. The sisters denied having had a sexual relationship, but never made any attempt to deny the murders. Despite the evidence that insanity ran in their family, (their paternal grandfather had been given to violent attacks of temper and epileptic fits, and some relatives had died in asylums or committed suicide), the two women were convicted of the crime. Christine received the harshest sentence, death by guillotine, which was later commuted to life imprisonment. Lea, received a lighter sentence, of ten years hard labor, because the jury felt that she had been so dominated by her sister.

Christine and Lea Papin had grown up in villages south of Le Mans. They had another sister, Emilia, who became a nun. Christine and Emilia had lived in an orphanage at Le Mans for several years. Lea had been looked after by an uncle until he had died, then she too had been placed in an orphanage until she was old enough to work. As they grew older, Christine and Lea worked as maids in various Le Mans homes, preferring, whenever possible, to work together. Later on, their mother revealed that Emilia had been raped by their father, who was a drunk, when she was only 9 years old. Their mother had visited the two sisters regularly but there was always a certain degree of friction between her and Christine. Two years before the murders, there was a complete rift between the girls and their mother, apparently caused by disagreements over money. Their mother wrote to them on occasion after this rift, but was ignored.

While in prison, Christine's condition deteriorated rapidly. Profoundly depressed over being separated from Lea, she refused to eat, becoming progressively worse. Transferred to an asylum in Rennes, she never showed the slightest sign of improvement and died in 1937. Lea was released from prison in 1941, her sentence being reduced for good behavior. She went to live with her mother in Nantes, where she got a job as a maid in a hotel under a false name. No one knows exactly when she died. Some people say 1982, but a documentary filmmaker named Claud Ventura claimed that he discovered Lea was still alive and living in a hospice in 2000, when he was working on a documentary about the sisters. This woman died in 2001, but the jury is still out on whether or not he was correct.

Christine Papin appears to have suffered from paranoid schizophrena which usually manifests itself in one's late teens or early twenties. However, in the 1930s there was no real treatment for the disorder. Now she would be treated with a cocktail of various drugs, which would have given her some quality of life. Lea, on the other hand, never showed signs of mental illness. She appears to have been very shy, anxious and prone to panic attacks when under stress. During the trial, doctors testified that Lea's personality seemed to have disappeared completely into Christine's personality. Their employers never had a bad word to say about Lea, whereas Christine had a "difficult" personality and had been dismissed for insolence on more than one occasion. Lea's tragedy was that she was so dominated by her sister. One employer had, in fact, suggested to Lea's mother that she should place the girls in separate jobs because Christine was a bad influence on Lea.

The two sisters seemed to suffer from what is called shared paranoid disorder. This condition tends to occur in small groups or pairs who become isolated from the world. They often lead an intense, inward-looking existence with a paranoid view of the outside world. It is also typical in shared paranoid disorder that one partner dominates the other, and the Papin sisters seem to be a perfect example of this.

Jean Genet was so taken by the case, that he loosely based his most famous play Les Bonnes or The Maids on it. In his play, the two women (or women played by men) role play the part of Mistress while the real mistress is out of the house. The crime has continued to fascinate writers and filmmakers in France as well as other countries. Ruth Rendall has written a novel based on the crime as have several others. Two films were released in the last ten years, an English film called Sister, My Sister, starring Joely Redgrave and Jodhi May, based on a play by the American playwright Wendy Kesselman, and a french film, Les Blessures Assassines (called Murderous Maids in English) by filmmaker Jean-Pierre Denis. Having seen both films, they deal with the relationship between the two sisters differently, particularly in regards to alleged sexual nature of the relationship. In Les Blessure Assassines, Lea looks to Christine as her protector/savior and is a willing participant in the relationsip. In Sister, My Sister, Lea seems more aware that what she is doing with Christine is very wrong. Both films are definitely worth watching, and the violence is wisely kept to a minimum or off-screen.

ScandalousWoman.blogspot.com

 
 

The crime of the Papin sisters

By Neil Paton

In February, 1933, the whole of France was horrified to learn of an unspeakably savage double murder that had taken place in the town of Le Mans. Two respectable, middle-class women, mother and daughter, had been murdered by their maids, two sisters who lived in the house. The maids had not simply killed the women, but had gouged their eyes out with their fingers while they were alive and had then used a hammer and knife to reduce both women to a bloody pulp. In both cases, there were no wounds to the body. Apart from some gashes to the daughter's legs, the full force of the attack was directed at the heads and the victims were left literally unrecognisable.

