Rue Le Sueur … by no means just another Paris street …

Every day people – French and foreigners – come to Rue Le Sueur in the chic and expensive 16th arrondissement of Paris. They walk down the street, the Eiffel Tower ahead, but for once the tower does not draw even a glance.   Instead they stop at No. 21, a six-storey building, half-way down the […]

Rue Le Sueur, Paris 16 (cc Marilyn Z. Tomlins

Every day people – French and foreigners – come to Rue Le Sueur in the chic and expensive 16th arrondissement of Paris.

They walk down the street, the Eiffel Tower ahead, but for once the tower does not draw even a glance.

Rue Le Sueur,. the Eiffel Tower ahead (cc Marilyn Z. Tom;lins)

 

Instead they stop at No. 21, a six-storey building, half-way down the street, and they start taking photographs.

They do so because Rue Le Sueur is the Paris street with a dark history.

It was on this spot, in the years of the Second World War, where Dr Marcel Petiot, France’s most prolific serial killer, had done his evil deeds.

Dr Marcel Petiot on trial.

Petiot was guillotined in 1946 for wilfully murdering 26 people.  He had been tried for the wilful murder – in France, assassination – of 27 people, but one killing attributed to him had remained unproven.

 The police chief had said that Petiot had killed many more.  “At least 200, but to be on the safe side, I will settle on 150,” had been the police chief’s words. He

The residents of Rue Le Sueur are tolerant of those who come to take photos of the ‘murder house’. They may smile and say something like “ah le bon docteur Petiot”, but I’ve had someone from a window of the building across the street shaking her head at me.

The spelling of the name of the street is sometimes erroneously given as Lesueur (one word). The street was named after the French artist (1616-1655) Eustache Le Sueur.  According to legend, he had shot to death a nobleman in a duel.  The aristocrat had refused to pay the toll for the tollgate of Lourcine, one of the gates into Paris, which Le Sueur, then the keeper, had demanded from him. Fearing punishment for his deed, Le Sueur took refuge in a monastery and begun to paint, starting with 22 paintings of the reclusive Saint Bruno.

 In those war years, France having capitulated in 1940 to Hitler’s Germany and thus under German occupation, life on the street, despite that it was just a stone’s throw from Avenue des Champs-Elysées and the Arc de Triomphe,  was tranquil, and as soon as night fell the street would be in  total darkness because of a black-out imposed on the capital and a curfew on its inhabitants.

The street was then lined with four- or five-storey apartment buildings, No. 21 being the street’s only townhouse – hôtel particulier.

No 21 Rue Le Sueur – the building with the light on on the ground floor (cc Marilyn Z. Tomlins

No-one lived in the townhouse, as the street’s residents thought, but they did see a man coming to the house: always doing so at dusk or at night.  On some of those visits he was accompanied by a male or female. They always carried a suitcase or two: if it were a woman with him, he was the one who did the carrying.

At 6 p.m. on Saturday, March 11, 1944, almost four years into the war and the German occupation of France, firemen, were summoned to the townhouse by one of the street’s residents. For six days pestilential smoke had been pouring from the house’s chimney, and indeed so it still did.

 The fire-fighters found human skulls and bones in a coal burner in an unlit roughly-cemented basement room.  A few minutes later they would come upon more human remains which were smouldering in quicklime in a pit in an outhouse.

The janitor – concierge – of a neighbouring apartment building gave the firefighters the name and telephone number of the owner of the townhouse.   He was a medical doctor named Marcel Petiot who lived in another part of Paris: at No. 66 Rue de Caumartin in the 9th arrondissement and near to the Galaries Lafayette and Printemps stores. The janitor, a woman, knew his name and his telephone number as he had told her that workmen would be coming to the house. He had asked her to let them in and to telephone him should there be any problem with them which required his presence.

The firemen, unable to get into the locked townhouse, telephoned the doctor who promised to come to Rue Le Sueur immediately.

He did not do so.

However, a man, riding a green-painted bicycle – petrol was rationed – had come to the townhouse. He said that he was the doctor’s brother. The firemen, having taken him down into the basement to see what was going on there, he had asked them if the police had been summoned. On learning that they had, he hurriedly cycled off. He had told the firemen that he was in the Resistance and urgently needed to destroy documents he had at home.   The documents bore the names and addresses of members of the Resistance and could not fall into the hands of the Germans. The firemen, sharing the Parisians’ fear of the German occupiers, had saluted the man and muttering “Vive la France” they had watched him cycle off into the blacked-out wartime night.

The Petiot Affair had begun.

However, as the police had abandoned their authority to the Germans at the start of the Occupation, Police Chief Commissioner George-Victor Massu, had to wait for permission from the Germans to open an investigation. Thus, by mid-day of the next day, when he and his men got to Rue de Caumartin there was no sign of the doctor, Georgette his wife or Gerhardt (note the German spelling) the couple’s fifteen-year-old son. Georgette and Gerhardt would be found in the family’s hometown of Auxerre in the Dordogne, but the doctor was on the run.

Dr Petiot, as the police would learn, was dearly loved by his patients, and indeed by his wife and son, as well as by his brother Maurice and by a friend, Gustave-Réne Nézondet. His parents who had both been postal workers, were no longer alive. The three, questioned by the police, could not believe that the doctor was the killer of those whose remains had been found at the townhouse. Maurice and Nézondet were briefly incarcerated as ‘witnesses’ but Georgette was only interrogated.

 The doctor was a wealthy man.  He was owner of both the townhouse and the Rue de Caumartin apartment, and of properties in Paris and Auxerre.  One of the properties was an entire apartment building in the capital’s 12th arrondissement.

But where was Dr Petiot?

Despite being hampered by its loss of sovereignty, throughout 1944 the French police continued its investigation. Since the 1940 capitulation the country was being run by a German Military Commander, General Otto von Stüpelnagel.

The police had learned that Dr Petiot, pretending to be a Resistant, had sold, at enormous fees, an escape route from Occupied France to the freedom of Argentina. He had furthermore recommended to possible ‘escapees’ that they bring whatever jewellery, gold bullion and gold coins and cash they possessed with them. Two friends – a barber and an out-of-work ham actor whom he had told that he was a Resistant and could assist people who wanted to, or had to, flee from Nazi-occupied Paris, had begun to recruit ‘escapees’ in the bars and brothels of Paris. The two had, in turn, told a Romanian woman, Eryane Kahan, of this escape route from Paris, and attracted by the money she was promised she would be paid for each ‘escapee’, she, Jewish, had not hesitated to recruit among the Jewish residents of Paris.

Those people sent to Dr Petiot as potential clients of his escape route were not given the doctor’s real name. To them he had become Dr Eugéne and the Resistance cell he was with was code-named Fly-Tox. The barber and the out-of-work ham actor had a quiet laugh about those two names as the first was the name of a make of hair products and the second was the name of a cockroach killer. The barber used both in his salon. Yet the two had continued to believe that the doctor was a Resistant and assisted people to escape to Argentina.

The French police had also learned that the Gestapo, having heard that a Frenchman, a Dr Eugéne, was running an escape route from France to Argentina, had arrested the doctor, had locked him up in Fresnes Prison outside Paris and had tortured him atrociously. However, having been unable to find proof of such an escape route had let him go after seven months.

It was Tuesday, January 11, 1944, and Dr Petiot, in a dreadful state after his incarceration and torture, accompanied by his ever-adoring wife went to recuperate at the house in Auxerre of his equally adoring brother Maurice. Young Gerhardt was already living with his uncle, his parents having considered Paris with so many Germans about, not safe.

Late February, back in Paris, and fully recovered, the doctor immediately set off for the Rue Le Sueur townhouse. He had work to do there. He had human remains to get rid of. He wrote to Maurice asking him to bring him quicklime, and every morning for a week he bought coal from a coal merchant – bougnat-bistro.  The owner, a woman, was a former drug addict whom he had treated, and thus grateful, she broke the law letting the doctor have as much strictly rationed coal, as he wanted.

Then had come Saturday, March 11, and firemen were at the townhouse on Rue Le Sueur, some of them vomiting into the gutter outside, because of what they had seen in the townhouse.

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

Dr Petiot remained on the run – no-one, not even his wife and family knew where he was hiding – until Saturday, August 19, the Allies having landed on the beaches of Normandy and allied troops on their way to Paris to liberate the capital from German occupation, when he left his hide-out.

 The doctor had been staying with a former patient whom he had treated for various small ailments, and whom he had walked into on the street sixteen days into his flight, the man having believed the story the doctor had told him of being a Resistant and that the bodies which had been found in his townhouse were those of Germans and French Collaborators which his resistance cell, Fly-Tox, had executed. Where he had been the previous sixteen days he did not say.

The Germans on the run and the war to end soon, Petiot, like so many former Collaborators, fearing retribution for their treasonous wartime behaviour and activities would join the newly-formed Free Forces of the Interior – the FFF – the men known as fifis. Still not using his real name, telling his host he risked being killed by Collaborators who were still free, he used the identity papers of a Dr Henri Valeri, no-one knowing the fate of the real Dr Henri Valeri.

