Stranger Than Fiction
A Death in Provence
By Dean Jobb
Her body, clad in a nightdress and stockings, was found in the water tank behind her villa in Les Baux, near Arles in western Provence. She had been shot once in the forehead and her revolver was lying on the bottom of the five-foot-deep cistern. Captain Fabre, a gendarme from the nearby town of St. Remy, made a quick assessment of the evidence. Only one round had been fired from the gun, which she kept in her bedroom. Her clothing was not torn and there were no other wounds or injuries. Fabre ruled out an attack by an intruder; the house had not been robbed and the servant who found the body swore the guard dogs, in a kennel ten yards away, had not barked during the night.
The policeman and a doctor summoned to examine the body reached the same startling conclusion. On the night of April 26, 1929, Olive Branson—a forty-four-year-old English artist who had moved to the South of France years earlier—had dressed for bed, climbed into the cistern, and shot herself.
Back in England, relatives and friends were incredulous. Suicide? And in such a bizarre fashion? Her prominent and well-connected family—a cousin, George Arthur Harwin Branson (the grandfather of billionaire Sir Richard Branson), was a High Court judge—demanded that the case be reopened. The Marseilles police dispatched one of its top detectives to investigate. But when a suspect was charged with murder, the woman found floating in a water tank—and her unconventional, independent lifestyle—would be on trial.
Les Baux, built on a limestone outcrop overlooking the Rhone River valley, was a town of four thousand during the Middle Ages. Over the centuries that followed, however, its castle and most of its buildings fell into disuse. It gave a name, bauxite, to an aluminum-bearing ore discovered nearby in the early 1800s, but reaped no prosperity from the find. By the late 1920s, noted the Baedeker’s tourist guide for Provence, it was “a ruined and almost deserted town” with a population of about eighty. Each year thousands of visitors took the short train ride from Arles to walk its empty streets. After a local writer compared the hot, arid climate and weathered rock formations to something out of Dante’s Inferno, English-speaking tourists dubbed the area the Valley of Hell.
Edith May Olive Branson was drawn to this desolate region for artistic inspiration, following in the footsteps of Van Gogh, who lived in Arles for a year in the 1880s. She had grown up in India, where her father practised law, and had moved to London after her parents died, to open a studio. During World War I she became engaged to a French officer she met while serving in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. He was killed in action and in 1918 she married a British Army officer named Wilson, a union that was quickly annulled. After the war, the South of France became her refuge. She purchased Ciscaille, a modest villa about a mile from Les Baux. She dressed like the local women—broad-brimmed hats, flowing skirts—and was often seen hiking in the sun-baked hills with her four dogs. She was generous to her new neighbors, buying them presents and toys for their children at Christmas.
Francois Pinet soon became the center of her world. The son of the owner of the Monte Carlo hotel in Les Baux, he was eighteen years younger than Branson and, if journalists had it right, he was lazy, immature, and unreliable. “All of his capacities,” noted one press account, “seem to have been devoted to obtaining the greatest amount of pleasure out of life with the least possible trouble.” It’s not clear when their affair began, but by the end of 1928 Branson had bought the fourteen-bed hotel from Pinet’s father and installed her lover as manager. She drafted a will leaving the business to him in the event of her death.
Was the bequest a possible motive for murder? Chief Inspector Alexandre Guibbal of the Marseilles police thought so. Decorated for his work for the British Intelligence service during the war, he was considered “one of the cleverest detectives” in France. And he found it hard to believe Branson had lifted the cistern’s heavy lid, pulled back the protective wire mesh above the tank, and stood neck-deep in cold water before shooting herself. Inside the villa, he found traces of blood on a sponge and an area of the floor that had been cleaned. His forensics team produced enlarged photographs of Branson’s stockings. If she had walked, shoeless, across the gravel courtyard to the cistern, there should have been tiny tears in the fabric; there were none, suggesting her body had been carried there.
Guibbal questioned Pinet, who denied they had been lovers. This, the detective knew, was a lie; employees of Marseilles hotels, shown photographs of the couple, had recognized them as guests who had checked in using assumed names. Confronted with this evidence, Pinet claimed he was only trying to protect Branson’s reputation. “He had lied like a gentleman,” noted one news report, “because he had given his word never to reveal the romance.” Bank records revealed that Pinet was mired in debt and Branson had been giving him money. Guibbal became convinced of his guilt when he drove his suspect to the villa. Branson’s dogs barked and snarled at the policeman, as they would have if a stranger had entered the grounds on the night of her death. As soon as they heard Pinet’s voice, the animals fell silent.
“I am innocent. It was suicide,” Pinet declared when his case came to trial in January 1930. By then, Branson had been tried and convicted in the press, where the sexism and double-standards of the time were on full display. Newspaper features portrayed her as a seductress who had led an impressionable young Frenchman astray. “No girl was ever easier for a man to meet,” noted one, while another snidely claimed she had been known to roam London’s streets at night to strike up an “acquaintanceship” with “the most casual passerby.” But being choosy, not promiscuous, seems to have been her real crime. She was “one of those ladies,” in the Philadelphia Inquirer’s opinion, “whose restless spirits are goaded into seeking ‘ideal love’ in concrete masculine guise.” Instead of the perfect man, she found Pinet.
