By Dean Jobb
Murder is a crime “almost unknown in France,” Janet Flanner, The New Yorker’s Paris correspondent of the 1920s and 1930s, once claimed. “Except,” she added drily, “for a serious motive like money.”
France, of course—and despite Flanner’s tongue-in-cheek assessment—is no more immune to murder, or any other crime, than other nations. A trio of new books drawn from French history prove the point, documenting the serial killer who used newspaper “lonely hearts” columns to lure women to their deaths, an exiled French revolutionary tried for murder in 1850s London, and the gun-toting anarchists who terrorized Paris during the Belle Époque.
The serial killer is the notorious Henri Landru, and in his case money was the main motive behind his murders. A swindler on the run from the law, Landru killed at least ten women and the teenaged son of one of his victims before he was arrested in 1919. But this official estimate, argues British writer Richard Tomlinson, was “almost certainly too low.” The man the French press dubbed a “Bluebeard,” after a fictional nobleman who murdered his wives, had been in contact with at least 283 women during World War One and in the months after the Armistice.
In Landru’s Secret: The Deadly Seductions of France’s Lonely Hearts Serial Killer (Pen & Sword History), Tomlinson exposes the official indifference, pervasive sexism, and shoddy police work that allowed a calculating killer to operate with impunity—and nearly escape justice. A monster “at large in a wartime Paris stripped bare of eligible men,” Landru used the upheaval of war as a cover as he preyed on women, promising marriage or a new life in foreign lands before plundering their savings.
“Monsieur, aged 45, single, with no family, savings of 4,000 francs, having own home, wishes to marry a lady of a similar age and situation,” he lied in the pages of a Paris newspaper in 1915, in the first in a series of classified advertisements that reeled in his victims.
A succession of trusting women followed Landru to his isolated rental home outside Paris and were never seen again. But their fate was hotly contested at his trial in 1921. The prosecutor admitted he had no idea how they died or what became of their remains. Landru and his lawyer claimed the women could still be alive—living abroad, perhaps, or too embarrassed to come forward to admit their dalliances with such a repulsive man.
“L’affaire Landru was a murder case with no bodies,” Tomlinson notes, “where the only forensic evidence was some charred bone debris of doubtful origin beneath a pile of leaves, and a few burnt scraps of women’s apparel.”
It was almost a case with no suspect. At first, French authorities ignored two women who were trying to trace a missing sister. The detectives who finally took notice almost botched the investigation and displayed little interest in establishing the true extent of Landru’s crimes.
Tomlinson pored over thousands of pages of court records and witness statements to recreate this shocking story of deception and murder. And he mounts a prosecution of his own, presenting abundant evidence that Landru “operated in a society that took women’s inferiority for granted and in the middle of a terrible war, valued men’s lives more highly.” This is true-crime writing at its best—a thoroughly researched account that looks beyond one man’s horrific acts and explores the social and cultural milieu his crimes exposed.
Emmanuel Barthélemy’s motive for murdering two men in London in 1854 remains far from certain—if he even had one. The exiled French revolutionary was easily provoked, and his volcanic anger may have suddenly erupted when he shot and killed his former employer and a passerby who tried to detain him. What’s clear, his biographer Marc Mulholland argues, is that Barthélemy was a product of the revolutions that convulsed Paris in the early nineteenth century.
In The Murderer of Warren Street: The True Story of a Nineteenth-Century Revolutionary (Hutchinson), Mulholland, who teaches history at an Oxford college, takes readers on a journey into the political intrigues, rivalries, and uprisings that turned the streets of the French capital into battlegrounds.
The book opens with the murders on London’s Warren Street, then the scene shifts to Barthélemy’s earliest crime, committed in 1839 when he was still a teenager. He shot and wounded a policeman—reputedly the first attempt to kill a police officer in France—who had beaten him during a street riot. “This blow” from a police baton, said one friend, “awakened the tiger in him,” transforming “an eager, good-humoured young working lad” into a violent revolutionary.
Released after serving nine years in prison, he returned to Paris and manned street barricades thrown up to repel government troops during uprisings in 1848—makeshift defences made famous by Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (Barthélemy was prominent enough to earn a cameo in the novel). “Paris was a cauldron, boiling and churning, bringing to the surface a new kind of working class,” Mulholland writes. “The very idea of revolution was changing—and Barthélemy was amongst the first of this new generation of working-class revolutionaries.”
Rounded up after this uprising was crushed, he escaped to London, a refuge for French revolutionaries who had backed the wrong horse. Incredibly, while there Barthélemy became friends with Karl Marx, the most prominent political exile of the day, but fell out with Marx when it became clear the Frenchman’s vision of working-class revolution was too radical even for the father of communism.
The volatile Barthélemy killed a rival French émigré in a duel while in London, and was on his way to Paris, with plans to assassinate Emperor Napoleon III, when he committed the two murders that finally sent him to the gallows at age thirty-two.
Mulholland knows his French history and guides readers through the dense thicket of players and political factions that serve as a backdrop to Barthélemy’s short, violent life. The Murderer of Warren Street paints vivid portraits of tumultuous, post-Revolution Paris and the extremes of wealth and poverty in Victorian London, making this a true tale of two cities.
Crime and politics collided again in the winter of 1911 when a gang of ruthless anarchists terrorized France. The Bonnot Gang launched a campaign of murder, bank robbery, car theft, and burglary that threatened to transform the City of Light into a European version of 1920s Chicago.
Yale history professor John Merriman recreates this bizarre, ideologically inspired crime wave in Ballad of the Anarchist Bandits: The Crime Spree that Gripped Belle Époque Paris (Nation Books). The author of previous books on radicalism and terrorism in nineteenth century France, he offers expert insights into the antigovernment, anti-almost-everything world of French anarchists. The chasm between rich and poor in pre–World War One Paris was reflected on maps of the city—grimy, impoverished suburbs encircled a central enclave of opulence and excess.
An anarchist faction that turned to crime to express its defiance of society’s norms and strike a blow against the rich—the aptly named Illegals—spawned the gang headed by career criminal Jules Bonnot. It was a motley crew that bungled almost as often as it robbed or burgled. The gang swiped security certificates that proved impossible to resell, one member managed to wound himself with his own revolver, and Bonnot almost drove a getaway car into a canal. But their rampage proved deadly, leaving many police officers and bystanders dead or wounded.
Merriman tells this story in remarkable detail. A trove of archived investigation reports and newspaper accounts enabled him to track the Illegals’ crimes and the massive police operation needed to bring them to justice. Woven into his account are the lives of journalists and activists Victor Kibaltchiche and Rirette Maîtrejean, who chronicled the gang’s exploits in the newspaper L’Anarchie and became implicated in its crimes.
A couple of episodes will delight true crime fans. Bonnot lived in London for a few months in 1910 and, Merriman reports, apparently worked briefly as the chauffeur for none other than Arthur Conan Doyle. And French forensics pioneer Alphonse Bertillon, who developed a system of identifying criminals by recording their body measurements, provided some of the fingerprint evidence that linked the gang to its crimes. There’s even a connection to Richard Tomlinson’s book—Landru’s lawyer, Vincent de Moro Giafferri, defended one of the anarchist gangsters at his 1913 trial and saved him from the guillotine.
Janet Flanner’s assessment of the motives behind French murders is in need of an update. Henri Landru may have murdered, again and again, for money, but Mulholland and Merriman show that revolutionary zeal and political ideology can be just as potent reasons to kill.
Dean Jobb’s next true crime book chronicles the hunt for Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, a Victorian-era serial killer as callous as Landru. He teaches nonfiction writing at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanJobb