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  Part One : Horror Chapter One Saturday, March 11, 1944 In the early evening of Saturday, March 11, 1944, the telephone rang on the desk of the duty officer at the Porte Maillot station house. Until then, Rue le Sueur in Paris’s elegant sixteenth arrondissement had made it into the news just once. It […]



Part One : Horror

Chapter One

Saturday, March 11, 1944

In the early evening of Saturday, March 11, 1944, the telephone rang on the desk of the duty officer at the Porte Maillot station house. Until then, Rue le Sueur in Paris’s elegant sixteenth arrondissement had made it into the news just once. It was in April 1912. That month, the French singer and actress, Léontine Pauline Aubart, from Number 17, set sail from Southampton for New York with her lover, Benjamin Guggenheim, but she had returned to Rue le Sueur, alone and grieving. The ship she and her Ben had boarded in Southampton for the Atlantic crossing was the Titanic. He had gone down with the ship.

Rue le Sueur would now be in the news again.

On the phone was Jacques Marçais, a retired clerk. Jacques and Andrée, his wife, lived in an apartment at Number 22 Rue le Sueur. He was calling to report that for the past six days pestilential smoke has been pouring from the chimney of a townhouse across the street from their building.

The duty officer did not understand why someone would think that a smoking chimney needed investigating. In German-occupied Paris chimneys smoked. It might be spring but it was still cold in Paris and because of frequent power cuts the Parisians had to light indoor fires for heat. Therefore, in just about every Paris living room a fire was roaring, and from every Paris chimney, smoke poured.

Jacques explained.

It was the chimney of an uninhabited house, and that was certainly not normal.

The duty officer promised to send a patrolman over as soon as possible.


In pre-war days on a Saturday evening at six – it was six sharp when Jacques stepped outside to wait for the patrolman – the narrow Rue le Sueur would have been buzzing. Some of its residents would have been coming home with last minute purchases from the family owned shops on neighboring Rue Pergolèse. Others would have been setting off for a night of fun in Paris’s multitude of cabarets and music halls.

On this night, almost four years into the German occupation of France, Rue le Sueur was dark, deserted and silent. Not only had wartime food rationing and shortages emptied the shelves of Rue Pergolèse’s shops, but a blackout and curfew were in force in the capital. The blackout siren had sounded at six but though the curfew would not commence until 10pm, all the street’s residents were already indoors.

Jacques would also have been at home.

Approaching the house with the smoking chimney, he very much wished he was.


Today, Rue le Sueur is what real estate agents describe as prime location.

A street of handsome apartment buildings, boutiques, offices and an embassy, it runs between Avenue Foch and Avenue de la Grande-Armée. Avenue Foch has the reputation of being the Paris street with the most expensive properties, and Avenue de la Grande-Armée is one of the twelve avenues that form the star that gives Place de l’Étoile – Star Square – at the upper end of Avenue des Champs-Élysées, its name. The Champs-Élysées with its Arc de Triomphe is therefore but a stone’s throw away. Even the Eiffel Tower on Champs-de-Mars Park is not all that far away; at night it glitters beyond the Avenue Foch end of the street.

In 1944, four- and five-story turn-of-the-century apartment buildings lined the one-way street, the traffic moving from Avenue de la Grande-Armée towards Avenue Foch. There were, in fact, only two businesses on the street. One was a tiny bougnat-bistro. The other was a garage. The bougnat-bistro – a coal merchant who also sold wine, something one no longer comes across in Paris – was at Number 19. The garage occupied all of the ground floor at Number 22 where Jacques and Andrée lived. From the top of this building fluttered the Nazis’ red, white and black Swastika; in June 1940 at the fall of France and the commencement of the occupation, the Germans had requisitioned the garage for TODT, the Wehrmacht’s Supply Service.

The townhouse with the smoking chimney, built in 1834 on 386 sq yards of land, the only hôtel particulier – individual house – among apartment buildings was at Number 21. It was four stories high which in present-day French architectural terms means that it had a rez-de-chaussée (ground), première (first), deuzième (second) and troisième (third) floor.

Once, the home of a prince and princess – the Prince and Princess Colloredo de Mansfeld (he was Czech and she French) – and the most elegant property on the street, it was in a state of utter dilapidation; its façade was black with grime and dust, pigeon droppings covered the steel shutters in front of its windows – there were four to a story – and paint peeled from its large double front door, a porte cochère – a gateway – through which horse-drawn carriages had once passed.

The house’s decline had begun on the death of the prince in the 1930s when the princess had moved out leaving the upkeep of the magnificent house to tenants, one having been the French actress Cécile Sorel who had used it as a warehouse for stage props. What had further contributed to the state of dilapidation was that the princess had sold the property at just about the same time that TODT had requisitioned the garage across the street, but that the new proprietor had not moved in. He had instead, or so Jacques and Andrée had thought, also used the house as a place of storage.


The story that the couple would tell about the townhouse after that March night, was that the goings-on at the property after the princess had sold it, had intrigued them.

They said that the new owner, a youngish man – they thought that he was in his thirties – used to come to the townhouse quite often, but that he had never remained there for long, just for a few hours, and it was always either very early in the morning or at nightfall that he came.

