A bloody eye on the stairs!
Those words were my first encounter with the Papin sisters, and I was about nine years old. Somehow, one of my classmates had found out about these two sordid murderesses from a far away past and had told me. For me, especially as a child, it was too gruesome for words and, I must admit, I long suspected my friend of having told me a tall tale.
Alas, she had not! The only mistake she’d made in relating the true-life tale was that the eye hadn’t been wrenched out with a spoon as she’d told me, but with bare hands. The hands of two sisters who had probably gone mad.
For most people across the Atlantic Ocean, Le Mans is mostly known for its twenty-four-hour car race. It’s also a very peaceful city, with a particularly attractive historical city center, especially in the vicinity of the cathedral.
The double murder took place on February 2, 1933. That evening, René Lancelin, a solicitor and insurance broker, came home to find the door to his home on rue Bruyère locked and bolted from the inside. The light in the room of his two maids was on. His wife, Léonie Lancelin, née Rinjard, and his twenty-year-old daughter, Geneviève, were supposed to have joined him for dinner at a friend’s house. Lancelin called the police. The commissaire arrived with two police officers and a clerk. It should be noted that the two police officers’ names were Ragot (Gossip) and Verité (Truth). Truth is what everyone would be looking for; gossip is what they would find.
What the police found after breaking a back door was unimaginable: first, an eye on the stairs, then the corpses of the lady of the house and her daughter, both killed and slashed like rabbits in 1900 French cookbooks. Both women had been knocked unconscious, bled to death, had had their eyes wrenched out while they were still alive, and had their thighs and legs lacerated.
The maids, Christine and Léa Papin, were both found in bed after having cleaned themselves and changed into housecoats. In answer to police questioning, both sisters asserted they had had to defend themselves against their mistresses.
Ever since that day, that case has raised the constant question of the sanity and the humanity of the accused. Journalists were obviously the first to write about the case, but many artists have also raised the same interrogations.
In 1934, Jean Cocteau wrote a spoken song for Marianne Oswald called Anna la Bonne (Anna the Maid) about a servant (called Annabel Lee, in reference to Poe’s poem) who poisons her mistress. One year after the Papin murders, however, everyone got the true meaning of the song. In 1947, Jean Genet used the song in his play, Les Bonnes, which was clearly influenced by the Papin case, even if Genet himself always denied it. Nikos Papatakis adapted Genet’s play for the screen in 1963. Both Jean-Paul Sartre (in The Wall) and Simone de Beauvoir (in The Coming of Age and Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter) wrote about the two murderesses. The surrealists were also fascinated by the case and described the two sisters as victims of class struggle. But more interestingly here, Jacques Lacan, who had just completed his Ph.D on paranoid psychosis, became engrossed in the Papin case also. Ruth Rendell’s Judgement in Stone and Claude Chabrol’s adaptation of the novel, La Cérémonie, also echo this case. Jean-Pierre Denis, in 2000, tried to be more faithful to the original case when he directed Les Blessures Assassines. It is, however, interesting to note that the fascination for this French case crossed the Channel when Nancy Meckler directed Sister My Sister in 1994.
To aid in understanding the case, I will outline the facts. Christine (1905-1937) and Léa Papin (1911-2001) were the daughters of an ill-assorted couple who separated when the mother found out the father had been molesting their eldest daughter, Emilia. When Emilia left home to become a nun, her two younger sisters became very close. They had no one else in the world to care for them. The mother, who lacked motherly instincts, placed her two daughters in various homes, generally as maids, and took away most of their earnings.
Christine was finally hired as cook in the Lancelin household in 1926; Léa became a maid with the same family two months later when the Lancelins hired her on Christine’s recommendation. They were both rather well paid for the time, and René Lancelin even provided them with insurance should any accident befall them. For the first time, they were working together and, from then on, Christine took her role as a mother substitute very seriously. After a while, both sisters refused to turn their salary over to their mother and ceased to be in contact with their family altogether.
In 1931, both sisters went to see the mayor of the city, apparently in a certain state of stress and confusion, accusing the Lancelins of persecuting and sequestering them. They also accused the mayor of taking the Lancelins’ side in the affair. The mayor advised the family to dismiss their maids, which they didn’t do because the Papin sisters were “perfect maids.” This expression tends to indicate that something is too good to be true (as Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple later pointed out in “The Case of the Perfect Maid” published in Miss Marple’s Final Cases and Two Other Stories).
On the day of the murders, the sisters had just had their iron repaired, and Christine was taking care of a pile of linen that needed ironing when a fuse blew, and the house ended up in darkness.
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