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Violette NOZIÈRE





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Parricide - Poisoner
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: August 21, 1933
Date of arrest: 7 days after
Date of birth: January 11, 1915
Victim profile: Jean-Baptiste Nozière (her father)
Method of murder: Poisoning (veronal)
Location: Paris, France
Status: Sentenced to death on October 13, 1934. Commuted to life imprisonment on December 24, 1934. Released on August 29, 1945. Died on November 26, 1966

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The Murder That Transfixed 1930s Paris

By Judith Warner - The New York Times

June 3, 2011

On Aug. 21, 1933, Violette Nozière, the 18-year-old only daughter of an engine driver and a housewife who lived in a claustrophobic two-room apartment in the working-class 12th ­Arrondissement of Paris, gave her parents drinks laced with a lethal dose of barbiturates. Her father died. Her mother, who drank only half her glass, fell into a deeply drugged sleep, but survived. When Violette was arrested — after a brief attempt at flight and a costly shopping spree paid for with her parents’ pilfered savings — she gave a full confession. She also explained, as motive for her crime, that her father had been raping her for the past six years.

The allegation of sexual abuse brought the young woman no sympathy. Indeed, as Sarah Maza shows in her excellent new book, “Violette Nozière: A Story of Murder in 1930s Paris,” it only fanned the flames of public outrage against her.

“Odious Accusations,” “An Abominable Lie,” the Paris dailies railed as they raced to thrill readers with the shiver-inducing details of a crime that would soon become the great cause célèbre of the interwar era. The presiding judge at Violette’s trial opened the proceedings by reminding the jurors of Violette’s “taste for lying.” The police officer who first questioned, and believed, Violette was never called to testify. Indeed, all testimony from those willing to confirm her story — or at least to confirm it was a story Violette had been telling long before she killed her father — was essentially purged from the public record, as journalists shaped and packaged the trial to conform to popular opinion.

The story of incest simply wasn’t one that Depression-era France was willing to hear. It didn’t jibe with the image journalists spread of the Nozière couple as upstanding citizens, “excellent people who bled themselves dry,” as the mass-market press put it, describing the parents’ efforts to raise their daughter above their own working-class status. “The Nozières stood as quintessential representatives of the new interwar middle classes,” writes Maza, a professor of history at Northwestern University. They were “civilized city people, an intact model couple with a well-educated, chic daughter: the incest accusation just did not make sense.”

Violette — who’d been lucky enough to attend high school and had even, briefly, had a place at Paris’s most prestigious girls’ school, the Lycée Fénelon — was “not serious,” her neighbors judged. She’d started dating at 15 or 16. She was, commentators said, typical of the dangerously independent, newly “emancipated” young women taking the Métro, working in offices, earning money to buy fancy clothes that allowed them to pass (among their working-class peers) for elegant ladies. She’d fallen in with a bad crowd of “effete,” morally questionable Latin Quarter students: “men with jackets of extremely narrow waist and coat-hanger shoulders, with Mexican-style trousers,” as one Paris daily condemningly put it. Her well-­meaning parents, blinded by loving ambition in an age of unprecedented social mobility and new educational and occupational opportunities for working-class boys and girls, had given her too much freedom. “Violette Nozière will remain in our memories a sad and lovely ode to perversity,” said a writer in Paris-Midi. “She is the inverted muse of youth, the scarlet idol of a capsized world, the flower of evil of our age.”

Because this story line worked so well as a cautionary tale, and because Violette’s narrative so neatly embodied the many unresolved tensions — about gender, class, tradition, change — bearing down on French society in the interwar years, it quickly became a national obsession. Hundreds of French people wrote to the investigating magistrate to express outrage, demand the death penalty and, in a tiny number of cases, share stories about their own experiences of childhood sexual abuse and beg, on the girl’s behalf, for mercy. Journalists dissected every aspect of Violette’s life before the crime: the perceived coddling she’d received at home from a mother devoted to her every need; her lies and promiscuity (she told men she was trying to seduce that her father was a railway executive and her mother a head saleswoman in the couture house of Paquin); and her eventual, not terribly successful, forays into prostitution with older, and wealthier, Right Bank businessmen.

Why this sinister, sordid and ultimately very sad story so captivated the French is the subject at the heart of Maza’s book, and she explores the question in rich detail. The Nozière case, she writes, united and excited a public increasingly split between political extremes, worn out by government scandals and unmoored by the carnage of World War I. It also successfully distracted the French from the frightening events taking place in Germany. (During the Nuremberg rally, the left-wing daily L’Oeuvre published a cartoon in which a peeved Nazi officer waved a newspaper at Hitler over a caption that read: “That Violette! It’s all about her!”)