They said that he had either arrived on foot or on a bicycle, always approaching the house from Avenue de la Grande-Armée. When he was on his bike he was dressed in bleu de travail, the blue overalls and cloth cap of a French worker, but when on foot, he looked every bit the Paris gentilhomme; he wore a suit, shirt with starched cuffs and collar, a fedora and a brightly-colored bow tie. Often, when on his bike and dressed like a French worker, he pulled a small cart behind him; bikes and vélo-rickshaws – a cart pulled by bike or horse – had become the primary modes of transport in the city because, along with rationing food, the Germans were also rationing gasoline. His cart was always packed high. They had wondered what he was carting to the house because, whatever it was, it was always hidden under a stained sheet of canvas.

When on foot and looking every bit the Paris gentilhomme, he frequently had another person, male or female, with him. They always carried suitcases – always two suitcases – and should the person be a woman, then the man had carried one of her suitcases for her. These people however had never left the house again. Or rather, they’d never been seen to leave the house again. The man though did set off after a while and then sounds of banging would drift from the dark house. The banging had often continued deep into the night. There had once even been banging on a Christmas Eve; it had been interminable. On other nights other noises too had come from the house: a child’s crying, a woman groaning as if in pain, a man shouting angrily.

One of the street’s residents had even heard a man’s voice calling out for help from somewhere deep inside the dark house when one night long after the curfew had sounded he had walked by.

“Au secours! Au secours! S’il vous plait, au secours!”

Help! Help ! Please help!

Then, the new owner had disappeared.

Or rather, as the couple would say, he had stopped coming to the house. When exactly that had been they could not remember. It was something they had become aware of only gradually. But they would never forget the day that they had first seen the chimney begin to spew smoke: Monday, March 6.

At first the smoke had risen in thin, white coils which the early spring wind had swept into their kitchen; they lived on the top floor. Then, around midnight the smoking had stopped but only to start again in the morning. And all of that second day the smoke had risen into the sky, and, then again at around midnight it had stopped, but, only to recommence the following morning. By then the smoke had turned black and a pestilential stench clung to it, as well as to everything else; the couple’s furniture, their clothes, their hair; even the food they ate.

As Andrée would continue with the story, on that third day, she had started to feel queasy and soon she was vomiting and she wanted her husband to summon the police or the fire brigade, which ever of the two would get to the townhouse quickest. But he would not hear of it. He wanted to know from her whether she’d forgotten that France had lost the war and that the victorious Boches were their new masters. Having cops and firefighters swarming all over the street was bound to draw the Boches’ attention, and that was something they could well do without, he had told her. But, she had insisted, and he had had no choice but to summon the police.

“And just as well that I did,” he would interrupt her.

On reaching the townhouse, he had seen that someone had left a note pinned to the gateway. The note had obviously been there for some time because rain had smudged its words.

Absent for a month. Forward mail to 18 Rue des Lombards, Auxerre.


About fifteen minutes after Jacques reached the townhouse, two faint strips of bicycle headlights came around the corner of Avenue de la Grande–Armée. The police patrolled by bike and Port Maillot had sent over not one but two swallows. Because of the blackout their headlights were painted blue as those of all vehicles had to be.

Patrolmen Joseph Teyssier and Emile Fillion’s shift was about to end. This was therefore their last call of the day and they wanted to get it over with quickly so that they could go home.

They wanted to know what was going on.

Jacques showed the two the note.

By then, several of the street’s residents, this included Andrée, had stepped out and the concierge – janitor – from the apartment building at Number 23, the building next door to the townhouse, stepped forward.

“The proprietor’s name is Petiot,” she said.

He was a doctor.

“He lives at Number 66 Rue de Caumartin in the ninth arrondissement.”

The patrolmen knew that Rue de Caumartin was close to Printemps department store and the Saint-Lazare railroad station.

The concierge had more information to pass on.

The doctor bought the townhouse two years previously at which time he had building work done. He left a set of keys with her to let the workmen into the house in the mornings and to lock up after them at night.

“He is an attractive man. Charming too. Real gentleman, if you ask me,” she said.

He never talked down to her because he was a doctor, and she, merely the janitor of a building.

“But the house does not look all that great inside, if you ask me. Not for a doctor’s place, alors,” she said.

She had the doctor’s telephone number.

“PIGalle 77-11.”

The two patrolmen decided that it was exactly what they would do.

On the corner of Avenue de la Grande-Armée was a bistro, Le Crocodile. Patrolman Teyssier, more extrovert than his colleague, walked there to make the call. The bistro was already shuttered for the night. The Germans were also imposing three dry days on the Parisians and Saturday was such a day. There had therefore been no reason to keep the bistro open.

At Teyssier’s first knock, the patron hastily rolled up the steel shutter. Having heard the noise on the street, and having been concerned about the smoke and the stench like everyone else for the previous five days, he had been leaning from an upstairs window pleased to know that the police had finally been summoned. He had wanted to do so himself, but, like Jacques he too feared the Germans and had hoped that someone else would rather put a call through to the flics – the cops.

A couple of minutes later a telephone exchange operator put the patrolman through to PIGalle 77-11.

A woman picked up.

“Bonsoir Madame, it’s the police here,” said Patrolman Teyssier into the mouthpiece.

He asked to speak to Dr. Petiot?

“I will call him, Monsieur l’Agent,” replied the woman.

A man’s voice came on the line.

“Bonsoir Monsieur, it’s the police here,” said the patrolman again.

He apologized for calling in the evening; it was dinner time and despite the food rationing and shortages it was still a sacred moment for a Frenchman.

“A fire has broken out at 21 Rue le Sueur and I’ve been told the property belongs to you,” he explained.

There was a slight hesitation on the other end of the line.

“Have you gone in?”

Patrolman Teyssier said he had not.

