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The Papin sisters committed horrendous murders in Le Mans, France. Christine and Lea grew up in a dysfunctional family, witnessing violence and various forms of molestation. They were inseparable, even though they were rarely seen talking to each other. This gave off an eerie impression as the two sisters looked as though they were telepathic.

The Papin Sisters

In the north-west of France, there is a city by name of Le Mans, which is known for little more than a famous car race that takes place once a year: the “24 Hours of Le Mans.” Sisters Christine and Léa Papin gifted the city with a degree of infamy that would otherwise never have been achieved. But instead of being known for a grand and auspicious accomplishment, the Papin sisters are notable only for murdering, in a most gruesome way, their domestic employer and her daughter in 1933.

These two women were presented as monsters in the press of the day. Mental illness, dysfunctional relationships, and exploitative working conditions played a part in a double murder in Le Mans, France – one that sent shockwaves through French society.

Christine and Léa Papin, sisters and servants in the provincial French town of Le Mans, murdered their mistress and her daughter one evening in 1933 when a blown fuse had plunged the house into darkness.

The crime was grisly — the dead women’s eyes had been torn out and their bodies horribly mutilated — and more scandalous still for the familiarity that had linked killers and victims. The sisters had been ideal maids, serving Monsieur and Madame Lancelin for some seven years. Christine, the elder, was particularly prized for her needlework and cooking. During their brief trial, which caused a national sensation, they were revealed to be lovers, locked in an incestuous and deadly folie à deux.

A studio portrait taken a few years earlier showed them carefully coiffed and wearing identical dark dresses with white lace collars. In mug shots after the crime, they appear as dishevelled harpies with wild eyes and hair undone. Were they mad women or agents of the class struggle? Opinions differed, but a jury of 12 men quickly found the sisters (who had immediately confessed) criminally responsible. The more passive Léa was given 10 years’ hard labour; Christine’s death sentence was commuted to life in prison, though she died in an asylum four years later.

Although Christine was deranged and Léa barely literate, their crime has inspired a host of literary and cinematic interpretations. Jean Genet’s 1947 play, ”The Maids,” with its fractured parodies, remains the most illustrious. But early on, the Surrealists embraced the Papin sisters in the movement’s assault on bourgeois complacency. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre admired them as revolutionaries, though they had to admit that Christine’s ravings in prison cast considerable doubt upon her sanity. And the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan used their case to develop his theories of psychosis and human identity.

There is a famous photograph of Christine and Léa Papin, taken before they committed the double murder on 2 February 1933 that made these unassuming housemaids two of the most infamous women of the 20th century. In the photograph, the sisters, heads touching and wearing identical hairstyles and dresses with starched white collars, stare out towards the camera. It’s as if they are presenting a united front in the face of something they find mildly perplexing and which only they can see. After their arrest for the murders of their employer’s wife, Madame Lancelin, and her daughter Genevieve, the photograph was widely circulated, with many commenting that they looked like such good girls. Many were puzzled over what could have transformed these women into such vengeful “Haggard Furies”. Evidence that the sisters were lovers further fuelled the idea of monstrous and unnatural women who had broken all social codes of femininity not just by killing, but killing other women.

On 2 February 1933, Monsieur Lancelin was supposed to meet his wife and daughter for dinner at the home of a friend. When they did not turn up, he was concerned and went back to their home. He was unable to get into the house because the doors were locked on the inside, but he could see the glow of a candle through the window of the maids’ room. He then went to the police and one of them got into the house by climbing over the back wall.

After entering the house, the police climbed the stairs and found a grisly scene. Most of the injuries were on the faces and heads of the victims. However, the daughter’s legs and buttocks revealed deep knife lacerations. Both women were horribly unrecognisable, as their faces had been completely demolished. Teeth had scattered about the room, and one of Geneviéve’s eyes lay on the top stair. Investigators later found the other eye under her body. Hidden within the folds of the Madame’s neck scarf were both of her eyes. Madame Lancelin was lying on her back with her legs apart and only one shoe on. Geneviève’s body was facing down. Next to her right hip lay a bloody kitchen knife with a dark handle. Blood covered the entire scene and had even splattered the walls two meters above the bodies.

After police discovered the bodies, they searched the rest of the house. In their minds, they all wondered if the killer had done the same thing to the sisters. But when investigators ascended to the upper level where the maids’ room was, the door was locked. A locksmith went to the scene to unlock the door, and when the police proceeded to open it, they found the girls in bed together (some sources say they were nude). Next to the bed on a chair lay the bloody hammer with bits of hair stuck to it. Police asked them what happened, and the sisters immediately confessed to the crime.