The Nozière case, Maza shows, had something for everyone. For French Communists, it was a chance to attack the “decadent” bourgeois students Violette befriended in the Latin Quarter, many of whom, in the 1930s, had extreme right-wing leanings. For the right, it was an indictment of a time when insufficient respect for social hierarchy was creating moral chaos. The Nozières, in this view, were a family who overstepped: a child who took too much from her parents; parents who wanted too much for their child. Even the Surrealists, who fervently believed Violette’s incest allegations, got a piece of the action, seeing in the case a way to skewer conformity, the bourgeois family and the forces of order. “Violette dreamt of undoing / And undid / The hideous vipers’ knot of blood connections,” the poet Paul Éluard wrote in a volume of poetry and artwork the Surrealists published in her honor.

Violette Nozière was found guilty of parricide in 1934 and sentenced to death, though few believed she would ever reach the guillotine. (In fact, after she underwent a Catholic “rebirth” in prison, her story was embraced as a symbol of redemption in Vichy-era France, and she was freed in 1945.) Maza explains brilliantly how and why Violette’s story — or a culturally acceptable version of her story — grew from being a mere fait divers, or miscellaneous news item, into a nationally staged drama that bound France in schadenfreude-laced fascination near the end of the turbulent and divisive Third Republic. Combining a neatly suspenseful account of Violette’s crime and its consequences with a richly layered cultural history (told via interrogation records, trial notes, an expert psychological report and an exhaustive reading of the popular press), she skillfully analyzes Violette’s transformation from wretched schoolgirl to cultural icon.

Occasionally, the power of Maza’s prose is marred by heavy-handed academic tics: a strangely uncritical use of Freudian theory to analyze the Nozière “family romance”; a self-conscious, gratuitous-seeming tip of the hat toward deconstruction (“an abyss of explanation”) in an overlong digression on the significance of the fait divers as narrative form. These are minor quibbles, however; the faults of “Violette Nozière” stand out so sharply only because the rest of the book is so very, very good.

The Paris that Maza evokes is a mosaic of poor and working-class neighborhoods almost unimaginable in the gentrified ville musée of today. But the tendency of a society uncomfortable with change to come together around easy opprobrium and shared clichés is, unfortunately, still very much with us.


The French Have a Way... With Murder

By Edward S. Sullivan -

August 1953

Monsieur Mailleul! Wake up! Come quick!"

The clock-towers of Paris had just chimed midnight on the sultry summer night of Monday, August 21, when the frantic knocking and terrified screams of a young girl disturbed the sedate quiet of the high, narrow old house at Number 9, Rue de Madagascar.

By the time M. Mailleul and his wife, still half asleep, had groggily put on their robes and unbolted the apartment door, other voices and footsteps were resounding throughout the house. The concierge was pounding up the stairs, demanding in a hoarse voice what the disturbance was all about.

The tall, buxom, dark-haired girl, wearing a low-cut spangled evening gown under a man's cloth topcoat, fell into the arms of the flustered Mailleul as he opened the door.

"Oh, it's terrible!" she cried. "I can't go back there!"

The girl's mascaraed eyes were wide pools of terror in her white face. She seemed on the verge of fainting.

"What is it? What's the matter?" M. Mailleul was embarrassed as well as startled. Though clearly it was no idea of his, he could detect a rising hostile note in the heavy breathing of Mme Mailleul directly behind him, as the trembling girl threw her arms around him and pressed her face against the folds of his nightshirt.

For the midnight visitor was no stranger to them. She was Violette Noziere, beautiful 18-year-old daughter of the couple that lived across the hall. Although Mailleul, with instinctive caution, had never said more than hello to her as they passed infrequently on the stairs, Mme Mailleul shared the other good housewives' intuitive distrust and suspicion of the exotic butterfly that had been bred in their midst.

"What's the matter? Pull yourself together!" Mailleul urged the girl, as he strove to disengage himself from her convulsive clutch, and drew back from the odor of perfume that assailed his nostrils. The concierge had reached the landing by this time and was hovering in the background, adding to the confusion.

"It's Mama and Papa!" Violette finally managed to gasp. "They're dead! The place is full of gas!"

As she spoke, the others could detect the sickly sweet odor of gas mingled with Violette's perfume and the cooking smells that always lingered in the narrow stairwell.

The door of the Noziere apartment was closed. Cautioning the excited neighbors to wait and let him open it, the concierge hurried downstairs again, to turn off the gas at the basement meter.

While they waited, young Violette gasped out a few more details to the assemblage on the landing.