“Don’t, and don’t touch anything,” cautioned the voice. “I’ll be right there. In fifteen minutes at the most; it will take me that long to cycle over. I’ll be bringing the key. But don’t go in. Wait for me.”

Before the patrolman hung up he asked the doctor – he presumed he was speaking to the Dr. Petiot, proprietor of the townhouse – to hurry.

“It’s urgent. The smoke stinks, and everyone feels sick!” he said.

For half an hour the two patrolmen waited for the doctor to materialize and then after having waited another fifteen minutes with still no sign of him, Patrolman Teyssier returned to Le Crocodile to make another telephone call. The patron, then in his working clothes of black trousers, black shirt, black tie and long white plastic apron, was busy opening up. He sensed it was going to be a busy night on the street and he was willing to break the law; if anyone wanted something stronger than a cup of ersatz coffee, he was their man.

The patrolman called Porte Maillot again. He asked for the fire brigade to be sent over. He wanted them to hurry because something awfully rotten was burning.

Ten minutes later, a fire engine, headlights also painted blue, raced around the Avenue de la Grande-Armée and up Rue le Sueur and came to a halt in front of Number 21, its tires screeching.


Like everything else in wartime Paris, locks were hard to replace.

Corporal Avilla Boudringhim of Porte Maillot fire brigade, having been told by the two patrolmen that the townhouse’s owner was a physician, was reluctant to smash the one on the gateway. Therefore, he and his crew of three entered the property through one of the shuttered ground floor windows: neither the shutter nor the cracked window pane behind it had offered their hammers much resistance.

Inside the house they found themselves in a large salon.

They saw by flashlight – a switch in a wall failed to produce light – that the room was in a state of great disarray. Several items of furniture, some broken, others covered in old blankets, were piled against the walls. Cardboard boxes, hat boxes and suitcases lay all over the floor. Some of these were open: an incredible array of goods spilled from them. There lay men’s jackets, ties, socks, a women’s gold-lamé dress, a large feathered hat, purses, numerous pairs of shoes. Also pots of face cream, boxes of pills, tubes of ointment, some razors, pairs of spectacles, some cutlery and crockery, several army issue blankets and several sheets. Price tags were attached to several of the items and some suitcases bore labels of Orient Express trains, Cunard cruise liners, and luxury hotels in London, Nice, Venice, Istanbul and New York. It was as if someone had abandoned moving in or had been disturbed whilst moving out.

Boudringhim and his men made their way from the room to an oval shaped hallway. It was in perfect order: it was even elegant. The walls were covered in tapestry, on the floor lay a carpet which looked expensive, and brocaded Louis Quinze chairs were arranged in a semicircle in front of a marble fireplace adorned with two harp playing, porcelain cherubim. A large still life hung on one of the walls.

A red-carpeted staircase led from the hallway to the upper floors and the fire chief motioned to his men that they were going to see what was upstairs.

The stairs led to a corridor, doors on both sides. The men opened each and flashed their lights into the rooms behind them. All but one of the rooms were in a similar state of disorder to the salon. The exception looked like it was being turned into a study, perhaps a library. Its walls were lined with glass-fronted cases, all filled with books. More books lay in piles on the floor.

The firefighters went up another staircase, this one narrow and uncarpeted, their footsteps deafening in the darkness. Again, they pushed open doors and flashed their lights into rooms, all cluttered with boxes, suitcases and old dusty furniture.

Down the men went again. Upstairs, they had counted the rooms; there were ten. Nowhere up there, however, had they found any signs of fire. The stench that was out on the street had been present, yes, and they had had to cover their noses with large woolen handkerchiefs they carried around especially for this purpose, but they had not even seen a match or a cigarette butt anywhere.

The house had a basement. A second staircase in the hallway led down to it. The firefighters were going to go down to see what was there, but a glass door drew their attention. The door was closed, but not locked. It opened on to a small, dark, oblong courtyard. The locked gateway was at one end of the courtyard. At the other was an archway. A second larger courtyard could be seen beyond it. A narrow metal door also led off the courtyard. The door was ajar. Behind it was a set of narrow, cracked stone steps. The men knew that these would lead down to the basement. They started to descend, stepping carefully so as not to trip in the semidarkness. It had been chilly in the courtyard, going down the steps, the air turned hot and foul, fouler than what it had been in the house. There was a door at the bottom of the steps. It too stood ajar. Judging by all the open doors, the house’s proprietor seemed to have left the townhouse in a great hurry.

In the excitement of that moment the firefighters did not think of looking for the electrical mains to switch the electricity back on; the mains were always in the basement. Therefore, by flashlight they saw that the basement consisted of a short, narrow, low-ceilinged corridor. Several doors led from it. These were closed. The men opened one after the other: again none were locked. Behind each was a tiny, roughly cemented room. The rooms were all empty. Flashing their lights into the last room on the corridor, they knew that they had found the source of the stench.

The room in front of them was approximately 13 ft wide and 9 ft deep. Rusty water pipes and flyspecked electrical wires ran up its walls and into a ceiling blackened with soot and blistered with damp. Two old, dented wood burning furnaces stood against one of the walls. One was much larger than the other. The smaller was rusted and it had neither door nor chimney; it was obvious it would never work again. Coal was smoldering in the larger one. A burned log protruded from the coal. The firefighters covered their noses; the air was really foul. They stepped into the room; Boudringhim leading. They had to have a closer look at the furnace; they wanted to see if there might be something else in it.

He groaned.

What was protruding from the coals was not a log; it was an arm. The hand was still intact: the fingers, swollen and black, were clearly discernible. They were pointing at him. It was as if they were beckoning him to come closer; to come and see what was going on and to do something about it. To help.

He leaned forward and another groan escaped him.

In the furnace, flames were devouring a human skull, the eye sockets empty and the mouth agape. It was as if the skull, too, was making a final effort to call for help, to yell for help.

There was more horror.

In a corner of the room lay a pile of human remains.

The firefighters flashed their lights at it. They saw a foot, a rib cage, a jawbone, another arm, another skull; the complete torso of a woman.

“What could I have done in such a place?” Boudringhim would later ask.

He motioned his men to get the hell out of the place.

Terror speeds the legs.

Within moments, the four put their hammers to the gateway’s precious lock. The lock, smashed, they staggered on to the sidewalk.

The two patrolmen were waiting.

“Messieurs … you have some work ahead of you!” stammered Boudringhim.

The fire chief wanted to say more, tell the two what he and his men had seen, but the words would not come. One of his men was vomiting against TODT’s garage. The other two had sunk to their knees in the gutter. In the morning, in his statement to the police, he would say: ‘After exploring the ground and upper floors of the house, we went down to the basement and, guided by the smell, we came to the room with the two furnaces. There we saw human flesh burning in one of them. We also saw s


The two patrolmen braced themselves for what was to come and disappeared into the house. Their noses led them to the basement. Having seen what no one should have to see, they too turned on their heels and fled. Outside, Patrolman Fillion collapsed against the house. His colleague continued running. He ran to Le Crocodile and to make his third telephone call of the night. He again called Porte Maillot.

“We need help over here!” he shouted. “We’ve found bodies burning … lots of them.”
The duty officer said that he would immediately send some officers over.


Patrolman Teyssier had hardly returned from the Le Crocodile to join his colleague in front of the townhouse when a bike sped around the Avenue de la Grande-Armée corner. On the bike was a man. He wore a gray tweed overcoat and black fedora. Reaching the townhouse, he leaned the bike against TODT’s garage; next, he walked over to the two patrolmen. His breathing coming in rapid gasps, he greeted Patrolman Teyssier, ignoring Patrolman Fillion.

“Good evening, Monsieur l’Agent,” he said.

The two patrolmen, still trying to gather their wits, gave a sigh of relief; they thought Dr. Petiot had finally arrived.

“No. I am the doctor’s brother. My brother will be over shortly,” said the man.

“We want to show you something,” said Patrolman Teyssier. “Do you mind coming with us?”

“I take it that you are French?” asked the man.

Later, Patrolman Teyssier would say that he and his colleague had found the question puzzling and they had therefore not replied. He described the man as in his mid thirties, about 5’6” in height and, despite a yellow complexion and dark half-moons under his eyes, good-looking. The man’s eyes, he said, were strange. One moment they were a very deep black and sparkled, yet the next they were as dull as an onyx stone.

The man dashed past the two patrolmen into the courtyard and, unhindered by the darkness, and apparently also by the stench – he seemed unaware of it – over to the glass door. He obviously wanted to go into the house.

“No, this way Monsieur, if you please,” said Patrolman Teyssier, running after him. The French consider it impolite to omit monsieur, madame or mademoiselle when addressing a stranger. Despite the night’s bizarre circumstances, he was doing his best to remain polite.

It was to the basement that he wanted the man to go.

Down in the basement, knowing what was there, the two patrolmen did not want to go in there again. Instead, they stood back and motioned to the man that they wanted him to step into the room. Without hesitation he did, and they watched, not taking their eyes off him for a second. Pensively, he looked at the larger furnace. The arm no longer stuck from the coal; it lay on the floor. The hand had been ripped away and there were few fingers left on it. In the furnace, the head had cracked lengthwise. He turned to look at the pile of human remains. He had started to sweat; glistening beads of perspiration clung to his forehead. He had also started to rub his hands together; he was doing so vigorously as if he was holding them under a faucet to get them clean.

He cleared his throat.

“Monsieur l’Agent, my head is on the block here.”

He had again addressed only Patrolman Teyssier, but he had not looked at him.

He continued; his eyes on the floor now.

“What you see here, Monsieur l’Agent concerns the Resistance. I am, you understand, in the Resistance. These … these here … these bodies here …they are the bodies of Germans and of French traitors. They arrested me and they tortured me.”

The two patrolmen would recall later that they had seen him sweep something off the floor: he had closed his hands over whatever it was. Next, he had dropped the object into one of the pockets of his overcoat. They would not ask him what he had picked up; too mesmerized they said they had been by his hands. These were large and red and calloused, and his fingernails were rimmed with dirt. “Not the hands of a doctor,” they would say. “Rather those of a worker, someone who laid bricks or worked the land.”

The man wanted to know whether the two had notified their superiors.

They nodded.

“They are on their way, Monsieur,” replied Patrolman Teyssier.

The man looked up.

“In that case, I have no choice but to go.”

He explained that he had hundreds of documents at his home which he would have to destroy because they identified members of the Resistance.

“If these documents fall into the hands of the Germans, all these brave blokes will be shot,” he said.

Again the two patrolmen nodded.

Back on the street, they started to blow their whistles. They wanted those gathering outside – by now there was a crowd – to stand aside to enable the man to get to his bike.

“Vive la France!” said he to the two cops when he was back on his bike.

They nodded.

“Vive la France!”

