Marcel André Henri Félix Petiot (January 17, 1897 – May
25, 1946) was a French doctor who was convicted of multiple murders
after the discovery of the remains of twenty six people in his home in
Paris after World War II. He is suspected of killing more than sixty
victims during his life.
Petiot was born January 17, 1897 at Auxerre, France.
Later accounts make various claims of his delinquency and criminal acts
during childhood and adolescence, but is unclear whether they were
invented afterwards for public consumption. It should be noted, however,
that a psychiatrist diagnosed him as mentally ill on March 26, 1914, and
he was expelled from school many times. He finished his education in a
special academy in Paris in July of 1915.
During World War I, Petiot was drafted into the French
infantry in January 1916. In Aisne he was wounded and gassed and
exhibited more symptoms of mental breakdown. He was sent to various rest
homes, where he was arrested for stealing army blankets and jailed in
In a psychiatric hospital at Fleury-les-Aubrais he was again
diagnosed with various mental ailments and was returned to front June
1918. He was transferred three weeks later after he shot himself in the
foot, but was attached to a new regiment in September. A new diagnosis
was enough to get him discharged with a disability pension.
After the war Petiot entered the accelerated education
program intended for war veterans, completed medical school in eight
months and went to become an intern in Evreux mental hospital. He
received his medical degree in December 1921 and moved to
Villeneuve-sur-Yonne, where he received payment for his services both
from the patients and from government medical assistance funds. At this
point, he was already using addictive narcotics. While working at
Villeneuve-sur-Yonne, he gained a reputation for dubious medical
practices, such as the supply of narcotics, and the performance of
Petiot's first victim might have been Louise Delaveau,
the daughter of an elderly patient, with whom he had an affair in 1926.
Delaveau disappeared in May and neighbors later said that they had seen
Petiot load a trunk into his car. Police investigated, but eventually
dismissed her as a runaway. That same year, Petiot ran for mayor of the
town, hired an accomplice to disrupt a political debate with his
opponent, and won. Once in office, he embezzled from the town funds. In
1927 he married Georgette Lablais. Their son Gerhardt was born the next
The local prefect received numerous complaints about
Petiot's theft and shady financial deals. Petiot was eventually
suspended as a mayor in August 1931 and resigned. The village council
also resigned in sympathy. Five weeks later, on October 18, he was
elected as a councilor for the Yonne district. In 1932 he was accused of
stealing electric power from the village of Villeneuve-sur-Yonne and he
lost his seat in a council. Meanwhile, he had already moved to Paris.
In Paris, Petiot attracted patients with his imaginary
credentials, and built an impressive reputation for his practice at 66
Rue Caumartin. However, there were rumors of illegal abortions and overt
prescriptions of addictive remedies. In 1936 he was appointed médecin
d'état-civil with authority to write death certificates. The same year,
he was briefly institutionalized for kleptomania, but was released the
following year. He still persisted in tax evasion.
After the outbreak of World War II and the fall of
France, Petiot begun to provide false medical certificates to French
citizens who were drafted to forced labour into Germany, and treated
sick workers that had returned. He was also convicted, in July 1942, of
over-prescribing narcotics, despite the fact that two addicts who would
have testified against him had disappeared. He was fined 2400 Francs.
According to his own tall tales, Petiot also developed
secret weapons that supposedly killed Germans without leaving forensic
evidence, had high-level meetings with Allied commanders, engaged in
resistance activities (planting booby traps all over Paris), and worked
with a (nonexistent) group of anti-fascist Spaniards.
Fraudulent escape network
Petiot's most lucrative activity, however, was his own
false escape route, Fly-Tox. He adopted a "code-name" "Dr. Eugène." He
accepted anyone who could afford his price of 25,000 Francs per person
regardless of whether they were Jews, resistance fighters, or ordinary
criminals. His aides Raoul Fourrier, Edmond Pintard, and René-Gustave
Nézondet directed victims to his hands.
Petiot claimed that he could
arrange a safe passage to Argentina or elsewhere in South America
through Portugal. He also claimed that Argentinean officials demanded
inoculations and injected his victims with cyanide. Then he took all
their valuables and disposed of the bodies. People who trusted him to
deliver them to safety were never seen alive again.
At first Petiot dumped the bodies in the Seine, but he
later destroyed the bodies by submerging them in quicklime or by
incinerating them. In 1941, Petiot bought a house at 21 rue le Sueur.
What Petiot failed to do was to keep a low profile. The
Gestapo eventually found out about him and, by April 1943, they had
heard all about his "route." Gestapo agent Robert Jodkum forced prisoner
Yvan Dreyfus to approach the supposed network, but he simply vanished.
later informer successfully infiltrated the operation and the Gestapo
arrested Fourrier, Pintard, and Nézondet. Under torture they confessed
that "Dr Eugène" was Marcel Petiot. Nezondet was later released but
three others spent eight months in prison suspected of helping Jews to
escape. Even under torture, they did not identify any other members of
the resistance - because they actually knew of none. The Gestapo
released the three men in January 1944.
On March 6 1944, neighbors noticed that the smoke from
the chimney of 21 Rue le Sueur in Paris smelled noxious. When neighbors
went to complain on March 11, they found a note on the door that said
the resident would be away for a month.
Neighbors notified the police and told them that Petiot
owned the house. When police called Petiot, he told them to wait for
him. However, 30 minutes later, police were obliged to call the fire
department to stop the spreading fire. When firemen came through a
second-story window, they found a grisly display of bodies and body
When Petiot arrived, he claimed that he was a member of
the French Resistance and claimed that the bodies were those of Germans,
traitors, and collaborators. Because people in general approved of
resistance activities, the police were reluctant to arrest Petiot, and
so they released him.
