Henri Désiré Landru
(born April 12, 1869; died February 25, 1922) was a notorious French
serial killer and real-life Bluebeard.
Landru was born in Paris. After leaving school, he
spent four years in the French Army from 1887 – 1891. After he was
discharged from service, he proceeded to have a sexual relationship
with his cousin. She bore him a daughter, although Landru did not
marry her; he married another woman two years later and had four
children. He was shortly swindled out of money by a fraudulent
employer. He turned to fraud himself, operating scams that usually
involved swindling elderly widows. He was sentenced to two years
imprisonment in 1900 after being arrested and found guilty of fraud,
the first of several such convictions. By 1914, Landru was estranged
from his wife and working as a second-hand furniture dealer.
Landru began to put advertisements in the lonely
hearts sections in Paris newspapers, usually along the lines of "Widower
with two children, aged 43, with comfortable income, serious and
moving in good society, desires to meet widow with a view to
matrimony." With World War I underway, many men were being
killed in the trenches, leaving plenty of widows upon whom Landru
Landru would seduce the women who came to his
Parisian villa and, after he was given access to their assets, he
would kill them and burn their dismembered bodies in his oven. Between
1914 and 1918, Landru claimed 11 victims: 10 women plus the teenaged
son of one of his victims. With no bodies, the victims were just
listed as missing, and it was virtually impossible for the police to
know what had happened to them as Landru used a wide variety of
aliases in his schemes. His aliases were so numerous that he had to
keep a ledger listing all the women with whom he corresponded and
which particular identity he used for each woman.
In 1919, the sister of one of Landru's victims,
Madame Buisson, attempted to track down her missing sibling. She did
not know Landru's real name but she knew his appearance and where he
lived, and she eventually persuaded the police to arrest him.
Initially, Landru was charged only with embezzlement. He refused to
talk to police, and with no bodies (police dug up his garden, but with
no results), there was seemingly not enough evidence to charge him
with murder. However, policemen did eventually find various bits of
paperwork that listed the missing women, including Madame Buisson, and
combining those with other documents, they finally built up enough
evidence to charge him with murder.
List of victims
- Madame Cuchet (last seen January 1915)
- Son of Madame Cuchet (last seen January 1915)
- Madame Laborde-Line (last seen 26 June 1915)
- Madame Guillin (last seen 2 August 1915)
- Madame Heon (last seen 8 December 1915)
- Madame Collomb (last seen 25 December 1915)
- Andree Babelay (last seen 12 April 1916)
- Madame Buisson (last seen 19 August 1916)
- Madame Jaume (last seen 25 November 1917)
- Madame Pascal (last seen 5 April 1918)
- Madame Marchadier (last seen 15 January 1919)
Trial and execution
Landru stood trial on 11 counts of murder in November 1921. He was
convicted on all counts, sentenced to death, and guillotined three
months later in Versailles. During his trial Landru traced a picture
of his kitchen, including in it the stove in which he was accused of
burning his victims. He gave this drawing to one of his lawyers,
Auguste Navières du Treuil. In December 1967 the drawing was made
public, written in pencil on the back Landru had written "Ce n'est pas
le mur derrière lequel il se passe quelque chose, mais bien la
cuisinière dans laquelle on a brûlé quelque chose" (It is not the wall
behind which a thing takes place, but indeed the stove in which a
thing has been burned). This has been interpreted as Landru's
confession to his crimes.
In popular culture
Landru was the inspiration for Charlie Chaplin's
film Monsieur Verdoux (1947). The original story was written
by Orson Welles, who originally wanted to direct the film with
Chaplin in the title role. However, since Chaplin did not like to be
directed by anyone but himself, Chaplin bought the story from Welles.
Chaplin then wrote, directed, and starred in Monsieur Verdoux
The 1960 film, Bluebeard's Ten Honeymoons,
starred George Sanders as Landru.
The 1962 film Landru, directed by Claude
Chabrol, was inspired by the murders.
In the 1963 episode of The Twilight Zone
entitled "The New Exhibit", a wax figure of Landru plays an important
The case also featured in one of the episodes of
the 1976 BBC series Second Verdict.
A 2005 French movie named Désiré Landru is another
adaptation of this story.
In 2001, the French satirical journalist Frédéric
Pagès, writing under the pseudonym Jean-Baptiste Botul, published a
book entitled Landru: Precursor of Feminism (Landru, Precurseur
du Feminisme: La Correspondance Inedite, 1919-1922).