According to Frédéric Chauvaud, author of The Fearful Crime of the Sisters Papin, investigators initially found the victims with their skirts up and their underwear pulled down. During this time in France, it was highly improper to take photos with genitalia exposed, so investigators (perhaps journalists) pulled the ladies’ skirts down to cover their private parts before police finished the investigation.

The whole of France was horrified to learn of the unspeakably savage double murder that had taken place in the town of Le Mans. Two respectable, middle-class women, mother and daughter, had been murdered by their maids, two sisters who lived in the house. The maids had not simply killed the women but had gouged their eyes out with their fingers while they were alive and had then used a hammer and knife to reduce both women to a bloody pulp. In both cases, there were no wounds to the body. Apart from some gashes to the daughter’s legs, the full force of the attack was directed at the heads and the victims were left literally unrecognisable.

Adding the bizarre to the horrifying, the maids made no attempt to escape and were found together in bed, naked and in each other’s arms. This naturally added a dimension of scandal and titillation to the case.

The police arrested the sisters and they took them into custody. Christine became distressed and exhibited desperate fits when the police separated the girls. Eventually, the authorities allowed a meeting between the sisters, and reportedly, Christine behaved and spoke in a way that implied a sexual relationship.

Were the maids having a sexual relationship? If so, it was both homosexual and incestuous. Overnight, the two sisters, aged 21 and 27, became infamous. The public was inflamed in a way that rarely happens unless a particularly brutal and large-scale massacre takes place.

Papin-Sisters. Christine being transferred to a mental asylum.

The tabloids went berserk, calling the sisters colourful names like the Monsters of Le Mans, the Lambs Who Became Wolves and the Raging Sheep. Suddenly the names of Christine and Lea (pronounced Lay-ah) Papin were known throughout the land. Almost as striking as the horrifying murders was the contrast between the violence and the reserved demeanour of the sisters. They had worked for their employers for seven years and had always been quiet, hard-working and well behaved. Their work references described them as honest, industrious and proper. Needless to say, they had no criminal record. They had always spent their spare time together, appeared to have no vices and were regular church-goers. Yet suddenly, and without the slightest warning, these two quiet maids had turned into monsters.

While most of the French population simply wanted to lynch the sisters, others were intrigued and wanted to understand what had happened. The latter had plenty of grist for their intellectual mill. Theories abounded, focusing mainly on the idea that the murders had been an example of class warfare. The psychoanalysts also weighed in, finding fertile material in the eye-gouging and the apparent sexual relationship between the sisters. Almost eight months elapsed between the murders and the trial, providing ample time for fevered imaginations to dream up theories. Even while in prison awaiting their trial, the sisters managed to provide more food for thought. The elder sister, Christine, spent much of her time crying out for Lea and begging to be reunited with her. She rolled around on the floor in apparent paroxysms of sexual agony and sometimes expressed herself in sexually explicit language. When not crying for Lea, she experienced apparent hallucinations and visions. During one such attack, in July 1933, she attempted to gouge her own eyes out and had to be put in a straightjacket.

On the day after this attack, Christine called for the investigating magistrate and gave him a new statement in which she said that she had not told him the whole truth before; that she had killed the two women, Madame and Mademoiselle Lancelin, on her own as a result of a kind of “fit” coming over her; and that Lea had not taken part in the murders. The investigating judge dismissed this statement as merely a spurious way of trying to set Lea free, and the jury at the trial treated it with equal contempt. Moreover, Lea persisted in saying that she had taken part in the murders.

The trial, in September 1933, was a national event, attended by vast numbers of public and press. Police had to be called in to control the crowds outside the packed courthouse. There were moments during the trial when the judge had to threaten to clear the court in order to control the emotional reactions of the people in the public gallery, particularly when the eye-gouging was described. Naturally enough, the girls denied having had a sexual relationship, but never made any attempt to deny the murders.

Throughout the trial, Christine behaved demurely and did not make eye contact, while Lea stared ahead vacantly as though in a state of shock. While on the stand their only concern seemed to be that of protecting each other.