They had removed their képis and were holding these over their hearts.
Down in the basement, they had seen that some of the man’s molars had been drilled down. They knew that drilling teeth was one of the Gestapo’s favorite tortures. It had decided them that he had indeed been truthful claiming that he was a Resister, and that the bodies in the basement were those of Germans and their French supporters, in other words, traitors.
The two patrolmen, still holding their képis over their hearts watched the man and his bike disappear into the darkness of the blacked out Parisian wartime night. They were honoring not only the hero on the bike but also their poor martyred country, occupied as she was by the German Nazis.

They had not asked the hero on the bike whether his brother, the Dr. Petiot, proprietor of the house, was also a Resister and whether the doctor was aware of what was going on in the basement of his townhouse. Neither had they asked him where he lived or what his telephone number was so that the police could get in touch with him.

The man’s bicycle was green.


No sooner had the bike disappeared around the corner of Avenue de la Grande-Armée than four officers from Porte Maillot drove up in a black traction-avant Citroën, the standard front-wheel drive service vehicle of a police officer.

A few minutes later, the four – Inspectors Chevalier, Gauthèrie and Lainé, and a captain named Déforeit – followed the two patrolmen and the fire chief down to the basement. There, they saw that the smaller furnace was still alight and asked why no one had thought of extinguishing the fire. The fire chief called his men to do so. The fire extinguished, the four officers told him that he and his men could return to their depot; their work was done.
Alone with the two patrolmen, they wanted to be briefed on the night’s discovery.

They heard that the house was the property of a Dr. Petiot from Number 66 Rue de Caumartin in the ninth arrondissement and that the doctor had been summoned but had not yet arrived. They were also given the note which had been pinned to the gateway.

The four were not told of the man on the green bike.

Soon afterwards, the two patrolmen having returned to Porte Maillot, Inspector Lainé also set off for the station house. He wanted reinforcement sent to the townhouse. What was going on there was too big for Porte Maillot to handle.

The Crim – la Crim – should be called in. The Crim was la Brigade Criminelle of the Brigade Special No 1, Paris’s CID based at Number 36 Quay des Orfèvres that forms part of the Prefecture de Police – police headquarters – in the Palais de Justice complex on Île de la Cité, one of the two islands in the Seine in central Paris. It is still today Paris’s police headquarters.

The Palais de Justice complex stretches from Quay des Orfèvres, the southern border of the island, to Quay de l’Horloge its northern border, and from Boulevard du Palais in the east and Place Dauphine in the west. It extends over 49 acres and it has 13 miles of corridors, 3,550 windows and 7,000 doors.

Those who work there call it la grande maison, the big house. Parisians, both in fear and respect, never call it anything but le Quay, the Quay.


At 8:05pm, a telegram, numbered 100101, was sent by pneumatique – underground pneumatic tube – from Porte Maillot station house to the Quay. Pneumatique was faster than a telegram. The addressee also received not just a sheet of paper on which letters had been pasted, but the original correspondence in its envelope.

The telegram read:

‘Towards 7:45pm a smell somewhat like a gas leak led to the discovery of the remains of several partly burned human corpses next to a lit furnace in the basement of an uninhabited private townhouse at 21 Rue Le Sueur. The owner appears to be Mr. Piot (sic) from Number 66 Rue de Caumartin.’

It bore Captain Lainé’s signature.

It arrived in the Quay’s telegraphic room at 8:25pm.

At 9.30pm, an hour after its arrival and almost four hours after the discovery of the basement room’s horrific secret, the Quay reacted: a detective telephoned the apartment of the head of the Crim – Commissioner Georges-Victor Massu.


Madame Massu, the archetypal stoic policeman’s wife, was still up and washing the dinner things when the telephone rang. She ran to answer. A call at that time of the night meant that there was trouble somewhere in Paris.
Because it was a Saturday night, Massu, in his early fifties, well built with pitch-black hair and a fine mustache, and an ego to match his exalted position – the rumor in the force was that crime writer Georges Simenon based his pipe smoking Inspector Maigret on him – had hoped for a full night’s sleep and was already in bed.

“Allô, j’écoute,” he muttered grumpily on taking the receiver.

The Crim’s detective refused to say what was going on but asked Massu to come to the Quay immediately. A car was already on the way to pick him up.

The commissioner dressed hastily.

He put on a gray suit, black double-breasted overcoat and gray fedora as if it was a Monday morning and when his front door bell rang, he was at the door. Waiting with him was Bernard, his 19-year-old son. The latter was a law student. He accompanied his father whenever a night call seemed interesting. The mystery surrounding this call certainly made it so.

It was a short drive from the Massu apartment to the Île de la Cité and therefore it was not long before the commissioner learned of the night’s grisly discovery. He heard that several bodies had been found burning in a furnace in a basement room of a townhouse at Number 21 Rue le Sueur in the sixteenth arrondissement and that a neighbor had reported that the house’s proprietor was a Dr. Piot (sic) from Number 66 Rue de Caumartin in the ninth arrondissement. The doctor had been summoned to the property but had as yet not made an appearance. He also listened to a warning to be careful; he knew the caveat was the Quay’s way of telling him the Gestapo might have been responsible for what had been going on at the townhouse. The probability had already crossed his mind. He knew Rue le Sueur. He knew TODT had a garage at Number 22. He knew the street was off Avenue Foch where the Germans’ security and intelligence service, the Sicherheitsdients or SD occupied numbers 82, 84 and 86. He also knew the feared Gestapo (Secret State Police) used Number 84 for imprisonment, interrogation and torture. Everyone in Paris knew.

