Poisoner - To inherit
Number of victims: 0 - 12
Date of murders: 1927 - 1949
Date of arrest:
July 21, 1949
Date of birth: August 15, 1896
Auguste Antigny, 33
(her first husband) / Marie Lecomte, 86 /
Toussaint Rivet, 64 / Blanche Rivet, 49 /
Pierre Davaillaud, 78 (her father) / Louise Gouin, 92
(her maternal grandmother) / Marcellin Besnard, 78
(her stepfather) / Marie-Louise Besnard, 68 (her
stepmother) / Lucie Bodin, 45 / Pauline Bodineau,
88 / Virginie Lalleron, 83 /
Marie-Louise Davaillaud, 71 (her mother)
Method of murder:
Vienne department, France
After three trials, Marie Besnard was acquitted on December 12,
1961. Died on February 14, 1980
Marie Besnard was first charged with
multiple murder on July 21, 1949. After three trials lasting over 10
years (the first held in Poitiers), Besnard was finally freed in 1954,
then acquitted on December 12, 1961.
Born in Loudun, France, Marie married her cousin,
Auguste Antigny, in 1920. The marriage lasted until his death from
pleurisy on July 21, 1927 (Antigny was known to suffer from
tuberculosis). In 1928, Marie married Léon Besnard.
When Léon Besnard's parents inherited family
wealth, the couple invited them to move in with them. Soon thereafter,
his father died, apparently from eating poisoned mushrooms.
His mother followed three months later, apparently
a victim of pneumonia.
Shortly afterward, the Besnards sublet rooms to a
wealthy childless couple, the Rivets, who were friends of Marie's
husband. Monsieur Toussaint Rivet died of pneumonia on July 14, 1939,.
Madame Blanche Rivet (née Lebeau) died on December 27, 1941 from
aortitis. The Rivets' will had named Marie Besnard as their only heir.
Pauline Bodineau, (née Lalleron) and Virginie
Lalleron, cousins of Marie, had also named Marie as their only
beneficiary. Pauline died aged 88 on July 1, 1945, after mistaking a
bowl of lye for her dessert one night. Virginie apparently made the
same mistake a week later and died aged 83 on July 9, 1945. Marie's
mother, Marie-Louise Davaillaud (née Antigny) died on January 16.
After Marie discovered Léon was having an affair, Léon remarked to a
close friend, Madame Pintou, that he believed he was being poisoned,
saying "that his wife had served him some soup on a bowl that already
contained a liquid." He died shortly afterwards October 25, 1947
apparently of uremia.
A few days after Léon's burial, details of his
testimony reached the gendarmerie and were passed to an
investigating magistrate. A forensic surgeon, doctor Béroud,
discovered 19.45 mg of arsenic in his body. Marie was arrested, the
bodies of her other alleged victims were exhumed, and Marie was
charged with 13 counts of murder.
The presence of arsenic in the bodies of her
alleged victims was central to Besnard's trials, the first of which
began in February 1952.
Béroud's autopsy report, based on an analytical
method developed by Marsh and Cribier, concluded that the victims had
been slowly poisoned by arsenic. Further analysis by professors Fabre,
Kohn-Abrest and Griffon also found that there were abnormal levels of
arsenic in the exhumed bodies. Another report, carried out by
professor Piedelièvre in 1954 confirmed the results of the 1952
analysis, but differed in some respects from Béroud's. The presence of
abnormally high levels of arsenic were also confirmed by another
report by Professor Frédéric Joliot-Curie.
Béroud had difficulty in defending his results
under examination from Besnard's lawyers.As a result, the first two
trials ended without a conviction.
The length of the trials, the successful attacks on
the evidence, and the turning of public opinion in favor of Marie
Besnard contributed to her eventual acquittal at her third trial in
Besnard died in 1980.
The 1986 television film L'Affaire Marie
Besnard (The Marie Besnard Affair) won the Sept d'or
French television awards for Alice Sapritch, best actress in the
role of Marie Besnard; Yves-André Hubert, director, for best movie
made for TV; and Frédéric Pottecher, best writer.
