Dr. Marcel PETIOT
Classification: Serial killer
Characteristics: Poisoner - Lured Jews into his home with promises of a safe passage from France to South America during World War II. He then murdered them, stole
their belongings and burnt their bodies
Number of victims: 27 +
Date of murders: 1942 - 1944
Date of arrest: October 31, 1944
Date of birth: January 17, 1897
Victims profile: Men and women
Method of murder: Poisoning (injected his victims with cyanide)
Location: Paris, France
Status: Executed by guillotine on May 25, 1946
Marcel André Henri Félix Petiot (January 17, 1897 – May 25, 1946) was a French doctor who was convicted of multiple murders after the discovery of the remains of twenty six people in his home in Paris after World War II. He is suspected of killing more than sixty victims during his life.
Petiot was born January 17, 1897 at Auxerre, France. Later accounts make various claims of his delinquency and criminal acts during childhood and adolescence, but is unclear whether they were invented afterwards for public consumption. It should be noted, however, that a psychiatrist diagnosed him as mentally ill on March 26, 1914, and he was expelled from school many times. He finished his education in a special academy in Paris in July of 1915.
During World War I, Petiot was drafted into the French infantry in January 1916. In Aisne he was wounded and gassed and exhibited more symptoms of mental breakdown. He was sent to various rest homes, where he was arrested for stealing army blankets and jailed in Orleans.
In a psychiatric hospital at Fleury-les-Aubrais he was again diagnosed with various mental ailments and was returned to front June 1918. He was transferred three weeks later after he shot himself in the foot, but was attached to a new regiment in September. A new diagnosis was enough to get him discharged with a disability pension.
After the war Petiot entered the accelerated education program intended for war veterans, completed medical school in eight months and went to become an intern in Evreux mental hospital. He received his medical degree in December 1921 and moved to Villeneuve-sur-Yonne, where he received payment for his services both from the patients and from government medical assistance funds. At this point, he was already using addictive narcotics. While working at Villeneuve-sur-Yonne, he gained a reputation for dubious medical practices, such as the supply of narcotics, and the performance of then-illegal abortions.
Petiot's first victim might have been Louise Delaveau, the daughter of an elderly patient, with whom he had an affair in 1926. Delaveau disappeared in May and neighbors later said that they had seen Petiot load a trunk into his car. Police investigated, but eventually dismissed her as a runaway. That same year, Petiot ran for mayor of the town, hired an accomplice to disrupt a political debate with his opponent, and won. Once in office, he embezzled from the town funds. In 1927 he married Georgette Lablais. Their son Gerhardt was born the next year.
The local prefect received numerous complaints about Petiot's theft and shady financial deals. Petiot was eventually suspended as a mayor in August 1931 and resigned. The village council also resigned in sympathy. Five weeks later, on October 18, he was elected as a councilor for the Yonne district. In 1932 he was accused of stealing electric power from the village of Villeneuve-sur-Yonne and he lost his seat in a council. Meanwhile, he had already moved to Paris.
In Paris, Petiot attracted patients with his imaginary credentials, and built an impressive reputation for his practice at 66 Rue Caumartin. However, there were rumors of illegal abortions and overt prescriptions of addictive remedies. In 1936 he was appointed médecin d'état-civil with authority to write death certificates. The same year, he was briefly institutionalized for kleptomania, but was released the following year. He still persisted in tax evasion.
After the outbreak of World War II and the fall of France, Petiot begun to provide false medical certificates to French citizens who were drafted to forced labour into Germany, and treated sick workers that had returned. He was also convicted, in July 1942, of over-prescribing narcotics, despite the fact that two addicts who would have testified against him had disappeared. He was fined 2400 Francs.
According to his own tall tales, Petiot also developed secret weapons that supposedly killed Germans without leaving forensic evidence, had high-level meetings with Allied commanders, engaged in resistance activities (planting booby traps all over Paris), and worked with a (nonexistent) group of anti-fascist Spaniards.
Fraudulent escape network
Petiot's most lucrative activity, however, was his own false escape route, Fly-Tox. He adopted a "code-name" "Dr. Eugène." He accepted anyone who could afford his price of 25,000 Francs per person regardless of whether they were Jews, resistance fighters, or ordinary criminals. His aides Raoul Fourrier, Edmond Pintard, and René-Gustave Nézondet directed victims to his hands.
Petiot claimed that he could arrange a safe passage to Argentina or elsewhere in South America through Portugal. He also claimed that Argentinean officials demanded inoculations and injected his victims with cyanide. Then he took all their valuables and disposed of the bodies. People who trusted him to deliver them to safety were never seen alive again.
At first Petiot dumped the bodies in the Seine, but he later destroyed the bodies by submerging them in quicklime or by incinerating them. In 1941, Petiot bought a house at 21 rue le Sueur.
What Petiot failed to do was to keep a low profile. The Gestapo eventually found out about him and, by April 1943, they had heard all about his "route." Gestapo agent Robert Jodkum forced prisoner Yvan Dreyfus to approach the supposed network, but he simply vanished.
A later informer successfully infiltrated the operation and the Gestapo arrested Fourrier, Pintard, and Nézondet. Under torture they confessed that "Dr Eugène" was Marcel Petiot. Nezondet was later released but three others spent eight months in prison suspected of helping Jews to escape. Even under torture, they did not identify any other members of the resistance - because they actually knew of none. The Gestapo released the three men in January 1944.
On March 6 1944, neighbors noticed that the smoke from the chimney of 21 Rue le Sueur in Paris smelled noxious. When neighbors went to complain on March 11, they found a note on the door that said the resident would be away for a month.