Accounts in English include Dennis Barden's The
Ladykiller: The Life of Landru, the French Bluebeard and William
Bolitho's Murder for Profit.
Henri Désiré Landru's severed head is on display at
the Museum of Death in Hollywood, California.
By Mark Gribben
The Legend of Bluebeard
ONCE UPON A TIME, there was a wealthy man who owned a grand estate.
His home was filled with the finest riches and he himself was a
grand specimen of man. But the man was cursed with a blue beard that
made his visage so terrible that there was not a woman or a girl who
upon seeing him would not flee with fright.
One of his neighbors, a widow, had two beautiful daughters. Bluebeard
asked for the hand of one in marriage and left it up to the widow to
Neither of the girls wanted to marry Bluebeard. One of the things that
most frightened the young women was that Bluebeard had taken seven
wives before this and no one knew what had happened to them.
To sway them, Bluebeard invited the family to his estate in the
country so that they could come to know him and to love him. They
remained in his home for a week and a day and everyone spent the
visit in enjoyable pastimes.
Finally, Fatima, the younger and more beautiful of the two daughters,
began to find that Bluebeard was not so terrifying. As soon as they
returned to the city, Bluebeard and Fatima were wed.
Soon, Bluebeard told his wife that he had an important business trip.
He suggested she leave the city and return to the country estate
with her sister.
"Here," said Bluebeard, handing her keys to the estate. "This is the
key to my safe, where I have stored my gold and my precious stones.
And here is a key that opens every room in the estate.
"But this small key," Bluebeard said, his face suddenly turning
stern, "is the key to the closet at the end of the basement. Open
any room you wish, but do not venture into the basement and unlock
The husband drew his wife near to him, so close she could feel the
bristles of his blue beard.
"If you should ever open it," he said. "Then you shall feel my wrath."
Fatima promised to obey this simple wish. They embraced, and
The dust from his carriage wheels was barely settled when, with the
curiosity that comes with youth, Fatima took the key and rushed to
the basement, determined to find what lay behind the closet door.
Seized with curiosity, she reached the basement and crossed to the
imposing cabinet. It was not a piece of furniture in the usual sense,
but was a door built into the stone wall of the cellar, thick as a
tree trunk and sturdy as a bull.
Fatima stood there in front of the door for some time, thinking
about the words her husband had left with her. But Fatima was too
curious and the temptation that filled her head was stronger even
than her fear of Bluebeard.
She took the small key and with trembling hand opened the door.
At first she could not see anything. But soon her eyes began to
adjust to the dim light and she was able to see the contents of this
terrible place. The room was like an abattoir; the floor was awash
in curdled blood and in the blood lay the bodies of the seven wives
of Bluebeard. Their throats had been cut from ear to ear.
Stunned, Fatima dropped the key into the blood on the floor. When
she regained her senses, she recovered the key and quickly left the
room, fleeing as though Bluebeard himself pursued her.
Fatima saw the key was stained with blood and tried to clean it. But
the key was a magic key and it would not be cleansed. No matter how
hard she wiped, the blood did not go away. She washed it in bleach,
but the stains would not fade. She scrubbed it with the roughest
brush from the kitchen, but still the blemish remained on the key.
Even sandstone would not remove the horrible taint.
As the fates would have it, Bluebeard returned from his voyage that
evening, having learned that his business affair had been resolved
in his favor. With great joy he returned to his beautiful wife.
Fatima was pale with fear as Bluebeard entered their rooms and she
shivered as he took her hands.
"Why do you tremble at my touch, madam?" the treacherous husband
"My lord, it is not fear, but gladness," Fatima replied. "I have
missed you so that my heart was filled with the cold of longing. But
now that you are returned to me, I quiver with joy."
"I see," said the murderous Bluebeard. "And have you my keys?"
"Why yes, husband."
"I am going down to warm myself by the fire. Bring them to me there,"
said Bluebeard, leaving poor Fatima alone in her chamber.
In desperation, she hid the magic key in among her clothes and went
to return the others to her husband.
"Tell me, my beloved. Why is the key to the basement cabinet not
with the others?" He asked.
"My Lord, it must be there," poor Fatima avowed, knowing her words
to be false.
"Wife! It is not here. Fetch it for me, now." Bluebeard's voice rose
Fatima left the hall and returned to her chambers, taking the key
from whence she had hidden it.