When police searched the garage, they found a pit filled
with quicklime with human remains in it. On the staircase they found a
canvas sack containing human remains. There were enough body parts for
at least ten complete bodies.
The prominent Paris police Commissaire Georges-Victor
Massu took charge of the investigation. His first problem was to
establish if Petiot was killing for the Resistance, or for the Gestapo.
The latter possibility was eliminated when he received a telegram where
Germans ordered Petiot to be arrested as a "dangerous lunatic." Police
found Petiot's apartment on Rue Caumartin abandoned, but also found
large amounts of chloroform, digitalis, and various other poisons in
addition to large amounts of more usual medical remedies.
German commissaire Robert Jodkum told them that the
Gestapo had arrested Petiot on suspicion of smuggling Jews. Police also
found a man who had intended to escape but changed his mind. He said
that Petiot had offered him passage to South America for 25,000 francs.
Police managed to identify two victims who would have
testified against Petiot in the 1942 narcotics trial. It was the first
time police had proof of their suspicions that the witnesses had been
murdered. Petiot's brother Maurice confessed that he had delivered
quicklime to Petiot's house on his brother's orders; he was charged with
conspiracy to commit murder, and jailed. Georgette Petiot was also
arrested on suspicion of having aided her husband, as were Petiot's
accomplices, Nezondet and Porchon, and Albert and Simone Neuhausen, who
confessed that they had helped to remove suitcases from the Petiot's
On June 6, 1944, the police had to put the investigation
on hold when other matters interfered; the Normandy Invasion had begun.
Evasion and capture
During the intervening seven months, Petiot hid with
friends, claiming that the Gestapo wanted him because he had killed
Germans and informers. He eventually moved in with a patient, Georges
Redouté, let his beard grow and adopted various aliases.
When the Resistance and the Paris police rose against
German troops in Paris, Petiot adopted the name "Henri Valeri" and
joined the French Forces of the Interior (FFI). He became a captain in
charge of counterespionage and prisoner interrogations.
When the newspaper 'Resistance' published an article
about Petiot, his defense attorney from the 1942 narcotics case received
a letter in which his fugitive client claimed that the published
allegations were mere lies. This gave police a hint that Petiot was
still in Paris. The search began anew - with "Henri Valeri" among those
who were drafted to find him. Finally, on October 31, Petiot was
recognized at a Paris metro station, and arrested. Among his possessions
were a pistol, 31,700 francs, and 50 sets of identity documents.
Trial and sentence
Petiot was placed on death row at La Santé prison. He
continued to claim that he was innocent and that he had only killed
enemies of France. He claimed that he had discovered the pile of bodies
in 21 Rue le Sueur in February 1944, and assumed that they were
collaborators that members of his "network" had killed.
Police noticed that Petiot had no friends in any of the
major resistance groups. Some of the groups he'd mentioned had never
existed, and there was no proof of any of his claimed exploits.
Prosecutors eventually charged him with at least 27 murders for profit.
Their estimate of his loot ran to 200 million francs.
Petiot went on trial on March 19, 1946, facing 135
criminal charges. René Floriot acted for the defense, against a team
consisting of state prosecutors and twelve civil lawyers hired by
relatives of Petiot's victims. Petiot taunted the prosecuting lawyers,
and claimed that various victims had been collaborators or double
agents, or that vanished people were alive and well in South America
under new names.
He admitted to killing just nineteen of the
twenty-seven victims found in his house, and claimed that they were
Germans and collaborators - part of a total of 63 "enemies" killed. Floriot attempted to portray Petiot as a resistance hero, but the judges
and jurors were unimpressed. Petiot was convicted of 26 counts of
murder, and sentenced to death.
On May 25, Petiot was beheaded, after a stay of a few
days due to a problem in the release mechanism of the guillotine.
Alister Kershaw has, in his account of the Petiot case in
Murder in France, claimed that Petiot had prewar dealings with German
Portrayal in Popular Culture
Petiot's life and career were dramatised in the 1990 film
Docteur Petiot, directed by Christian de Chalonge and starring Michel
Serrault as Petiot. The 2006 film Zwartboek, directed by Paul Verhoeven,
is set during the German occupation of the Netherlands but features a
fictional character whose personality and activities are clearly
inspired by Petiot.
By Michael Newton
On Monday morning, March 6,
1944, foul smoke poured from the chimney of a stylish home at 21 Rue le
Sueur, Paris. Neighbors suspiciously eyed the three-story 19th-century
house, with its private stable and courtyard, once the home of a lesser
As the hours--then days--dragged on with no abatement
of the noxious smoke, a neighbor finally went to complain on Saturday,
March 11. He found a note tacked to the door: “Away for one month.
Forward mail to 18 Rue des Lombards in Auxerre.”
Police were summoned, and a pair of officers arrived on bicycles.
Neighbors informed them that the owner of the house, Dr. Marcel Petiot,
maintained a separate residence two miles away, at 66 Rue Caumartin.
Some noted the mysterious parade of callers at Dr. Petiot’s empty house
during the past six months, including nightly visits from a stranger
with a horse cart. Some months earlier, two trucks had stopped at No.
21, the first removing 47 suitcases, while the second delivered 30 or 40
heavy sacks of something unknown.
The officers telephoned Dr. Petiot at home. He asked
whether they had entered the house, and upon receiving a negative reply
he cautioned, “Don’t do anything. I will be there in 15 minutes.” A half-hour
later, with the smoke worsening and no sign of Petiot, the patrolmen
called for fire-fighters.
Entering through a second-story
window, firemen searched the upper floors before entering the basement.
They soon emerged, one vomiting, their chief telling the cops, “You have
some work ahead of you.”
