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In early 20th century France, two young sisters capture the attention of the entire country after participating in a heinous double murder. Did the women suffer from undiagnosed mental illnesses or were they simply sick and tired of being sick and tired? We’ll find out what the French courts decided but, if you’re like me, you may come to a different conclusion.
Christine and Lea Papin were sisters- born to Clemence Derre and Gustave Papin. There was an older sister, Emilia, who was thought to have been conceived by way of an affair Clemence had with her employer. When she got pregnant, Gustave and Clemence married. Five months later, in March of 1902, Emilia was born. Gustave became convinced the child wasn’t his. The marriage went to hell, but Clemence sent Emilia away to a Catholic orphanage. While there, Emilia found her calling and became a nun.
Christine was born in March of 1905. Clemence sent her to live with her father’s sister and her husband, where she thrived for seven years. From there, she was also sent to the Catholic orphanage. When she decided to follow in her older sister’s footsteps her mother was having none of that. See, in those days, a parent could place their children in employment and would receive the child’s pay leaving the kid with a small allowance. This is what Clemence did with Christine and her next daughter, Lea who was born in September of 1911. Lea was raised by her mother’s brother until his death. Then she went- you guessed it- to the Catholic orphanage.
It seems like a horrible thing to do to your child, but there are reasons a parent would send their children away. For instance, in the cases of the Papin children, Clemence may have been trying to protect them from their father. Once the marriage between them began to breakdown, Gustave became a raging alcoholic. It was also proven that he had molested Emilia. So maybe Clemence was just a horrible parent, but it’s also possible she sent them away for noble reasons.
Christine and Lea had very different personalities, but both were hard workers. Christine could be a bit mouthy while Lea was quiet and obedient. Christine’s work ethic gave her a little sway with her employers and she would petition for her sister to come work with her. In 1926, they found employment as live-in maids at the home of the Lancelin family: Rene, Leonie, and Genevieve.
Leonie, the wife of Rene, was the woman of the house. She was quite particular about the way she wanted her home to be cared for and she could be cruel when things weren’t up to her expectations. Christine and Lea sometimes were abused if Leonie wasn’t satisfied with their performance. This abuse got worse over the years because of Leonie’s deteriorating mental health.
In 1933, shit finally hit the fan.
On February 2, 1933, the Lancelin’s were planning to attend a dinner party. Leonie and Genevieve went shopping to prepare for the evening. Rene Lancelin would pick them up from home and they would travel to the friend’s home together.
When he returned as expected, he noticed that the house was completely dark. He assumed that his wife and daughter had gone ahead to their friend’s house. When he arrived to the party, he quickly noticed that they weren’t there. Along with his son-in-law, Rene went back to the family home, which was still bathed in darkness except for the light in the maid’s quarters.
The door was bolted from the inside- which was just as odd as the total darkness of the house. The men galloped off to summon the police. The officer who returned with them gained entry to the home via climbing a wall in the garden. What he found was the stuff of nightmares. I will attempt to describe the scene in detail without being gory.
The Lancelin women, Leonie and Genevieve, lay on the floor, pools of blood around them. They had been victims of a gruesome bludgeoning and their eyes had been gouged from their heads. The elder woman’s eyes were found in a scarf she had worn around her neck. She had also been stabbed a number of times, leaving her nearly unrecognizable.
Genevieve’s eyes were found in separate locations- one underneath her body and the other on the staircase. Upon seeing the state of his family, Rene’s thoughts then turned to his maids. The men were certain that another grisly scene awaited them, and they went throughout the home looking for the girls.
The policeman approached the door to their quarters and found it locked. He knocked several times to no avail. Instead of just kicking the door in, he called a locksmith who arrived and opened the door. There, the group was horrified to find the Papin sisters, naked and huddled together in bed. On a chair in the room was a hammer- streaked in blood and the hair of the victims. When asked if they had killed the Lancelin women, the sisters readily admitted they did. And thus began what can only be described as the O.J. case of early 20th century France.
The murders- not only the HOW but also the WHY- captivated the entire country. The Lancelin family employed these young women for 7 years. What could have caused them to snap? It turns out, the young ladies had just about had it with Mrs. Lancelin’s abuse.
When Leonie and Genevieve were out shopping, Lea and Christine were doing their chores. Christine went to plug in the iron and it knocked the power out. The iron had a short in its plug. Shortly afterward, the Lancelin women returned home to a dark house. When the sisters explained what happened with the iron, it pissed Leonie off. She attacked Christine, as she had done many times before, but this time was different. Christine. Fought. Back.
When it appeared Genevieve intended to step in, Lea attacked her. They, for all intents and purposes, whipped the crap out of the mother and daughter. And, this may have been a case of defending themselves had they just stopped at whipping their asses. Unfortunately, this turned into a literal bloodbath. With what I can only assume was years of pent up frustration, the girls unleashed their fury long after the Lancelin’s were dead. It is presumed that the attack continued for at least two hours, with the sisters finding a multitude of weapons in the course of the murders.
The revelations of the events leading up to the killings split the community right down the class lines. Some people believed the young ladies had lost their minds after years of abuse by Leonie Lancelin, others thought of the attack as cold-blooded murder. Then there was the business of the Papin’s being found nude in bed together. Was this some type of incestuous relationship? Many of the citizens of LeMans couldn’t fathom why these girls would be naked- in bed- together.
The rumors of an incestuous affair ramped up even more when Christine begged to see her sister. When finally allowed to see her, Christine ran to Lea and ripped at her blouse screaming, “Please say yes!” After being separated again, Christine had to be placed in a straight jacket after attempting to gouge her own eyes out.
Lea didn’t seem as disturbed about the separation as Christine, but she was the more timid of the two. It was also thought that she was not as intelligent as her sister so Christine was extremely protective of her.
After being found guilty, the shy and naïve nature of Lea may have played in her favor during sentencing. She received a ten-year sentence in prison. On the other hand, Christine- who many believed to be the ringleader- received the death penalty. Her sentence was later commuted to life in prison. Life wouldn’t turn out to be long for Christine- being separated from her sister drove her insane. She stopped eating, then was transferred to a mental institution. She died May 18, 1937.
Lea served eight of her 10 years. She was released from prison and reunited with her mother, Clemence. They moved to a town called Nantes, where Lea took on an assumed name. She supported herself by working as a maid in a hotel.
She lived a long life on the straight and narrow after serving her time. She passed away in either 1982 or 2001- a filmmaker is certain he visited her in a nursing home in 2000. The sisters had not been insane at the time of the murders according to their psychological exams, but modern psychologists believe they suffered from “Shared Paranoid Disorder”. Also known as Folie a deux, shared paranoid disorder is an unusual mental disorder characterized by sharing a delusion among two or more people who are in a close relationship. We may want to keep that definition in our pocket for next week’s crime.
This is a really old case, and I am struggling to find a nugget of wisdom to take away from it all. I’m stretching here, because I have no way of knowing if things would have turned out different if Leonie had treated those girls better. I know the Papin sisters worked in several other homes and never killed the families. The sisters only ever had each other. Their mother kind of sucked, their dad definitely sucked. They worked 14-hour days with a half-day off per week, so I’m going to imagine they didn’t have many friends. In my opinion, this is cruel. Perhaps there’s something to the idea that being of a lower station and regularly abused contributed to their delusions. The moral of this story is possibly to treat others as you would like to be treated.
That’s it, that’s all.
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