The 2006 television film Marie Besnard,
l'empoisonneuse (Marie Besnard, the Poisoner), resulted in the
2007 Best Performance by an Actress Emmy Award for Muriel Robin in
the title role
Marie Joséphine Philippine Davaillaud was born in
Loudon, France, on August 15, 1896. An only child educated at a
convent school, some of her childhood playmates described her as
somewhat mean. In 1919, she married her cousin, Auguste Antigny; he
died on July 21, 1927, with the official cause of death listed as
tuberculosis. In 1929, she married Léon Besnard, who owned a rope shop
The Besnards lived comfortably until 1940, when
Léon's parents inherited family money and were invited to move in with
their son and daughter-in-law. Léon's father died a few weeks later
after eating poisonous mushrooms, and his mother died of pneumonia
three months later; their estate was split between Léon and his
sister, Lucie. Léon inherited the entire estate after Lucie committed
suicide a few months after their mother's death. The Besnards' bank
account grew even more after Marie's father died of a cerebral
hemorrhage on May 14, 1940.
Following the string of family deaths, the Besnards
took a wealthy childless couple into their home. Touissaint and
Blanche Rivet were so thankful for the Besnard's hospitality that they
made them the beneficiaries of their wills. Touissant died of
pneumonia on July 14, 1940; Blanche died of aortitis on December 27,
Although the Besnards had suffered an extraordinary
number of deaths over a short period of time, few in Loudon suspected
anything other than bad luck was responsible. That began to change,
however, after one of Marie's elderly cousins, Pauline Bodineau, who
was living in the Blanchard home, died on July 1, 1945. According to
Marie, her cousin had mistaken a dish of lye for a desert and had
eaten it. Suspicions were further aroused when another cousin,
Virginie Lalleron, died in the same manner on July 9, 1945. Marie just
happened to be the only beneificiary listed on both of the cousins'
wills. Despite neighbors and friends being by now quite suspicious, no
criminal investigation was initiated.
On January 16, 1946, Marie's mother, Marie-Louise
Davaillaud, died, apparently of old age. Not long after collecting yet
another inheritance, Marie learned that Léon was having an affair with
a neighbor, Louise Pintou. Léon died on October 25, 1947; his doctor
listed the cause of death as uremia.
Following the death of Léon Besnard, Louise Pintou
sent a letter to the public prosecutor in which she stated that Léon
had expressed his concern to her that he was being poisoned by Marie.
Authorities initially dismissed Pintou's letter, but repeated demands
by her and others that Léon's death be investigated finally forced
them to give in. Léon Besnard's body was exhumed on May 11, 1949, and
an autopsy found that he had ingested a large amount of arsenic over a
period of time. This discovery led to the exhumation of other bodies,
and by the time the investigation was over arsenic had also been found
in the bodies of Léon's parents and sister, the Rivets, and Marie's
first husband, cousins, mother and father. Marie Besnard was arrested
and charged with 11 counts of murder on July 21, 1949.
Besnard went on trial in February 1952. During the
proceedings, Besnard's attorneys, René Hayot and Albert Gautrat,
questioned the methods Dr. Georges Béroud used to find the arsenic in
the bodies, accused the laboratory that did the tests of losing and
mishandling some of the evidence, and presented evidence that the
source of any arsenic found in the bodies could easily have come from
the soil in the cemetery in which the bodies had been buried. Unable
to come to a verdict, the court ruled that it needed more time to
review the scientific evidence and adjourned. The court reconvened in
October, took a little more testimony, and then adjourned again. The
Besnard trial remained on hold, and she remained in jail, until March
1954. After hearing both sides present very different interpretations
of the scientific evidence the judges again declared that they needed
more time to come to a decision. This time, however, they allowed
Besnard to post a 1,200,00-franc bond and await her next court
appearance outside the confines of a jail.
Besnard was not called back into court until
November 20, 1961. As they had before, both prosecution and defense
presented very different interpretations of the scientific evidence.
But, unlike before, this trial actully ended with a verdict. Over
eleven years after being arrested, Marie Besnard was found not guilty
on all counts on December 12, 1961. She died a free woman in 1980.