"Why," he asked in a voice that chilled her to her bones. "Why is
there blood on this key?"
"I do not know anything of it!" cried the girl, paler than death.
"You do not know anything of it," Bluebeard roared, taking his wife
by the wrist. "But I know it well! You wanted to enter the cabinet.
Well then, madam, you will enter there and take your place with the
ladies that you saw there!"
Fatima threw herself at the feet of the perfidious Bluebeard and
cried out for forgiveness. Her pleas should have softened a rock.
But Bluebeard had a heart harder than stone.
"Give me a little time to make my peace with God, since it is
necessary that I die," she begged.
"I give you a quarter hour, but no more," he said, leaving her in
Fatima called to her sister, Anne.
"I pray you, go to the top of the tower, to see whether our brothers
come; they promised to visit me, and if you see them, make signs to
them to hasten," said poor Fatima.
Soon Bluebeard called her to come down to him and accept her fate.
"Anne, my sister, don't you see anything coming?" Fatima pleaded to
"I see," answered Anne, "two riders who are coming this way, but
they are still far away."
"God be praised," wept Fatima. "They are my brothers. Tell them to
Now Bluebeard cried out in a voice loud enough to shake the entire
house and Fatima was left with no other course but to go down to him.
Outside the house, Fatima again threw herself to the ground.
"That does not serve you well, woman," growled the man as he pulled
her up by her hair. "It is necessary that you die."
His hand came down to slice, but before the blade touched her
alabaster throat, the gate to the chateau opened. Bluebeard saw two
riders approaching with swords in hand. The coward recognized them
as his wife's brothers and he dropped his wife and fled for his life.
But the brothers continued to chase him and upon catching him, ran
him through with their swords and left him for dead.
When they returned to their sister, she was near death, but with the
help of their sister Anne, they revived fair Fatima.
It turned out that Bluebeard had no heirs, so his fortune was left
to Fatima. She used some of it to make a dowry for her sister, Anne,
who married a man she had loved for a long time. Fatima used another
part to reward her brothers, and the rest she kept for herself.
Fatima later married a strong, good man, and in time, they filled
the estate with children, the fiend Bluebeard was soon forgotten and
they all lived happily ever after.
"La Barbe bleue", from
Contes de ma mère l'oye
Tales of Mother Goose
By Charles Perrault (1697).
Translated by Mark C. Gribben
Henri Desirè Landru
He was a little man, shorter than most, with a bald head and thick,
brownish-red beard. His eyebrows were thick and bushy and arched
above his dark eyes, giving the impression that he was always
astonished or surprised.
By physical appearance, Henri Landru was not the type of man that one
would suspect of being able to romance more than 300 women out of
their life savings. But there was something special about this
bourgeois second-hand furniture dealer and automobile mechanic that
vulnerable women found irresistible.
And for 10 of them, their willingness to believe the lies Landru told
them would cost them more than their meager fortunes -- the price
they paid for falling under the spell of this 20th century Bluebeard
was their life.
Born of parents of modest means in 1869 during the middle of France's
3rd Republic, Landru's childhood and early years were as nondescript
as he was. His mother was a housewife and his father was employed as
a fireman in the furnaces of Paris' Vulcain Ironworks.
Young Henri was considered a bright lad who attended Catholic school
and was admitted as a sub-deacon in the religious order of St. Louis
en l'Isle. His schooling ended, like many boys of that era, around
his 17th year after he took courses in engineering at the
prestigious School of Mechanical Engineering.
Drafted by the military at 18, Landru excelled in the armed forces,
reaching the rank of sergeant by the time of his discharge four
Clearly by his teen years Landru had realized that he was cleverer
than most and was glib with the ladies. In 1891, he seduced his
cousin, Mademoiselle Remy, who became pregnant and bore him a
daughter. Two years later Landru married Mme. Remy, while he was
quartermaster of the regiment at St. Quentin. Upon their marriage,
Landru left military life and went into business as a clerk.
His employer, however, was unscrupulous and absconded with the money
Landru had given him as a bond, leaving a strong impression on
Henri. Incensed with this blow which fate had dealt, Landru
apparently made a vow to get “revenge” through a life of crime.
Despite his standing as a deacon and member of the choir of his church,
Landru became a swindler in addition to his legitimate businesses as
furniture dealer and garage owner. His targets were most often the
middle-aged widows whom he would meet through the furniture business.
