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Dr. Edmond-Désiré Couty de la POMMERAIS





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Poisoner - Inheritance - To collect insurance money
Number of victims: 2
Date of murders: 1862 / 1863
Date of birth: 1836
Victims profile: Madame Dubizy (his mother-in-law) / Madame de Pauw (his former mistress)
Method of murder: Poisoning (digitalis)
Location: France
Status: Executed by guillotine on June 1864
the secret of the scaffold

Pommerais, a French physician, murdered his mother-in-law and his former mistress in the 1860s. He persuaded the latter to fake an illness in order to collect an insurance settlement, and to write a letter describing her phony problems; after which he poisoned her with digitalis.


Couty de la Pommerais

The murder of the young French widow, Madame de Pauw.   Her alleged murderer was a homeopathic doctor, Couty de la Pommerais, who was her lover.  Pommerais was in financial trouble at the time, and de Pauw had a large life insurance policy of which Pommerais was the beneficiary.  One day, de Pauw mysteriously fell ill and died within hours.  An anonymous note alerted the police to foul play. 

The forensic pathologist, Professor Ambroise Tardieu, suspected from the victim's odd symptoms—especially her racing heart--that Pommerais had used the paralyzing drug, digitalin.   To demonstrate the presence of digitalin in Madame de Pauw's body, Tardieu injected several frogs with the extract he had obtained using the Stas method, as well as with a standard solution of digitalin.  The reactions from those frogs injected with the standard and those injected with the extract were exactly the same.  This evidence held up in court and on June 9, 1864, Pommerais was convicted of murder and executed.


Auguste Ambroise Tardeau: Investigator’s Methods Become the Standard for Future Forensic Scientists

By Katherine Ramsland, PhD, CMI-V

In the early days, most forensic scientists were generalists who developed methods for examining nearly every aspect of crime investigation. The evidence they gathered with techniques they invented or refined took many criminals by surprise. Their aim was to improve the pursuit of justice, and some made a considerable contribution.

During the 1830s, the Duc de Choiseul-Praslin in France, Charles-Louis Theobald, married Altarice Sebastiani, a daughter of one of Napoleon’s generals. The dutiful wife bore nine children in 15 years, but Theobald began an affair with one of the governesses. Although the duchess discovered this and sent the girl packing to another part of Paris, Theobald continued his blatant adultery.  Humiliated, Altarice announced her intention to seek a divorce, which would in turn ruin him, but she never got the chance to go through with it.

In the middle of the night on August 17, 1847, the household servants heard the bell-pull clanging in the duchess’s room, along with the noise of crashing furniture, followed by a piercing scream.  They rushed to her aid but were stymied by her locked door, so they went out to the garden under her window and looked up. To their surprise, they saw the duke in the room, so they went back inside. Now the door was unlocked, which allowed them to find the duchess on the floor amid a chaos of upset furniture, her throat slashed and her head bruised and beaten. They determined that she was dead. But Theobald was no longer there, and they wondered where he’d gone. Just then he rushed in, acting as if he’d only just awoken. He clearly did not realize the servants had seen him in the room moments earlier, but they knew something was amiss with his behavior. So did officials from the Sureté who questioned them before interviewing Theobald.

He quickly suggested that his wife was killed during a burglary, but her jewelry remained in clear sight, on display. This had been no burglary. A search produced a blood-covered pistol from under the bed, identified as the duke’s. However, Theobald had an explanation: He’d heard his wife scream and had run into the room with the weapon, but upon seeing her dead, he’d dropped it on the floor so he could hold her. Realizing she was gone, he’d returned to his own room to wash off the blood. While a blood trail in the hall to his room did confirm his movements, it was unclear whether Theobald had shed it after killing his wife or after holding her wounded body. Then a search of his room turned up a blood-stained dagger and the severed blood-stained cord from his wife’s bell-pull.  He had more trouble explaining these items.