The Poison Queen
Occasionally one comes across a Black Widow with a
slight mix of characteristics found usually in other female serial
killer classifications. Such was Marie Besnard, the most famous of
Gallic warlocks. She worked a good part of her 22-year career with a
male accomplice, that trait of "partnering" being rare among the Black
Widow breed. And yet, she is of that breed, for all her murders were
motivated strictly by self-gain and the majority of her victims were
relatives and in-laws.
A native of Loudon, France, Marie Davaillaud married
Auguste Antigny in 1920. She was 23 years old, he closer to thirty and
a kissing cousin. What contentment the union brought rapidly weakened
until, by 1927, Marie had had enough of Antigny. The latter did not
live long enough to see 1928.
A year later, the widow had remarried Leon Besnard. He
was a scamp and every bit as formative a no-goodnik as his wife; it
was truly a marriage made in hell. They were cons, the pair of them,
swindlers, cheats and eventual serial killers. Together, the two
hatched a get-rich-quick scheme to poison off their relatives,
collecting their inheritances, one by one.
To go about this, they used stealth. For many months
the couple made furtive endeavors to cement their relationships with
both their families — parents, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles,
and just about everyone they could think of within the Besnard and
Davaillaud circles — to insure their place on their respective wills.
Marie and Leon Besnard evidently had acting talent; their plan worked
Marie is perceived as having been the "brains" of the
partnership. Whether or not this is true, and it seems to be true,
Besnard was a willing and adept disciple. The first to go were his two
spinster aunts, each in the money, each regarding their nephew and his
lovely new wife as a wholesome young couple. One aunt went to her
grave in 1938, the other two years later, after sipping a bottle of
gift wine. Both aunts bequeathed a sizeable reward for the Besnard's
kindness to them in life.
Between the years 1940 and 1947, members of both
inter-related families may have thought that a curse had visited them.
The Davaillauds and Besnards dropped like flies; Marie's father;
Besnard's father and sister; cousins Pauline and Virginie Lalleron, in
that order. Causes of death were suspiciously imitative, either of
water in the lungs or of cerebral hemorrhaging, but not a single
doctor noted the similarities.
According to the Kellehers' Murder Most Rare,
the villainous man and wife team aimed their poisonous arrows at
others besides their immediate family — another standard Black Widow
factor from which Marie ventures. Neighbors, too, were their targets.
The deadly Besnards convinced an aged, sickly and very rich
couple named Rivet to lodge with them that they might tend to their
faltering health. The na? elders, completely duped, moved in with
Marie and Leon, only to pass away just after their arrival. Before
they died, they had shown their appreciation to the Besnards by
leaving their total wealth to these guardian angels.
Leon Besnard fell trap to his own devices in 1947 when
his partner, Marie, spiked his wine with a taste of his own medicine.
The lady had fallen in love with another man and figured it was time
for Leon's exit.
In control of all the money now, Marie grew dizzy with
power. She became greedier. And stupid. She killed her mother, then,
when she heard the neighborhood was gossiping, physically went about
door-to-door threatening the chatterboxes with their lives. She was
Leon Besnard was exhumed and his body proved toxic. So
were the cadavers of those family and in-laws whom she killed. She was
charged with thirteen counts of murder. But, in the end, as
unbelievable as it seems, Marie beat the rap.
With her vast wealth, and at a time when the world was
influenced by wealth, she was able to hire France's top defense team
who managed to maneuver three separate trials, between 1951 and 1961,
into hung juries.
By escaping justice so remarkably, wrote the Kellehers,
"Marie Besnard rewrote the definition of the perfect crime and
eclipsed even the remarkable legend of Belle Gunness."