Used to following the direction of their husbands and faced with the
prospect of long, lonely, poverty-stricken lives, these women would
come to him to sell their possessions. Landru would prey on their
fears and in addition to taking their possessions, would woo his
victims and entice them to let him invest their meager pensions,
which he would promptly steal.
The scam worked well for some time, until 1900, when Landru made his
first appearance in a French courtroom as a criminal. He was
sentenced to a two-year prison term for fraud after he tried to
withdraw funds from the Comptoir d'Escompte using a fake identity.
Upon his arrest Landru attempted (some say pretended to attempt)
suicide in jail.
He remained married to Mme. Remy and together they had four children.
For the next decade, Landru was in and out of prison seven times (apparently
the 3rd Republic had no "three strikes" laws) serving as much as
three years at a time. Sometime around 1908, he apparently struck
upon the scheme that would eventually bring him face-to-face with
In that year, Landru, already serving a sentence in a Parisian prison
for fraud, was brought to Lille to stand trial for another scam. He
had placed a matrimonial advertisement in a newspaper, portraying
himself as a well-to-do widower seeking the companionship of a
similarly situated widow.
In return for some counterfeit deeds, Landru persuaded a 40-year-old
widow to part with a 15,000-franc dowry. Mme. Izore was left
destitute and sought recompense through the courts. She would have
to content herself with the knowledge that Landru would serve an
additional three years for by the time the gendarmerie caught up
with Landru the dowry was gone.
He was released shortly before World War I, most likely with the
understanding that he would re-enlist in the French Army. He had
already driven his father to suicide over his lawlessness and left
his family penniless and humiliated. Landru's mother had died in
1910. He drifted around the countryside, well aware of the fact that
he had been convicted in absentia for various other offenses and
sentenced to lifelong deportation to New Caledonia.
A Unique Killer
Once the war started, Landru, who was still married to but estranged
from Remy, began the scams that lead to his downfall. Perhaps it was
the war with its heretofore-unknown measure of death that turned
Landru into a murderer; perhaps it was the years spent in
undoubtedly harsh French prisons, or perhaps it was something else.
The Earl of Birkenhead, eminent Oxford don and author of Famous
Trials of History, discounts the theory that Landru was driven
by bloodlust to kill his female suitors. "There seems to be no
evidence of that," he writes in the marvelous 1929 follow-up to
Famous Trials. "A man who embarks on this kind of adventure must
shake himself free of entanglement...It is therefore inevitable that
a proportion of the women would be difficult to shake off and some
must have shown no great disposition to hand over their property.
"The obvious means of overcoming their attachment," Birkenhead
surmises, "was to destroy them, and to do so was only too easy...We
must therefore postulate that he was callous and inhuman -- an
assumption which offers no difficulty, seeing that his very mode of
life was impossible for any other kind of man."
Well-known criminologist Colin Wilson calls Landru "a callous ruffian
who deserved to be guillotined;" the entry in Wilson's
Encyclopedia of Murder recounts the savoir-faire that made
Landru attractive to his victims. His sense of humor and strong will
certainly came out during his detention, interrogation and at his
Perrault's fairy tale about the blue bearded monster that kills his
wives but is done in by a young woman's curiosity is a well-recounted
story. Not only does it exist in French literature, but in African,
Spanish and Chinese legend as well. If ever a serial killer
resembled a mythic figure, it was Henri Landru as Bluebeard.
There is not a lot known about Landru, but by his actions, it is
possible to develop a simple profile of this modern Bluebeard. His
victims, both the living and the dead, were among the more
vulnerable members of society, so he was clearly without conscience
(few serial murderers are ever stricken by remorse or guilt for
their actions, except to say that they are sorry to have been
captured). There were so many victims of his confidence schemes --
the contemporary estimates numbered about 300 -- that he was clearly
He was probably a romantic man, able to sweep lonely women off their
feet, and since his physical appearance was more comical than
handsome, he must have been a smooth, fast-talker. His sexual
appetite reportedly was ravenous.
Landru was intelligent and silver-tongued, not only with the ladies,
but also with his fellow soldiers and other men. All the while he
was taking advantage of women, Landru was also defrauding weary
recently discharged soldiers of their pensions.
Landru was not a simple psychopath like other serial murderers. He had
a sense of right and wrong, but did not apply the same rules to
himself. He justified conning one soldier out of his detachment pay
because the man had a mistress, despite the fact that Landru also
had a mistress and was cheating on her as well as on his wife. He
showed a sense of remorse over some of his actions -- not his
homicides -- expressing embarrassment in court that his wife, the
long-suffering Remy, would find out that he had been cheating on her
because of certain testimony!