Three officers next went downstairs, where a coal-fed
stove was found burning full-blast, a human arm dangling from its open
door. Nearby, a heap of coal was mixed with human bones and fragments of
several dismembered bodies. It was impossible to count the victims in
this tableau of grisly disarray.
Stunned, police left
the basement at about the time Dr. Petiot arrived on his bicycle. “This
is serious,” Petiot remarked. “My head could be at stake.” Then, after
questioning each of the lawmen to ascertain that they were French,
Petiot identified the basement dead as “Germans and traitors to our
Petiot claimed to be “the head of a Resistance group,”
with 300 files at home on Rue Caumartin “which must be destroyed before
the enemy finds them.” The French policemen, embittered by years of Nazi
occupation, allowed Petiot to leave.
would pass before they saw him again.
a search of the death scene proceeded. In Petiot’s garage, police found
a large heap of quicklime mixed with human remains, including a
recognizable scalp and jawbone. A pit had been dug in the stable, filled
with more quicklime and corpses in various stages of decomposition. On
the staircase leading from the courtyard to the basement, police found a
canvas sack containing the headless left half of a corpse, complete but
for its foot and vital organs.
Commissaire Georges-Victor Massu, a 33-year police veteran with more
than 3,200 arrests to his credit, immediately took charge of the case.
Examining the death house, he noted basement sinks large enough for
draining corpses of blood, and a soundproof octagonal chamber with wall-mounted
shackles, a peephole centered in its door. Massu was still on the scene
at 1:30 a.m., when a telegram arrived from Paris police headquarters. It
read: “Order from German authorities. Arrest Petiot. Dangerous lunatic.”
To French patriots, that order from German invaders suggested Petiot
might indeed be a hero of the Resistance. Police dragged their feet on
the way to Rue Caumartin--and found Petiot’s apartment abandoned, no
trace of the doctor or his family. Rather than search for him,
detectives grilled the workmen who had remodeled the house on Rue le
Sueur. When Parisian authorities learned that Petiot had been jailed and
tortured by the Gestapo from May 1943 until January 1944, it eliminated
the rationale for an urgent manhunt.
Back at Rue
le Sueur, searchers collected mutilated remnants of at least 10 victims,
though Chief Coroner Albert Paul told reporters that “the number 10 is
vastly inferior to the real one.” In addition to identifiable bones and
body parts, Dr. Paul cataloged 33 pounds of charred bones, 24 pounds of
unburned fragments, 11 pounds of human hair (including “more than 10”
whole scalps), and “three garbage cans full” of pieces too small to
Based on the substantial pieces, Paul said the oldest
victim was a 50-year-old man, the youngest a 25-year-old woman. None
bore any knife or gunshot wounds, nor had they been poisoned with any
toxic metal. Organic poisons could not be ruled out from the samples in
hand. At Petiot’s apartment on Rue Caumartin, police found quantities of
chloroform, digitalis, strychnine and other poisons, plus 50 times a
typical physician’s stock of heroin and morphine.
Clearly, there was something odd about Dr. Petiot--but he was gone.
Patriot or villain, he had slipped away, leaving police with three
Who were the victims of 21 Rue le Sueur?
How did they die?
And where was Dr. Petiot?
A police review of Petiot’s background helped identify two victims from
the slaughterhouse at 21 Rue le Sueur. One was Jean-Marc Van Bever, a
Paris drug addict who procured his narcotics from Dr. Petiot until
February 1942, when Van Bever was jailed in a crackdown on pharmacies
trading in illicit drugs.
Van Bever admitted buying fraudulent prescriptions
from Petiot, but he vanished days before his March 1942 trial. At the
time, police believed Van Bever was likely murdered by underworld
associates, but they reconsidered that judgment two years later, in
light of their discoveries on Rue le Sueur.
Another victim was identified as Marthe Khaït, the mother of another
addict--one Raymonde Baudet--who also bargained with Petiot for her
poison of choice. Baudet had been jailed in March 1942, two weeks before
Van Bever disappeared, and Petiot had come to Marthe Khaït with an idea
to help himself get off the hook.
Mrs. Khaït should lie under oath, he suggested,
claiming that some of Raymonde’s prescriptions--written in her mother’s
surname-- really belonged to Marthe, thereby weakening the prosecution’s
case against Petiot. Khaït agreed, then had a change of heart after
consulting her physician. She vanished March 26.
Later, her husband received two letters declaring
Marthe’s intention to leave the country. The husband consulted Petiot,
who confirmed Marthe’s plans to escape Nazi-occupied France. Unconvinced,
Raymonde Baudet reported her mother missing on May 7, 1942, but no trace
of Marthe was found until officers searched 21 Rue le Sueur.
In July 1942, Petiot was convicted in both narcotics cases. He was fined
F10,000 for each offense, but the fine was reduced on appeal to a total
of F2,400. Inspector Roger Gignoux suspected Petiot of murdering Khaït
and Van Bever, but he had no proof that either victim was dead until
March 1944. By that time, Petiot had disappeared.
search for Petiot began in earnest on March 13, 1944. His wife and son
were questioned in Paris, along with his brother Maurice. Maurice Petiot,
lacking his brother’s gall or cunning, soon confessed that he had
delivered the quicklime to 21 Rue le Sueur, acting on Marcel’s orders.
Charged with conspiracy to commit murder, Maurice was jailed on March
17. Georgette Petiot was also detained suspected of aiding husband
Marcel in his crimes.
