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Classification: Serial killer?
Characteristics: 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
Victims profile: 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, 88Virginie Lalleron, 83 / Marie-Louise Davaillaud, 71 (her mother)
Method of murder: Poisoning (arsenic)
Location: Loudun, Vienne department, France
Status: After three trials, Marie Besnard was acquitted on December 12, 1961. Died on February 14, 1980

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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.

Early life

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.

Suspicious deaths

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 1961.

Besnard died in 1980.

Popular culture

  • 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 Besnard

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 in Loudon.

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, 1941.

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 well.

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 arrested.

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 counts.

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 Besnard.

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 cerebral hemorrhage.

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 to testify.

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 Wine

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 regularly visited.


Arsenic & No Case

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 uremia.

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 arsenic."

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.



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