The Papin Sisters: France’s Killer Maids

The city of Le Mans is known around the world for its 24-hour car race and not much else, happily gaining the fame which it brings to them every year. However, in 1933 it was known for another more sinister reason when Christine and Léa Papin killed their employer and her daughter in a bloody attack the is etched into the annals of French Crime History.

The sisters' parents Clémence Derré and Gustave Papin lived in Le Mans, and had a tumultuous relationship, with rumours spreading that Clémence was having an affair with her boss. The couple didn't have the best of reputations among the people of Le Mans Clémence was considered to be a woman of low moral valuesand totally unsuited for motherhood and Gustave an abusive alcoholic. They decided to marry in 1901 when Clémence fell pregnant with their first child Emilia, but Gustave couldn't shake the suspicion of the alleged affair and decided to take his new family away from Le Mans. After 2 years of looking for a job, Gustave manged to find one and announced that they would be moving, to which Clémence dramatically threatened suicide if she was forced to leave Le Mans. However after a short time, she decided to leave with her husband and daughter and start a new life together.

Settled in their new home Clémence gave birth to Christine in 1905 but decided that looking after another baby was going to be too much for her and gave custody of Christine to Gustave's sister. Clémence gave birth to Léa in 1911 but shortly after she made an horrific discovery that her husband had raped her eldest daughter Emilia and immediately filed for divorce.  Clémence for some reason accused Emilia of seducing her father and sent her to live in Le Bon Pastuer convent, which was known for its strictness and harsh discipline. Spiralling out of control she then made the decisions to take Christine from her loving home with Gustave's sister and placed her in the convent with Emilia and gave Léa to her brother to raise.

Clémence was now free of the burden of motherhood and revelled in the fact that she was able to punish her children while not having the responsibility of having to care for them. But to Clémence's anger her children flourished away from the abusive environment they were in before, and after her brother passed away Léa joined her sisters in the convent.  The girls became closer than ever and excelled in the convent with Emilia taking vows to become a nun with Christine wanting to follow in her footsteps. When Clémence heard about the plans she was livid as she had planned to put the girls to work as servants and collect their wage to live off, so she removed Christine and Léa from the convent and put them to work as servants. The girls never stayed long at a job as Clémence was unhappy at the wages paid so she constantly made them quit in order to find better paid work. During this time the sisters formed a strong bond between themselves, even when not working together they would seek out each other in their spare time and spend their days together talking about their lives.  People would often remark how the girls had no interest in anything else but each other but put this down to their traumatic childhood and the fact they were separated for most of their lives.

 The Papin Sisters around the time they started working for the Lancelins

The Papin Sisters around the time they started working for the Lancelins

In 1926 Christine landed a job as a maid and a cook in the home of retired solicitor Monsieur René Lancelin in his family home in Le Mans. The mansion was home to Monsieur Lancelin, his wife Léonie and their youngest daughter Geneviéve.  After a few months of work Madame Lancelin was so pleased with the attitude and work that Christine convinced her to hire Léa to work in the mansion as well. The Lancelin's couldn't be more pleased with their new employees, with the girls only really going out on Sundays to attend church, and occasionally visiting a fortune teller who told them that they had been man and wife in a former life. However, not everybody had the same view of the girls as the Lancelin's with local shopkeepers finding the girls to be distant and cold, and a previous employer of Christine stated that she would become agitated when asked to perform a task which she felt was beneath her. Christine and Léa became so close to Madame Lancelin that they started to call her "Maman", seeing her as a mother figure, whilst referring to Clémence as "That Woman". Madame Lancelin even put a stop to the girls sending their wages to Clémence and contacted her to let her know that Christine and Léa would be keeping their wages from now on and that her "gravy train" had finished. For a few years all was well with the relationship but this was soon to change.

The longer the girls worked for the Lancelins the more their worked was scrutinised by the lady of the house, which once led to her pinching Léa continuously until she cleared up a scrap of paper that she had missed when she was sweeping. The girls discussed the issues with each other at length and promised each other that if it were to happen again they would defend themselves–and this day came on February 2nd 1933.  Madame Lancelin and her daughter Geneviéve returned after a day of shopping around 5:30p.m. to find the house in total darkness. Christine explained that a faulty iron had blown a fuse in the house for the second time that week, to which Madame Lancelin reacted angrily as the iron had been returned from repair earlier that day. A heated argument ensued and Christine finally had enough, she lunged at Geneviéve and proceeded to tear out her eyes with her bare hands. Léa joined in and grabbed Madame Lancelin and held her down, and following Christine's orders gouged out her eyes too. At this point with their victims laying dazed and blind, Christine went to the kitchen and came back with a knife and a hammer, and the sisters proceeded to slice and bludgeon the mother and daughter without mercy. Afterwards the sisters would reveal that their victims were screaming and calling out but could not remember what they were saying, or it could be that they simply were not listening to them plead for their lives. After they decided that Madame Lancelin and Geneviéve were dead they started to prepare them as they would meat for cooking, with Christine later commenting she was following a recipe for rabbit from a cookbook. They then lifted the women's skirts and slashed their buttocks and thighs, and in one last macabre twist they smeared Geneviéve's menstrual blood over both of the corpses as if they were basting them. The whole gruesome attack lasted around 30 minutes and when they were finished Christine and Léa retired to their room.

