Hello and welcome back to Paname; a podcast that pokes its nose into Paris’ past and reveals some of its less savoury stories not all of the suitable for children. In this episode we will be finding out about Frances most famous serial killer, a storybook monster come to life, Henri Desiré Landru, otherwise known as the real Blue Beard. Like his fictive namesake he had a full beard, even though it was not blue, and a propensity for murder.
Lets start with the original story of Barbe Bleu or Blue Beard.
It is an old French folk story of which the most famous surviving version dates back to 1697 although there are plenty of modern adaptations. It tells of a wealthy, powerful man who is, let’s say, far from easy on the eye and has the distinguishing feature of having a blue beard. Now he wanted to wed a young noble woman but she was not only put off by his peculiarly coloured facial hair, but also his reputation. He had been married a number of times already yet all of his wives had mysteriously disappeared. But after a prolonged and courtship he finally persuades the young woman to marry him. Then after a few months of married life he has to leave ‘on business’ and gives the keys to the chateau to his wife, telling her that she may go anywhere but to the forbidden room in the basement or face his wrath. Although she resists she is overcome with curiosity and eventually heads down to check out what is there and unsurprisingly she finds the bodies of his former wives. In horror she drops the key, which becomes covered with their blood and, this being a folk story, the blood magically sticks to they key and she is unable to wash it off no matter how hard she tries. Needless to say when he returns and discovers the key he knows what she has done and he is furious and vows that since she was so keen to see what was behind the forbidden door she can now go and join the others there permanently. She begs for a moment to say her prays before he kills and he gives her this, but instead uses this time to tell her sister, who was staying with her to call her brothers. The sister does so and, just in the nick of time the brothers arrive, kill bluebeard and save her. She then inherits everything. That is the story of Blue Beard, but who was the man who came to be known as the real Blue Beard?
Henry Desiré Landru was born in 1869 and lived in Bellville in the 19th art. He was born to poor but honest parents. He was very much a wanted child as his middle name ‘Desiré’ which literally means desired or wanted attests. He did well at school, and married his cousin Marie-Caherine Rémy and together they had four children. But later he would start a life of crime, first as a fraudster conning people out of their money, but he was caught and sent to prison on a number of occasions for this. Landru had trouble holding down a job and would also lie to his wife about what he was doing, inventing grandiose and important jobs for himself but in reality the truth was much more sinister. In 1914 the War in Europe begins and Landru takes advantage of the confusion and the vulnerability of many women who find themselves widowed at an early age at a time when a lone woman had little power and status. He placed a number of adverts in the lonely-hearts columns, describing himself as a widowed and wealthy man looking to marry. Sadly a number of women would fall for this ruse and meet an untimely end at his hands. This is how he met his first victim, 39-year-old Jeanne Cuchet, who had a 16-year-old son who after moving into his house they were never seen again. Landru then placed another advert on May 1 and attracted the attention of his next victim, Thérèse Laborde-Line. On June 21, she announced that she was to marry a Monsieur Cuchet and moved in with him; but again was never seen again. Landru immediately sold off her securities and personal belongings. Marie-Angélique Guillin answered the same advert and arrived on August 2nd at Landru’s Villa. She disappeared a few days later. Landru again sold her securities and, using forged papers, was able to obtain money from her bank account. Landru continued to use the same scam using a variety of aliases for 4 more years. Another 7 women disappeared after answering his ads and moving to his villa, totalling 11 victims: 10 women and one young man. The women cam from divers backgrounds and were different ages, he seemed to have to preference, apart from money and certainly no pity.
Needless to say the families of the missing women contacted the police concerned about their loved ones whereabouts. Some of them, of course, suspected the fiancée But because Landru used aliases to disguise his identity it was difficult to track him down or link the cases.
Then fate intervened. In April 1919 a friend of Madame Buisson, the 8th victim of Landru recognised him coming out of a porcelain shop on the Rue de Rivoli, accompanied by a woman. She ran to alert the police but by the time they get there the shop has closed. Undeterred the police found the owner and brough him back to the shop. He not only remembers the customer with the distinctive beard but as luck would have it he is able to provide a name and address. Landru had made an orderunder the name of Lucien Guillet and provided an address for delivery. Inspector Belin is in charge of the affair and is determined to get to the bottom of it. He decides not to take any risks of loosing this illusive individual and head straight to the address. Lets us go to.
Belin arrives at no 76 rue de Rochechouart in the 9th arrt. But by law police were not allowed to arrest him until 6am so the Inspector decides to spend the night directly outside his flat on the landing so as not to let this slippery individual get away. Finally at daybreak on the 12th of April 1919 – the very day of his 50th birthday they arrest him.
