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‘Clear weather in Versailles at 6’10 a.m.’

July 07, 2013

WHEN the Parisian weekly Le Petit Journal’s issue of Nov 13, 1921, appeared on newspaper stalls, people took it to be a special edition devoted to haute cuisine; it showed on the front page a man in chef’s apron and white cap, a kitchen knife in right hand and left elbow relaxed on the roasting oven in the background.

Henri Désiré Landru was otherwise a dapper gentleman in the early 20th century style. With his bony features, deep-set black eyes, bushy eyebrows and thick, dark beard he could never be described as a handsome fellow, but still women fell for him one after another and, should you want to call him a lady-killer, you won’t be quite off the mark.

Eloquent in speech and almost obsessed with putting down every detail of his daily life in a notebook, Landru began his now famous career at age 43 when he ran out of patience with his home-to-office and back-home routine and decided to do something about it.

His first step was a brief announcement in a number of daily newspapers’ classified columns: “Serious minded gentleman with a modest fortune would like to meet a widow or an unwed lady with the intention of marriage.”

His encounters were immediate and numerous, often more than one on a single day. In his pocket diary he would carefully record the names and addresses of the ladies, with reminders to himself such as “worth pursuing”, “not interesting” or “to be seen later”.

The “worth pursuing” candidates were invited to an elegant but isolated residence that Landru had rented in the picturesque countryside of Gambais, some 60 kilometres east of Paris. It could never be established how he persuaded his ladies to bring along large amounts of cash in addition to their jewellery, but the accounting notes in his diary are precise; they also show the purchases of railway tickets from Paris to Gambais; invariably a return ticket and the other only one-way.

Why a one-way ticket? Because the ladies in question never returned to Paris; they disappeared one by one and were not seen again. Nobody ever suspected Landru because he carefully avoided using his real name in his correspondence and even the identity he had revealed to the owner of the country house was a false one.

In four years 11 people were reported missing _ 10 women and one teenager who had for some reason accompanied his mother to Gambais. Landru was arrested in 1919 when the sister of one of the missing ladies was able to identify him. But arrested for what? The murder accusations did not hold as no corpses were ever discovered. And Landru, in his theatrical speeches before the judges, repeatedly denied all charges.

Although the prosecution was able to produce many witnesses during the trial, they could only testify to having seen Landru with one or the other lady, or had noticed him leaving or taking the train at the Gambais railway station. But that doesn’t turn you into a murderer, argued Landru, and rightly so.

However the names of the 10 women and the young boy were found in his notebook. Then the discovery of heaps of ashes buried in the garden of the country house led investigators to the conclusion that Landru, after murdering his victims, cut their bodies into small pieces and burnt them in the oven.

In a purely technical sense the Landru trial, which lasted three years, was a failure. There were no eyewitnesses to actual killings and no dead bodies could be produced to carry the point any further.

The accused never pleaded guilty and, on the contrary, made long discourses promising the jury that one day he would walk out of the court “free as the judges and the lawyers themselves”. But Landru’s obsession with meticulously putting down all the details in his diary gave him away. And what about that unusual quantity of ash buried in the garden? Experts could even identify a few lumps as burnt bones, most likely human.

The accused who now enjoyed a countrywide notoriety was finally condemned to death for the murder of 10 women and one boy. The man in charge of the guillotine wrote in his diary: “Saturday, 25 February 1922. Clear weather in Versailles at 6’ 10 a.m. Henri Désiré Landru executed.”

These were the after-years of the First World War and, as he was being led to the guillotine, Landru, in a vague but only possible hint at his crime, turned towards his executioners and said: “Well, what are 11 murders compared with the millions you massacred during the war?”

In the past nine decades the Landru saga has been the subject of dozens of books and films. The most light-hearted of the movies was Charlie Chaplin’s “Monsieur Verdoux” in 1947. At the moment, the Museum of Letters & Manuscripts in Paris is having an exhibition of all the handwritten notes by police officials, judges, lawyers, witnesses and experts concerning the famous case, not to forget Landru’s own elegant diary.

The writer is a journalist based in Paris. (