 The mutilated bodies of Madame and Geneviéve Lancelin

The mutilated bodies of Madame and Geneviéve Lancelin

Monsieur Lancelin and his son-in-law returned to the house around 7:00p.m. after Madame and Geneviéve Lancelin did not arrive at a dinner they were due to attend, and found the house in total darkness and the door bolted from the inside. Alarmed, they looked up and saw flickering candle light coming from the servants quarters, and decided to contact the police. After they arrived they entered the house via a back door and slowly entered inside, but nothing could prepare them for the carnage they were about to witness, as an officer shone his torch on the ground and was greeted by an eyeball staring back at him. Upon making this discovery he ordered Monsieur Lancelin to stay downstairs and proceed to the second floor where he discovered the two bodies, their facial features unrecognisable and Madame Lancelin's eyes in the fold of her scarf. Fearing that the Papin Sisters has suffered the same fate, he proceeded to the third floor and could hear hushed voices coming from a room where the keyhole was emitting a glow from a candle. After getting no response from knocking he proceeded to break the lock and when he entered he was greeted by the sister sitting on the bed hugging and shivering, with a hammer next to them encrusted in blood and brain matter. The sisters immediately confessed to the killings claiming self defence was the reasons for their actions.

 Christine (left) and Léa (right) after their arrest

Christine (left) and Léa (right) after their arrest

They were arrested instantly and taken into custody, while word of the brutal crime started to spread around France. Surprisingly there was an outcry of public sympathy for the sisters, from the average person all the way to the intellectual heavyweights of the day like Jean-Paul Sartre, who saw the crime as a sign of the class struggle between the rich and the poor.  When Christine and Léa made their court appearance their lawyer pleaded insanity, which was easy to believe as they  stood looking vacant and not making eye contact. Both of the sisters protected each other by claiming sole responsibility for the murders, while their lawyer cited their abusive upbringing and a family history of mental illness as cause for the claim of insanity; however, the prosecution told the jury that three doctors had assessed them and due to the fact that they cleaned up after the murders that they were sane, seemingly overlooking the way they had prepared the bodies to cook them–even when the defense argued this point the jury had already made up their mind that the sisters were sane and guilty. The judge decided to be lenient on Léa as he felt she was under the influence from her older sister and sentenced her to ten years hard labor. Christine was sentenced to death by guillotine which would take place in Le Mans public square on 30th September 1933, which was later commuted to life imprisonment.

 Léa (left) and Christine (right) at their trial

Léa (left) and Christine (right) at their trial

During their incarceration, the sisters were kept separate from each other, which caused Christine's mental health to deteriorate rapidly due to her not being able to see her sister. She refused to eat, had violent fits and had to be put into a straight jacket after she tried to pull out her own eyes. Finally, the governor relented and and allowed Christine to go see Léa, but this was cut short when Christine started making sexual advances towards Léa whilst undressing. After a few years Christine was transferred to an asylum in Rennes which she fought against and wrote letters pleading to be placed with Léa, all of which were disregarded. She quickly started to deteriorate and refused to eat and on 18th of May 1937, she died aged 32. Léa on the other hand was classed as a model prisoner and was released in 1941 after serving only 8 years of her sentence, and went to live with her mother in Nantes and got a job as a maid in a hotel under an assumed name. There is no exact date of Léa's death, however a photograph surfaced of her as an elderly lady.

 A photograph reportedly of Léa Papin as an old woman

A photograph reportedly of Léa Papin as an old woman

So why did the sisters kill in such a brutal fashion? On theory suggests that the girls were in an incestuous relationship, and Madame Lancelin and Geneviéve had caught them in the act, and this was why they tore out the eyes of their victims due to them seeing too much. But the most agreed upon theory is that Christine and Léa were suffering from 'Folie a Deux', which translates as 'Madness in Pairs', it is also know as shared paranoid disorder. This condition occurs when a small group, or a pair, become isolated from society and the outside world and lead an intense inward lifestyle which leads them to become paranoid of everything outside of their own life. In fact, most couples who kill together have an insular, obsessive and inward looking relationship, and have one partner who dominates the other to do their wishes. In the case of the Papin Sisters, this was more than evident in their relationship.

So do you think Shared Paranoid Disorder was to blame for the murder of Madame and Geneviéve Lancelin, or was there something more sinister to the sisters' behaviour that day in 1933? Please comment below and let me know your theories, and don't forget to share on social media with all of your friends.