Neighbors notified the police and told them that Petiot owned the house. When police called Petiot, he told them to wait for him. However, 30 minutes later, police were obliged to call the fire department to stop the spreading fire. When firemen came through a second-story window, they found a grisly display of bodies and body parts.
When Petiot arrived, he claimed that he was a member of the French Resistance and claimed that the bodies were those of Germans, traitors, and collaborators. Because people in general approved of resistance activities, the police were reluctant to arrest Petiot, and so they released him.
When police searched the garage, they found a pit filled with quicklime with human remains in it. On the staircase they found a canvas sack containing human remains. There were enough body parts for at least ten complete bodies.
The prominent Paris police Commissaire Georges-Victor Massu took charge of the investigation. His first problem was to establish if Petiot was killing for the Resistance, or for the Gestapo. The latter possibility was eliminated when he received a telegram where Germans ordered Petiot to be arrested as a "dangerous lunatic." Police found Petiot's apartment on Rue Caumartin abandoned, but also found large amounts of chloroform, digitalis, and various other poisons in addition to large amounts of more usual medical remedies.
German commissaire Robert Jodkum told them that the Gestapo had arrested Petiot on suspicion of smuggling Jews. Police also found a man who had intended to escape but changed his mind. He said that Petiot had offered him passage to South America for 25,000 francs.
Police managed to identify two victims who would have testified against Petiot in the 1942 narcotics trial. It was the first time police had proof of their suspicions that the witnesses had been murdered. Petiot's brother Maurice confessed that he had delivered quicklime to Petiot's house on his brother's orders; he was charged with conspiracy to commit murder, and jailed. Georgette Petiot was also arrested on suspicion of having aided her husband, as were Petiot's accomplices, Nezondet and Porchon, and Albert and Simone Neuhausen, who confessed that they had helped to remove suitcases from the Petiot's charnel house.
On June 6, 1944, the police had to put the investigation on hold when other matters interfered; the Normandy Invasion had begun.
Evasion and capture
During the intervening seven months, Petiot hid with friends, claiming that the Gestapo wanted him because he had killed Germans and informers. He eventually moved in with a patient, Georges Redouté, let his beard grow and adopted various aliases.
When the Resistance and the Paris police rose against German troops in Paris, Petiot adopted the name "Henri Valeri" and joined the French Forces of the Interior (FFI). He became a captain in charge of counterespionage and prisoner interrogations.
When the newspaper 'Resistance' published an article about Petiot, his defense attorney from the 1942 narcotics case received a letter in which his fugitive client claimed that the published allegations were mere lies. This gave police a hint that Petiot was still in Paris. The search began anew - with "Henri Valeri" among those who were drafted to find him. Finally, on October 31, Petiot was recognized at a Paris metro station, and arrested. Among his possessions were a pistol, 31,700 francs, and 50 sets of identity documents.
Trial and sentence
Petiot was placed on death row at La Santé prison. He continued to claim that he was innocent and that he had only killed enemies of France. He claimed that he had discovered the pile of bodies in 21 Rue le Sueur in February 1944, and assumed that they were collaborators that members of his "network" had killed.
Police noticed that Petiot had no friends in any of the major resistance groups. Some of the groups he'd mentioned had never existed, and there was no proof of any of his claimed exploits. Prosecutors eventually charged him with at least 27 murders for profit. Their estimate of his loot ran to 200 million francs.
Petiot went on trial on March 19, 1946, facing 135 criminal charges. René Floriot acted for the defense, against a team consisting of state prosecutors and twelve civil lawyers hired by relatives of Petiot's victims. Petiot taunted the prosecuting lawyers, and claimed that various victims had been collaborators or double agents, or that vanished people were alive and well in South America under new names.
He admitted to killing just nineteen of the twenty-seven victims found in his house, and claimed that they were Germans and collaborators - part of a total of 63 "enemies" killed. Floriot attempted to portray Petiot as a resistance hero, but the judges and jurors were unimpressed. Petiot was convicted of 26 counts of murder, and sentenced to death.
On May 25, Petiot was beheaded, after a stay of a few days due to a problem in the release mechanism of the guillotine.
Alister Kershaw has, in his account of the Petiot case in Murder in France, claimed that Petiot had prewar dealings with German intelligence.
Portrayal in Popular Culture
Petiot's life and career were dramatised in the 1990 film Docteur Petiot, directed by Christian de Chalonge and starring Michel Serrault as Petiot. The 2006 film Zwartboek, directed by Paul Verhoeven, is set during the German occupation of the Netherlands but features a fictional character whose personality and activities are clearly inspired by Petiot.
DR. MARCEL PETIOT
By Michael Newton
On Monday morning, March 6, 1944, foul smoke poured from the chimney of a stylish home at 21 Rue le Sueur, Paris. Neighbors suspiciously eyed the three-story 19th-century house, with its private stable and courtyard, once the home of a lesser French princess.
As the hours--then days--dragged on with no abatement of the noxious smoke, a neighbor finally went to complain on Saturday, March 11. He found a note tacked to the door: “Away for one month. Forward mail to 18 Rue des Lombards in Auxerre.”
Police were summoned, and a pair of officers arrived on bicycles. Neighbors informed them that the owner of the house, Dr. Marcel Petiot, maintained a separate residence two miles away, at 66 Rue Caumartin. Some noted the mysterious parade of callers at Dr. Petiot’s empty house during the past six months, including nightly visits from a stranger with a horse cart. Some months earlier, two trucks had stopped at No. 21, the first removing 47 suitcases, while the second delivered 30 or 40 heavy sacks of something unknown.