The Case of Marie Besnard,
Queen of Poisoners
Marie Besnard has been called the Queen of
Poisoners. She was accused of having poisoned 13 people in Loudun,
France, and was tried 3 times, but was ultimately acquitted on all
Marie was born Marie Davaillaud in 1896, and was
remembered by classmates as being "vicious and immoral" and "wild with
boys." She was 23 when she married her cousin, Auguste Antigny, a
frail man known to suffer from tuberculosis. Marie was 27 when he
died, apparently of pleurisy, and two years later she married Leon
Leon and Marie lived modestly, but hoped for better
things. When two wealthy aunts of Leon's died, and left the bulk of
their estates to Leon's parents, the couple invited the parents to
move in with them. Soon thereafter, Leon's father died, apparently
from eating poisoned mushrooms. Leon's mother followed three months
later, a victim of pneumonia. The parents' estate was left to Leon and
his sister, Lucie, who committed suicide a few months later.
Meanwhile, Marie's father had succumbed to a
The Besnards then took in a wealthy couple, the
Rivets, as boarders. The Rivets were childless, and soon became
attached to the Besnards. Monsieur Rivet died of pneumonia, and Madame
Rivet soon followed, stricken with nausea and convulsions, which her
doctor attributed to "the chest sickness". The Rivets had named Marie
Besnard as their sole beneficiary.
Two elderly cousins were the next to go, Pauline
and Virginie Lalleron. Pauline died after mistaking a bowl of lye for
her dessert one night, and, amazingly, Virginie made the identical
mistake a week later.
The Besnards by this time had amassed six houses,
an inn, a cafe, and several stud farms. Leon had taken a mistress,
Louise Pintou, who was the Loudun Postmistress, and had invited her to
move into the Besnard home. Marie had also taken a lover, a handsome
German ex-prisoner of war. Leon died at home, apparently of uremia,
but not before he had told friends that he believed he was being
poisoned, and asked them to demand an autopsy if he died.
Marie's aged mother had also died the same year.
Naturally, by this time rumors were flying. Death
threats were sent through the mails to some of the local gossips.
Madame Pintou, who had openly accused Marie, had her home broken into,
where the burglar proceded to selectively destroy every gift Madame
Pintou had ever received from Leon. Another pair of accusers was
forced to flee Loudon after arsonists burned their home.
One acquaintance remembered that Marie had once
recommended arsenic as an alternative to divorce.
Finally, on May 11th, the body of Leon Besnard was
exhumed, and investigators found approximately twice the arsenic
levels in his remains that would have been necessary to kill him.
Twelve other bodies were then exhumed: both sets of parents, Marie's
first husband, the Rivets, Marie's sister-in-law, the elderly cousins,
a grandmother-in-law, and a great aunt. (The autopsy on Marie's first
husband was possible only because the undertaker had accidentally left
Auguste's shoes on, and his toenails were preserved enough to be
tested for arsenic.) Of the 13, 12 bodies were found with significant
traces of arsenic. One death had exceeded the French statute of
limitations, so Marie was charged with 11 deaths.
At Marie's first trial, her lawyers attacked the
testimony of the toxicologist, Dr. Georges Beroud, in particular his
assertion that he could tell the difference between arsenic and
antimony with the naked eye. The lawyers demanded a new trial, and
Marie was sent to jail in "preventative detention" while a new panel
of experts was assembled.
While Marie was incarcerated, 3 informers reported
to the police that Marie had attempted to hire them to "rub out" some
of the neighborhood gossips.
The new panel of four experts took 2 years to
examine the forensic evidence. They were forced to eliminate 5 of the
charges - there was simply not enough of the physical evidence left to
test for arsenic. In the meantime, Marie's lawyers had learned of a
new theory that arsenic could enter a body from the ground through the
actions of anaerobic bacteria.
The second trial was also ended up being ruled a
mistrial. The experts could not agree, and one of them became so upset
he left the witness stand, sat down and folded his arms, and refused
A third trial was held seven years later. (Marie
was free on bond during this period.) There was very little physical
evidence left to test, and the experts admitted that their techniques
were not up to date and that "too many factors escape us." In
addition, the defense attorneys had learned that the Loudun cemetery
concierge had grown potatoes near the burial sites and had sprinkled
his garden with fertilizers containing arsenic.
On December 12, 1961, Marie Besnard was acquitted.
The jury had taken only 3 hours and 25 minutes to deliberate.
