The Man without a Conscience

Henri Landru, murderer

He was shorter than most, with a bald head and a long, brownish-red beard which gave him the appearance of some mythical forest creature. His brows were thick and bushy and arched above his dark eyes, giving the impression that he was always shocked or surprised. By physical appearance, Henri Landru looked more like a clown than a killer who swindled more than 300 women out of their life savings.
 
But there was something special about this bourgeois second-hand furniture dealer without a conscience that vulnerable women found irresistible. And for 10 of them, their willingness to believe the lies Landru told them would cost them more than their meager fortunes — the price they paid for falling under the spell of this wretch was their lives.
 
Born of parents of modest means in 1869, Landru’s childhood and early years were nondescript. Young Henri was a bright lad who attended Catholic school and was admitted as a sub-deacon in the religious order of St. Louis en l’Isle. By his teen years Landru had realized that he was clever and glib with the ladies. In 1891, he seduced his cousin, Mademoiselle Remy, who became pregnant and bore him a daughter.
 
He was drafted and excelled in military life, rising to the rank of sergeant. Two years after enlisting Landru married Mlle. Remy, while he was quartermaster of the regiment at St. Quentin.

His Early Crimes

Upon discharge Landru went into business as a clerk. His employer, however, was unscrupulous and absconded with the money Landru had given him as a bond. Incensed with this blow which fate had dealt, Landru made a vow to get revenge through a life of crime.
 
Despite his standing as a deacon and member of the choir of his church, Landru became a part-time swindler. His targets were most often the middle-aged widows he met through his legitimate furniture business. Faced with the prospect of long, lonely, poverty-stricken lives, these women came to him to sell their possessions. Landru would prey on their fears and in addition to taking their possessions, wooed his victims and enticed them to let him invest their meager pensions, which he promptly stole.
 
The scam worked well until 1900 when Landru made his first appearance in a French courtroom, being sentenced to a two-year prison term for fraud.
 
For the next decade, Landru was in and out of prisons seven times — spending more time inside a cell than out. He remained married to Remy and together they had four children. Sometime around 1908, he apparently struck upon the scheme that would eventually bring him to the guillotine.
 
In that year, Landru, already serving a sentence in a Parisian prison for fraud, was brought to Lille to stand trial for another scam. He had placed a matrimonial advertisement in a newspaper, portraying himself as a well-to-do widower seeking the companionship of a similarly situated widow. In return for some counterfeit deeds, Landru persuaded a 40-year-old widow to part with a 15,000-franc dowry. Madame Izore was left destitute and sought recompense through the courts. She would have to content herself with the knowledge that Landru would serve an additional three years, for the dowry (worth about $50,000 in current dollars) was gone.
 
He was released shortly before World War I, most likely with the understanding that he would re-enlist in the French Army. He had already driven his father to suicide over his lawlessness and left his family penniless and humiliated. Rather than serve his country in the middle of a horrific war, he drifted around the countryside, well aware of the fact that he had been convicted in absentia for various other offenses and sentenced to lifelong transportation to New Caledonia, in the Coral Sea west of Australia, certainly not the appropriate place for gentleman like himself, he thought.

Motivation

Once the war started, Landru, who was estranged from Remy, began the scams that led to his downfall. Perhaps it was the war with its heretofore-unknown measure of death that turned Landru into a murderer; perhaps it was the years spent in harsh French prisons, or perhaps it was something else.
The Earl of Birkenhead, eminent Oxford don (a professor or lecturer) and author of Famous Trials of History, discounted the theory that Landru was driven by bloodlust to kill his female suitors. “There seems to be no evidence of that,” he wrote in the 1929 follow-up to Famous Trials.

A man who embarks on this kind of adventure must shake himself free of entanglement…It is therefore inevitable that a proportion of the women would be difficult to shake off and some must have shown no great disposition to hand over their property. The obvious means of overcoming their attachment was to destroy them, and to do so was only too easy…We must therefore postulate that he was callous and inhuman — an assumption which offers no difficulty, seeing that his very mode of life was impossible for any other kind of man.