But the prisoner refuses to cooperate, he denies any knowledge of the missing women and seemed unconcerned at being arrested. Thankfully he had a criminal record so Inspector Belin was able to pass by the bureau of Anthropometry to find his file which of course contained his measurements, his real name and a mug shot. Landru could no longer claim that his name was Lucien Guillet and admitted his was indeed Landru. But that was all.
However, after arresting him police found his notebook concealed in an inside pocket. It contained a list of 11 names; some real some coded and details of money and expenses. Landru was meticulous but his attention to detail would in the end help to undo him. The 11 names suddenly became very interesting indeed. Some had been already reported missing but who were the others and how to find them? The press would help. His photo was published in all the newspapers, everyone was talking about it and thousands of people started coming forward. But sadly although they were able to discover the identity of the women in the book they were not able to find them, or their bodes. Where could they be?
Neighbours in Gambias, which is in the suburbs of Paris where Landru rented a property under one of his assumed names had already remarked the curious foul smelling smoke which would punctually emanate from this property, and the unusual bearded man who would often appear there accompanied by a different woman each time. When police investigate they would find a large stove and amongst the ashes some human bone fragments which were identified as coming from 6 hands, five feet and 47 teeth- from at least 4 different bodies. Finally the mystery of where the bodies had gone seemed to have been solved. And the expenses in his notebook made sense: on his way to Gambia he would buy two tickets – 1 a return the other a single. He knew in advance that only one of them would be needing a ticket for the way back to Paris.
Yet there was still, as hard as this seems to believe, a doubt as to his guilt. No body no crime claimed his lawyer, the talented and fascinating Maitre Moro-Giafferi who took this augment in a rather theatrical direction during the prosecution - claiming that the so called victims were not dead but alive and well and that he had brought 2 of them to the court as proof. All eyes turned expectantly to the doors hoping to see the women enter. You see, the lawyers was said to have exclaimed, you believe it is possible, you are not convinced that they are dead and therefore we cannot be convinced that my client is guilty. Unfortunately he was caught in his own game. One man did not turn to look at the door, Henri Desiré Landru knew full well that they would not be there.
Audio clip: 'Vilain Barbu' Charles Trenet.
In the end the jury deliberated for over two hours. Landru was found guilty and condemned to death. And on the 24th of February 1922 he was executed by guillotine in Versailles. On his way to the guillotine he thanked his lawyer for his hard work in defending him and Giafferi took this opportunity to ask him; tell me the truth, he whispered, now that you have nothing to lose, what is your secret? To which he replied, my secret is my luggage; I’ll take it with me.
He was buried, bar his head which is gruesomely is on display in a museum in California; quite how it got there I’m not sure. The rest of him was buried in cemetery in Versailles in a section reserved for those condemned to death, where later he would be joined by the equally infamous Eugene Weidmann who as well as also being a serial killer would be the last person to be publicly executed in France. The inscription from his tomb was removed to avoid sightseers and later his body was moved by his family.
Today, if you are curious to learn more, well there is a wealth of information, films, songs, books, comics documentaries dedicated to Landru, even Renaud has a song in which he features.
You can go to the Musée de la Prefecture de la Police photos of Landru, his victims, the stove as well as some of their objects.
Of the films made perhaps the Most notably is Monsieur Verdoux based on a synopsis by Orson Wells and made into a film by Charlie Chaplin in 1948 but set in 1930s America. Landru killed for money, he was cold and ruthless taking advantage of innocent women in the troubled troubled times that followed WWI. Chaplin’s Verdoux is ridiculous and a lot more sympathetic than Landru, it is after all a comedy. But his final message is indeed chilling and, considering the times very brave.
In case it was hard to make out he says: As for being a mass killer, does not the world encourage it? Is it not building weapons of destruction for the sole purpose of mass killing? Has it not blown unsuspecting women and little children to pieces, and done it very scientifically? As a mass killer, I am an amateur by comparison.
Chaplin was of course not defending Landru, or any serial killer but rather using this film as a vehicle to denounce the madness of war and to maybe to empathise with people who found themselves in an impossible situation following the financial crash in the US and the depression that followed.
As for his victims, they sadly never received a proper burial; their bodies were never discovered for good reason. However in 1955 the burnt remains, which had been found at Gambias, were buried beneath a weeping willow in the Jardin des Plantes.
Thank you so much for listening to the podcast, I hope you have enjoyed it, if so feel free to leave a message or find me on social media. All information can be found on my website Panamepodcast.com. As well as pictures for this episode. Take care. Bye.