German commissaire Robert
Jodkum provided the motive for Petiot’s murders, along with details of
Petiot’s eight-month imprisonment by the Gestapo. Petiot had been
arrested in May 1943, along with three others, on suspicion of smuggling
Jews out of occupied France. Casting their net for witnesses, police
found a Paris resident who planned to flee but changed his mind. Marcel
Petiot, he said, had offered passage to South America, with all required
travel papers, for F25,000. One who used Petiot’s service and vanished
forever was Joachim Guschinov, a Jewish furrier. When he disappeared in
January 1942, Guschinov took with him some F500,000 in cash, five sable
coats, plus gold, silver and diamonds worth as much as F700,000.
Once the “escape” network was exposed, police had no difficulty
capturing Petiot’s accomplices. A childhood friend of Petiot’s, René-Gustave
Nézondet, was arrested on March 17, 1944. A friend of Nézondet’s picked
up the same day, Roland Porchon, admitted referring clients to Nézondet
In July 1942, Porchon told detectives, Nézondet had
described Petiot as “the king of the criminals,” claiming that he had
seen “16 corpses stretched out” in the basement of 21 Rue le Sueur.
A second witness recalled Nézondet’s admission that
he had helped Petiot hide bodies. Nézondet, for his part, initially
denied the charges, then confessed on March 22. He had a different
chronology for the story, though, claiming that he first learned of the
slaughter on Rue le Sueur in November or December 1943, when Petiot was
in Gestapo custody. Besides the corpses, he had also seen a diary--now
missing--which listed the names of “50 or 60” victims.
Six others were arrested in the Petiot manhunt, including a barber who
referred clients to Petiot from his shop on Rue des Mathurins and Albert
and Simone Neuhausen, who were held for receiving stolen property after
they confessed that they helped remove suitcases from 21 Rue le Sueur.
Most of the suspects were released in April 1944, though Nézondet
remained in custody for 14 months. Marcel Petiot was still a fugitive on
June 6, 1944, when Allied troops invaded France and the investigation
ground to a halt.
An Abnormal Youth
Marcel André Henri Félix Petiot was born at Auxerre, 100 miles south of
Paris, January 17, 1897. Neighbors later told many tales of his bizarre
childhood, but it is unclear how many were fabricated for the press. He
enjoyed torturing small animals to death, they said.
His early teachers found Petiot intelligent, reading
like a 10-year-old by age five, but he was also a loner with a short
attention span. Precociously lewd, he once propositioned a male
classmate for sex, and was caught passing obscene photos to other
At age 11, he stole his father’s revolver and fired
it in history class. Another time, he staged a circus act at school,
standing a friend against a door and throwing knives at him.
Of course, Petiot’s parents were concerned. Between 1907 and 1909, they
told physicians that Marcel was prone to convulsions and sleepwalking,
and habitually wet his trousers and bed.
Petiot’s mother died in 1912, and his father took a
new job in Joigny, 15 miles from Auxerre. Marcel and Maurice lived with
an aunt until Marcel was expelled from school, near year’s end. Sent to
stay with his father, Petiot was soon expelled from a Joigny school for
unruly behavior and “over-excitation.”
graduated from childhood mischief to criminal behavior. At age 17 he
robbed a postbox, and was then charged with mail theft and damaging
public property. The court recommended psychological evaluation.
On 26 March 1914, a psychiatrist pronounced Petiot
“an abnormal youth suffering from personal and hereditary problems which
limit to a large degree his responsibility for his acts.” It was enough
to get the charges dropped in August, Petiot’s judge declaring that “the
accused appears to be mentally ill.”
A pattern was
forming. Petiot was expelled twice more, from schools in Dijon and
Auxerre, before finally completing his education in Paris, at a special
academy, in July 1915.
The World War I was in progress, and Petiot was
drafted into the French infantry in January 1916, dispatched to the
front that November. While fighting in the Aisne district six months
later, Petiot was gassed and wounded by grenade fragments. The wounds
healed, but Petiot displayed symptoms of mental illness that sent him to
a series of clinics and rest homes.
Charged with stealing army blankets, he was jailed at
Orléans, then transferred to a psychiatric ward at Fleury-les-Aubrais.
Doctors there diagnosed Petiot as suffering from “mental disequilibrium,
neurasthenia, mental depression, melancholia, obsessions and phobias.”
Once again, they ruled him not guilty by reason of insanity.
The diagnosis did not keep him out of military service, however.
Returned to the front in June 1918, Petiot promptly suffered a “nervous
breakdown” and shot himself in the foot. Transferred behind the lines,
he displayed convulsions at the Dijon railroad depot in July, lying
unconscious for most of a day.
That episode earned him a three-week leave, but he
was attached to a new regiment in September 1918. Erratic behavior and
complaints of headaches sent him back for psychiatric treatment, at
Rennes, in March 1919. This time, the diagnoses added were amnesia,
sleepwalking, depression and suicidal tendencies.
It was finally enough to get him out of uniform; he
was discharged with a 40% disability pension in July. Petiot’s case was
reviewed in September 1920, with his disability rating increased to
100%. The author of that report suggested that Petiot be committed to an
In fact, Petiot had already entered a
mental hospital -- but not as a patient. Aided by an accelerated
education program for war veterans, he had completed medical school in a
stunning eight months and was serving a two-year psychiatric internship
Evreux. He received his medical degree on 15 December 1921, from the
Faculté de Médeceine de Paris.
notwithstanding, Petiot had become a full-fledged physician.
Armed with his new medical degree, Petiot moved to Villeneuve-sur-Yonne,
an ancient village on the Yonne River, 25 miles from Auxerre. On arrival,
the 25-year-old physician printed fliers comparing himself to the town’s
two elderly doctors.
The fliers read: “Dr. Petiot is young, and only a
young doctor can keep up to date on the latest methods born of a
progress which marches with giant strides. This is why intelligent
patients have confidence in him. Dr. Petiot treats, but does not exploit
In fact, while outwardly charming and
popular with most of his patients, Petiot secretly enrolled them for
state medical assistance, thereby insuring that he was paid twice for
each treatment--once by the patient and once by the government. He
favored addictive narcotics in his prescriptions.