Theobald was placed under arrest, and the police turned to a young pathologist from the University of Paris, Auguste Ambroise Tardieu, for help. He had recently established himself as a clear-headed thinker with a firm grasp of medicine in a legal context. Tardieu agreed to get involved, and he was allowed to examine the crime scene, the bloodstained weapon, and the body. He placed the pistol under a microscope—a device about which few people were even aware—and on its butt, he located a chestnut-colored hair similar to the victim’s. He also discovered skin fragments near the trigger guard. In addition, when he compared the butt of the weapon with wounds on the duchess’s head, he discovered they perfectly matched. This evidence undermined the duke’s story, as did a fresh bite mark on his leg that resembled that from a human. It was the right size to have been sustained in a struggle with his wife. (Dental comparisons were not yet a discipline.)

Tardieu went a step further to logically reconstruct what he believed had occurred, including a motive, and he described how Theobald had tried to stage the crime to appear to be a burglary. Failing this, he’d repeatedly stabbed his wife and then bludgeoned her to death as she screamed and fought with him. Before she died, she managed to bite him, leaving her mark. The servants witnessed the last part of this fatal altercation, but Theobald then left the room, leaving it unlocked, and when he heard them enter, he arrived and acted as if he were discovering the murder along with them. 

Theobald apparently realized his story was lame, and he soon poisoned himself with arsenic rather than face both public shame and the guillotine. The case brought Tardieu even more renown throughout France, and he became a regular participant in forensic cases of all kinds. Over the course of his career, he would consult on more than 5,000 incidents, including an attempt to assassinate Napoleon III in 1858.

The son of a mapmaker, Auguste Ambroise Tardieu practiced medicine in Paris at a time when many learned men in France were making strides in forensic science, making the city a center for progressive ideas. In 1843, Tardieu wrote a doctoral dissertation, which became a classic in medicine and brought him international attention. His subsequent participation in sensational cases, along with his painstaking scrutiny and prolific writings, made him one of the foremost medico-legal experts of the mid-nineteenth century. At the university he was both a professor and Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, and he later became President of the French Academy of Medicine. Among his many publications was one of the early texts on forensic toxicology, Étude médico-légale et clinique sur l’empoisonnement. With his typical immersion, he also studied abortion, criminal insanity, hanging, suffocation, and the social conditions of child endangerment.

In fact, Tardieu wrote what may possibly be the first book about the sexual abuse and battering of children. In one study, he analyzed more than a thousand cases of abuse, both male and female, fully describing the physical signals. But try as he might to generate interest among his colleagues in the plight of maltreated children, his work went unnoticed during his era.

Tardieu did gain considerable eminence with his definitive study of victims of asphyxiation, noting the pathological differences among those who were hanged and among those who suffocated from strangulation, chest pressure, or smothering. He discovered tiny blood spots that occur under the pleura and heart with rapid strangulation, which he named Tardieu’s ecchymoses, now commonly called Tardieu spots. Whatever he studied, he also recorded and published, making the results of his wide range of observations and experiments available to other professionals. In a number of cases, such as the following one, he performed groundbreaking work.

Another criminal incident in France that gained widespread attention in 1863, when Tardieu was 45 years old, was that of Edmond Pommerais, whose failure to make a fortune with homeopathy inspired him to take a more sinister route to wealth. First, he presented himself as a count, so as to be more enticing to the upper class. Apparently this worked, because he soon married a woman from a family of means, Mademoiselle Dubiczy. Yet he retained his mistress, a young woman named Séraphine de Pauw, widowed after Pommerais treated her ill husband. (It is not known whether anyone suspected foul play in this man’s death.)