The name Piot (sic) however meant nothing to him.


It was through a deserted Paris that Massu and Bernard drove a few minutes later, the commissioner behind the wheel of his own service traction-avant. Even the capital’s sidewalks were deserted; an ausweis, a night pass, issued by the Germans was required for excursions after the curfew had sounded and the Germans were not generous with those.

Rue le Sueur itself was calm: the curfew and the swallows who had replaced Teyssier and Fillion had sent the neighbors home. Therefore, the only evidence it was not just another blacked out wartime night was the presence of the swallows and of a panier à salade – a salad basket as the French call a patrol wagon – parked in front of the townhouse.

Told that Dr. Piot (sic) had not yet arrived, Massu began his inspection of the property. He started with the basement. Battery-operated lamps had been set up; the police had found that the house’s electricity had not just been switched off at the mains, it had been disconnected altogether. The doctor had obviously not been paying his electricity bills.

Massu, Bernard at his side, spent several minutes in the last room on the corridor. In a book he was to write and which was published in 1959, L’Enquête Petiot (The Petiot Investigation), he described what he saw down there.

‘My son walked ahead of me, a flashlight in his hand. Its white and trembling beam lit up the basement with the two furnaces, revealing visions of hell. Here, a partly burned skull, with the gaping holes of its eye sockets and its aggressive-looking teeth, seemed to have come straight out of Dante’s Inferno; over there, a stiff hand was curled up as if its owner had, at the moment of death, desperately tried to hold on to thin air; there the torso of a woman, its chest gnawed away to show splinters of bones which were the ribs; further away, a foot, blackened like a log of wood that had smoldered, without flame; everywhere, strewn around in a shapeless magma, tibias, femurs, bits of arms, jaw-bones … And, over this horrendous charnel house floated the awful smell of charred flesh, a sinister stench of grilled human flesh.’

After having seen the furnaces, Massu and Bernard were taken to a scullery. It was also in the basement. It was bare but for two stone sinks built into a wall. One sink was large and deep and had a sloping bottom. The other was an ordinary kitchen sink. A stone draining board, long enough for a man to stretch out on, ran between the two. A damp and greasy mark was on the board. Bernard put his nose to it: he said he could smell soap. Underneath the board was an opening to a drain. The drain was rusty, yet clear and odorless. Three barred, blackened, sidewalk-level windows faced the sinks. Blackened windows were not odd or unusual in Paris. Today, Parisians still blacken sidewalk-level windows for privacy and security.

Going up the stone steps to return to the house’s hallway, Massu noticed a sack under the steps. He flipped it open. It contained the headless left side of a human body. He could not tell whether the body was male or female. It was in too advanced a state of decomposition.

Upstairs more battery-operated lamps had been set up and policemen were hanging the obligatory blackout curtains. The doctor had not taken the trouble to do so.

Massu stared in disbelief at the disorder he witnessed around him. He and Bernard walked through rooms of which the floors were strewn with bicycle wheels, car tires, gardening tools, pots, pans, kettles, lampshades, toys, old yellowed newspapers and magazines. There were though also some exquisite objects lying about: Sevres, Limoges, Dresden and Baccarat vases, Gobelins tapestries and numerous original paintings in gilded frames. He knew his wife would have loved the latter objects. He also knew he couldn’t buy them for her.

There were five bedrooms, a bathroom and toilet on the house’s second story. A cracked tub stood in the bathroom. In the toilet, the bowl was blocked with what looked like kitchen waste. In one of the bedrooms an enormous canopied bed stood behind a lacquered Chinese screen: it would not have been out of place in the Château of Versailles. There was no mattress on the bed and a family of rats nested under the floorboards in front of it. It was obvious that no one had used that bathroom and toilet or had slept in that bed for a very long time.
Massu studied the books in the library room. Those in the bookcases were perfectly alphabetized. The subject of many was crime. He saw some of Conan Doyle’s books, and those of Dashiell Hammett and Maurice Leblanc, creator of Arsène Lupin, the gentleman thief. Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret books were on the shelves too; finding these amused him.

There were also many books about Jack the Ripper and Henri Désiré Landru, the Modern Bluebeard, guillotined in France in 1922 for the murder of ten women and a 19-year-old man whose bodies he had disposed of in the furnace of his kitchen stove, and about doctors who had killed: Dr. Harvey Hawley Crippen; Dr. H.H. Holmes; Dr. Thomas Neill Cream.

The other side of the law was represented too: complete sets of the books about and by Jean Alexandre Eugène Lacassagne, founder of the Department of Forensic Science of Lyon University known as the father of forensic science for his pioneer work regarding blood patterns in a human body after death and for matching bullets to guns. Also complete sets of books about and by Edmond Locard the forensic science pioneer and one time assistant to Lacassagne at Lyon University and creator of Locard’s Exchange Principle that established that every contact leaves behind a trace. Also books about and by Cesare Lombroso, the Verona-born criminologist and founder of the Italian School of Positivist Criminology, who in his 1876 book Criminal Man, stated that there was a link between one’s appearance and one’s character. All murderers therefore have the same facial, anatomical and psychological traits. From Lombroso’s theory had developed the first national identity card: in 1912 a law was passed in France that made it compulsory for all nomads and itinerants to carry a document which bore their name, date and place of birth, parents’ names, photograph, and their anthropometric details.