When one pharmacist complained of the near-fatal dose
Petiot prescribed for a child, Petiot replied, “What difference does it
make to you, anyway? Isn’t it better to do away with this kid who’s not
doing anything in the world but pestering its mother?”
In private, Petiot remained a loner who turned casual conversations into
heated debates, ever insisting on the last word. He lived modestly, but
splurged on a sports car which he drove recklessly through Villeneuve-sur-Yonne,
causing numerous traffic accidents.
A confirmed thief, Petiot stole from strangers and
relatives alike; brother Maurice insisted on searching his pockets every
time Marcel visited his home. Evicted by one landlord for theft of
furniture and fixtures, Petiot shrugged off threats of litigation with
the remark that as a certified lunatic he could never be convicted.
Around the same time, in March 1922, Petiot clashed with the Commission
de Réforme over demands for new psychiatric exams to maintain his
disability payments. He declared that he “purely and simply refused to
accept any disability pension at all so as to avoid being subjected to
what I find a more than disagreeable bit of exhibitionism.”
Still, the checks kept coming and he was examined
once more in July 1923, doctors reporting that his tongue was scarred
from bite wounds during epileptic seizures and that Petiot evinced
“total indifference” about his own future. That said, his disability was
reduced to 50 percent.
In 1926 Petiot surprised
his neighbors by launching a torrid affair with young Louise Delaveau,
the daughter of Madame Fleury, an elderly patient. Soon after the affair
began, the Fleury home was burglarized and set afire. No one connected
the events, but Petiot was suspected when Louise disappeared in May
Neighbors recalled seeing Petiot load a large trunk
into his car, closely resembling another fished out of the river weeks
later, filled with the dismembered, decomposed remains of a young woman
who was never identified. Ignoring the “coincidence,” police searched
briefly for Louise and then dismissed her as a runaway. She may, in fact,
have been Petiot’s first murder victim.
Louise disappeared, Petiot ran for mayor of Villeneuve-sur-Yonne. The
long, bitter campaign climaxed in July 1926, when Petiot hired an
accomplice to disrupt a political debate with his opponent. When Petiot
finished speaking, his crony cut power to the auditorium, blacking out
the entire village and starting several fires. Petiot won by a landslide.
His opponent later told the Commission de Réforme
that Petiot had boasted of feigning insanity to escape military service.
Yet another review of his case confirmed the original diagnosis,
pronouncing Petiot’s claims of fraud “another manifestation of the
subject’s mentally unbalanced state."
Villeneuve-sur-Yonne now had a certified madman in charge, and Petiot
acted the part. His kleptomania was an open secret, Mayor Petiot was
suspected of stealing money from the town’s treasury, the bass drum from
a local band, even a large stone cross that Petiot had once deemed an
eyesore. Some despised Petiot; others called him the best mayor ever.
Petiot, for his part, blamed all criticism on crass political enemies.
In June 1927, Petiot married Georgette Lablais, the 23-year-old daughter
of a wealthy landowner in nearby Seignelay. Their only child, a son
Gerhardt, was born the following April.
after that happy event, Petiot was accused of stealing several cans of
oil from Villeneuve-sur-Yonne’s railroad depot. As it turned out, Petiot
had purchased the oil legally, but he did commit fraud by denying
receipt of the shipment and claiming a refund. In early 1930 the court
at Sens fined him F200 and sentenced him to three months in prison.
Petiot was suspended as mayor for four months, but managed to have the
conviction reversed on appeal.
In the meantime,
more serious trouble was afoot.
One night in March
1930, fire razed the home of dairy unionist Armand Debauve. His wife
Henriette was found inside, beaten to death with a blunt instrument.
Police suspected murder during robbery, since F20,000 was reported
missing from the house. Footprints led across the nearby fields toward
Villeneuve-sur-Yonne. Rumors spread that Henriette Debauve was Dr.
Petiot’s mistress and that he was seen near her home on the night of the
The witness in that case, a Monsieur Fiscot, declared
his plans to testify but made a fateful visit to Dr. Petiot’s office
instead. Fiscot sought treatment for his rheumatism. He received an
injection and died three hours later, Petiot signing the death
certificate blaming his demise on an aneurysm.
April, Armand Debauve spoke to police, telling them that a resident of
Villeneuve-sur-Yonne had claimed Dr. Petiot could identify Henriette’s
killer. Local gendarmes sought help from police headquarters in Paris,
but the file was somehow “misplaced,” disappearing until April 1946. By
that time, Dr. Petiot was charged with multiple murders in Paris and no
one seemed interested in reopening the Debauve investigation.
During the next 16 months, the local prefect logged numerous complaints
against Mayor Petiot, most involving theft or financial irregularities.
Prosecutors investigated, finding that 138 alien registration
applications and F2,890 in fees had been held at city hall, never
relayed to the proper authorities.
Petiot blamed his secretary, who obliged the mayor by
accepting responsibility. But Petiot was still suspended as mayor for a
second time in August 1931, and he resigned the next day. The village
council also resigned in sympathy, leaving files in disarray and many
purchase orders obviously altered.
office was officially revoked the next month, but he did not seem to
mind. Five weeks later, on October 18, he won election as the youngest
of 34 general councilors from the Yonne district. As usual, his tenure
was stormy, with Petiot accused of stealing electric power from the
village of Villeneuve-sur-Yonne in August 1932.
At trial on that charge the following year, the judge
dubbed Petiot’s defense “pure fantasy,” and sentenced him to 15 days in
jail and a F300 fine. The appeal dragged on for a year, affirming
Petiot’s conviction but suspending the jail time, with his fine reduced
to F100. The conviction cost Petiot his council seat, but it hardly
mattered, since he had moved his family to Paris in January 1933.