"I just came home. I've been staying with friends, you know. As soon as I opened the door, I smelled the gas! I called and there was no answer.

"I ran through the apartment and found Papa's body on the bedroom floor, and Mama stretched out in the bed. I shook them, but they're dead!"

The concierge panted up the stairs again. Gas rushed out when he opened the Nozieres' door. Handkerchief to his nose, he hastened in, turned off the open jets of the kitchen stove, and threw open the windows.

It was as Violette had said. Middle-aged, husky, moustached Jean-Baptiste Noziere lay on the floor in his nightshirt beside the big double bed, his legs twisted and one hand clutching the leg of the bed as though he had been trying to get up. His thin, frail wife, her bony face lined with care and anxiety, lay full length on the bed in her nightgown, hands folded as though she had been calmly waiting for death.

Someone had summoned police and ambulance. An interne examined the bodies, while Violette sobbed her brief story to a uniformed gendarme. She had not been staying at home much of late, she said, and she knew of no reason for her parents' suicide. Money worries, perhaps—

Violette allowed herself to be led away by the sympathetic neighbors.

The medicos completed their examination of Noziere's body, and it was covered and taken away on a stretcher.

The interne was just about to draw a sheet over the still face of Mme Noziere, when he suddenly started, exclaimed in amazement, and bent closer.

"I thought I felt— quick, get me a mirror—"

The gendarme hastened to comply. Sure enough, the mirror, held under Mme Noziere's nostrils, showed a faint film of breath.

"This woman is still alive! Get her to the hospital, quick!"

At the nearby Hospital Saint-Antoine, it was touch-and-go. Mme Noziere was literally on the threshold of death when she was wheeled in, and doctors applied rigorous efforts to save her, battling for her life throughout the early morning hours.

Meanwhile, Assistant Police Chief Gaston Mozer of the Seine Prefecture drove to the flat in the Rue de Madagascar, to make his routine investigation and formal report.

The case at first glance seemed a clear-cut one; the middle-aged couple, alone in the apartment, for some reason had chosen to turn on the gas and lie down to die; M. Noziere at the last minute had apparently changed his mind, but was too weak to do anything about it.

None of the neighbors could offer any motive for suicide, other than that the Nozieres had been upset over the antics of their wayward daughter, who had left home a month or so previously— "to live her own life" as she defiantly put it.

But Violette herself was nowhere to be found when Chief Mozer asked for her. The neighbors had last seen her running sobbing down the stairs, just before it was discovered that her mother was still alive. The gendarme, assuming that she would remain nearby, had neglected to obtain the address — of the friends with whom she was stopping, and none of the apartment tenants knew any details of Violette's life, which was led in quarters away from the respectable middle-class Rue de Madagascar.

"Well, she'll probably turn up in the morning," Chief Mozer shrugged. "She was so upset she simply, forgot to say where she was going. It's a shame, though, that we can't reach her to tell her about her mother!"

Violette had mentioned that her parents were worried over money; but no one else knew anything of this. M. Noziere had made a comfortable salary as a locomotive engineer on the Paris-Lyons-Marseilles line, and the couple lived very modestly.

Cursory search of the apartment turned up no money anywhere, but there were several bank-books in a dresser drawer, and there was no sign of anything out of order.

One thing puzzled Mozer: the supper dishes and remnants of food still stood on the kitchen table, which was set, complete with wineglasses, for three persons. It was possible that the Nozieres had entered into their suicide pact immediately after supper, and omitted to clear off the table. But who was the third diner? Could it have been Violette?

The concierge said no. He had been sitting out in front until about' 10 p.m., and was certain that neither Violette nor anyone else except tenants whom he knew had gone in or out since before the dinner hour. And the Mailleuls, who had retired about an hour before Violette came pounding on their door, insisted that they had not heard the slightest sound all evening from the adjoining apartment, much less the noise of a convivial dinner. In fact, no one recalled seeing even the Nozieres themselves ail day.

Chief Mozer philosophized that these details would be cleared up shortly; that Violette would return, and Mme Noziere would be able to tell the whole story if she lived.

But in the morning a report came to the desk of the Seine Prefect that put a different complexion on the case. The doctors at Saint-Antoine reported that Mme Noziere, still in a critical condition, was suffering not from the effects of inhaling gas, but from a huge, more than lethal dose of veronal — another name for the sleeping-drug, barbital. The amount of gas she had inhaled was negligible, and she had already been drugged when she inhaled it. Obviously she could not have turned on the gas herself.