Adding the bizarre to the horrifying, the maids made no attempt to escape and were found together in bed, naked and in each other's arms. This naturally added a dimension of scandal and titillation to the case. Were the maids having a sexual relationship? If so, it was both homosexual and incestuous. Overnight, the two sisters, aged 21 and 27, became infamous. The public was inflamed in a way that rarely happens unless a particularly brutal and large-scale massacre takes place. The tabloids went berserk, calling the sisters colourful names like the Monsters of Le Mans, the Lambs Who Became Wolves and the Raging Sheep. Suddenly the names of Christine and Lea (pronounced Lay-ah) Papin were known throughout the land. Almost as striking as the horrifying murders was the contrast between the violence and the reserved demeanour of the sisters. They had worked for their employers for seven years and had always been quiet, hard-working and well behaved. Their work references described them as honest, industrious and proper. Needless to say, they had no criminal record. They had always spent their spare time together, appeared to have no vices and were regular church-goers. Yet suddenly, and without the slightest warning, these two quiet maids had turned into monsters.

While most of the French population simply wanted to lynch the sisters, others were intrigued and wanted to understand what had happened. The latter had plenty of grist for their intellectual mill. Theories abounded, focusing mainly on the idea that the murders had been an example of class warfare. The psychoanalysts also weighed in, finding fertile material in the eye-gouging and the apparent sexual relationship between the sisters. Almost eight months elapsed between the murders and the trial, providing ample time for fevered imaginations to dream up theories. Even while in prison awaiting their trial, the sisters managed to provide more food for thought. The elder sister, Christine, spent much of her time crying out for Lea and begging to be reunited with her. She rolled around on the floor in apparent paroxysms of sexual agony and sometimes expressed herself in sexually explicit language. When not crying for Lea, she experienced apparent hallucinations and visions. During one such attack, in July 1933, she attempted to gouge her own eyes out and had to be put in a straightjacket.

On the day after this attack, Christine called for the investigating magistrate and gave him a new statement in which she said that she had not told him the whole truth before; that she had killed the two women, Madame and Madamoiselle Lancelin, on her own as a result of a kind of "fit" coming over her; and that Lea had not taken part in the murders. The investigating judge dismissed this statement as merely a spurious way of trying to set Lea free, and the jury at the trial treated it with equal contempt. Moreover, Lea persisted in saying that she had taken part in the murders.

The trial, in September, 1933, was a national event, attended by vast numbers of public and press. Police had to be called in to control the crowds outside the packed courthouse. There were moments during the trial when the judge had to threaten to clear the court in order to control the emotional reactions of the people in the public gallery, particularly when the eye-gouging was described. Naturally enough, the girls denied having had a sexual relationship, but never made any attempt to deny the murders.

Not surprisingly, they were found guilty of murder and Christine was sentenced to death on the guillotine. As the sentence was pronounced, she fell to her knees and had to be assisted by her solicitor. Lea, for her part, was found guilty of the murder of Madame Lancelin but had not been charged with the murder of the daughter, Genevieve, because doctors concluded that Genevieve had died before Lea had joined in the murders. The younger sister was sentenced to ten years' hard labour.The jury had found some extenuating circumstances in her case because she had been completely dominated by the overweening Christine.

Christine's sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment, the normal procedure in the the case of women. However, her condition deteriorated rapidly in prison. Profoundly depressed over being separated from her beloved Lea, she refused to eat and became progressively worse. Transferred to the asylum in the town of Rennes, she never showed the slightest sign of improving as time went by and died in 1937. The official cause of death was "cachexie", ie wasting away.

Lea, on the other hand, continued to be her usual quiet, mild-mannered self while in prison and was released after eight years, gaining remissions for good behaviour. She was then joined by her mother, Clemence, and they settled in the town of Nantes, south of Rennes. Lea worked as a hotel chambermaid, going under the false name of Marie. In 1966 the French writer Paulette Houdyer produced a book, L'Affaire Papin, which told the story of the Papin sisters in an unfortunately novelish format. Apparently as a result of this book, Lea was interviewed by a journalist from France-Soir. In this interview we learn that she experienced vivid visions of Christine appearing before her in spirit form and was certain that her sister was in paradise. She still kept old photos of Christine, as well as an old trunk crammed with beautiful dresses that the girls had made for themselves before the murders. She also stated that she was saving to return to Le Mans and rejoin her other sister, Emilia, who had become a nun at the age of sixteen, but there is no evidence that she did so. The interview in France-Soir is the last record of the lives of the Papin sisters.It was thought for many years that  Lea had died in 1982 at the age of seventy, but the French film-maker Claude Ventura recently repudiated this idea. In the course of making his documentary film, En Quete des Soeurs Papin, Ventura found various inconsistencies and anomalies in the official records. As a result, he made the astonishing discovery that Lea had not died in 1982, as everyone had thought, but was still alive at the time he was making his film.