City of Lights
Petiot promoted himself with typical zeal in Paris, offering patients a
wide variety of treatments, claiming credentials both real and imaginary.
Advertisements described him as an interne (intern) at one mental
hospital where he had actually been an interné (patient). Outside
his home-office at 66 Rue Caumartin, Petiot erected a brass plaque so
jam-packed with phony endorsements that another physician complained to
the medical association and Petiot was forced to remove it.
Bogus credentials aside, Dr. Petiot attracted a huge clientele and built
an exemplary reputation. Years later, at the height of his infamy in
1944, police would interview 2,000 patients without hearing a word of
criticism about Dr. Petiot.
At the same time, however,
rumors persisted that Petiot was an abortionist (illegal in those days)
and that he supplied addicts with drugs under the guise of “cures.” In
1934, 30-year-old Raymonde Hanss visited Petiot for treatment of an
abscess in her mouth. She was still unconscious when Petiot drove her
home after surgery. Hanss never regained consciousness and died several
Her mother, Madame Anna Coquille, demanded an autopsy,
which revealed significant levels of morphine in Raymonde’s body. The
coroner postponed burial until a full investigation was completed, but
authorities closed the case without filing charges. Madame Coquille
renewed her complaints in 1942, but the court upheld its original
finding of death by natural causes.
his first investigation for narcotics violations in 1935, but police
found no conclusive evidence. The next year Petiot was appointed
médecin d’etat-civil for the ninth arrondissement of Paris, a post
that granted him authority to sign death certificates. As usual, he used
the position for personal gain: in December 1942, summoned to pronounce
the death of a wealthy lawyer, Petiot was accused of stealing F74,000
from the dead man’s home. Caught shoplifting a book in April 1936,
Petiot assaulted a policeman and escaped on foot.
He surrendered two days later, tearfully pleading for
mercy, citing his military discharge records as proof that he was not
responsible for his behavior. Police dropped the assault charge and
Petiot was acquitted of theft on grounds of insanity. His wife,
Georgette, arranged for Petiot to enter a private sanitorium in August
Petiot had barely arrived at the hospital when
he began pleading for immediate release. His madness had passed, he
assured staff psychiatrists. It was a momentary aberration, caused by
his preoccupation with a new invention--a suction machine designed to
relieve constipation. Dr. Rogues de Fursac found Petiot “chronically
unbalanced,” but still recommended his release in early September 1936.
Petiot’s liberation was nonetheless stalled while the
court appointed three more psychiatrists to review his case. The panel’s
report expressed “strong doubts as to [Petiot’s] good faith at any point
during this affair,” but the doctors could find no legal grounds for
holding him. Petiot was released in February 1937.
Chastened by his latest confinement, Petiot appeared to clean up his act,
with the exception of persistent tax fraud. Between 1937 and 1940 he
reported less than 10 percent of his actual income. In 1938, for
instance, he declared F13,100, while earning closer to F500,000. That
year saw him charged with fraud and fined F35,000, despite a spirited
defense that included pleas of poverty.
The life of
every Frenchman changed in September 1939, when German troops invaded
Poland, thus launching World War II. Polish resistance collapsed in
October, inaugurating the seven-month “Phony War” between France and
Germany. Fighting spread with the Nazi invasion of Denmark and Norway in
April. German troops invaded Holland, Belgium and France the following
The French commander of Paris declared it an “open
city” in June 1940, and German troops seized the French capital. A
collaborationist French government under Marshal Philippe Pétain was
organized two weeks later in Vichy, broadcasting orders for a general
cease-fire. Forty thousand French soldiers surrendered on June 22, while
the Resistance armed and organized for long years of guerrilla war.
In Paris, Dr. Petiot had a new world of opportunity under German
occupation. He would use and emulate the Nazis in pursuit of his
greatest and most lethal scheme thus far.
There was, it seems, at least some truth to Petiot’s later claims of
joining the Resistance. Soon after the Nazi occupation of Paris, he
began providing false medical certificates to Frenchmen drafted for
Petiot also apparently treated sick and wounded
workers returned to France from Germany, gleaning information about Nazi
troop movements and weapons development. His Fly-Tox network, named
after a popular insecticide (since informers were dubbed “flies”), spied
on Gestapo headquarters in Paris to identify collaborators so they could
be eliminated by teams of Resistance assassins.
same time, though, Petiot spun tales of patriotic battles that were
never fought. He claimed to have invented “secret weapons” that killed
Nazis without forensic evidence. Allied commanders denied his reports of
high-level meetings and no evidence of the mystery weapon ever surfaced.
Petiot also claimed to be working with a group of anti-fascist Spaniards
in Paris, but they were never found. His tales of planting bombs and
booby traps around Paris were fervid flights of fantasy.
Petiot’s chief operation after 1940 was disclosing escape routes to
potential fugitives. He welcomed Jews, Resistance fighters, petty
criminals--anyone, in fact, who could meet his price of F25,000 a head.
For that amount, Petiot promised safe passage to South America, complete
with all the necessary travel papers. In 1941 he bought the house at 21
Rue le Sueur, as a way station for his personal Underground Railroad.
Among Petiot’s early customers were two Parisian pimps, Joseph Réocreux
and Adriene Estébétéguy, who had lately broadened their repertoire to
include armed robbery while disguised as Gestapo agents. Sought by
French and German police alike, Réocreux sought help from Petiot (known
as “Dr. Eugène” to his illicit clients) in September 1942.