Putting a label on Henri Landru is difficult because he does not
really fit into a specific crime classification. At best he can be
called a multiple murderer, rather than a serial or spree killer.
He cannot really be considered a serial killer, because serial killers
are currently defined as persons who kill three or more victims, in
different locales and in either an organized or disorganized
fashion, with some sort of cooling off period between the killings.
Most often the killings are the culmination of a build-up of anger
or lust, and the murderer finds a sense of release after the slaying.
They have a great deal of control over their victim selection and
time of the crimes, and their identities are not usually known until
the time of arrest. Landru meets some of these criteria, but the
time gaps between slayings was caused by his need to get close to
his victims in order to obtain financial reward. If sex or anger was
at the root of his murderous need, Landru could easily have killed
his victims shortly after he got to know them. Or better yet, his
selection of victims would have been more random.
Spree murderers, on the other hand, are killers whose crimes take
place in different locales, in a disorganized fashion, but within a
fairly short period of time. Often, spree killers are not in control
of victim selection or the time of killing. They are usually on the
run from at least the first offense (often before). Law enforcement
agencies often know the identity of a spree killer before arrest.
Henri Landru was in control of his victim selection and in the time
of their deaths. He was not pressured into a "hurry-up" situation by
law enforcement pursuit and never appeared to be on the lam despite
his conviction in absentia.
Landru killed for money or to rid himself of a tiresome or
inconvenient lover. His method of killing is unknown, but evidence
at his villa suggests that the slayings were most likely clean, and
that the victims were probably not defiled in any way. It is
possible that Landru killed during a sex act, but there is no
evidence that suggests this was the case. Lust was not his primary
motive, and he is distinctive among multiple murderers because anger,
revenge or sexual release were at best secondary motivators.
Most killers for financial gain do not destroy the evidence of their
victims' deaths. In insurance or inheritance scams, proof of death
is often required -- few killers want to wait a decade or so to
collect their ill-gotten reward. But Landru obviously took great
pains to cover up his crimes. He sought to avoid detection and make
it look like his victims were still alive.
In effect, Landru created a different classification of multiple
killer; he was the male version of a Black Widow spider, one that
takes what it needs and then kills its mate without remorse. Henri
Landru combined the worst characteristics of the most terrible type
In 1914, the following advertisement appeared in the Paris newspapers:
"Widower with two children, aged 43, with comfortable income,
serious and moving in good society, desires to meet widow with a
view to matrimony."
For a French widow, faced with a life of loneliness and penury in the
depressed economy of wartime France, such an advertisement must have
seemed as heaven-sent. Landru, who placed the ad, had no trouble
The first woman to meet this 20th Century Bluebeard was Madame Cuchet,
a 39-year-old woman with a 16-year-old son, Andre. Cuchet worked in
a lingerie shop in Paris and was barely keeping her head above water
when she made Landru's acquaintance. He told her his name was
Monsieur Diard and that he was an engineer. Their relationship
flourished over time but was not without its ups-and-downs.
Landru's scheme was almost revealed before it had a chance to flower
after Cuchet and "Diard" had a falling-out. Cuchet begged her family
and brother-in-law to accompany her to Diard's villa near Chantilly,
with the hopes of ironing out their differences. Landru was not in
when they arrived, but the family apparently felt enough at home to
search the villa.
Her brother-in-law found a chest filled with many letters from other
women, and informed Cuchet that her lover was a fraud. She chose to
disregard her family's advice to dump the imposter, and instead
furnished a villa at Vernouillet, outside Paris and became estranged
from her family. Diard, Cuchet and her son moved to the villa.
The last time Cuchet and Andre were seen alive was in January 1915.
Shortly after the three moved into Vernouillet, Landru opened a bank
account with 5,000 francs, which he claimed was part of his
inheritance from his father. In all likelihood the money came from
Cuchet. Soon after Cuchet's disappearance, Landru's wife was
presented with Cuchet's watch as a present.
His next victim was an Argentine named Madame Laborde-Line, the widow
of a hotelier. She had told friends that she was planning to marry a
charming engineer from Brazil, but frustrated with the red tape, the
pair decided to dispense with the ceremony and move in together.