The prefect referred the case to M. Lanom, juge d'instruction of the district, who immediately ordered an autopsy on the body of M. Noziere to be made by Dr. Paul of the Institute of Forensic Medicine. Sure enough — the engineer had died from a massive dose of veronal.

With what had seemed a simple suicide pact now assuming sinister proportions of double murder, the famous Surete Nationale — the Police Judiciaire — was called in to determine the facts, and Inspector Marcel Guillaume — the fabulous prototype of Georges Simenon's fictional Maigret — took personal charge of the investigation of the crime.

Guillaume wanted — urgently — to talk to young Violette, but she still had not turned up. In her absence the Surete men and a crew of technicians went through the death apartment inch by inch. In two of the wine-glasses they found traces of veronal. Fingerprints on the third glass were too smudged for identification.

In the kitchen waste-basket was a note signed by a Dr. Doron, addressed to the elder Nozieres, instructing them to take the powders which he enclosed.

In a dresser drawer the detectives found a packet of passionate love letters addressed to Violette Noziere, from one Louis Pierre. The latest ones spoke of marriage. A return address in the Quartier Latin was given; the last couple of letters were written from a summer resort at Sables-d'Olonne, where Louis was apparently visiting his parents.

Interviewed by Guillaume, Dr. Doron, a highly respectable practitioner, said the note on his stationery was a forgery. Further, he did not know the elder Nozieres, but had been treating young Violette for anemia.

While provincial police were asked to contact Louis Pierre, Guillaume went to the address in the Quartier Latin, a small studio apartment. There was no one home, but the inspector quickly learned from the concierge and the neighbors that the tenant was Pierre, a young law student and the son of well-to-do parents. He dabbled in the arts and was known as a rather wild-living young man. Lately, they said, his flashy-looking girl friend Violette had frequently been staying with him.

Visiting nearby cafes and asking innumerable questions, Inspector Guillaume's men located a blonde girl named Madeleine Debize, who said she was Violette's closest girl friend. She said she didn't know where her friend was at the moment, but she swiftly dispelled any idea the detectives had that Violette had sat at table with her parents at the fatal dinner.

"Violette and I were at a party with some student friends last night, that would be Monday night," the willing and voluble witness said. "We had dinner about 5 o'clock in a little brasserie up the street here. Then we all went dancing at the Bal Tabarin.

"We were tired and left the party early, about 11 o'clock, and Violette said she thought she'd go home to her parents' place for the night.

"I don't know what you're after her for, but I can swear she never left my sight the whole night. I had a special reason to stick close to her, because I was broke and Violette happened to have a roll of money. In fact, she loaned me 100 francs when she left me on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. That was just about 11.30."

Madeleine was even able to fill them in on Violette's movements earlier in the day. The popular brunette had had lunch with a young artist in a cafe on the Boulevard Haussmann, and then spent most of the afternoon riding around the cafes of the Quartier with two Egyptian students in their new car.

But back in the Rue de Madagascar, Inspector Guillaume and his colleague Inspector Gripois were picking up a different kind of information about young Violette.

Friends and neighbors could not provide any clue to her whereabouts or current activities, but they had plenty to say about her past, which was already more than a bit lurid for a girl of 18, even in Paris.

"Her parents just couldn't seem to control her," one woman said. "She was always in trouble at school, and since the age of 12 or 13 she's been running around with men one man after another. She simply became attractive to men too soon, and it turned her head."

Violette had left home several times, but always had come back. She was constantly quarreling with her long-suffering parents, asserting her right "to live her own life" — and constantly coming back to them for help.

M. Mailleul provided more sinister information. This wasn't the first time there had been suspicious happenings in the Noziere apartment. Only two months before, the elder Nozieres had been almost overcome by a leaking gas-jet. Another time, their bedroom window curtains mysteriously caught fire. And three or four times, the engineer and his wife were seized with terrible pains after eating, and called Mailleul to send for the doctor. On these occasions, Violette also complained of pains.

Investigation of M. Noziere's affairs revealed that he had about 180,000 francs in the bank, which would go to Violette in event of the death of both parents.

In the midst of this investigation, Louis Pierre came back to Paris voluntarily and submitted to questioning. He and Violette had been friends for about a year, the nervous, pasty-faced youth said. When her parents happened to find his letters to her and forbade her seeing him, he promised marriage and Violette left home and moved into his studio. Pressed, the furtive Pierre admitted that Violette had been getting money from other men and helping to support him, when his parents cut down his allowance.

"I haven't seen her since last week, and I don't know where she is," he said, "but she mentioned a funny thing in a letter just the other day. She said she had inherited some money, and was going to buy a car and come to get me!"