Traveling with his mistress, Claudia Chamoux, and
another couple--pimp François Albertini and prostitute Annette Basset--Réocreux
paid his fee and promptly vanished into 21 Rue le Sueur. Estébétéguy and
girlfriend Gisèle Rossny followed in March 1943, also vanishing without
a trace. Petiot would later boast of killing the three pimps and their
women, branding all six as Nazi collaborators, touting their executions
as his patriotic duty.
By April 1943 Gestapo officers
reported “a great deal of talk in public about an organization which
arranges clandestine crossings of the Spanish border by means of
falsified Argentinean passports.” Nazis asserted that “the voyagers
travel on neutral ships leaving from a port in Portugal.”
In fact, they never left Paris alive. Gestapo agent
Robert Jodkum blackmailed a French Jew, Yvan Dreyfus, into approaching
the network for passage, but Dreyfus vanished with the rest in May 1943.
Others who availed themselves of Dr. Petiot’s services included Nelly-Denise
Hotin, a pregnant newlywed who came looking for an abortion in July 1941
and was never seen again. Dr. Paul-Léon Braunberger, an elderly Jew who
planned to flee with his wife, disappeared alone from a Paris subway
station in June 1942.
A month later, three German Jews--the Knellers--vanished
after consultations with Petiot, their dismembered remains fished out of
the Seine in August. Three more refugees, the Wolff family, disappeared
into 21 Rue le Sueur, along with six friends. Another pimp, Joseph
Piereschi, also made the dead-end journey with his mistress, Joséphine-Aimée
Those were the victims whom police later
identified, but they did not comprise the total body count. Numerous
dismembered victims were dragged from the Seine in 1942 and ’43, the
remains including nine heads, four thighs, and sundry other mutilated
French police and coroners were baffled, unable to
identify most of the dead. Gestapo agents, for their part, were less
concerned about dead Frenchmen than about the prospect of Jews and
Resistance fighters escaping to freedom. The Nazis had a fix on Petiot’s
Fly-Tox network, and by May 1943 they were ready to spring the trap.
Petiot advertised his illicit services so blatantly that the Fly-Tox
network was ripe for infiltration by early 1943. In fact, an informer
named Charles Beretta had wormed his way into the operation, feeding
names to the Gestapo as he went.
In May, Nazis arrested Raoul Fourrier, Edmond Pintard
and René-Gustave Nézondet, torturing them until they identified Marcel
Petiot as “Dr. Eugène.” Petiot joined the others in prison at Fresnes.
Although Nazis searched his home and other property, they somehow missed
the charnel house on Rue le Sueur. Nézondet was released two weeks later,
but Petiot, Fourrier and Pintard spent a total of eight months in prison.
They were tortured repeatedly, but staunchly refused to betray members
of the Resistance.
In fact, based on the tales Petiot
spun at his murder trial, in 1946, his stubborn silence may have sprung
from simple ignorance. The “hero” had no names to offer his captors,
since he played no significant role in the Resistance movement, and any
confession of his Fly-Tox operation was tantamount to suicide.
Frustrated, the Nazis released Fourrier, Pintard and
Petiot in early January 1944. Ironically, the months of torture and
confinement provided Petiot with his best cover yet--but his time was
running out. By March, his chamber of horrors on Rue le Sueur was
exposed and Petiot himself had vanished.
patients and friends were the keys to Petiot’s survival as a fugitive.
They shuttled him from one address to another in Paris while he
cultivated a beard, and adopted one name after another to conceal his
movements. Eventually, Petiot found a home with patient Georges Redouté.
Petiot convinced Redouté that the Gestapo wanted him
for killing “Germans and informers.” While living with Redouté, Petiot
ventured out only at night; sometimes returning with weapons claimed to
have been captured from Nazi patrols.
went on strike in August 1944, besieged at their Préfecture by German
tanks and troops. That month Petiot, calling himself “Henri Valéri”,
joined the new French Forces of the Interior (FFI). He was promptly
commissioned as a captain, in charge of counterespionage and
interrogation of prisoners in the Reuilly district of Paris. The French
capital was liberated the next month and collaborators were purged, with
Petiot/Valéri in the thick of the action.
began to unravel in September, when two FFI soldiers from Petiot’s unit
robbed the elderly mayor of Tessancourt, stealing F12.5 million in cash
and collectable stamps from his home before killing their victim in
front of witnesses.
Three youths reported the crime to Petiot, who
promptly tossed them in jail. An FFI lieutenant tried to investigate,
but was ordered off the case by Capt. Valéri. The bandits were briefly
detained, then released. The thieves disappeared as well as the money.
Three days after the robbery-murder the newspaper Résistance
published a scathing article on fugitive Petiot. The story called him a
“soldier of the Reich” who had allegedly donned a German uniform to hunt
down French patriots around Avignon in March 1943. Attorney René Floriot,
Petiot’s defense counsel in the 1942 narcotics cases, received a letter
from his fugitive client which condemned the Résistance article
as a collection of “filthy kraut lies.”
letter was false, Petiot’s letter convinced authorities that he was
still in Paris. A new search began, with FFI Captain Henri Valéri among
the officers drafted to hunt for Petiot.
luck ran out at 10:15 a.m. on Oct. 31, when Petiot was recognized and
arrested at a Paris metro station. He carried a pistol, F31,700 in cash,
and 50 documents in six different names. Petiot’s long run was over, but
the search for the truth had just begun.
Petiot’s defense was a plea of complete innocence. He admitted killing
certain “enemies of France” as a Resistance member, but denied any
murders for profit. According to Petiot, he first became aware of
corpses stashed at 21 Rue le Sueur in February 1944, after his release
from Nazi custody.
He assumed the dead “collaborators” had been killed
and dumped by members of his Fly-Tox network, long since scattered and
unable to verify his story. Petiot had asked brother Maurice for
quicklime to dissolve the bodies and camouflage their odor.