The officers telephoned Dr. Petiot at home. He asked whether they had entered the house, and upon receiving a negative reply he cautioned, “Don’t do anything. I will be there in 15 minutes.” A half-hour later, with the smoke worsening and no sign of Petiot, the patrolmen called for fire-fighters.
Entering through a second-story window, firemen searched the upper floors before entering the basement. They soon emerged, one vomiting, their chief telling the cops, “You have some work ahead of you.”
Three officers next went downstairs, where a coal-fed stove was found burning full-blast, a human arm dangling from its open door. Nearby, a heap of coal was mixed with human bones and fragments of several dismembered bodies. It was impossible to count the victims in this tableau of grisly disarray.
Stunned, police left the basement at about the time Dr. Petiot arrived on his bicycle. “This is serious,” Petiot remarked. “My head could be at stake.” Then, after questioning each of the lawmen to ascertain that they were French, Petiot identified the basement dead as “Germans and traitors to our country.”
Petiot claimed to be “the head of a Resistance group,” with 300 files at home on Rue Caumartin “which must be destroyed before the enemy finds them.” The French policemen, embittered by years of Nazi occupation, allowed Petiot to leave.
Seven months would pass before they saw him again.
Meanwhile, a search of the death scene proceeded. In Petiot’s garage, police found a large heap of quicklime mixed with human remains, including a recognizable scalp and jawbone. A pit had been dug in the stable, filled with more quicklime and corpses in various stages of decomposition. On the staircase leading from the courtyard to the basement, police found a canvas sack containing the headless left half of a corpse, complete but for its foot and vital organs.
Commissaire Georges-Victor Massu, a 33-year police veteran with more than 3,200 arrests to his credit, immediately took charge of the case. Examining the death house, he noted basement sinks large enough for draining corpses of blood, and a soundproof octagonal chamber with wall-mounted shackles, a peephole centered in its door. Massu was still on the scene at 1:30 a.m., when a telegram arrived from Paris police headquarters. It read: “Order from German authorities. Arrest Petiot. Dangerous lunatic.”
To French patriots, that order from German invaders suggested Petiot might indeed be a hero of the Resistance. Police dragged their feet on the way to Rue Caumartin--and found Petiot’s apartment abandoned, no trace of the doctor or his family. Rather than search for him, detectives grilled the workmen who had remodeled the house on Rue le Sueur. When Parisian authorities learned that Petiot had been jailed and tortured by the Gestapo from May 1943 until January 1944, it eliminated the rationale for an urgent manhunt.
Back at Rue le Sueur, searchers collected mutilated remnants of at least 10 victims, though Chief Coroner Albert Paul told reporters that “the number 10 is vastly inferior to the real one.” In addition to identifiable bones and body parts, Dr. Paul cataloged 33 pounds of charred bones, 24 pounds of unburned fragments, 11 pounds of human hair (including “more than 10” whole scalps), and “three garbage cans full” of pieces too small to identify.
Based on the substantial pieces, Paul said the oldest victim was a 50-year-old man, the youngest a 25-year-old woman. None bore any knife or gunshot wounds, nor had they been poisoned with any toxic metal. Organic poisons could not be ruled out from the samples in hand. At Petiot’s apartment on Rue Caumartin, police found quantities of chloroform, digitalis, strychnine and other poisons, plus 50 times a typical physician’s stock of heroin and morphine.
Clearly, there was something odd about Dr. Petiot--but he was gone. Patriot or villain, he had slipped away, leaving police with three questions:
Who were the victims of 21 Rue le Sueur?
How did they die?
And where was Dr. Petiot?
A police review of Petiot’s background helped identify two victims from the slaughterhouse at 21 Rue le Sueur. One was Jean-Marc Van Bever, a Paris drug addict who procured his narcotics from Dr. Petiot until February 1942, when Van Bever was jailed in a crackdown on pharmacies trading in illicit drugs.
Van Bever admitted buying fraudulent prescriptions from Petiot, but he vanished days before his March 1942 trial. At the time, police believed Van Bever was likely murdered by underworld associates, but they reconsidered that judgment two years later, in light of their discoveries on Rue le Sueur.
Another victim was identified as Marthe Khaït, the mother of another addict--one Raymonde Baudet--who also bargained with Petiot for her poison of choice. Baudet had been jailed in March 1942, two weeks before Van Bever disappeared, and Petiot had come to Marthe Khaït with an idea to help himself get off the hook.
Mrs. Khaït should lie under oath, he suggested, claiming that some of Raymonde’s prescriptions--written in her mother’s surname-- really belonged to Marthe, thereby weakening the prosecution’s case against Petiot. Khaït agreed, then had a change of heart after consulting her physician. She vanished March 26.
Later, her husband received two letters declaring Marthe’s intention to leave the country. The husband consulted Petiot, who confirmed Marthe’s plans to escape Nazi-occupied France. Unconvinced, Raymonde Baudet reported her mother missing on May 7, 1942, but no trace of Marthe was found until officers searched 21 Rue le Sueur.
In July 1942, Petiot was convicted in both narcotics cases. He was fined F10,000 for each offense, but the fine was reduced on appeal to a total of F2,400. Inspector Roger Gignoux suspected Petiot of murdering Khaït and Van Bever, but he had no proof that either victim was dead until March 1944. By that time, Petiot had disappeared.
The search for Petiot began in earnest on March 13, 1944. His wife and son were questioned in Paris, along with his brother Maurice. Maurice Petiot, lacking his brother’s gall or cunning, soon confessed that he had delivered the quicklime to 21 Rue le Sueur, acting on Marcel’s orders. Charged with conspiracy to commit murder, Maurice was jailed on March 17. Georgette Petiot was also detained suspected of aiding husband Marcel in his crimes.