Arsenic & White
Feb. 13, 1950
"The devil is active in
Chatellerault, in Chinon and in Domfront, but above all he is active
in Loudun." So said Rabelais four centuries ago; at least, that's what
the people of Loudun say he said. Some people suspect that Loudun, a
town of 5,313 in western France, is still a little proud of its
reputation for casual wickedness. "I think," said a bookseller of
Loudun last week, "it is because of our fine white wines. One can
drink liters, like water, but suddenly it hits like a coup de fusil
and even the old feel young."
Stranger in the House. One of the
few citizens of Loudun who seemed beyond suspicion of any intrigue was
slim, soft-spoken Marie Besnard, a matron of 53, who owned six houses
in the town, the local White Horse inn, and a number of thriving stud
farms. Marie had acquired property the easy way through the deaths of
a succession of relatives and her purse strings were always loosened
when M. le Curé came to call with a worthy charity in mind. Marie,
said the people of Loudun, was "the only woman in town who could go to
communion without first going to confession."
Even Loudun's glib gossips found
their tongues slow to wag when, soon after the war, the unassailable
Marie Besnard was apparently attracted by a handsome German hired hand
and. ex-prisoner of war 30 years her junior. Marie's husband, Leon
Besnard, began spending more & more time in the town's bistros and
complaining bitterly that he was no longer master in his own home.
Three years ago Léon died. Local
doctors certified his death as natural, but the gossip grew. After
complaints by Marie's neighbors, the Ministry of the Interior finally
decided to examine what was left of husband Léon.
Evidence in the Graveyard. Last
May, while widowed Marie leaned and sobbed on the arm of a nun at the
graveside, and all of Loudun watched, Léon Besnard's body was
disinterred, turned over to a laboratory in Marseille. Within a few
days Loudun heard the shocking news. Léon had died of a massive dose
of arsenic. In the Palais de Justice in Poitiers, a grim little juge
d'instruction asked Marie Besnard how the poison got into her husband.
She had no idea; but at least one neighbor seemed to remember that
Marie had once suggested arsenic as an easy substitute for divorce.*
Judge Pierre Roger then ordered
the bodies of Marie's first husband and other relatives exhumed and
analyzed. One by one, as the weeks went by, the reports came in:
Auguste Antigny, first husband of Marie Besnard, died 1927, overdose
of arsenic; Madame Leconte, a cousin, died 1939, arsenic; Madame
Rivet, a friend, died 1939, arsenic; Marcellin Besnard, a
father-in-law, died 1940, arsenic; Marie Louise Davailland, a
sister-in-law, died 1940, arsenic; Monsieur Rivet, died 1941, arsenic;
Alice Bodin, a sister-in-law, died 1941, arsenic; Marie Louise
Besnard, a mother-in-law, died 1941, arsenic; Pauline and Marie
Lalleron, aged cousins, died 1945, arsenic. "UN AUTRE POUR MARIE!"
proclaimed newspapers in big black headlines all over France as each
body was reported.
Last week Judge Roger made an
official announcement. "We have dug up 13 bodies ... in 12 of the 13,
death was caused by arsenic poisoning. One of these cases is covered
by the statute of limitations, so let us call it eleven. Anyway, we
have the rough picture."
Outside the gloomy Pierre-Levée
prison in Poitiers, where Marie Besnard awaited trial, her dapper
attorney Henry de Cluzeau offered what was perhaps the only possible
defense. "In this country of good wines and fine living," said he,
"one might possibly conceive of one murder, two murders, even three
murders. But eleven murders? Preposterous!"
* Not a new idea in France.