Although not widely known outside France, the Papin sisters have, as the years have gone by, had an impact that few people, criminal or otherwise, have had. At the time of writing, there have been something like three plays, three films and a number of books based on these benighted girls, plus numerous articles. Even most celebrities, French or otherwise, cannot boast of a record like that. The Papin sisters have a remarkable capacity for intriguing people, fascinating them and provoking them to intellectual and creative efforts. Probably only Jack the Ripper has provoked a greater outpouring.

The Papin case is a psychological one as much as a criminal one, and it has already been noted that the psychoanalysts had a field day with the sisters. Looking at them from a modern perspective, however, it is clear that Christine Papin would nowadays be diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. In the 1930s there was no effective treatment for her malady, but these days she would be treated with major tranquilisers and would probably have a longer life, if not a happy one. Her sister Lea, on the other hand, never showed signs of being psychotic and there is no reason to believe that she was. She appears to have been very timid, anxious and prone to panic states when under stress, and probably suffered from anxiety disorders. She also had rather low intelligence and was dominated by her older sister. During the trial, doctors testified that Lea's personality seemed to have disappeared completely into Christine's personality. Lea was, by all accounts, a shy, good-natured and gentle person. Employers never had a bad word to say about her, whereas Christine had a "difficult" personality and had sometimes been dismissed for insolence. Lea's tragedy was that she was so dominated by Christine. If she had been separated from Christine at an earlier stage, she certainly would have led a blameless life and never would have passed through a prison gate. One perceptive employer had, in fact, suggested to Lea's mother that she should place the girls in separate jobs because Christine was a bad influence on Lea but, unfortunately for Lea, the suggestion was ignored.

That the sisters had severe problems is not surprising in view of the family history. Their paternal grandfather had been given to violent attacks of temper and epileptic fits. Some relatives had died in asylums or committed suicide. Their father, Gustave Papin, had had a drinking problem and had also raped their sister Emilia when she was nine years old. This attack had precipitated their parents' divorce, after which Christine and Emilia had lived in an orphanage at Le Mans for several years. Lea had been looked after by an uncle until he had died, then she too had been placed in an orphanage until she was old enough to work. Their mother had visited them regularly during this time but there was always a certain degree of friction between her and Christine. Approximately two years before the murders, there was a complete rift between the girls and their mother, apparently caused by disagreements over money. Their mother wrote to them on occasion after this rift, but was ignored.

The one constant in the lives of the sisters, and their only enduring emotional tie, was their devotion to each other. They worked together whenever they could and it was thus that they ended up in the Lancelin household in 1926. Christine started working there first and within a few months had persuaded the Lancelins to take on Lea as well. Christine worked as the cook and Lea as the chambermaid. It seems that their contact with the family was minimal and their employers rarely bothered to talk to them. They shared a room on the top floor of the Lancelins' three-storey terrace and kept largely to themselves. They went  to Mass every Sunday, but appeared to have no interests apart from each other.

Psychologically, the girls in fact became enmeshed in a condition known to the French as folie a deux: literally, madness in pairs, otherwise known as shared paranoid disorder. Characteristically, this condition occurs in small groups or pairs who become isolated from the world at large and lead an intense, inward-looking existence with a paranoid view of the outside world. Most couples who commit murders together in fact have this kind of insular, inward-looking relationship. It is also typical of shared paranoid disorder that one partner dominates the other, and the Papin sisters were the perfect example.

According to statements made by some witnesses, Christine became increasingly agitated and manic in the months leading up to the murders. Her condition was obviously worsening, and on the evening of February 2nd, 1933, her madness finally came to a head. She attacked first the mother and then the daughter, gouging with her fingers. At some stage she was joined by Lea and the attack was continued with a hammer and knife, plus a pewter pot that stood in the hallway. It seems to have lasted for approximately thirty minutes, after which the victims were literally beyond recognition. The sisters then washed the blood from themselves, went to their room, disrobed, climbed into bed and waited for the police to arrive. They made no attempt to escape and no attempt to disguise their deeds.

As has already been noted, the Papin sisters have had a remarkable impact, giving rise to a string of works about them or otherwise related to them. The first was the play The Maids, by Jean Genet, which was first produced in 1947, while Lea was still alive and probably when she was working in the hotel. Genet's play was followed eventually by other plays and films, plus a never-ending stream of articles and books. It is a remarkable record for two benighted maids whose lives would have remained dark and obscure if not for two hideous murders committed on a winter's night in Le Mans.

PapinSisters.tripod.com

 

 

 
 
 
 
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