Pommerais, a spendthrift and gambler, may have poisoned his wife’s mother to get the inheritance, because she died hours after dining with him and her daughter. He soon bankrupted his wife’s estate. To get more money, Tardieu hit on a diabolical scheme: He persuaded Séraphine de Pauw to get insured and make out her will to him. She did, and despite her good health, she suddenly fell ill and died. But the deceased woman had confided to her sister that her “illness” was supposed to have been a pretense, part of an elaborate scheme to defraud the insurance company and enrich both her and her lover. The sister believed the scheme had been nothing more than a deception—a way for Pommerais to insert himself into Séraphine’s will for his own purposes. When Séraphine died, the sister was certain that she had been murdered, so she told everything she knew to the chief of police, who in turn involved Tardieu.

On the suspicion of a poisoning, Tardieu requested that Séraphine’s body be exhumed, but he found nothing from an autopsy to indicate a fatal injury or disease. He also supervised testing for arsenic and antimony, but these, too, were negative. Thus, he faced the possibility that a poison had been used for which there was no test. Still certain of his guiding hypothesis, Tardieu performed an experiment. He’d learned that before Séraphine de Pauw had expired, she had suffered from a racing heart, so he suspected her killer had use an alkaloid toxin that would produce such symptoms. Taking an extract from the victim’s organs, he injected this substance into a large dog. After a few hours, the animal vomited, lay down, and for the next 12 hours showed symptoms of a racing heart. Yet the animal survived. 

At the same time, investigators found a number of poisons and drugs among Pommerais’s remedies, including digitalin, used for regulating the heart, which in high doses could be lethal. The “count” had purchased it not long before the victim died, and from his depleted stock it was clear he’d used up a considerable amount. In fact, in love letters that Séraphine had written, she mentioned taking this “remedy” for “stimulation.”

Tardieu injected the dog with digitalin from Pommerais’s stock. This time, the animal died, from heart paralysis. Tardieu had to admit it was ingenious; Pommerais had known there was no scientific means as yet for detecting digitalin in the human body. He might even have orchestrated a way for his mistress to admit administering it to herself, in the event some clever investigator managed to detect it. But compelling logic was not the same as hard evidence. Tardieu knew he needed proof that the woman’s death had been the result of murder.

From her room, the police had scraped up traces of vomit, so Tardieu tested it, this time using three frogs. One was a control, one received a pure extract of digitalin, and the other an extract made from the vomit.  These latter two test subjects both showed the same symptoms and both died in half an hour, while the control showed no symptoms.  Over the course of 2 weeks, Tardieu repeated the experiment several times to be certain of his findings. Finally, he took specimens from floorboards from the victim’s room on which she had not vomited, so as to deflect any suggestion that the floorboards themselves contained a toxic substance. This extract had no effect on the frogs. Thus, Tardieu proved his theory that Séraphine de Pauw had died of a toxic dose of digitalin, and the most logical culprit for administering it was her physician —Pommerais. 

Because the defendant had medical knowledge, Tardieu fully expected Pommerais’s defense attorney to make a stiff challenge, and he did. The celebrated trial began in the spring of 1864, and the attorney questioned Tardieu’s methods from every angle, focusing specifically on the lack of digitalin in Madame de Pauw’s body tissues. In addition, he claimed it was ludicrous to compare the reactions of a frog with a human being.  Tardieu’s decision to extract the poison from the vomit won the day, trumping all arguments about the lack of presence of digitalin in the body. The evidence held up in court, given more weight from the suspicious circumstances, and Pommerais was convicted of the murder of his mistress. He was subsequently executed.

Tardieu went on to assist in many more cases. His logical, patient approach and his determination to support his intuitions with firm and repeatable methodology became the standard for future forensic scientists.


Evans, C. (2004). The second casebook of forensic detection. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons.

Labbé, Jean. (2005). Ambroise Tardieu: The man and his work on child maltreatment a century before Kempe. Child Abuse and Neglect, 29, 311–324.

Thorwald, J. (1964). The century of the detective.  New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

Wilson, C., and Wilson, D. (2003). Written in blood: A history of forensic detection. New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers.


Pommerais, Dr. Edmund de la



MO: Compulsive gambler; poisoned female victims for insurance.


Dr. Edmond-Désiré Couty de la Pommerais



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