by Staff writer
The strange case of the Papin sisters is notable not only for its shocking violence but because the gender of both the perpetrators and victims was female.
The case became a media sensation in France with its lurid undertones of lesbianism and incest.
The motive for the crime was never quite clarified – was it simply raving madness or was it the calculated (and as some would say, righteous) revenge of two working-class girls against their oblivious employers?
Christine and Léa Papin spent their youth in villages around Le Mans in western France.
Even by the hardscrabble standards of early 20th century French peasant life, Christine and Léa Papin experienced a particularly dismal childhood.
Their father Gustave was an abusive alcoholic and their mother Clémence was an erratic and promiscuous woman with little maternal instinct.
As the story goes, she was forced to marry their father in 1901 and only because she was pregnant with their first child, Émilia.
After her second child Christine was born in 1905, Clémence decided that she could not handle two children and sent the baby off to live with Gustave’s sister.
In 1911, Clémence bore a third child, Léa.
Soon after the birth of Léa, Clémence discovered that her husband had raped their eldest daughter, Émilia, who at the time was only 10 years old.
Clémence immediately sought and obtained a divorce from Gustave.
Her actions, however, were not taken out of concern for her daughter’s welfare, but a desire to punish her husband for his infidelity. Clémence apparently believed that Émilia had seduced her father and in order to discipline her, sent her to an orphanage, run by the convent of Le Bon Pasteur, that was known for its harshness.
In addition, she pulled Christine out of the care of her aunt and also placed her in Le Bon Pasteur.
She also relieved herself of the burden of caring for Léa, who was but a toddler at the time, by giving her over to the care of a great uncle.
Émilia and Christine grew very close to each other in the orphanage and when Émilia became a nun as soon as she was old enough Christine had every intention of following in her sister’s footsteps. However, Clémence, who was depending on her daughters to help support her as soon as they were legally able to work was furious with Émilia for denying her a third of that potential income and forbade Christine from doing the same.
She immediately pulled Christine out of Le Bon Pasteur and found her work as a maid in the bourgeois households of Le Mans.
Because the sisters of Le Bon Pasteur had tutored her in cleaning, mending and cooking, she was very well-suited to the life of a domestic worker.
However, Christine changed employers many times in the first years of her career because the wages they paid were never enough to suit her mother.
Like her older sister, Léa was taken from the care of her relative and put to work as soon as she was able and the two sisters, who though they had been separated, were still very fond of each other and attempted to work together whenever possible.
In 1926, when she was 22, Christine acquired a position with the Lancelin family in the city of Le Mans.
The family consisted of René Lancelin, a retired lawyer, his wife Léonie, and two grown daughters, one of whom, Geneviève, who was 27 at the time, remained living at home.
They were a quiet, respectable family with a nice townhouse at No. 6 rue Bruyère.
After employing Christine for two months, they decided to take her sister on as well.
Christine was the cook, and Léa, the chambermaid.
They worked 12 to 14 hours daily and were only allowed a half day off per week in order to attend church, which they did, in gloves and hats, every Sunday.
Occasionally, they would visit a neighborhood medium. On one of such days, they visited a local mystic who told Christine that she was her sister’s husband in their previous life.
Beyond these two destinations though, any free moment they had was spent together in their little room on third floor of the Lancelins’ home.
They never went to the movies or to dance halls nor did they have suitors of any sort or friendships with other maids in the neighborhood.
Their professional reputation was, for the most part, excellent and they were the envy of other bourgeois households who had servants more dedicated to gadding about and flirting with young men.
However the local shopkeepers, with whom their duties required them to interact, found them odd and standoffish.
One shop owner was quoted describing the two sisters as “cold and distant”.
And, though both the Papin sisters were universally lauded for their hard work by their current employers, there was at least one past employer who seemed to have had personality issues with Christine.
The woman, who had employed Christine for only 15 days, described her as extremely quick-tempered and so haughty and rebellious she hesitated to actually ask her to do anything.
The Lancelins seemed happy enough with Christine however.
Monsieur Lancelin clearly stated in court that up until the day of the shocking crime the sisters later committed, he had had no complaints about their work performance.
But then, as Monsieur Lancelin was also to reveal during the trial, he hadn’t spoken a word to either of the sisters the entire seven years they were employed in his home.
All of their orders came through his wife who only communicated with Christine, and then usually by written letters rather than oral communication.
While their method for communicating with their servants may have been somewhat bizarre, it couldn’t really be considered cruel and it seems that overall that the Papin sisters were treated relatively well within the Lancelin household.
A typical “petit bourgeois” family, the Lancelins kept their servants in the same manner as other families of their ilk and perhaps even a little better, for Christine and Léa were given not only plenty of food to eat, but a heated room, along with their meager but standard salary (3,000 francs a year which translates to less than $2000 a year in contemporary America currency).