The sisters were represented by Pierre Chautemps and Germaine Brière who argued an insanity defence on their behalf.  The lawyers cited their mother and father, a cousin who died in an asylum, a grandfather prone to violent attacks of temper and an uncle who had committed suicide as evidence of a hereditary disposition toward insanity. However, three medical experts for the prosecution testified that they had examined the Papin sisters and found them to be of sound mind.  Ultimately, the court found the sisters to be sane, and therefore, guilty.  The jury had taken the mutilation of the bodies and the fact that they had cleaned up afterwards and gone to bed as if nothing were wrong as evidence of “cold-bloodedness” rather than madness.

At the trial, a fourth doctor testified that the girls could certainly not be normal. He proposed that the relationship between Christine and Léa was a complete merger of personalities and that Léa had lost her identity to the dominant personality of Christine. In essence, there was no “Christine,” and there was no “Léa.” The killer was really the joint personality of the two – a third identity. Psychotherapists around the world scrambled for a diagnosis.

The two sisters seemed to suffer from what is called shared paranoid disorder. This condition tends to occur in small groups or pairs who become isolated from the world. They often lead an intense, inward-looking existence with a paranoid view of the outside world. It is also typical in shared paranoid disorder that one partner dominates the other, and the Papin sisters seem to be a perfect example of this.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon

Yet another, more sensational theory emerged. Did Mrs Lancelin discover that the girls were having an incestuous homosexual relationship? Did she see something not intended for her eyes, and is that why the girls gouged out the eyes with their bare hands?

Christine and Léa Papin at trial. The Papin sisters and the murders for which they were responsible have left a bloody mark in the annals of French criminology.

Not surprisingly, they were found guilty of murder and Christine was sentenced to death on the guillotine. As the sentence was pronounced, she fell to her knees and had to be assisted by her solicitor. Lea, for her part, was found guilty of the murder of Madame Lancelin but had not been charged with the murder of the daughter, Genevieve, because doctors concluded that Genevieve had died before Lea had joined in the murders. The younger sister was sentenced to ten years’ hard labour. The jury had found some extenuating circumstances in her case because she had been completely dominated by the overweening Christine.

Christine’s sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment, the normal procedure in the case of women. However, her condition deteriorated rapidly in prison. Profoundly depressed over being separated from her beloved Lea, she refused to eat and became progressively worse. Transferred to the asylum in the town of Rennes, she never showed the slightest sign of improving as time went by and died in 1937. The official cause of death was “cachexie”, ie wasting away.

Lea, on the other hand, continued to be her usual quiet, mild-mannered self while in prison and was released after eight years, gaining remissions for good behaviour. She was then joined by her mother, Clemence, and they settled in the town of Nantes, south of Rennes. Lea worked as a hotel chambermaid, going under the false name of Marie.

In 1966 the French writer Paulette Houdyer produced a book, L’Affaire Papin, which told the story of the Papin sisters in an unfortunately novelish format. Apparently, as a result of this book, Lea was interviewed by a journalist from France-Soir. In this interview, we learn that she experienced vivid visions of Christine appearing before her in spirit form and was certain that her sister was in paradise. She still kept old photos of Christine, as well as an old trunk crammed with beautiful dresses that the girls had made for themselves before the murders. She also stated that she was saving to return to Le Mans and rejoin her other sister, Emilia, who had become a nun at the age of sixteen, but there is no evidence that she did so.

The interview in France-Soir is the last record of the lives of the Papin sisters. It was thought for many years that  Lea had died in 1982 at the age of seventy, but the French film-maker Claude Ventura repudiated this idea. In the course of making his documentary film, En Quete des Soeurs Papin, Ventura found various inconsistencies and anomalies in the official records. As a result, he made the astonishing discovery that Lea had not died in 1982, as everyone had thought, but was still alive at the time he was making his film.

Although not widely known outside France, the Papin sisters have, as the years have gone by, had an impact that few people, criminal or otherwise, have had. There have been something like three plays, three films and a number of books based on these benighted girls, plus numerous articles. Even most celebrities, French or otherwise, cannot boast of a record like that. The Papin sisters have a remarkable capacity for intriguing people, fascinating them and provoking them to intellectual and creative efforts. Probably only Jack the Ripper has provoked a greater outpouring.

The Papin case is a psychological one as much as a criminal one, and it has already been noted that the psychoanalysts had a field day with the sisters. Looking at them from a modern perspective, however, it is clear that Christine Papin would nowadays be diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. In the 1930s there was no effective treatment for her malady, but these days she would be treated with major tranquillizers and would probably have a longer life, if not a happy one. Her sister Lea, on the other hand, never showed signs of being psychotic and there is no reason to believe that she was. She appears to have been very timid, anxious and prone to panic states when under stress, and probably suffered from anxiety disorders. She also had rather low intelligence and was dominated by her older sister. During the trial, doctors testified that Lea’s personality seemed to have disappeared completely into Christine’s personality. Lea was, by all accounts, a shy, good-natured and gentle person. Employers never had a bad word to say about her, whereas Christine had a “difficult” personality and had sometimes been dismissed for insolence.