German commissaire Robert Jodkum provided the motive for Petiot’s murders, along with details of Petiot’s eight-month imprisonment by the Gestapo. Petiot had been arrested in May 1943, along with three others, on suspicion of smuggling Jews out of occupied France. Casting their net for witnesses, police found a Paris resident who planned to flee but changed his mind. Marcel Petiot, he said, had offered passage to South America, with all required travel papers, for F25,000. One who used Petiot’s service and vanished forever was Joachim Guschinov, a Jewish furrier. When he disappeared in January 1942, Guschinov took with him some F500,000 in cash, five sable coats, plus gold, silver and diamonds worth as much as F700,000.
Once the “escape” network was exposed, police had no difficulty capturing Petiot’s accomplices. A childhood friend of Petiot’s, René-Gustave Nézondet, was arrested on March 17, 1944. A friend of Nézondet’s picked up the same day, Roland Porchon, admitted referring clients to Nézondet and Petiot.
In July 1942, Porchon told detectives, Nézondet had described Petiot as “the king of the criminals,” claiming that he had seen “16 corpses stretched out” in the basement of 21 Rue le Sueur.
A second witness recalled Nézondet’s admission that he had helped Petiot hide bodies. Nézondet, for his part, initially denied the charges, then confessed on March 22. He had a different chronology for the story, though, claiming that he first learned of the slaughter on Rue le Sueur in November or December 1943, when Petiot was in Gestapo custody. Besides the corpses, he had also seen a diary--now missing--which listed the names of “50 or 60” victims.
Six others were arrested in the Petiot manhunt, including a barber who referred clients to Petiot from his shop on Rue des Mathurins and Albert and Simone Neuhausen, who were held for receiving stolen property after they confessed that they helped remove suitcases from 21 Rue le Sueur. Most of the suspects were released in April 1944, though Nézondet remained in custody for 14 months. Marcel Petiot was still a fugitive on June 6, 1944, when Allied troops invaded France and the investigation ground to a halt.
An Abnormal Youth
Marcel André Henri Félix Petiot was born at Auxerre, 100 miles south of Paris, January 17, 1897. Neighbors later told many tales of his bizarre childhood, but it is unclear how many were fabricated for the press. He enjoyed torturing small animals to death, they said.
His early teachers found Petiot intelligent, reading like a 10-year-old by age five, but he was also a loner with a short attention span. Precociously lewd, he once propositioned a male classmate for sex, and was caught passing obscene photos to other students.
At age 11, he stole his father’s revolver and fired it in history class. Another time, he staged a circus act at school, standing a friend against a door and throwing knives at him.
Of course, Petiot’s parents were concerned. Between 1907 and 1909, they told physicians that Marcel was prone to convulsions and sleepwalking, and habitually wet his trousers and bed.
Petiot’s mother died in 1912, and his father took a new job in Joigny, 15 miles from Auxerre. Marcel and Maurice lived with an aunt until Marcel was expelled from school, near year’s end. Sent to stay with his father, Petiot was soon expelled from a Joigny school for unruly behavior and “over-excitation.”
Petiot soon graduated from childhood mischief to criminal behavior. At age 17 he robbed a postbox, and was then charged with mail theft and damaging public property. The court recommended psychological evaluation.
On 26 March 1914, a psychiatrist pronounced Petiot “an abnormal youth suffering from personal and hereditary problems which limit to a large degree his responsibility for his acts.” It was enough to get the charges dropped in August, Petiot’s judge declaring that “the accused appears to be mentally ill.”
A pattern was forming. Petiot was expelled twice more, from schools in Dijon and Auxerre, before finally completing his education in Paris, at a special academy, in July 1915.
The World War I was in progress, and Petiot was drafted into the French infantry in January 1916, dispatched to the front that November. While fighting in the Aisne district six months later, Petiot was gassed and wounded by grenade fragments. The wounds healed, but Petiot displayed symptoms of mental illness that sent him to a series of clinics and rest homes.
Charged with stealing army blankets, he was jailed at Orléans, then transferred to a psychiatric ward at Fleury-les-Aubrais. Doctors there diagnosed Petiot as suffering from “mental disequilibrium, neurasthenia, mental depression, melancholia, obsessions and phobias.” Once again, they ruled him not guilty by reason of insanity.
The diagnosis did not keep him out of military service, however. Returned to the front in June 1918, Petiot promptly suffered a “nervous breakdown” and shot himself in the foot. Transferred behind the lines, he displayed convulsions at the Dijon railroad depot in July, lying unconscious for most of a day.
That episode earned him a three-week leave, but he was attached to a new regiment in September 1918. Erratic behavior and complaints of headaches sent him back for psychiatric treatment, at Rennes, in March 1919. This time, the diagnoses added were amnesia, sleepwalking, depression and suicidal tendencies.
It was finally enough to get him out of uniform; he was discharged with a 40% disability pension in July. Petiot’s case was reviewed in September 1920, with his disability rating increased to 100%. The author of that report suggested that Petiot be committed to an asylum.
In fact, Petiot had already entered a mental hospital -- but not as a patient. Aided by an accelerated education program for war veterans, he had completed medical school in a stunning eight months and was serving a two-year psychiatric internship Evreux. He received his medical degree on 15 December 1921, from the Faculté de Médeceine de Paris.
Criminal insanity notwithstanding, Petiot had become a full-fledged physician.
Armed with his new medical degree, Petiot moved to Villeneuve-sur-Yonne, an ancient village on the Yonne River, 25 miles from Auxerre. On arrival, the 25-year-old physician printed fliers comparing himself to the town’s two elderly doctors.