The hunt for Violette Noziere became first order of business for the Surete. But when the reports from detectives checking on her recent movements were all in, it appeared impossible that she could have had anything to do with the poisoning of her parents Monday evening. A dozen witnesses were ready to swear to her whereabouts Monday afternoon and evening.

As far as could be established, she had last visited the Rue de Madagascar Sunday afternoon. She had spent Sunday night in the Montmartre cafes, dancing and drinking till dawn. It looked as though Violette was in the clear. Nevertheless Guillaume wanted to talk to her, if only to clear up the source of the money she was reported to have been spending lavishly. Neighbors said M. Noziere usually kept a good sum on hand — but none had been found in the apartment.

A factor that puzzled Guillaume was the report from the railway that Noziere had failed to show up for work on Monday, for the first time in 10 years. Where had he spent Monday? Was he with the mysterious dinner guest? Close investigation of the dead engineer's past was indicated, and Guillaume assigned a corps of men to the task.

But the very next morning came news from the hospital that broke the case wide open. Mme Noziere had recovered from her coma and was winning her struggle for life.

And the first words she uttered when she was able to talk and learned her husband was dead, were to accuse Violette of poisoning them! The girl had administered the veronal, she said, under guise of powders prescribed by Dr. Doron for headaches.

And Mme Noziere's fragmentary statement cleared up the principal puzzle: the poisoning had taken place after dinner Sunday afternoon when Violette had dined with them, and not Monday night as had been taken for granted. The couple had lain in a coma for some 30 hours before M. Noziere died.

"That girl has the cunning of a devil"' Guillaume exclaimed. "She drugged her parents Sunday afternoon and left them to die. Then, after establishing her alibi for Monday night, she came back at midnight and turned on the gas, to make it look as though it had just happened!"

The hunt for the unnatural killer now spread over the nation, blazoned by newspapers and radio. The public was aroused as it had not been for many years. Public meetings demanded the guillotine for the cold-blooded slayer.

Shortly Mme Noziere was able to relate further details of the night of horror. Violette had persuaded them to take the powders in their wine-glasses right after dinner. Stricken in a few minutes, they had gone to bed on her advice, and she promised to call the doctor.

While they lay semi-conscious, Violette came back and said the doctor had told her to give them baking soda; she forced a liquid down their mouths, which it now appeared had contained still more veronal.

Mme Noziere also established that 3,000 francs, waiting to be banked, was missing from the dresser, and 1,000 francs from the hem of her dress. It was clear where Violette had obtained the money for her lavish night in the artist's flat.

* * *

On August 29, more than a week after the murder, Count Henri Dubec, a young engineer, reported to the Surete that he had met and made a date for that night with a girl dressed all in black who called herself Christiane d'Arfeui, who he was sure from her looks and evasive conversation was the hunted Violette. When the slim brunette showed up at a subway station that night for their date, a squad of detectives closed in and the hunt was over.

Sullenly Violette admitted the poisoning of her parents. She said she had meant to kill only her father, and had given her mother a mild dose.

She came up with a startling motive for the patricide; she said her father had assaulted her on a trip to the country, and that she was pregnant by him! He had threatened to kill her if she had told anyone, according to her story.

But the doctors reported that Violette was not pregnant, and investigation by Guillaume proved that the incident could not have happened at the time and place she said. Mme Noziere filed a civil suit against Violette for slandering the dead.

Violette denied that she had taken her parents' money. She said an elderly professor of the Sorbonne had given her 3,000 francs. But this too was proved a falsehood, a figment of her warped mind.

Public feeling was so strong that a mob tried to storm the Petite-Roquette prison, and Violette had to be removed under heavy guard.

French justice is slow and thorough, and more than a year passed before the police investigation of her life was completed and Violette was brought to trial for murder before Judge Peyre at the Seine Assizes. Her various confessions were introduced, and a parade of witnesses condemned her. The defense attorney argued that her strong passion had driven her to poison the parents who stood in her way.

At the last minute Mme Noziere took the stand to plead mercy for her unnatural daughter. But it took the jury only a few minutes, on October 13, 1934, to find her guilty, and Judge Peyre sentenced her to die on the guillotine.

However, no woman had been executed in France since 1887, when Jeanne Thomas and her husband were beheaded for burning Jeanne's mother in a fireplace. Jeanne collapsed in hysterics on the scaffold, and had to be dragged by the hair. Since then, the death sentence for women has become simply a matter of form.

So despite the atrocity of her crime and the feeling of the public, President Lebrun on Christmas Day commuted the sentence of Violette Noziere to life imprisonment.



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