Lea’s tragedy was that she was so dominated by Christine. If she had been separated from Christine at an earlier stage, she certainly would have led a blameless life and never would have passed through a prison gate. One perceptive employer had, in fact, suggested to Lea’s mother that she should place the girls in separate jobs because Christine was a bad influence on Lea but, unfortunately for Lea, the suggestion was ignored.

The Papin sisters, Christine (in foreground) and Léa (behind), arrive at their trial in September 1933. Photograph: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images.

Even by the hardscrabble standards of early 20th century French peasant life, Christine and Léa Papin experienced a particularly dismal childhood. The sisters came from a troubled family in Le Mans. Their paternal grandfather had been given to violent attacks of temper and epileptic fits. Some relatives had died in asylums or committed suicide. Their father, Gustave Papin, had had a drinking problem.

Their mother was Clémence Derré and their father was Gustave Papin. Although rumours were going around town that Clémence was having an affair with her boss, Gustave loved her. In October 1901, when she became pregnant, Gustave married Clémence. Baby Emilia Papin arrived in February 1902. But, Gustave had always wondered if Clémence was still having an affair. He decided he would get a job in another town to take Clémence away from Le Mans.

About 2 years after Emilia was born, Gustave announced that he was taking a new job in a different town. Clémence threatened to commit suicide rather than leave Le Mans, and this only served to strengthen Gustave’s suspicion that she was indeed having an affair. After she regained her senses, the couple moved and started a new life.

The relationship was becoming progressively more volatile; reports indicate that Clémence showed no affection for her children or her husband and that she was an unstable individual. Gustave turned to alcohol. When Emilia was 9 or 10 years old, Clémence sent her to the Bon Pasteur Catholic orphanage. Later, information surfaced that her father had raped her. Emilia Papin later joined the convent and became a nun. However, Clémence had also given birth to two other children, both of which, she and her husband had sent away at an early age.

Christine was the difficult one. She was born in 1905 and was the middle child of the family. Soon after she was born, Christine’s parents gave her to her father’s sister, who was happy to have her. Christine remained with her aunt for seven years, after which she entered a Catholic orphanage. Although Christine wanted to join the convent, her mother would not allow it, and later placed her into employment. With an average intelligence, her personality was stronger and more open than Léa’s. Her employers had reported that she could be insolent at times. Nonetheless, she was a hard worker and was known as a good cook.

Léa was the shy one. Born in 1911, she was the youngest child of three girls. Evaluations indicated that Léa was of slightly lower intelligence than her sister, and she was introverted, quiet, and obedient. From infancy, Léa grew up with her mother’s brother until he died, and then she went into a religious orphanage until she was 15 years of age.

Christine and Léa Papin were now of age to work. In 1926, they were fortunate to land a domestic live-in job together in Le Mans in the home of the Lancelin family: a retired lawyer, his wife, Léonie, and their adult daughter, Geneviève. Christine served as the family cook, while Léa cleaned the house.

The Papin sisters were, by most accounts, good girls and model housemaids. Every Sunday they dressed up and attended church, and they had reputations as being diligent workers with proper behaviour. Known to be rather unsocial, Christine and Léa preferred their own company over that of others. Each day, they had a two-hour break after lunch, but instead of going out to enjoy the day, they stayed in their bedroom.

By 1933, the Papin sisters had been with the Lancelins for 6 years. Christine was 27 years old and Léa was 21 years old. On February 2 of that year, Mrs Lancelin and her daughter arrived home around 5:30 to a mostly dark house. It was the second time in a week that the malfunctioning iron caused the electrical fuse to blow while Christine was ironing. Oddly, the iron had just returned that day from the repair man who said he could find nothing wrong with it. When Christine informed Mrs Lancelin that the iron broke again, the Madame was angry and a dispute broke out.

Of course, there had been other difficulties in the past; Mrs Lancelin was a real stickler for a job well-done. She would even put on her white gloves to check for dust, regularly gave feedback about Christine’s cooking, and made Léa go back and clean when she missed a spot. But, this time was different.