The fliers read: “Dr. Petiot is young, and only a young doctor can keep up to date on the latest methods born of a progress which marches with giant strides. This is why intelligent patients have confidence in him. Dr. Petiot treats, but does not exploit his patients.”
In fact, while outwardly charming and popular with most of his patients, Petiot secretly enrolled them for state medical assistance, thereby insuring that he was paid twice for each treatment--once by the patient and once by the government. He favored addictive narcotics in his prescriptions.
When one pharmacist complained of the near-fatal dose Petiot prescribed for a child, Petiot replied, “What difference does it make to you, anyway? Isn’t it better to do away with this kid who’s not doing anything in the world but pestering its mother?”
In private, Petiot remained a loner who turned casual conversations into heated debates, ever insisting on the last word. He lived modestly, but splurged on a sports car which he drove recklessly through Villeneuve-sur-Yonne, causing numerous traffic accidents.
A confirmed thief, Petiot stole from strangers and relatives alike; brother Maurice insisted on searching his pockets every time Marcel visited his home. Evicted by one landlord for theft of furniture and fixtures, Petiot shrugged off threats of litigation with the remark that as a certified lunatic he could never be convicted.
Around the same time, in March 1922, Petiot clashed with the Commission de Réforme over demands for new psychiatric exams to maintain his disability payments. He declared that he “purely and simply refused to accept any disability pension at all so as to avoid being subjected to what I find a more than disagreeable bit of exhibitionism.”
Still, the checks kept coming and he was examined once more in July 1923, doctors reporting that his tongue was scarred from bite wounds during epileptic seizures and that Petiot evinced “total indifference” about his own future. That said, his disability was reduced to 50 percent.
In 1926 Petiot surprised his neighbors by launching a torrid affair with young Louise Delaveau, the daughter of Madame Fleury, an elderly patient. Soon after the affair began, the Fleury home was burglarized and set afire. No one connected the events, but Petiot was suspected when Louise disappeared in May 1926.
Neighbors recalled seeing Petiot load a large trunk into his car, closely resembling another fished out of the river weeks later, filled with the dismembered, decomposed remains of a young woman who was never identified. Ignoring the “coincidence,” police searched briefly for Louise and then dismissed her as a runaway. She may, in fact, have been Petiot’s first murder victim.
Soon after Louise disappeared, Petiot ran for mayor of Villeneuve-sur-Yonne. The long, bitter campaign climaxed in July 1926, when Petiot hired an accomplice to disrupt a political debate with his opponent. When Petiot finished speaking, his crony cut power to the auditorium, blacking out the entire village and starting several fires. Petiot won by a landslide.
His opponent later told the Commission de Réforme that Petiot had boasted of feigning insanity to escape military service. Yet another review of his case confirmed the original diagnosis, pronouncing Petiot’s claims of fraud “another manifestation of the subject’s mentally unbalanced state."
Villeneuve-sur-Yonne now had a certified madman in charge, and Petiot acted the part. His kleptomania was an open secret, Mayor Petiot was suspected of stealing money from the town’s treasury, the bass drum from a local band, even a large stone cross that Petiot had once deemed an eyesore. Some despised Petiot; others called him the best mayor ever. Petiot, for his part, blamed all criticism on crass political enemies.
In June 1927, Petiot married Georgette Lablais, the 23-year-old daughter of a wealthy landowner in nearby Seignelay. Their only child, a son Gerhardt, was born the following April.
Eight months after that happy event, Petiot was accused of stealing several cans of oil from Villeneuve-sur-Yonne’s railroad depot. As it turned out, Petiot had purchased the oil legally, but he did commit fraud by denying receipt of the shipment and claiming a refund. In early 1930 the court at Sens fined him F200 and sentenced him to three months in prison. Petiot was suspended as mayor for four months, but managed to have the conviction reversed on appeal.
In the meantime, more serious trouble was afoot.
One night in March 1930, fire razed the home of dairy unionist Armand Debauve. His wife Henriette was found inside, beaten to death with a blunt instrument. Police suspected murder during robbery, since F20,000 was reported missing from the house. Footprints led across the nearby fields toward Villeneuve-sur-Yonne. Rumors spread that Henriette Debauve was Dr. Petiot’s mistress and that he was seen near her home on the night of the crime.
The witness in that case, a Monsieur Fiscot, declared his plans to testify but made a fateful visit to Dr. Petiot’s office instead. Fiscot sought treatment for his rheumatism. He received an injection and died three hours later, Petiot signing the death certificate blaming his demise on an aneurysm.
In April, Armand Debauve spoke to police, telling them that a resident of Villeneuve-sur-Yonne had claimed Dr. Petiot could identify Henriette’s killer. Local gendarmes sought help from police headquarters in Paris, but the file was somehow “misplaced,” disappearing until April 1946. By that time, Dr. Petiot was charged with multiple murders in Paris and no one seemed interested in reopening the Debauve investigation.
During the next 16 months, the local prefect logged numerous complaints against Mayor Petiot, most involving theft or financial irregularities. Prosecutors investigated, finding that 138 alien registration applications and F2,890 in fees had been held at city hall, never relayed to the proper authorities.
Petiot blamed his secretary, who obliged the mayor by accepting responsibility. But Petiot was still suspended as mayor for a second time in August 1931, and he resigned the next day. The village council also resigned in sympathy, leaving files in disarray and many purchase orders obviously altered.
Petiot’s mayoral office was officially revoked the next month, but he did not seem to mind. Five weeks later, on October 18, he won election as the youngest of 34 general councilors from the Yonne district. As usual, his tenure was stormy, with Petiot accused of stealing electric power from the village of Villeneuve-sur-Yonne in August 1932.