The police and the FFF having identified him, Dr Petiot was arrested at 7 a.m. Tuesday, October 31, on a Paris metro station by an FFF officer. Seven months had gone by since the discovery of the human remains at the Rue Le Sueur townhouse.  He continued to make the same claims about having been a Resistant and that his resistance cell, Fly-Tox, had been executing Germans and French Collaborators in his Rue Le Sueur townhouse.

He was incarcerated in Paris’s La Santé Prison.

Charged with the assassination of 27 people, the doctor said that that was incorrect. “I had 63 individuals whom we had judged dangerous – German officers and enemy agents – executed.   They were all bastards!” He added, “I won’t even be able to kill a rabbit.  When I was in medical school and I had to dissect a rabbit, I always took my live one to a butcher and exchanged it for a dead one.”

 On Monday, March 18, 1945 at 1.35 p.m. a year having passed since the 1944 discovery of the human remains at the Rue Le Sueur townhouse the trial of Dr Petiot opened at the Assize Court of the Seine in Paris. All night Parisians and so too foreign journalists, showbiz personalities and members of Europe’s royal families – one was Prince Rainier of Monaco had waited outside on Boulevard du Palais to make sure that they would have a seat in the courtroom.

Paris’ law courts – It was here that Petiot was sentenced to be decapitated on the guillotine (cc Marilyn Z. Tomlins)

On Wednesday, April 4, Dr Petiot was sentenced to death.   A gasp was heard from the gallery, but journalists could not ascertain whether it was the reaction of Georgette or of Maurice or of the young Gerhardt who had attended each of the court’s sittings. The three had not wavered in their support of the doctor.

As for the condemned man: as he was escorted handcuffed from the courtroom by two policemen, he shouted, “I must be avenged!” Who he had addressed no-one knew.

Of Dr Petiot’s  27 victims, nine were gangsters, all Collaborators who had fallen out with the Gestapo and thus desperate to get out of France, and two were Parisians who would have given evidence against the doctor in drug-dealing trials, and 15 were Jews, some French-born, others foreign-born who had fled to France believing that France was the country of freedom and in France they would be safe. The 27th person whose murder had remained unconfirmed was a young woman who had gone to the doctor for an abortion. She had not returned home. In fact, her family had never heard from her again.

The youngest of the victims was 7-year-old René Kneller, who had fled to Paris from Germany with his Jewish parents. They too had perished at the hands of Dr Petiot.

How the doctor had murdered his victims was never established. It was thought that he had given them a fatal injection. It was though thought that he had watched his victims in their death agony, they chained to a wall, as he had installed a peephole into a facing wall.

Dr Petiot was guillotined in a courtyard in La Santé Prison at dawn on the morning of Saturday, May 25.  It was 1946 and World War Two had ended in Europe on Tuesday, May 8, 1945.

Never having confessed, his last words were to the prosecutors who had gone to watch him die and his legal team who had gone to support him. “Gentlemen, don’t look as this won’t be pretty.”

Moments before, having been asked whether he had anything further to say, his reply had been, “No. I am one traveller who is taking his luggage with him.”

Guillotine in Paris’s Police Museum (cc Marilyn Z.Tomlins)

Dr Petiot referred to the fully-packed suitcases his victims had left in the townhouse and which the police had found. In one suitcase were the pyjamas of a small child. No doubt it was the pyjamas of little seven-year-old René Kneller.

None of Dr Petiot’s ‘recruiters’ were charged. Neither was his wife, his brother or his friend Gustave-René Nézondet.  Both his brother and his friend had known of the killings as the brother, visiting the house when the doctor was held by the Gestapo in Fresnes Prison, had come across the human remains and had immediately told the doctor’s friend about it. Through fear of the Germans the two had decided not to tell the French police about it.

Dr Marcel Petiot’s wealth was never established; the court had not even attempted to do so, but the Petiot estate had to pay restitution to the families of the doctor’s victims which had come to over two million francs. Georgette Petiot was also handed a bill for the court’s costs, and those had come to just over 300 000 francs.

Whether the Petiots had paid up has not been established due to the turmoil of post-war France.

The townhouse bought in the name of the teenage Gerhardt was seized by the State which had sold it to an investor who after having gutted it had it renovated. Today the building is an apartment block with offices on the ground floor and with a large penthouse.

Some days, one of the office workers comes to a window to look out at the curious armed with their cameras.

Petiot, as he was aged 26. No one could deny that he wsas a handsome man.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marilyn Z. Tomlins

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