When Léonie Lancelin became aware that the sisters had been sending all of their wages to their mother, she immediately insisted that they cease doing so and keep their earnings for themselves and took it upon herself to inform their mother of this change.
After this incident, the sisters began affectionately calling Madame Lancelin “Maman” amongst themselves, while referring to their own mother as “that woman.”
Madame Lancelin’s treatment of the girls was not always kindly however.
She had exacting standards and would regularly perform the “white glove test” on furniture to ensure it had been dusted to her liking.
There was one incident in particular in which she revealed a nasty side.
Lea had missed a scrap of paper on the floor while cleaning and Madame Lancelin, pinching her hard all the while, forced the young woman on to her knees to retrieve the piece of paper.
After this incident, the normally meek Lea reportedly remarked to her sister, “She had better not try that again or I will defend myself!”
The Shocking Crime
Christine was 28 and Lea only 21 on February 2, 1933, although in photos taken of them by the press soon afterward they both appear decades older.
That day, the Lancelin women had gone out shopping and had plans to go straight from their shopping to the home of madame’s brother for dinner, where Monsieur Lancelin was to meet them, having come from work.
Thus everyone in the family was out for the day and were not expected by the servants to return until very late that evening.
According to the Papin sisters, they had spent the day going about their usual chores and duties.
One of Lea’s errands for the day was to take the household’s broken flat iron to the electrician to get it fixed, which she did.
When she returned with it and plugged it in, in order to do some ironing, it shorted out the power in the house.
Christine decided that she would wait until the next morning to bother with the fuses since the family wouldn’t be home that evening anyway.
Sometime between 5:30 and 7 o’clock in the evening, Madame and Mademoiselle Lancelin returned home unexpectedly.
Christine met them at the door to tell them that the power had gone out and that the iron was broken again.
According to Christine, upon hearing this news Madame Lancelin flew into a rage.
Ostensibly in self-defense Christine grabbed a pewter jug and hit her mistress over the head with it.
Madame Lancelin’s daughter, Geneviève, coming to the aid of her mother, began fighting with Christine.
“I’m going to massacre them,” Christine purportedly shouted.
Then Lea, having heard the commotion from another room, joined in, fighting against Madame Lancelin who had apparently recovered her senses after the blow to the head.
Thus began what the famous French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan so richly termed, “the atrocious quadrille.”
Christine yelled at Lea to “Smash her [Madame Lancelin’s] head into the ground” and “tear her eyes out”!
Lea did exactly as she was told and Christine did the same to Geneviéve.
Their victims rendered helpless without their eyes, the Papin sisters went about collecting weapons. They used a knife and a hammer in addition to the pewter pot.
They beat the women to death first, switching the pewter pot and hammer back and forth between each other.
According to Christine, the women were crying out, but she could not recall what, if anything, they were saying.
After the Lancelin women were finally judged to be dead, the two sisters went about preparing the bodies, as Christine described it, as one would do rabbits for cooking.
Indeed, the 1901 cookbook that Christine worked from included just such a recipe.
In a final gruesome touch, they lifted the dead women’s skirts over their now unrecognizable head and chiseled into their buttocks and thighs with the knife.
Genevieve Lancelin had been menstruating at the time and they smeared that blood on Madame Lancelin as though basting her.
After they had finished their work, the Papin sisters cleaned up the mess that had been created, then proceeded to prepare themselves for bed and get into it together.
The Grisly Discovery
Meanwhile, Monsieur Lancelin was awaiting his wife and daughter at the dinner to which they had been invited.
After some time, he decided to return home to see what was taking them so long.
When he arrived at the house he was unable to enter because the doors were locked and chained.
At this point, he assumed his wife and daughter had already left and that the two servants were probably making too much of a ruckus with their cleaning to hear the doorbell.
He decided to return to the home of his brother-in-law fully expecting that they would have arrived by the time he got back.
However, when he got there, he was dismayed to find they hadn’t.
At this point Monsieur Lancelin returned to his home in the company of a friend from the dinner party.
The house was completely dark but for a candle in the third floor which was the servants’ quarters.
Again they were unable to enter.
They went to find help and returned with two policemen, one of whom was finally able to gain entry by climbing over the wall of the back garden.
Later, Christine was to state that they had barred the doors out of a sense of compassion for Monsieur Lancelin as they did not wish for it to be him who discovered the bodies of his wife and daughter.
Entering the house through the kitchen, everything seemed fine and tidy at first until the policeman discovered with their flashlights an eyeball on the stair leading to the second floor.
At this point, they ordered Monsieur Lancelin not to come any further. On the second floor landing, they found the Lancelin women, their faces eyeless and beaten beyond recognition.
Madame Lancelin’s eyes were found in the folds of the scarf around her neck.