At trial on that charge the following year, the judge dubbed Petiot’s defense “pure fantasy,” and sentenced him to 15 days in jail and a F300 fine. The appeal dragged on for a year, affirming Petiot’s conviction but suspending the jail time, with his fine reduced to F100. The conviction cost Petiot his council seat, but it hardly mattered, since he had moved his family to Paris in January 1933.
City of Lights
Petiot promoted himself with typical zeal in Paris, offering patients a wide variety of treatments, claiming credentials both real and imaginary. Advertisements described him as an interne (intern) at one mental hospital where he had actually been an interné (patient). Outside his home-office at 66 Rue Caumartin, Petiot erected a brass plaque so jam-packed with phony endorsements that another physician complained to the medical association and Petiot was forced to remove it.
Bogus credentials aside, Dr. Petiot attracted a huge clientele and built an exemplary reputation. Years later, at the height of his infamy in 1944, police would interview 2,000 patients without hearing a word of criticism about Dr. Petiot.
At the same time, however, rumors persisted that Petiot was an abortionist (illegal in those days) and that he supplied addicts with drugs under the guise of “cures.” In 1934, 30-year-old Raymonde Hanss visited Petiot for treatment of an abscess in her mouth. She was still unconscious when Petiot drove her home after surgery. Hanss never regained consciousness and died several hours later.
Her mother, Madame Anna Coquille, demanded an autopsy, which revealed significant levels of morphine in Raymonde’s body. The coroner postponed burial until a full investigation was completed, but authorities closed the case without filing charges. Madame Coquille renewed her complaints in 1942, but the court upheld its original finding of death by natural causes.
Petiot faced his first investigation for narcotics violations in 1935, but police found no conclusive evidence. The next year Petiot was appointed médecin d’etat-civil for the ninth arrondissement of Paris, a post that granted him authority to sign death certificates. As usual, he used the position for personal gain: in December 1942, summoned to pronounce the death of a wealthy lawyer, Petiot was accused of stealing F74,000 from the dead man’s home. Caught shoplifting a book in April 1936, Petiot assaulted a policeman and escaped on foot.
He surrendered two days later, tearfully pleading for mercy, citing his military discharge records as proof that he was not responsible for his behavior. Police dropped the assault charge and Petiot was acquitted of theft on grounds of insanity. His wife, Georgette, arranged for Petiot to enter a private sanitorium in August 1936.
Petiot had barely arrived at the hospital when he began pleading for immediate release. His madness had passed, he assured staff psychiatrists. It was a momentary aberration, caused by his preoccupation with a new invention--a suction machine designed to relieve constipation. Dr. Rogues de Fursac found Petiot “chronically unbalanced,” but still recommended his release in early September 1936.
Petiot’s liberation was nonetheless stalled while the court appointed three more psychiatrists to review his case. The panel’s report expressed “strong doubts as to [Petiot’s] good faith at any point during this affair,” but the doctors could find no legal grounds for holding him. Petiot was released in February 1937.
Chastened by his latest confinement, Petiot appeared to clean up his act, with the exception of persistent tax fraud. Between 1937 and 1940 he reported less than 10 percent of his actual income. In 1938, for instance, he declared F13,100, while earning closer to F500,000. That year saw him charged with fraud and fined F35,000, despite a spirited defense that included pleas of poverty.
The life of every Frenchman changed in September 1939, when German troops invaded Poland, thus launching World War II. Polish resistance collapsed in October, inaugurating the seven-month “Phony War” between France and Germany. Fighting spread with the Nazi invasion of Denmark and Norway in April. German troops invaded Holland, Belgium and France the following month.
The French commander of Paris declared it an “open city” in June 1940, and German troops seized the French capital. A collaborationist French government under Marshal Philippe Pétain was organized two weeks later in Vichy, broadcasting orders for a general cease-fire. Forty thousand French soldiers surrendered on June 22, while the Resistance armed and organized for long years of guerrilla war.
In Paris, Dr. Petiot had a new world of opportunity under German occupation. He would use and emulate the Nazis in pursuit of his greatest and most lethal scheme thus far.
There was, it seems, at least some truth to Petiot’s later claims of joining the Resistance. Soon after the Nazi occupation of Paris, he began providing false medical certificates to Frenchmen drafted for slave labor.
Petiot also apparently treated sick and wounded workers returned to France from Germany, gleaning information about Nazi troop movements and weapons development. His Fly-Tox network, named after a popular insecticide (since informers were dubbed “flies”), spied on Gestapo headquarters in Paris to identify collaborators so they could be eliminated by teams of Resistance assassins.
At the same time, though, Petiot spun tales of patriotic battles that were never fought. He claimed to have invented “secret weapons” that killed Nazis without forensic evidence. Allied commanders denied his reports of high-level meetings and no evidence of the mystery weapon ever surfaced. Petiot also claimed to be working with a group of anti-fascist Spaniards in Paris, but they were never found. His tales of planting bombs and booby traps around Paris were fervid flights of fantasy.
Petiot’s chief operation after 1940 was disclosing escape routes to potential fugitives. He welcomed Jews, Resistance fighters, petty criminals--anyone, in fact, who could meet his price of F25,000 a head. For that amount, Petiot promised safe passage to South America, complete with all the necessary travel papers. In 1941 he bought the house at 21 Rue le Sueur, as a way station for his personal Underground Railroad.
Among Petiot’s early customers were two Parisian pimps, Joseph Réocreux and Adriene Estébétéguy, who had lately broadened their repertoire to include armed robbery while disguised as Gestapo agents. Sought by French and German police alike, Réocreux sought help from Petiot (known as “Dr. Eugène” to his illicit clients) in September 1942.