Afterward, a man that her former neighbors identified as Landru came
back and collected her furniture, sending some to his villa and the
rest to a garage in Niuelly. Laborde-Line was last seen in July
1915, when she had arrived at the villa with her two dogs.
Madame Guillin, a 51-year-old widow whose full name was Marie
Angelique Desiree Pelletier was last seen at the villa a month later.
Also in 1915, a Madame Heon, visited Vernouillet and disappeared.
Whether or not there were others between the murders of Heon and 19-year-old
Andree Babelay, a servant girl who disappeared in March 1917 en
route to visiting her mother, only history knows. And why Babelay
was slain is also a mystery. She was as poor as a church mouse and
had nothing to give Landru but her charms. Did she, like Fatima in
the legend of Bluebeard, stumble across Landru's secret, or was she
killed merely because he could not rid himself of her? Regardless,
poor Babelay followed the fate of Landru's other victims and was
never seen alive again after meeting up with Landru.
After Babelay disappeared, Landru, apparently busy with other scams
like his detached soldier scam and a petrol fraud, left Vernouillet
for a new villa in Gambais and promptly had a large cast-iron oven
installed. He laid low for almost two years, but soon returned to
his murderous ways.
Landru courted Madame Buisson, a wealthy widow, for nearly a year
before he succeeded in creating an estrangement from her family. She
moved with him to Gambais, without her son, who went to live with
his aunt. In April 1917, Buisson was seen for the last time.
His next victim at Gambais was Mme. Louise Leopoldine Jaume, who
disappeared in September 1917. After her disappearance, Landru's new
neighbors in Gambais noticed black, noxious smoke pouring from his
Annette Pascal, 38, followed Jaume by vanishing in the spring of 1918,
and finally, Marie Therese Marchadier, an "entertainer" known among
the non-commissioned officers of French Army as "La Belle Mythese"
and who had retired to relative anonymity in Paris, was visited by
Landru who wanted to purchase her furniture. A friendship blossomed
and she accompanied the murderer to Gambais in late 1918 and
In all, at least 10 women and one boy (and two dogs) had disappeared
after meeting Landru, yet no police had ever suspected him of any
misdeeds. It would take a pair of anxious families to bring
Bluebeard at long last to justice.
The Arrest and Investigation of Landru
Landru had taken great pains to separate his victims from their
families, but after their deaths, he took equally strong measures to
assure the families that their loved ones were alive and well.
Two of Guillin's friends received postcards from Landru, saying that
Guillin was unable to write herself. He forged a letter from Buisson
to her dressmaker and another to the concierge of her Paris
apartment. Landru represented himself as the attorney of Madame
Jaume, who was divorcing her husband, and successfully closed out
her bank accounts.
Two years after Buisson met Landru, her son, who was living with her
sister, passed away. Obviously the family wanted to notify Mme.
Buisson, but was unable to find her. Her sister remembered that
Buisson had whispered her intention of running away to Gambais with
a "Monsieur Guillet."
She wrote to the mayor of Gambais, seeking help in locating either
Buisson or Guillet. The mayor replied that he knew of neither of
them, but perhaps she should meet the family of a Madame Collomb,
who was also missing in Gambais. She had vanished under similar
Unbeknownst to anyone, Collomb had disappeared after meeting Landru in
The tenant of the villa in question, the mayor told the family of
Buisson was not Monsieur Fremiet, the fiancé of Buisson, but M.
Dupont. However, when the police went to Villa Ermitage, as Landru's
estate was known, they could not find Fremiet, Dupont, Diard (the
name given to Collomb's family) or Landru. The villa was unoccupied
but recently lived-in.
Mademoiselle Lacoste, Buisson's sister, was not discouraged. She had
seen "Fremiet" so she began combing the streets of Paris near
Fremiet's old residence looking for him. In 1919, her search paid
off. She spotted Landru coming out of a dry goods shop and followed
him, only to lose him in the crowd.
She returned to the store and found out that the man's name was not
Fremiet, but Guillet, and that he lived in the Rue de Rochechouart
with his mistress. Immediately, the police were summoned and Landru
But on what charge should he be held, the gendarmerie wondered?
Clearly murder was suspected, but where was the body? There was no
evidence that Landru had killed anyone and the strong-willed
“Bluebeard” was unwilling to discuss anything with authorities.
They returned to Gambais, where a thorough search was undertaken. The
gardens were excavated looking for bones, but the only remains
police found were those of a pair of dogs. They searched his old
villa at Vernouillet and came up equally empty. All the police had
to go on was a cryptic memorandum book where Landru had meticulously
recorded his income and expenses.
