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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.

Cold Feet

Porter and Giancola

If the groom is going to be murdered on his wedding day, we expect the killer to be a jilted lover driven to madness by a broken heart or a rival suitor of the bride who cannot stand to let another take his place. In these cases their crime is motivated by jealousy inflamed by passion. We do not expect that the woman who arranged the murder to be the groom’s sister who wanted him killed for the insurance money.
 
For doing exactly that Marie Porter holds the dubious place in history of being the first woman to die in Illinois’s electric chair. It is an honor she well deserves.
 
For acting as the actual triggerman in the 1937 murder, Angelo Ralph Giancola, 21, preceded Porter to the chair. His story is not new: A weak young man duped into committing murder by a stronger-willed older woman. He is unique in the annals of crime as the only killer whose case of poison ivy proved to be fatal.
 
For his lesser role in the plot, John, Anthony’s younger brother, received a sentence of 99 years.
 
The crime committed by the 38-year-old, 250-pound widow and her young lover was so heinous that even the state’s governor, staunchly anti-death penalty, refused to commute her sentence as he had done for every other woman condemned to be executed.
 
At their sentencing, the judge said the crime shocked the conscience.
 
“If there ever was a more deliberate, premeditated, cold-blooded and atrocious murder. I’ve never heard of it.” Judge Dick A. Mudge said in passing sentence. “I have earnestly, but in vain, examined the record to find some mitigating circumstance in connection with this crime.”
 
The seeds of Porter’s plan to kill her younger brother, William Kappen, were planted back in 1935 when Porter’s husband was gunned down by her father during an argument. The old man was judged insane and taken to an asylum. Porter collected a decent insurance settlement on her husband’s death, but with four children to feed and clothe, she was soon facing the threat of poverty. For reasons known only to herself she chose murder as the answer to her problems.
 
Her criminally insane elderly father was not much help — as a potential victim — so she began looking at other relatives. After careful consideration she settled on William. Her brother had never married and named his poverty-stricken sister as the beneficiary of a $3,000 life insurance policy (A bit more than 50K today).
 
In the early days of 1937 Marie became involved with the bricklayer Giancola, taking the young man as her lover. Almost immediately, she told police, she began planting the idea that Kappen needed to be “put away” (the term is hers).
 
Her main argument, to which Giancola testified at their trial, was not that they would live like royalty on a one-time 3-grand payout, nor was it that she would use the money to support her four daughters, the eldest of whom was 15. Instead, in between lovemaking sessions Porter said Kappen had been relying on her support for years and now it was time to pay back.
 
“I carried my brother through the Depression,” she later told police. “And when he told me he was going to get married, I didn’t want him to, because he still owed me a good sum of money.”
 
Once Giancola surrendered to her coaxing, the pair started researching various ways to kill Kappen. After her arrest for her brother’s murder, Porter discussed the mechanics of the crime with cold dispatch.
 
“We discussed drowning him but this didn’t seem advisable, for Bill was a good swimmer,” she said. “We also thought about pushing him off a bluff at Riverview Park. That was several months ago.”
 
On July 4 police in Belleville, Illinois, on east side of the Mississippi about 15 miles from St. Louis were alerted to the body of a man on a deserted stretch of road. Clues at the scene made it obvious that the man had been kidnapped.
 
“The man had dressed hastily, for he wore no underclothing,” a reporter in the American Weekly wrote. “Two blood-soaked handkerchiefs were found in a poison ivy weed. The gun was not found.”
 
St. Louis had a very active underworld at the time and the crime had all of the earmarks of a gang rubout. Thus the case was treated for about 24 hours by investigators, until a jilted bride came forward with a mysterious tale.
 
Irene Traub was the wife-to-be of Bill Kappen who, the day before, was left at the altar of St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in St. Louis. She said she had not spoken to Bill since July 2, the day before the intended wedding. There was nothing in his demeanor that indicated he was getting cold feet.
 
Irene told police that after the initial tears had passed, her sadness turned into anger and she was determined to find Bill and hold him to account. At least that was her plan until she read in the paper that Illinois police had the body of an unidentified man whose description matched Bill’s.
 
Before taking her fears to the police Irene went to Bill’s apartment to see if it held any clues to Bill’s actions. The scene in the flat fit the clues at the crime scene the way a key fits its lock.
 
“Neatly pressed, the bridegroom’s wedding suit was laid out on the bed which had either been freshly made or not slept in the night before,” reported American Weekly.
 
Bill was interrupted in the process of getting ready for a bath. The tub was half-filled with water, but the washcloth and soap looked undisturbed.
 