His method of killing is unknown, but evidence at his villa suggests that the slayings were most likely quick and clean, and that the victims were probably not defiled in any way. Lust was not his primary motive, and he is among the minority of serial killers where anger, revenge or sexual release are at best secondary motivators.

Landru’s Wives

In 1914 the following advertisement appeared in the Paris newspapers: “Widower with two children, aged 43, with comfortable income, serious and moving in good society, desires to meet widow with a view to matrimony.”
 
For a French war widow facing a life of loneliness and penury in the depressed economy of wartime France, such an advertisement must have seemed heaven-sent. Landru, who placed the ad, had no trouble meeting women. Determining just who Landru wooed and when is naturally difficult and by the dates of his murders, it is clear that he had multiple scams going at a time. His reliance on aliases helps muddy the picture.
 
The first woman to meet this predator was Mme. Cuchet, a 39-year-old woman with a 16-year-old son, Andre. Cuchet worked in a lingerie shop in Paris and was barely keeping her head above water when she made Landru’s acquaintance. He told her his name was Monsieur Diard and that he was an engineer. Their relationship flourished over time but was not without its ups-and-downs.
 
Landru’s scheme was almost revealed before it had a chance to flower after Cuchet and the man she called Diard had a falling-out. Cuchet begged her family and brother-in-law to accompany her to Landru’s villa near Chantilly, with the hopes of ironing out their differences. Landru was not in when they arrived, but the family apparently felt enough at home to search the the place. Her brother-in-law found a chest filled with many letters from other women, and informed Cuchet that her lover was a fraud.
 
She chose to disregard her family’s advice to dump Landru, and instead furnished a villa at Vernouillet, outside Paris and became estranged from her family. The last time Cuchet and Andre were seen alive was in January 1915. Shortly after the three moved into Vernouillet, Landru opened a bank account with 5,000 francs, which he claimed was part of his inheritance from his father. In all likelihood the money came from Cuchet. Soon after Cuchet’s disappearance, Landru’s wife was presented with Cuchet’s watch as a present.
 
His next victim was an Argentine named Mme. Laborde-Line, the widow of a hotelier. She told friends that she was planning to marry a charming engineer from Brazil, but frustrated with the red tape, the pair decided to dispense with the ceremony and move in together. Afterward a man that her former neighbors identified as Landru came back and collected her furniture, sending some to his villa and the rest to a garage. Laborde-Line was last seen in July 1915, when she arrived at the villa with her two dogs.
 
Mme. Guillin, a 51-year-old widow whose full name was Marie Angelique Desiree Pelletier, was last seen at the villa a month later. Also in 1915, Mme. Heon visited Vernouillet and disappeared. Whether or not there were others between the murders of Heon and 19-year-old Mlle. Andree Babelay, a servant girl who disappeared in early 1917 en route to visiting her mother, only heaven knows. Why Babelay was killed is also a mystery; she had no money of her own.
 
After Babelay disappeared, Landru left Vernouillet for a new villa in Gambais and promptly had a large cast-iron oven installed. He laid low for a time but soon returned to his murderous ways.
 
Landru had been courting Mme. Buisson, a wealthy widow, for nearly a year before he succeeded in creating an estrangement from her family. She moved with him to Gambais without her son, who went to live with his aunt. In April 1917, Buisson was seen for the last time.
 
His next victim at Gambais was Mme. Louise Leopoldine Jaume, who disappeared in September 1917. After her disappearance, Landru’s new neighbors in Gambais noticed black, noxious smoke pouring from his villa.
 
Mme. Annette Pascal, 38, followed Jaume by vanishing in the spring of 1918, and finally, Mme. Marie Therese Marchadier, an “entertainer” known among the non-commissioned officers of French Army as “La Belle Mythese” and who had retired to relative anonymity in Paris, was visited by Landru who wanted to purchase her furniture. A friendship blossomed and she accompanied the murderer to Gambais in late 1918 and promptly disappeared.
 