Also books about and by Alphonse Bertillon, French police officer and biometrics researcher who had developed a system, anthropometrical signalment or Bertillonage – measurement of the human body that included the middle finger – to identify recidivist criminals and which led to both fingerprinting and the mug shot.

The house inspected, Massu, Bernard still following behind, went out into the back courtyard. Unlike the smaller front courtyard, the back one was uncovered, yet enclosed; on three sides by the house itself and on the fourth by a wall. The wall was as high as the house, but its brick-work was of a different color, and trellis panels to which withered ivy clung, covered the wall up to the house’s second story. The differences told Massu that the wall had been raised and that it had been done not all that long ago, and obviously to shield the courtyard from prying eyes in the neighboring apartment buildings.

There were three adjoining outhouses in the courtyard. Since the police had not yet inspected these, Massu said he would do so. He started with the one on the furthest right. Its unlocked door opened into what looked like the consulting room of an unsuccessful doctor. In the room stood a desk, a sofa covered in a shabby velvet cloth, a coffee table and a glass-fronted cabinet. The cabinet was filled with medical books. Some old magazines lay on the coffee table. Several instruments of the kind with which doctors carried out uncomplicated routine medical examinations lay on the desk.

Two doors led from the consulting room. Behind one was another flight of stone steps that led down into another area of the basement; the police had already discovered that a labyrinth of corridors made it possible to move around underneath the property without being seen by someone who might be looking down from a neighboring building.
The other door opened into an odd corridor of about 6’5” in length and three ft in width. At the corridor’s furthest end was yet another door. A chain and padlock hung from the knob.

The door opened into a small, triangular room.

In the room, Massu’s attention was instantly drawn to eight large iron rings embedded in one of the walls at a height of approximately 5’6”. A metal hospital cot stood against the facing wall. A padded door with an electric bell beside it took up most of the third wall. The walls were, like those of the basement, roughly cemented, but brown wallpaper covered the one behind the cot. The wallpaper was lumpy. The paper had obviously been applied hastily. He ripped it off and found that underneath one of the lumps was a glass peephole. The peephole was approximately four inches in diameter. It was at a height of 5’6”: similar to the rings. Like the canopied bed upstairs, the cot was without a mattress. An army issue blanket hung over its headrest. The electric bell beside the padded door did not work, and the door was a fake; it was just a padded panel of wood nailed to the wall.

Massu, on leaving the room to inspect the other two outhouses, made another bewildering discovery. The door that led out into the corridor did not have a knob on the inside. Should the door slam or someone deliberately close it from the corridor side, whoever was in the room, was trapped.

The second outhouse was a storage room. Its door was also not locked. It contained another metal cot without a mattress, but nothing else.

The third outhouse had a sliding door; it suggested its use once as a stable. A padlock hung from the door. The outhouse was L-shaped and the door was on the short leg of the L. A stained wheelbarrow stood near to the door and what looked like soggy plaster lay on the floor. White footprints led from the soggy plaster to the long leg of the L.
Massu decided to follow the footsteps. Bernard would do so too. The two made sure not to step into the soggy plaster. After a few steps, they stopped walking. Ahead of them the floor was covered in quicklime, bubbling steaming quicklime, and from it stuck slivers of bone and what looked like chunks of meat. From what they had already seen down in the basement, they knew however that what they were looking at were not the bones and meat from an animal but human bones and human flesh.

There were two large paving stones lying on the floor further ahead. Policemen helped Bernard push those out of the way. They concealed a pit. It was about twenty feet deep. A pulley with a cord and noose dangled from the ceiling above it. The noose was large enough to fit around a man’s waist. Tiny morsels of flesh clung to it.

A ladder led down into the pit. No one volunteered to go down to see what was at its bottom.

“I’ll do so,” said Massu.

He removed his overcoat and hat and started the climb down. Within seconds he scrambled back up, unsteady on his feet. The pit, as he would write, was worse than anything he had seen in all the years of his career. ‘At the bottom of the pit I could only guess the depth of the quicklime into which my feet disappeared. The stench was atrocious. It strangled me. The crumbling of bones under my feet left me without any doubt that the real horror of the house could be found down there. What we had seen in the basement was nothing compared to what was down in that pit.’
After having pulled himself together, he started to search for another room with a hole in one of its walls, a hole at the height of approximately 5’6”; he had to know what the hole in the triangular room was all about.
He found the room, the wall and the hole.

The hole was in one of the walls of the short L section of the stable.

An old electric heater stood in front of it. He wanted to look through the hole to see what was on the other side of the wall. At 5’3” in height he needed to step onto the heater to be able to do so. Putting an eye to the hole, he looked straight into the triangular room: onto the wall with the rings. So the hole had been made in order to spy on whoever was in the triangular room or to watch what was going on in the room. And whoever had been doing the spying had also needed something to stand on to be able to put an eye to the hole; he and that person were therefore about the same height.


Other police officials arrived at the property. The most notable were Detective Chief Inspector Marius Battut and Paris’s Chief Medical Examiner, Dr. Albert Paul. In his forties, DCI Battut was Massu’s deputy. He was known at the Quay as a flic’s flic – a cop’s cop – and in the underworld as a meticulous investigator who always got his man. Dr. Albert Paul was a wispy-haired man in his late fifties. He was not only Paris’s Chief Medical Examiner and Autopsy Surgeon, but also Head of France’s Institut Medico-Légal, Paris’s main morgue on Quai de la Rapée in the twelfth arrondissement.

Despite his reputation as a tough man, Battut refused to go down into the pit.