One clue was difficult to explain, however. Bill was not a smoker, but several cigarette butts were crushed into the carpet in his bedroom. This indicates someone else was in the apartment, of course, but were they lying in wait or did they arrive after Bill?
 
If the killers were waiting to kidnap Bill, why was he allowed to start a bath? If he had been in a long conversation with someone he knew, why had he dressed so quickly? Why would he allow someone to grind out their cigarettes on his rug?
 
Irene was taken to the morgue where she identified Bill’s body.
 
Police quickly established that Kappen was in no way connected with St. Louis organized crime and had no known enemies. There was only one person who would benefit from his death and that was his sister, Marie Porter.
 
She was brought into the station for an interview that quickly turned into an interrogation. The cops had done their homework in a very short time and confronted Porter with their knowledge of her young lover, and said he was being interviewed in a nearby room. If they had hoped this would loosen her tongue they were sadly mistaken.
 
Down the hall Giancola was quite uncomfortable, and not just because of the bad case of poison ivy that was driving him crazy. It was his scratching that really broke the case wide open because it unquestionably put him at the scene of the crime and was something he could not explain away. One does not simply walk around urban St. Louis and catch a case of poison ivy.
 
Confronted with this, Giancola gave his first confession which was mostly bogus.


I met Mrs. Porter on the night of the murder and she gave me $10 to hire an automobile. She told me to drive to Kappen’s home. I waited outside and half an hour later she and Bill came out together. She got in the back seat and Bill got in front with me. We stopped at a roadside tavern for some drinks. Bill was getting worried, for he was going to be married the next morning. We told him we would get him back in time. As we drove out toward Belleville, Mrs. Porter called to Bill. As he turned around I heard a shot and he slumped over toward me…

Parts of the confession are truthful: he explained that he caught the poison ivy after using the handkerchiefs to wipe blood off his hands and clothes, and the murder occurred where he said it did — at least in the geographic sense.
 
The immediate destruction of the relationship between the widow and the bricklayer, forged with such fragile bonds, probably happened like Giancola said.
 
“She told me if I said anything it would be too bad for me,” he confessed.
 
There was no blood in the car and the amount at the scene indicated Bill was standing beside the car when he was shot point-blank. No witnesses could be found who could place Porter with either Bill or Giancola.
 
This looked as if it was going to be one of those cases where guilt could be established everywhere except in a court of law.
 
Murderers must lack two emotional traits to be successful. They must not possess any moral compunction against killing and they must not fear being caught and punished. Those who kill know this by consciousness — without thinking about it at all — while the rest of us shake our heads in bafflement. But one thing that people who play close attention to crime instinctively know, but which killers do not count on, is that murder brings on feelings of guilt and a never-ending feeling of impending doom.
 
In this case, those unexpected emotions proved too much for one young man to bear, and in an attempt to ease his conscience, Giancola’s brother, John, whom police had not even considered as a suspect, appeared at the detective bureau and promptly confessed everything.
 
John not only implicated himself in the crime, he said his brother pulled the trigger while he stood by as a willing participant. The motive was $800 promised by Porter. The timing was the forthcoming nuptials.
 
“Last Friday night she said she couldn’t wait another day because Bill was going to get married,” he confessed. “He would probably sign over his insurance to his wife. Mrs. Porter said she would bury her brother and give us $800 out of the insurance money.”
 
Giancola and Porter quickly folded and confessed.
 
At trial the goal of the Giancola brothers was to make sure Porter shared whatever fate was in store. Both men took the stand, confessed their guilt, pointed a finger at Porter as the ringleader and threw themselves on the mercy of the court.
 
Porter’s “They Acted Alone” defense was a miserable failure and three guilty verdicts were returned. Appeals were quickly dismissed and the punishments were allowed to stand.
 
The executions were placed on hold after the mother of Giancola, desperate to save her son’s life, convinced the lieutenant governor who was acting as temporary governor in the absence of his boss that she had new evidence that would save her child. The new evidence — Porter gave Giancola a sexually transmitted disease — was not enough to tilt the scales of justice in the young man’s favor.
 
On January 27, 1938, the governor of Illinois said he could not find any justification for granting clemency to “stolid Mrs. Marie Porter or to Angelo Ralph Giancola, the handsome youth she hired to kill her brother,” the Associated Press reported.
 
The next day, shortly after midnight, Giancola and Porter died, one after the other, in the electric chair. From start to finish the executions took under an hour. The two condemned prisoners, who had not seen each other since the trial, made similar statements expressing remorse for their crime and praying for God’s mercy.