In all, at least 10 women and one boy (and two dogs) had disappeared after meeting Landru, yet no police had ever suspected him of any misdeeds. It would take a pair of anxious families to bring Landru at long last to justice.

The Arrest and Investigation of Landru


Landru had taken great pains to separate his victims from their families, but after their deaths, he took equally strong measures to reassure the families that their loved ones were well.
 
Most killers for financial gain do not destroy the evidence of their victims’ deaths. In insurance or inheritance scams, proof of death is often required — few killers want to wait a decade or so to collect their ill-gotten reward. But Landru obviously took great pains to cover up his crimes. He sought to avoid detection and make it look like his victims were still alive. Two of Guillin’s friends received postcards from Landru saying that Guillin was unable to write herself. He forged a letter from Buisson to her dressmaker and another to the concierge of her Paris apartment. Landru represented himself as the attorney of Jaume, who was divorcing her husband, and successfully closed out her bank accounts.
 
Two years after Buisson met Landru her son passed away. Obviously the family wanted to notify her, but was unable to find her. Her sister remembered that Buisson had whispered her intention of running away to Gambais with a “Monsieur Guillet.” She wrote to the mayor of Gambais, seeking help in locating either Buisson or Guillet. The mayor replied that he knew of neither of them, but perhaps she should meet the family of a Mme. Collomb, who was also missing in Gambais. She had vanished under similar circumstances. Collomb disappeared after meeting Landru in early 1917.
 
The tenant of the villa in question, the mayor told the family of Buisson, was not Monsieur Fremiet, the fiance of Collomb, or Guillet, the fiance of Buisson, but M. Dupont. However, when the police went to Villa Ermitage, as Landru’s estate was known, they could not find Fremiet, Dupont, Diard or Landru. The villa was unoccupied but recently lived in.
 
Mlle. Lacoste, Buisson’s sister, was not discouraged. She had seen “Guillet” so she began combing the streets of Paris near his old residence looking for him. In 1919, her search paid off. She spotted Landru coming out of a dry goods shop and followed him, only to lose him in the crowd. She returned to the store and found out that the man’s name was not Guillet, but Frimiet, and that he lived in the Rue de Rochechouart with his mistress. Immediately, the police were summoned and Landru was arrested.
 
But on what charge should he be held, the authorities wondered. Clearly murder was suspected, but where was the body? There was no evidence that Landru had killed anyone and the strong-willed killer was unwilling to discuss anything with authorities.
 
They returned to Gambais, where a thorough search was undertaken. The gardens were excavated looking for bones, but the only remains police found were those of a pair of dogs. They searched his old villa at Vernouillet and came up equally empty. All the police had to go on was a cryptic memorandum book where Landru had meticulously recorded his income and expenses.
 
But within the copious notes were several names that interested authorities. On one page was the entry: “A Cuchet, G. Cuchet, Bresil, Crozatier, Havre. Ct. Buisson, A. Collomb, Andree Babelay, Mme. Louis (sic) Jaume, A. Pascal, Mme Thr. Mercadier.” Buisson and Collomb were missing and the authorities soon learned that the whereabouts of the Cuchets were also in question. They suspected this was a list of victims. But again, they had no bodies.
 
Confident in the erroneous knowledge that he could not be convicted of murder without a body, Landru kept silent and refused to talk with police. For two years, authorities investigated the disappearances of his victims, yet Landru never admitted anything. Slowly, they learned that each of the women in the ledger met Landru through his marriage advertisements and disappeared. Stupidly, Landru recorded the purchase of one-way tickets from Paris to Gambais for each of his victims, while marking round-trip tickets for himself.
 
The gardens in Gambais and Vernouillet were dug up time and time again. Authorities tried to link Landru to purchases of acids and other chemicals, to no avail. Finally, neighbors at Gambais told authorities of the noxious fumes that often emanated from the kitchen. The stove that Landru had installed shortly after his arrival in Gambais was inspected and horrific evidence of murder was uncovered.
 