Traveling with his mistress, Claudia Chamoux, and another couple--pimp François Albertini and prostitute Annette Basset--Réocreux paid his fee and promptly vanished into 21 Rue le Sueur. Estébétéguy and girlfriend Gisèle Rossny followed in March 1943, also vanishing without a trace. Petiot would later boast of killing the three pimps and their women, branding all six as Nazi collaborators, touting their executions as his patriotic duty.
By April 1943 Gestapo officers reported “a great deal of talk in public about an organization which arranges clandestine crossings of the Spanish border by means of falsified Argentinean passports.” Nazis asserted that “the voyagers travel on neutral ships leaving from a port in Portugal.”
In fact, they never left Paris alive. Gestapo agent Robert Jodkum blackmailed a French Jew, Yvan Dreyfus, into approaching the network for passage, but Dreyfus vanished with the rest in May 1943.
Others who availed themselves of Dr. Petiot’s services included Nelly-Denise Hotin, a pregnant newlywed who came looking for an abortion in July 1941 and was never seen again. Dr. Paul-Léon Braunberger, an elderly Jew who planned to flee with his wife, disappeared alone from a Paris subway station in June 1942.
A month later, three German Jews--the Knellers--vanished after consultations with Petiot, their dismembered remains fished out of the Seine in August. Three more refugees, the Wolff family, disappeared into 21 Rue le Sueur, along with six friends. Another pimp, Joseph Piereschi, also made the dead-end journey with his mistress, Joséphine-Aimée Grippay.
Those were the victims whom police later identified, but they did not comprise the total body count. Numerous dismembered victims were dragged from the Seine in 1942 and ’43, the remains including nine heads, four thighs, and sundry other mutilated pieces.
French police and coroners were baffled, unable to identify most of the dead. Gestapo agents, for their part, were less concerned about dead Frenchmen than about the prospect of Jews and Resistance fighters escaping to freedom. The Nazis had a fix on Petiot’s Fly-Tox network, and by May 1943 they were ready to spring the trap.
Petiot advertised his illicit services so blatantly that the Fly-Tox network was ripe for infiltration by early 1943. In fact, an informer named Charles Beretta had wormed his way into the operation, feeding names to the Gestapo as he went.
In May, Nazis arrested Raoul Fourrier, Edmond Pintard and René-Gustave Nézondet, torturing them until they identified Marcel Petiot as “Dr. Eugène.” Petiot joined the others in prison at Fresnes. Although Nazis searched his home and other property, they somehow missed the charnel house on Rue le Sueur. Nézondet was released two weeks later, but Petiot, Fourrier and Pintard spent a total of eight months in prison. They were tortured repeatedly, but staunchly refused to betray members of the Resistance.
In fact, based on the tales Petiot spun at his murder trial, in 1946, his stubborn silence may have sprung from simple ignorance. The “hero” had no names to offer his captors, since he played no significant role in the Resistance movement, and any confession of his Fly-Tox operation was tantamount to suicide.
Frustrated, the Nazis released Fourrier, Pintard and Petiot in early January 1944. Ironically, the months of torture and confinement provided Petiot with his best cover yet--but his time was running out. By March, his chamber of horrors on Rue le Sueur was exposed and Petiot himself had vanished.
Loyal patients and friends were the keys to Petiot’s survival as a fugitive. They shuttled him from one address to another in Paris while he cultivated a beard, and adopted one name after another to conceal his movements. Eventually, Petiot found a home with patient Georges Redouté.
Petiot convinced Redouté that the Gestapo wanted him for killing “Germans and informers.” While living with Redouté, Petiot ventured out only at night; sometimes returning with weapons claimed to have been captured from Nazi patrols.
Parisian police went on strike in August 1944, besieged at their Préfecture by German tanks and troops. That month Petiot, calling himself “Henri Valéri”, joined the new French Forces of the Interior (FFI). He was promptly commissioned as a captain, in charge of counterespionage and interrogation of prisoners in the Reuilly district of Paris. The French capital was liberated the next month and collaborators were purged, with Petiot/Valéri in the thick of the action.
His cover began to unravel in September, when two FFI soldiers from Petiot’s unit robbed the elderly mayor of Tessancourt, stealing F12.5 million in cash and collectable stamps from his home before killing their victim in front of witnesses.
Three youths reported the crime to Petiot, who promptly tossed them in jail. An FFI lieutenant tried to investigate, but was ordered off the case by Capt. Valéri. The bandits were briefly detained, then released. The thieves disappeared as well as the money.
Three days after the robbery-murder the newspaper Résistance published a scathing article on fugitive Petiot. The story called him a “soldier of the Reich” who had allegedly donned a German uniform to hunt down French patriots around Avignon in March 1943. Attorney René Floriot, Petiot’s defense counsel in the 1942 narcotics cases, received a letter from his fugitive client which condemned the Résistance article as a collection of “filthy kraut lies.”
While the letter was false, Petiot’s letter convinced authorities that he was still in Paris. A new search began, with FFI Captain Henri Valéri among the officers drafted to hunt for Petiot.
Petiot’s luck ran out at 10:15 a.m. on Oct. 31, when Petiot was recognized and arrested at a Paris metro station. He carried a pistol, F31,700 in cash, and 50 documents in six different names. Petiot’s long run was over, but the search for the truth had just begun.
"An Appalling Murderer"
Petiot’s defense was a plea of complete innocence. He admitted killing certain “enemies of France” as a Resistance member, but denied any murders for profit. According to Petiot, he first became aware of corpses stashed at 21 Rue le Sueur in February 1944, after his release from Nazi custody.