Petiot was housed on death row at Santé prison while authorities
investigated his claims. Strangely, for a patriotic hero, he had no
defenders in the leadership of recognized Resistance groups. Some knew
him as a small-time hanger-on, a fraud, or not at all; other groups,
described in detail by Petiot, proved to be nonexistent.
No record survived of his alleged bombing forays,
assassination of Nazis, or tests of his various “secret weapons.”
Prosecutors finally dismissed Petiot’s story and charged him with
murdering 27 victims for plunder--an estimated F200 million in cash,
gold and jewels that was never recovered.
Petiot’s trial began on March 18 1946, at the Palais de Justice, before
a panel of three judges and a seven-man jury. René Floriot once again
defended Petiot. Prosecutors were helped by 12 civil lawyers who were
hired by the relatives of Petiot’s victims. Petiot took an active role
in his own defense, bantering with judges and prosecutors, grilling
witnesses, exchanging jibes with the private attorneys.
He denounced the Khaït family’s lawyer as a
“double-agent” and a “defender of Jews,” while noting that victim Joseph
Réocreux “was easy to spot as a collaborator. He had a head like a pimp--you
know, like a police inspector.” Victim Joachim Guschinov was alive and
well, Petiot insisted. Why couldn’t prosecutors find him? Because,
Petiot smirked, “South America is a big place.”
it went. Petiot refused to describe his secret weapons because “the
information could only be used against France.” He dismissed the Wolff
Jews fleeing Nazi persecution at home--as “Germans,” while victim Yvan
Dreyfus was “a traitor four times over.” Victim Kurt Kneller suffered
from “an embarrassing affliction” which Petiot refused to name, but he
and his family had not been killed; they had returned to Germany, Petiot
insisted, and were “getting ready for the next war.”
Petiot had met Dr. Paul-Léon Braunberger “for 10 minutes in my life,”
at a public luncheon; he could not explain why Braunberger’s clothing
was found at 21 Rue le Sueur. Many fugitives had survived the Fly-Tox
escape route, Petiot testified, but none were identifiable because “they
changed names frequently.” Rebuked by the chief judge Michel Leser for
doodling in court, Petiot retorted, “I am listening, but it doesn’t
really interest me very much.”
After the trial’s second day, reporters
overheard two jurors and Judge Leser discussing Petiot in private,
referring to him as “a demon” and “an appalling murderer.” Attorney
Floriot immediately sought a mistrial, but the appellate court rejected
the motion. The trial resumed after the two offending jurors were
On the trial’s fifth
day, judges and jurors visited 21 Rue le Sueur. As he passed through a
phalanx of police and jeering neighbors, Petiot quipped, “Peculiar
homecoming, don’t you think?”
Petiot maintained his
hero’s posture to the end, admitting that he had killed 19 of the 27
victims found on Rue le Sueur. They were all “Germans and collaborators,”
of course, ranked among the 63 enemies of France whom Petiot admitted
killing between 1940 and 1945. The other 44 were not identified, with
Petiot telling the court, “I don’t have to justify myself for murders
I’m not accused of committing!”
In fact, he had
already said more than enough. René Floriot’s summation hailing Petiot
as a hero of the Resistance won a standing ovation from the courtroom
audience. But the judges and jurors held a very different view. After
deliberating for three hours--a mere 90 seconds for each of the 135
criminal charges--the court convicted Petiot on all but nine counts.
He was acquitted of killing Nelly-Denise Hotin, but
found guilty of 26 other premeditated murders. Petiot’s death sentence
was a foregone conclusion, although it did not seem to faze him in the
"My Conscience is Clean"
Attorney Floriot appealed the conviction and sentence citing two
complaints. First, he maintained that a mistrial should have been
granted after Judge Leser and two jurors publicly declared their belief
in Petiot’s guilt.
Furthermore, Floriot charged, witness Marguerite
Braunberger and her maid were perjurers. They lied in maintaining that
Dr. Braunberger was dead, instead of hiding out in South America. All
three points were rejected and Petiot’s death sentence was affirmed.
The day before that judgment was rendered, guards found an ampoule
concealed in the Petiot’s prison uniform. They suspected it was cyanide,
but the contents proved to be a sedative, smuggled into prison when
Petiot arrived the previous October. The prisoner seemed calm, smiling
as he asked his guards, “When are they going to assassinate me?” He
refused to see a priest, preferring as he said to “take his baggage with
Petiot had been scheduled to die on the day his
appeal was rejected, but the guillotine malfunctioned that morning and
his execution was postponed. At 3:30 a.m. May 25, a portable guillotine
was delivered to the prison, assembled and ready to do its grim work by
less than an hour later.
Summoned from his cell, Petiot refused the
traditional glass of rum but accepted a cigarette. He also agreed to
meet with the prison chaplain for his wife’s sake, telling the minister,
“I am not a religious man and my conscience is clean.”
The closing ritual was swiftly completed. Petiot signed the register
before his hands were bound, his neck shaved, and the collar cut from
his shirt. He approached the guillotine calmly. Dr. Albert Paul, among
the witnesses, noted that Petiot “moved with ease, as though he were
walking into his office for a routine appointment.” Before he was
strapped to the guillotine’s sliding table, Petiot warned the observers,
“Gentlemen, I ask you not to look. This will not be very pretty.”
The blade dropped at 5:05 a.m. According to the witnesses, Petiot was
smiling as his head tumbled into the basket.
Grombach, John. The Great Liquidator.
Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980.
Maeder, Thomas. The Unspeakable Crimes of Dr.
Petiot. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1980.
Seth, Ronald. Petiot: Victim of Chance.
London: Hutchinson, 1963