Henri-Désiré Landru was born in Paris in 1869. His checkered career of fraud and swindling elderly widows soon escalated to callously murdering 10 of his victims. His life began inauspiciously enough, joining the French army for four years after leaving school. He married his cousin after the sexual relationship resulted in a daughter out of wedlock. Another three children soon followed, but Landru already preferred swindling aging females to an honest job.
In 1900, justice caught up with Landru and he was imprisoned for two years, the first of several convictions. The start of the First World War was not for Landru a time of deprivation but an opening for deadly opportunities that were not to be found on the battlefields of Europe.
In 1914, Landru was estranged from his wife and selling second hand furniture. He had previously been convicted because of evidence from his victims. His next thought process was a coldly pragmatic solution; no victims, no reporting of a crime.
He began by placing lonely hearts advertisements in Paris newspapers describing himself as a well-off widower desiring to meet a widow with a view to matrimony. Because of the terrible death toll in WWI, there was no shortage of widows replying to his adverts. His modus operandi was identical with each unfortunate woman. There would be several months of wooing until he had access to their assets. Each woman would be murdered, her body dismembered and then burned. From 1914 until 1919, Landru disposed of ten women and the teenage son of one of them.
Finally in 1919, the sister of one of the victims tracked Landru down and persuaded the police to arrest him. Landru had used a series of aliases with each woman he had seduced and murdered and had meticulously recorded each alias he used in his correspondence to them in a ledger.
This was to prove his undoing as initially with no bodies found, there was not enough physical evidence to charge Landru with murder, only with embezzlement. Found later, the ledger enabled Landru’s charge of embezzlement to be changed to murder.
Two years after his arrest, in 1921, Landru stood trial for the eleven murders. He was convicted on all eleven murders and sentenced to the guillotine. His only confession was a picture Landru drew of the stove in his kitchen. Three months later, Landru was guillotined in Versailles.
In a macabre after note, Landru’s severed head is on display in The Museum of Death in Hollywood.
Stranger still, is the story behind Landru’s namesake, Gilles de Rais, the most infamous of French murderers, the original Bluebeard.
Or was he?
Gilles de Rais was born in 1405, a knight and lord of Brittany, Anjou and Poitou. His estates were extensive and he became one of the most celebrated generals of the 100 Years War, a companion in arms to Joan of Arc. The illustrious career of this Breton warlord culminated in his admittance to the French court in 1427. In 1435 he retired from the army and began an extravagant and self indulgent lifestyle with catastrophic financial consequences. But these turned out to be the least of de Rais’ problems.
In 1440 after a series of child killings, de Rais was accused of their murders and dabbling in the occult and witchcraft. The list of de Rais’ crimes was truly horrific. He was charged with abducting and killing at least 150 children, sodomizing them and burning their bodies. He confessed before he was tortured and was condemned to death and hanged at Nantes in 1440. Bizarrely, his confession allowed him not to be ex-communicated and he was buried in the church of the monastery of Notre Dame des Carmes in Nantes.
And here the story should end– Gilles de Rais the most heartless, cruel and notorious mass murderer in French history, the original Bluebeard from which any others would pale in comparison, a legend in wickedness…
But as in all good murder mysteries, doubts have arisen over the years, was Gilles de Rais actually innocent of all these crimes, a victim of a concerted conspiracy of injustice?
In 1992 Jean-Yves Goëau-Brissonnière, one of many fervent believers in de Rais’ innocence, organized a ‘court’ consisting of former French ministers, parliament members and UNESCO experts to re-examine court material and evidence from the medieval trial. Lawyers, writers and politicians lead by Gilbert Prouteau and presided over by Judge Henri Juramy found Gilles de Rais not guilty of all the crimes he’d been convicted of.
Prouteau maintained that the case for de Rais’ innocence was very strong. There were no corpses ever found either in de Rais’ castle, or on his land. Prouteau believes that the false charges were instigated by powerful rival lords to benefit from the confiscation of de Rais’ lands. (Indeed the Duke of Brittany was given the authority to prosecute de Rais. On de Rais’ death, the Duke of Brittany received all the titles to de Rais’ lands.)
There is another theory running in tandem, that de Rais’ prosecution was an ecclesiastical plot and a bid for revenge from Catholic priests and it was de Rais’ fear of ex-communication that induced him to confess.
Even more determined to prove de Rais’ innocence is a British writer, Margot K Juby, who has obsessively and extensively researched the background of Gilles de Rais and his trial. Juby has translated every document, whether in French or Latin into English, and has determined without doubt that Gilles de Rais was innocent. It has become Juby’s life work calling herself ‘Gilles de Rais representative on earth’. (Her blog, Gilles de Rais was Innocent, makes for fascinating reading.)
There has never been any doubt of Henri-Désiré Landru’s guilt but Gilles de Rais?
Perhaps his 550-year reputation as the original Bluebeard might just be wavering.