In the ashes police found small bones, undoubtedly human, as well as burned, but still recognizable fasteners of the kind worn on the clothes of French women. Landru had disposed of his victims by burning their remains. How they were killed was still a mystery, but what had happened to Mmes. Collomb and Buisson, as well as the nine others, was clear.
 
Two years after his arrest, Landru was charged with 11 counts of murder and set for trial.

France’s Trial of the Century


There is little doubt that Landru’s trial captivated his countrymen. Consider the time it occurred. He was arrested in April 1919 at his home in Paris with his mistress, 27-year-old Mlle. Fernande Segret, whom he had picked up on an bus in the city. France was still recovering from the bloodiest war in the history and the peace talks at Versailles were not going well for them. Shortages and economic depression abounded and a case that promised sex, gossip and gruesome killing was delightfully played up by the papers as a diversion from the dreary day-to-day life of post-war France.
 
Landru’s trial began in November 1921 and lasted nearly a month.
 
The French system of justice had been instituted in 1848 and while not, as is commonly believed, assuming the guilt of the accused until innocence is proven, it is heavily weighted against the person on trial. Not only does the chief judge of the three-judge panel serve as an interrogator, the French allow questioning of the accused for the sake of investigation in front of the jury during the trial. The French system also allows relatives of the victim to bring suit for damages during the course of the trial, and the victims’ legal counsel can question the accused and argue before the jury. Often the defendant is expected to rebut any adverse claims by witnesses immediately after the testimony concludes.
 
Clinging to his mistaken belief that he could not be convicted without evidence of a body, Landru’s defense was essentially to stonewall the court. Time after time he would refuse to answer questions and would reply that it was no one else’s business what he knew of their disappearances. For days he stood before withering interrogation by the court without changing his story.
 
“I have nothing to say,” he said over and over, much to the frustration of observers. Every time new evidence was unearthed, Landru merely shrugged his shoulders and denied everything or refused to discuss it.
 
“What of your relationship with Mme. Guillin?” he was asked in open court.
 
“I am a gallant man and will say nothing,” Landru replied to the exasperated magistrate. “I cannot think of revealing the nature of my relations with Mme. Guillin without the lady’s permission.”
 
During the course of the trial Landru’s health began to fail. He began to provide statements of “fact” in response to questions, but the prosecution easily refuted his allegations. His strategy was a tactical blunder, wrote Lord Birkenhead.
 
“Where explanations are obviously needed,” he wrote, “the failure to afford these explanations…will tend to confirm the inference.”
 
Landru’s impudence before the court clearly grated on the jury. His evasions and quickness to answer with sarcasm only succeeded in proving that he was the kind of man who would deceive women like his victims.
 
It took the jury just two hours – after nearly 25 days of testimony – to decide Landru had killed the 11 women. The penalty for such a crime was death.
 
French justice is swift. Just two months passed from the time of his conviction until Landru received word that his execution was imminent. The French system did not inform the condemned until very shortly before the execution.
 
The guillotine is a curious method of execution and although it is generally held to be humane, there is some question about how quickly one dies after being decapitated. Two doctors in the 1960s wrote that “death is not instantaneous. Every vital element survives decapitation…it is a savage vivisection followed by premature burial.” Drs. Piedlievre and Fournier go on to discuss how the brain is capable of breaking down complex sugars in the neurons into oxygen for as long as six minutes after decapitation.
 
Regardless, in February 1922, Landru was brought before the guillotine.
 
Landru bade farewell to his attorneys and presented them with some artwork he had drawn while in prison. Had they looked inside the frame, his attorneys would have found a written confession from Landru admitting his crimes and the means by which he disposed of the bodies, but this was not discovered until nearly five decades later. He declined to hear a Mass and rejected the traditional glass of brandy from his jailer. Landru indignantly refused to make a statement, saying the very question was an insult.
 
Landru stood before the guillotine, which had been the preferred form of execution in France since its revolution a little over a century before. He knelt down and within moments, the blade had fallen ending the life and crimes one of the coldest mass murderers of all time.