Assuming this was the work of a psychopathic intruder, the officers continued upstairs expecting to find the household’s two female servants in the same grisly condition, but when they arrived at the door to their quarters, it was locked from the inside, a candle still burning from within.
After forcing the door open, they found the Papin sisters, alive and well, clinging to each other in a shared bed.
On the bedside table beside them was a hammer, stained with blood and brain matter!
The Court Trial
The sisters immediately confessed to the crime, with Christine doing all the talking and Léa merely agreeing with her sister’s statements.
They did not express remorse and claimed only self-defense in form of a motive.
“It was her or us,” as Christine plainly put it.
By the next morning, the news of the crime had broken out all over France and French newspapers featured daily updates on the case.
The French public was divided on their opinion of what the fate of the Papin sisters should be; while a slight majority called for their heads, a smaller, but significant minority sympathized with the sisters, given their understanding of the miserable working conditions so common for domestic laborers.
Among these sympathizers were many of the intellectual elite of the day including Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Genet, who held the crime up as an example of class struggle.
The funeral for the Lancelin women was very well attended and was accompanied by foot soldiers.
However, the trial of the Papin sisters the following September, was even better attended and police were needed to control the crowds at the courthouse during its 13-hour duration.
Throughout the trial Christine behaved demurely and did not make eye contact, while Lea stared ahead vacantly as though in a state of shock.
While on the stand their only concern seemed to be that of protecting each other.
The sisters were represented by Pierre Chautemps and Germaine Brière who argued an insanity defense on their behalf.
The lawyers cited their mother and father, a cousin who died in an asylum, a grandfather prone to violent attacks of temper and an uncle who had committed suicide as evidence of a hereditary disposition toward insanity.
However, three medical experts for the prosecution testified that they had examined the Papin sisters and found them to be of sound mind.
Ultimately, the court found the sisters to be sane, and therefore, guilty.
The jury had taken the mutilation of the bodies and the fact that they had cleaned up afterward and gone to bed as if nothing were wrong as evidence of “cold-bloodedness” rather than madness.
The sentences were handed down.
Christine was condemned to death by guillotine in the public square at Le Mans on the 30th of September 1933, the news of which she received on her knees.
At the time, it was customary in France for the death sentences of female prisoners to be commuted before their execution was carried out, but at the time there was much speculation that, because of the exceedingly vile nature of the crime, this would not be the case for Christine Papin.
The court was more compassionate toward Lea, however, who was judged to have been under the power of her older sister, and sentenced her to 10 years of hard labor.
During Christine’s wait in the holding cell for the condemned, she appeared to become more and more mentally unstable.
She had violent fits and hallucinations followed by depressions where she refused to eat or drink, begging only to see her sister.
At one point in July 1933 she attempted to tear her own eyes out, after which she was confined to a straightjacket.
She later claimed to investigating magistrate that she was experiencing the same kind of “episode” she had experienced when she committed the murders of the Lancelins.
At one point the episodes became so bad, the warden relented and allowed her to see Léa.
Upon their reunion, Christine was reported to have behaved in a sexually inappropriate manner toward her younger sister, trying to unbutton her clothes and pleading with her to “say yes, please!”
On January 22, 1934, President Albert Lebrun issued a stay of execution for the elder Papin.
She was re-sentenced to a life term of hard labor but was transferred after only a few years to an insane asylum in Rennes.
She dwelt there only a few months before dying of cachexia, having wasted away due to self-imposed starvation, at the age of 32 on the 18th of May 1937.
Léa was released early from prison after serving eight years on good behavior in 1941, whereupon she went to live with her mother in Nantes and got a job as a hotel maid under a fake name.
Accounts vary in regard to the date of Léa’s death, with some sources reporting that she died in 1982 and others as late as 2001.
There was much dissecting of the case in its aftermath by psychologists, including Lacan, who believed that the Papin sisters had suffered from folie à deux, a shared paranoid psychosis, the symptoms of which included hearing voices and a sense of persecution and a capability for inciting violence in perceived self-defense against imagined threats, as well as inappropriate expression of sexuality.
Those afflicted with paranoia will often focus on a mother figure as a persecutor, and in this case the persecutor went from being their own mother to being Madame Lancelin.
In such cases, one half of the pair will often dominate the other as Christine dominated Léa.
Paranoid schizophrenia can be difficult to diagnose as the paranoid person can appear quite normal which is how the sisters would have likely come across to the prosecution at their trial.
One similar folie à deux case is the Parker-Hulme murder which took place in New Zealand in 1954, upon which the film Heavenly Creatures was based.
The Papin sisters’ crime continues to hold a macabre fascination for many, including writers and filmmakers.
Some popular works inspired and informed by the Papin sisters’ case that are available in English include:
A Judgment in Stone – a novel by Ruth Rendell
Sister, My Sister – a film by Nancy Meckler
and Murderous Maids – a film by Jean-Pierre Denis
Credit: Jessica Mason