He assumed the dead “collaborators” had been killed and dumped by members of his Fly-Tox network, long since scattered and unable to verify his story. Petiot had asked brother Maurice for quicklime to dissolve the bodies and camouflage their odor.
Petiot was housed on death row at Santé prison while authorities investigated his claims. Strangely, for a patriotic hero, he had no defenders in the leadership of recognized Resistance groups. Some knew him as a small-time hanger-on, a fraud, or not at all; other groups, described in detail by Petiot, proved to be nonexistent.
No record survived of his alleged bombing forays, assassination of Nazis, or tests of his various “secret weapons.” Prosecutors finally dismissed Petiot’s story and charged him with murdering 27 victims for plunder--an estimated F200 million in cash, gold and jewels that was never recovered.
Petiot’s trial began on March 18 1946, at the Palais de Justice, before a panel of three judges and a seven-man jury. René Floriot once again defended Petiot. Prosecutors were helped by 12 civil lawyers who were hired by the relatives of Petiot’s victims. Petiot took an active role in his own defense, bantering with judges and prosecutors, grilling witnesses, exchanging jibes with the private attorneys.
He denounced the Khaït family’s lawyer as a “double-agent” and a “defender of Jews,” while noting that victim Joseph Réocreux “was easy to spot as a collaborator. He had a head like a pimp--you know, like a police inspector.” Victim Joachim Guschinov was alive and well, Petiot insisted. Why couldn’t prosecutors find him? Because, Petiot smirked, “South America is a big place.”
And so it went. Petiot refused to describe his secret weapons because “the information could only be used against France.” He dismissed the Wolff family--Dutch Jews fleeing Nazi persecution at home--as “Germans,” while victim Yvan Dreyfus was “a traitor four times over.” Victim Kurt Kneller suffered from “an embarrassing affliction” which Petiot refused to name, but he and his family had not been killed; they had returned to Germany, Petiot insisted, and were “getting ready for the next war.”
Petiot had met Dr. Paul-Léon Braunberger “for 10 minutes in my life,” at a public luncheon; he could not explain why Braunberger’s clothing was found at 21 Rue le Sueur. Many fugitives had survived the Fly-Tox escape route, Petiot testified, but none were identifiable because “they changed names frequently.” Rebuked by the chief judge Michel Leser for doodling in court, Petiot retorted, “I am listening, but it doesn’t really interest me very much.”
After the trial’s second day, reporters overheard two jurors and Judge Leser discussing Petiot in private, referring to him as “a demon” and “an appalling murderer.” Attorney Floriot immediately sought a mistrial, but the appellate court rejected the motion. The trial resumed after the two offending jurors were replaced.
On the trial’s fifth day, judges and jurors visited 21 Rue le Sueur. As he passed through a phalanx of police and jeering neighbors, Petiot quipped, “Peculiar homecoming, don’t you think?”
Petiot maintained his hero’s posture to the end, admitting that he had killed 19 of the 27 victims found on Rue le Sueur. They were all “Germans and collaborators,” of course, ranked among the 63 enemies of France whom Petiot admitted killing between 1940 and 1945. The other 44 were not identified, with Petiot telling the court, “I don’t have to justify myself for murders I’m not accused of committing!”
In fact, he had already said more than enough. René Floriot’s summation hailing Petiot as a hero of the Resistance won a standing ovation from the courtroom audience. But the judges and jurors held a very different view. After deliberating for three hours--a mere 90 seconds for each of the 135 criminal charges--the court convicted Petiot on all but nine counts.
He was acquitted of killing Nelly-Denise Hotin, but found guilty of 26 other premeditated murders. Petiot’s death sentence was a foregone conclusion, although it did not seem to faze him in the slightest.
"My Conscience is Clean"
Attorney Floriot appealed the conviction and sentence citing two complaints. First, he maintained that a mistrial should have been granted after Judge Leser and two jurors publicly declared their belief in Petiot’s guilt.
Furthermore, Floriot charged, witness Marguerite Braunberger and her maid were perjurers. They lied in maintaining that Dr. Braunberger was dead, instead of hiding out in South America. All three points were rejected and Petiot’s death sentence was affirmed.
The day before that judgment was rendered, guards found an ampoule concealed in the Petiot’s prison uniform. They suspected it was cyanide, but the contents proved to be a sedative, smuggled into prison when Petiot arrived the previous October. The prisoner seemed calm, smiling as he asked his guards, “When are they going to assassinate me?” He refused to see a priest, preferring as he said to “take his baggage with him.”
Petiot had been scheduled to die on the day his appeal was rejected, but the guillotine malfunctioned that morning and his execution was postponed. At 3:30 a.m. May 25, a portable guillotine was delivered to the prison, assembled and ready to do its grim work by less than an hour later.
Summoned from his cell, Petiot refused the traditional glass of rum but accepted a cigarette. He also agreed to meet with the prison chaplain for his wife’s sake, telling the minister, “I am not a religious man and my conscience is clean.”
The closing ritual was swiftly completed. Petiot signed the register before his hands were bound, his neck shaved, and the collar cut from his shirt. He approached the guillotine calmly. Dr. Albert Paul, among the witnesses, noted that Petiot “moved with ease, as though he were walking into his office for a routine appointment.” Before he was strapped to the guillotine’s sliding table, Petiot warned the observers, “Gentlemen, I ask you not to look. This will not be very pretty.”
The blade dropped at 5:05 a.m. According to the witnesses, Petiot was smiling as his head tumbled into the basket.
Grombach, John. The Great Liquidator. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980.
Maeder, Thomas. The Unspeakable Crimes of Dr. Petiot. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1980.
Seth, Ronald. Petiot: Victim of Chance. London: Hutchinson, 1963