During the 17th Century one of the principal sources of income for
France's alchemists was the sale of arsenic, or "succession powder,"
as it was happily known, to ambitious members of the upper classes. In
the 1670s Paris was so beset by an epidemic of poisonings that a
special court, the Chambre Ardente, was set up to handle this type of
crime. One of its most fabulous accused was the glamorous and
charitably-minded Marquise de Brinvilliers (a "much courted little
woman," according to one source, "with a fascinating air of childlike
innocence"), who, assisted by a lover, poisoned her father and her two
brothers for the sake of the family fortune. The good Marquise always
assured herself of success by trying her poisons first on the local
poor who came to seek her. charity, and on the sick, whom she
Arsenic & No
Dec. 22, 1961
On a hot July
morning in 1949, a police commissaire in the town of Loudun, north of
Poitiers, knocked on the door of Marie Besnard, a dowdy,
52-year-old widow, and ordered her to come along. The charge: that she
had poisoned with arsenic her mother, father, two husbands,
father-in-law, mother-in-law, sister-in-law, grandmother-in-law, two
cousins, great-aunt, and two close friends. Last week, after twelve
years and three trials, one of the century's most intricate murder
cases—and one of the longest—came to an end.
Exhumed & Examined. The legend of
Marie Besnard began in the gossip mills of Loudun. Over the years,
Marie and her husband Léon had inherited from relatives six houses,
two farms, an inn and a café. Amid all this affluence, Léon invited
his mistress, Loudun Postmistress Louise Pintou, to move in with him
and his wife. But when it was whispered that Marie herself took a
lover—a former German prisoner of war 30 years her junior—Léon
apparently protested. Several days later, after becoming violently ill
over lunch, Léon died; local doctors certified that death was due to
The gossips had it otherwise. But
only after the death of Marie's 78-year-old mother 15 months later did
the police begin to take the rumors seriously. Exhuming the body of
Léon Besnard, they found it to contain a heavy dose of arsenic. The
state took 31 months to build its case. Townspeople recalled that
Marie had once recommended arsenic to an unhappily married friend as a
substitute for a hard-to-get divorce and that Léon had asked friends
to have an autopsy performed if he died suddenly. Postmistress Pintou
flatly accused Marie of murdering their Léon.
Thirteen Besnard relatives who
had died since 1927 were exhumed and examined by Marseille
Toxicologist Georges Beroud; each body showed traces of arsenic. Each
of the deceased also had left an inheritance to Marie Besnard.
Discarding two of the bodies to make its case more solid, the state
opened Marie's first trial at Poitiers in February 1952, charging her
with eleven murders.
But Marie's lawyer quickly
shattered the state's case by disproving Dr. Beroud's contention that
he could tell arsenic from antimony with the naked eye. Adjourning the
trial, the judge sent Marie Besnard back to "preventive detention,"
appointed a panel of three new experts. They spent two years
re-examining the bodies brought up from Loudun's cemetery, eliminated
five more corpses from the list of victims.
Experts & Superexperts. At
Marie's second trial, which opened in Bordeaux in 1954, three
informers who had been placed by police in Marie's cell claimed that
she had planned to hire some Marseille gangsters to rub out her
gossipy neighbors—but again the uncertainties of toxicology came to
her aid. The experts could not agree, and one became so flustered that
he had a tantrum on the witness stand, sat down, crossed his legs,
folded his arms, and refused to speak. Thoroughly bewildered, the
judge called for a panel of "superexperts," released Marie Besnard on
bail, ordered a new trial in "the near future."
Last month, seven years later,
Marie Besnard's third trial was called to order in Bordeaux. One by
one, the superexperts were called to the witness stand and discredited
by Defense Attorneys Albert Gautrat and René Hayot. Squirming in
discomfort, the scientists admitted that their methods were not up to
date, that "too many factors escape us." Witnesses suggested that the
arsenic could have entered the bodies after burial from the soil,
offered testimony that the cemetery concierge at Loudun had grown
potatoes near the graves and had sprinkled the patch with fertilizers
containing arsenic. Smoothly the defense counsels also demolished the
testimony of Loudun's gossips. Defendant Besnard also remembered that
Postmistress Pintou had eaten with her after accusing her of poisoning
Léon's soup. Murmured Marie: "Perhaps you had an antidote for
Alarmed, the prosecution scaled
down its charges, said that it would try to convict Marie for only
three murders. But the case was lost; the jury took three hours and 25
minutes to acquit Marie Besnard. Unhappily for Marie, the state is not
bound to pay her 1 franc of indemnity for the years she spent in
preventive detention. The whole case, said one weary attorney, was a
powerful argument for cremation.