But within the copious notes were several names that interested
authorities. On one page was the entry: "A Cuchet, G. Cuchet, Bresil,
Crozatier, Havre. Ct. Buisson, A. Collomb, Andree Babelay, M. Louis
(sic) Jaume, A. Pascal, M. Thr. Mercadier." Buisson and Collomb were
missing and the authorities soon learned that the whereabouts of the
Cuchets were also in question. They suspected this was a list of
victims. But again, they had no bodies.
Confident in the erroneous knowledge that he could not be convicted of
murder without a body (such a conviction is possible under
French law), Landru kept silent and refused to talk with police. For
two years, authorities investigated the disappearances of his
victims, yet Landru never admitted anything.
Slowly, they learned that each of the women in the ledger had met
Landru through his marriage advertisements and had disappeared.
Interestingly, Landru had recorded the purchase of one-way tickets
from Paris to Gambais for each of his victims, while marking round-trip
tickets for himself.
The gardens in Gambais and Vernouillet were dug up time and time again.
Authorities tried to link Landru to purchases of acids and other
chemicals, to no avail. Finally, neighbors at Gambais told
authorities of the noxious fumes that often emanated from the
kitchen. The stove that Landru had installed shortly after his
arrival in Gambais was inspected and horrific evidence of murder was
In the ashes police found small bones, undoubtedly human, as well as
burned, but still recognizable fasteners of the kind worn on the
clothes of French women. Landru had disposed of his victims by
burning their remains. How they were killed was still a mystery, but
what had happened to M. Collomb and M. Buisson, as well as the nine
others, was clear.
Two years after his arrest, Landru was charged with 11 counts of
murder and set for trial.
The Trial of Landru
There is little doubt that Landru's trial captivated his countrymen.
Consider the time it occurred. He was arrested in April 1919 at his
home in Paris with his mistress, 27-year-old Fernande Segret, whom
he had picked up on an autobus in the city. France was still
recovering from the bloodiest war in the history of civilization and
the peace talks at Versailles were not going well for them.
Shortages and economic depression abounded and a case that promised
sex, gossip and gruesome killing was delightfully played up by the
papers as a diversion from the dreary day-to-day life of post-war
Also, take into account that in 1919 there was no such term as "serial
killer." Although multiple murder wasn’t unknown in Europe, it was
still a novelty (unlike present day, when the concept of a serial
killer is as ubiquitous as a pickpocket was in the 19th century).
The murders committed by Jack the Ripper across the English Channel
were just 40 years prior and a human monster who could kill so many
without remorse was still an aberrance to the French and English
alike. The idea that a Frenchman, a Parisian no less, could be
capable of such atrocities had a profound impact on the society.
Landru's trial began in November 1921 and lasted nearly a month.
The French system of justice had been instituted in 1848 and while not,
as is commonly believed, assuming the guilt of the accused until
innocence is proven, it is heavily weighted against the person on
trial. Not only does the chief judge of the three-judge panel serve
as an interrogator, the French allow questioning of the accused for
the sake of investigation in front of the jury during the trial.
The French system also allows relatives of the victim to bring suit
for damages during the course of the trial, and the victims' legal
counsel can question the accused and argue before the jury.
Clinging to his mistaken belief that he could not be convicted without
evidence of a body, Landru's defense was essentially to stonewall
the court. Time after time he would refuse to answer questions and
would reply that it was no one else's business what he knew of their
He also believed that because he had been judged sane enough to stand
trial, his innocence was assured.
"In acknowledging I am sane, they are thus establishing my innocence,"
he told the media, which covered the trial with an enthusiasm
unmatched for the time.
For days he stood before withering interrogation by the court without
changing his story.
"I have nothing to say," he said over and over, much to the
frustration of observers. Every time new evidence was unearthed,
Landru merely shrugged his shoulders and denied everything or
refused to discuss it.
"What of your relationship with Madam Guillin?" he was asked in open
"I am a gallant man and will say nothing," Landru replied to the
exasperated magistrate. "I cannot think of revealing the nature of
my relations with Madam Guillin without the lady's permission."
During the course of the trial Landru's health began to fail. He began
to provide statements of fact in response to questions, but the
prosecution easily refuted his allegations. His strategy was a
tactical blunder, wrote Lord Birkenhead. "Where explanations are
obviously needed," he wrote, "unless an unfavourable inference is to
be drawn, the failure to afford these explanations...will tend to
confirm the inference."