Dr. Paul could not wait to do so; cadavers did not upset him. Known at both the institute and the Quay as the man of the hundred thousand autopsies, he had, in the previous eighteen months performed autopsies on 327 bodies either fished from the Seine or found in Paris’s many parks and dark alleys. Of these most had been headless or dismembered, yet he had successfully identified two hundred and forty-two. The remaining 85 still lay in refrigerated cupboards at the institute: thirty-five were female. There was, however, a dark side to him. As Paris’s CME he assisted at each execution the Germans carried out in the capital; he had to confirm that death had taken place. To some French, those who opposed the German occupation of France, that made him a collabo – a collaborator.

He had arrived at the house dressed in a dark suit, dark overcoat and fedora. He removed neither the overcoat nor the hat to climb down into the pit. He re-emerged after what seemed to Massu and Battut a long time. He held a skull. The victim was scalped, and the ears, nose and lips had been cut from the face, he explained. The work had been done with a surgeon’s scalpel and it had been done most skillfully. There were more such scalped and mutilated skulls down in the pit, he said. He had not counted them, but, judging by the amount of human remains he had seen down there, someone had been making an effort to destroy the bodies of at least twenty people, male and female. He added that he found it difficult to believe it was the work of just one man, but one of those responsible for the carnage knew that mutilating the face made identification difficult, if not impossible.


At 2am, Dr. Paul left and Massu and Battut also wanted to return home – the night had been long, far too long – but they still waited, and hoped, that the townhouse’s proprietor would turn up. Briefly they discussed whether Battut should go to the address the concierge had supplied earlier – Number 66 Rue de Caumartin – to hear what the doctor had to say for himself. But there was a hitch. Both knew, even every rookie policeman knew, a Frenchman’s home was sacrosanct during the hours of darkness. Article 76 of 22 Frimaire of the Revolutionary Year V111 (December 13, 1799) of the French Constitution made it so. The Article stipulated: ‘The home of any person living on the French territory is an inviolable sanctuary. During the night no one has the right to enter it unless for reasons of a fire, flooding, or if summoned from the interior of the home. During the day, one can enter it for a specific reason, or by law, or on the order of a public authority’. Calling in on the doctor would be breaking the law and that they were reluctant to do: reluctant despite that the Germans broke France’s laws every minute of every day, and night. There was also another reason why they thought that Dr. Piot (sic) should not yet be visited. They suspected that he was a Gestapo torturer and neither wanted to become involved with anything that concerned the Germans.

“So, I’ll be off home,” said Massu to Battut.

“I’ll call it a day too. Or rather I’ll call it a night,” replied the DCI.

At the gateway, the swallow standing guard there, recognizing Massu, stopped him. He told the commissioner that Port Maillot had sent over a messenger with a pneumatique – he was holding an unsealed, white envelope in his hand – and he did not know what to do with it because it was not addressed to anyone in particular. Or rather, it had originally been sent by the Quay to Port Maillot which now wanted someone at the townhouse to act on it. Would the commissioner accept the pneumatique?

Massu took the envelope, showed Battut that the sealed had been broken which meant that Port Maillot, the original recipient, had read the message, then read it himself and handed it to Battut to read as well.

Order from German authorities STOP Arrest Doctor Petiot STOP Dangerous lunatic STOP.

“Confirms our suspicion,” said the DCI.

So what was he to do Massu wondered? Rush to the doctor’s apartment as the occupying Germans had ordered the Quay to do or wait until daybreak as his country’s constitution demanded?

He opted to wait until daybreak: he did not want anyone to say that he had broken Article 76 of 22 Frimaire of the Revolutionary Year V111.
“First thing in the morning go see what the good doctor has to say for himself, but do be careful. Take some men with you,” he told Battut.
As Massu and Bernard drove home, the politically-appointed Prèfet – Prefect – a man named Amédée Bussière, in his capacity as Chief of Police and Fire Brigade of the Departement – the Prefectural Subdivision – of the Ile de France, in other words of Greater Paris, occupied by the Germans, issued a statement to the media about the night’s discovery. He said that two gas technicians trying to locate a leak in the basement of an uninhabited house at Number 21 Rue le Sueur in the sixteenth arrondissement of the capital had found the charred remains of two vagrants. A police investigation had established that the vagrants had been sleeping in the basement and that one had accidentally set his clothes alight which had started a small blaze.

Had the Gestapo ordered him to issue such a statement or had he acted on his own initiative suspecting that the police had inadvertently discovered a secret Gestapo torture house? No one would have dared ask him but there was not a person in France who did not know on whose side he stood; that he was indeed a collabo.
The morning papers printed the statement.

World War Two raging, and death and destruction the order of the day, the statement attracted no attention.

End of Free Chapter 1.

You would love to read on? Then you can either download the electronic edition of the book or you can buy the paperback. Both are available on all the amazon sites.

If you are in the States: Here for the paperback, and here for the ebook.

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Dr Petiot's murder house (copyright Marilyn Z.Tomlins)

Dr Petiot’s murder house (copyright Marilyn Z.Tomlins)

Dr Marcel Petiot in court on trial for murder

Dr Marcel Petiot in court on trial for murder

The stove in which Petiot burnt the remains of some of his victims.

The stove in which Petiot burnt the remains of some of his victims.

These stairs led to  pit where Petiot destroyed the remains of more victims with quicklime

These stairs led to pit where Petiot destroyed the remains of more victims with quicklime


Marilyn Z. Tomlins

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