Christine snapped. At the top of the stairs on the first-floor landing, Christine lunged at Geneviève and tore out her eyes with her fingers. Léa quickly joined in the struggle and grabbed Mrs Lancelin. Christine ordered her to gouge out the Madame’s eyes, then Christine ran downstairs to the kitchen to get a knife and hammer. She proceeded back upstairs where both girls bludgeoned and sliced the mother and daughter. The rabid sisters also used a pewter pitcher that sat on a table at the top of the stairs to bash the heads of the Lancelin ladies. Experts estimate that the incident lasted about 30 minutes. But in the end, the maids had violently slaughtered both women.

Christine and Léa Papin spent their youth in villages around Le Mans in western France. The age difference between them was seven years, but that didn’t seem to influence their bond.

Approximately two years before the murders, there was a complete rift between the girls and their mother, apparently caused by disagreements over money. Their mother wrote to them on occasion after this rift but was ignored.

The one constant in the lives of the sisters, and their only enduring emotional tie, was their devotion to each other. They worked together whenever they could and it was thus that they ended up in the Lancelin household in 1926. Christine started working there first and within a few months had persuaded the Lancelins to take on Lea as well. Christine worked as the cook and Lea as the chambermaid. It seems that their contact with the family was minimal and their employers rarely bothered to talk to them. They shared a room on the top floor of the Lancelins’ three-storey terrace and kept largely to themselves.

They went to Mass every Sunday but appeared to have no interests apart from each other.

Psychologically, the girls, in fact, became enmeshed in a condition known to the French as folie a deux: literally, madness in pairs, otherwise known as shared paranoid disorder. Characteristically, this condition occurs in small groups or pairs who become isolated from the world at large and lead an intense, inward-looking existence with a paranoid view of the outside world. Most couples who commit murders together, in fact, have this kind of insular, inward-looking relationship. It is also typical of shared paranoid disorder that one partner dominates the other, and the Papin sisters were the perfect example.

According to statements made by some witnesses, Christine became increasingly agitated and manic in the months leading up to the murders. Her condition was obviously worsening, and on the evening of February 2nd, 1933, her madness finally came to a head. She attacked first the mother and then the daughter, gouging with her fingers. At some stage, she was joined by Lea and the attack was continued with a hammer and knife, plus a pewter pot that stood in the hallway. It seems to have lasted for approximately thirty minutes, after which the victims were literally beyond recognition. The sisters then washed the blood from themselves, went to their room, disrobed, climbed into bed and waited for the police to arrive. They made no attempt to escape and no attempt to disguise their deeds.

As has already been noted, the Papin sisters have had a remarkable impact, giving rise to a string of works about them or otherwise related to them. Jean Genet was so taken by the case, that he loosely based his most famous play Les Bonnes or The Maids on it. In his play, the two women (or women played by men) role play the part of Mistress while the real mistress is out of the house. The crime has continued to fascinate writers and filmmakers in France as well as other countries. Ruth Rendall has written a novel based on the crime as have several others. Two films were released in the last ten years, an English film called Sister, My Sister, starring Joely Redgrave and Jodhi May, based on a play by the American playwright Wendy Kesselman, and a French film, Les Blessures Assassines (called Murderous Maids in English) by filmmaker Jean-Pierre Denis. Having seen both films, they deal with the relationship between the two sisters differently, particularly in regards to alleged sexual nature of the relationship. In Les Blessure Assassines, Lea looks to Christine as her protector/saviour and is a willing participant in the relationship. In Sister, My Sister, Lea seems more aware that what she is doing with Christine is very wrong. Both films are definitely worth watching, and the violence is wisely kept to a minimum or off-screen.

It is a remarkable record for two benighted maids whose lives would have remained dark and obscure if not for two hideous murders committed on a winter’s night in Le Mans.

The Papin Sisters: France’s Crime of the Century Crime Magazine

Christine and Léa Papin – Wikipedia

‘They looked like such good girls’: the mystery of Genet’s murderous …

The Papin Sisters and the murder case that still haunts France after …

Papin Sisters: The Shocking Housemaids’ Crime That Shook France

Christine & Léa Papin | Murderpedia, the encyclopedia of murderers

The crime of the papin sisters – Christine and Lea – Tripod

Murdering Maids: How the Papin sisters shocked and inspired 1930s …

FILM; Why Were the Maids Grisly Murderers? – The New York Times

Serial Killer Central: The Papin Sisters – Murderous and Incestuous …

Ep18 – Papin Sisters — misconduct. A True Crime Podcast

lacan dot com/the crime of the papin sisters


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