Landru's impudence before the court clearly grated on the jury. His
evasions and quickness to answer with sarcasm only succeeded in
proving that he was the kind of man who would deceive women like his
It took the jury just two hours - after nearly 25 days of testimony -
to decide Landru had killed the 11 women. The penalty for such a
crime was death.
Bluebeard Meets Madame Guillotine
French justice is swift. Just two months passed from
the time of his conviction until Landru received word that his
execution was imminent. Unlike American justice, where a prisoner is
well aware of his or her execution date, the French system does not
inform the condemned until very shortly before the execution.
The guillotine is a curious method of execution and although it is
generally held to be humane, there is some question about how
quickly one dies after being decapitated.
Two doctors in the 1960s wrote that “death is not instantaneous. Every
vital element survives decapitation...it is a savage vivisection
followed by premature burial." Drs. Piedlievre and Fournier go on to
discuss how the brain is capable of breaking down complex sugars in
the neurons into oxygen for as long as six minutes after
Eyewitness accounts also call into question the swiftness of the onset
of death after beheading. "Did it, those who saw the grimacing heads
in the basket wondered, kill instantaneously?" writes Colin Wilson.
"In the 1790's this question was much debated, as when Charlotte
Corday's head was held up and slapped by the assistant executioner,
men swore that it not only blushed but 'showed most unequivocal
signs of indignation.'"
In an even more graphic account written in 1905, a French doctor
experimented with the head of an executed criminal:
"The head fell on the severed surface of the neck ... I was not
obliged even to touch it in order to set it upright. Chance served
me well for the observation, which I wished to make.
"Here, then, is what I was able to note immediately after the
decapitation: the eyelids and lips of the guillotined man worked in
irregularly rhythmic contractions for about five or six seconds.
This phenomenon has been remarked by all those finding themselves in
the same conditions as myself for observing what happens after the
severing of the neck...
"I waited for several seconds. The spasmodic movements ceased. The
face relaxed, the lids half closed on the eyeballs, leaving only the
white of the conjunctiva visible. ... It was then that I called in a
strong, sharp voice: "Languille!" I saw the eyelids slowly lift up,
without any spasmodic contractions -- I insist advisedly on this
peculiarity -- but with an even movement, quite distinct and normal,
such as happens in everyday life, with people awakened or torn from
"Next Languille's eyes very definitely fixed themselves on mine and
the pupils focused themselves. I was not, then, dealing with the
sort of vague dull look without any expression, that can be observed
any day in dying people to whom one speaks: I was dealing with
undeniably living eyes which were looking at me.
"After several seconds, the eyelids closed again, slowly and evenly,
and the head took on the same appearance as it had had before I
"It was at that point that I called out again and, once more, without
any spasm, slowly, the eyelids lifted and undeniably living eyes
fixed themselves on mine with perhaps even more penetration than the
first time. There was a further closing of the eyelids, but now less
complete. I attempted the effect of a third call; there was one
further movement -- and the eyes took on the glazed look which they
have in the dead.
"I have just recounted to you with rigorous exactness what I was able
to observe. The whole thing had lasted twenty-five to thirty seconds."
Regardless, in February 1922, Landru was brought before the
Landru bade farewell to his attorneys and presented them with some
artwork he had drawn while in prison. Had they looked inside the
frame, his attorneys would have found a written confession from
Landru admitting his crimes and the means by which he disposed of
the bodies, but this was not discovered until nearly five decades
later. He declined to hear a Mass and rejected the traditional glass
of brandy from his jailer. Landru indignantly refused to make a
statement, saying the very question was an insult.
Landru stood before the guillotine, which had been the preferred form
of execution in France since its revolution a little over a century
before. He knelt down and within moments, the blade had fallen and
one of the coldest mass murderers of all time died without ever
expressing remorse for his crimes.
Birkenhead, Frederick Edwin Smith, More
Famous Trials. Garden City, N.Y.: The Sundial Press 1929.
Crimes and Punishment: A Pictorial
Encyclopedia of Aberrant Behavior. The Symphonette Press,
Gaute, J.H.H. and Odell, Robin, The
Murderers’ Who’s Who. New York: Methuen, Inc. 1979.
Wilson, Colin and Patricia Pitman,
Encyclopaedia of Murder. London: A. Barker. 1961.