The trial unfolded in a centuries-old courthouse in Arles, with at least forty journalists on hand to flash the news to Paris and, from there, to papers as far away as Australia. Lawyers scrambled for most of the remaining seats in the tiny courtroom and soldiers brandishing bayonets encircled the building to fend off hundreds of people denied entry.
Pinet admitted he had visited Branson the night she died, but only to drop off some supplies. He had been at his home in Les Baux by 8:45, when witnesses heard a gunshot at the villa. A pathologist from Marseilles revealed that a faint trail of blood had been found, running from Branson’s bedroom to the water tank, making it “a certainty” that she had been murdered. But the local doctor who first examined the body insisted she had shot herself, and held the revolver to his head to demonstrate how she could have pulled the trigger with her thumb. Another doctor, shifting the focus to Branson’s mental state, testified he had been treating her for “a nervous condition” since 1928.
The public prosecutor condemned Pinet as “an idler and a spendthrift.” He offered the jury his theory of what had happened that night. The relationship had soured and Branson was planning to change her will and sell the hotel, leaving Pinet disinherited and unemployed. He went to the villa to ask for money and, when she refused the request, became enraged. He seized her revolver, shot her, then dumped her body and the firearm into the cistern. At one point, with theatrical flourish, the prosecutor reminded the defendant that he faced the guillotine if convicted. “Pinet!’ he shouted. “You still have a chance to confess now. I won’t ask for the death sentence, but only for imprisonment.”
Pinet’s lawyer responded with a performance of his own, stretching the evidence—as well as logic—to the breaking point. His client had become “enmeshed in the net of a siren,” an unstable, “highly strung and temperamental woman . . . he was a slave to her passion.” She was convinced Pinet was about to abandon her “for a younger and prettier rival,” and could not bear to live without him. A letter from the Royal Academy in London had arrived the day of her death, rejecting one of her paintings for an upcoming exhibition. Heartbroken over Pinet and devastated by the professional rebuke, she had taken her own life—and in a manner that had made her lover look like her killer. “That, gentlemen,” he told the all-male jury, “is the psychology of love.”
Despite the judge’s plea that the jurors reject the suicide theory, they found Pinet not guilty. His supporters, relieved that one of their own had not been branded a murderer, greeted the verdict with cheers, applause, and shouts of “Vive Pinet.” The defendant, who had been stoic throughout the trial—“as if wearing an iron mask,” as one journalist put it—burst into tears at the news.
“The Branson ‘Hell Valley’ mystery,” as it became known, had unfolded like the plot of a crime novel. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch called it “A Thriller from Real Life” that could have challenged the skills of S.S. Van Dine’s sleuth Philo Vance or inspired the detective novels of Edgar Wallace. The setting was exotic. The suspected murderer and victim had been secret lovers. Either a murder had been staged to look like a suicide, or a suicide had been staged to look like a murder. And a brilliant detective, Inspector Guibbal, was summoned to try to make sense of it all. There were even echoes of Sherlock Holmes—Branson’s dogs greeted Pinet without barking just as a guard dog in Arthur Conan Doyle’s story “The Adventure of Silver Blaze” had remained silent because the thief who snatched a racehorse was someone familiar (Holmes famously termed it “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time”). The case inspired at least one work of fiction. In 1939, British author E.R. Punshon published Murder Abroad, one of a series of mystery novels featuring police investigator Bobby Owen. Punshon moved the crime scene to Auvergne, in central France, and changed the cause of death to drowning in a well, but the victim is a transplanted English artist with an aristocratic background. When the local authorities declare the death a suicide, her family asks Owen to investigate. Among the possible murder suspects is the son of a hotel keeper.
Was Branson’s death, the Philadelphia Inquirer wondered in the wake of the trial, “the most fiendishly ingenious ‘spite suicide’ of the twentieth century?” Did she kill herself to punish Pinet, or to frame him for her murder? American psychologist Dr. William Marston, touted as an expert in criminal behavior, promoted this theory in an analysis of Branson’s death and other famous homicide cases. “Any woman, young or old,” he claimed in 1931, “is quite capable, psychologically, of killing herself to injure the man who scorns her.” Marston ignored another possible interpretation: a man like Pinet, rejected by his lover and desperate for money, was quite capable of murder. With a tangle of conflicting evidence and theories and the only suspect cleared by a jury, France’s Hell Valley mystery would never be solved.
Dean Jobb’s next book recreates the crimes of Victorian Era serial killer Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, who preyed on women in Chicago, Canada and England and became known as London’s feared Lambeth Poisoner (coming in July 2021 from Algonquin Books). He teaches nonfiction writing at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanJobb