Marcel André Henri Félix Petiot (17 January 1897 – 25 May 1946) was a French doctor and serial killer. He was convicted of multiple murders after the discovery of the remains of 23 people in the basement of his home in Paris during World War II. He is suspected of the murder of around 60 victims during his lifetime, although the true number remains unknown.
Petiot was born on 17 January 1897 in Auxerre, France. At the age of 11, Petiot fired his father’s gun in class and propositioned a female classmate for sex. In his teenage years he robbed a postbox and was charged with damage of public property and theft. Petiot was ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, which found he had a mental illness and the charges were dropped.
Later accounts make various claims of his delinquency and criminal acts during his youth, but it is unclear whether they were invented afterwards for public consumption. A psychiatrist again diagnosed him as mentally ill on 26 March 1914, and Petiot was expelled from school many times. He finished his education in a special academy in Paris in July 1915.
During World War I, Petiot volunteered for the French Army, entering service in January 1916.
In the Second Battle of the Aisne, he was wounded and gassed, and exhibited more symptoms of mental breakdown. He was sent to various rest homes, where he was arrested for stealing army blankets, morphine, and other army supplies, as well as wallets, photographs, and letters; he was jailed in Orléans. In a psychiatric hospital in Fleury-les-Aubrais, he was again diagnosed with various mental illnesses but was returned to the front in June 1918. He was transferred three weeks later after he allegedly injured his own foot with a grenade, but was attached to a new regiment in September. A new diagnosis was enough to get him discharged with a disability pension.
Medical and political career
After the war, Petiot entered the accelerated education program intended for war veterans, completed medical school in eight months, and became an intern at the mental hospital in Évreux. He received his medical degree in December 1921 and moved to Villeneuve-sur-Yonne, where he received payment for his services both from the patients and from government medical assistance funds. At this point, he was already using addictive narcotics. While working at Villeneuve-sur-Yonne, he gained a reputation for dubious medical practices, such as supplying narcotics, performing illegal abortions, and theft (for example, money from the town’s treasury, the bass drum of a local band, and a stone cross).
Petiot’s first victim might have been Louise Delaveau, an elderly patient’s daughter with whom Petiot had an affair in 1926. Delaveau disappeared in May of that year, and neighbors later said they had seen Petiot load a trunk into his car. Police investigated but eventually dismissed her case as a runaway. That same year, Petiot ran for mayor of the town and hired somebody to disrupt a political debate with his opponent. He won, and while in office embezzled town funds.
In June 1927, he married Georgette Lablais, the 23-year-old daughter of a wealthy landowner and butcher in Seignelay. Their son Gerhardt was born in April 1928.
The Prefect of Yonne Département received many complaints about Petiot’s thefts and shady financial deals. Petiot was eventually suspended as mayor in August 1931 and resigned. However, he still had many supporters, and the village council also resigned in sympathy. Five weeks later, on 18 October, he was elected as a councilor of Yonne Département. In 1932, he was accused of stealing electric power from the village, and lost his council seat. Meanwhile, he had already moved to Paris.
In Paris, Petiot attracted patients with fake credentials and built an impressive reputation for his practice at 66 Rue de Caumartin. However, there were rumors of illegal abortions and excessive prescriptions of addictive remedies. In 1936, he was appointed médecin d’état-civil, with authority to write death certificates. The same year, he was briefly institutionalized for kleptomania, but was released the following year. He persisted in tax evasion.
After the 1940 German defeat of France, French citizens were drafted for forced labor in Germany. Petiot provided false medical disability certificates to people who were drafted. He also treated the illnesses of workers who had returned. In July 1942, he was convicted of overprescribing narcotics, even though two addicts who would have testified against him had disappeared. He was fined 2,400 francs.
Petiot later claimed that during the period of German occupation, he was engaged in Resistance activities. Allegedly, he developed secret weapons that killed Germans without leaving forensic evidence, planted booby traps all over Paris, had high-level meetings with Allied commanders, and worked with a (nonexistent) group of Spanish anti-fascists.
Fraudulent escape network
Petiot’s most lucrative activity during the Occupation was his false escape route. Under the codename “Dr. Eugène”, Petiot pretended to have a means of getting people wanted by the Germans or the Vichy government to safety outside France. Petiot claimed that he could arrange a passage to Argentina or elsewhere in South Americathrough Portugal, for a price of 25,000 francs per person. Three accomplices, Raoul Fourrier, Edmond Pintard, and René-Gustave Nézondet, directed victims to “Dr. Eugène”, including Jews, Resistance fighters, and ordinary criminals. Once victims were in his control, Petiot told them that Argentine officials required all entrants to the country to be inoculated against disease, and with this excuse injected them with cyanide. He then took all their valuables and disposed of the bodies.
At first, Petiot dumped the bodies in the Seine, but he later destroyed the bodies by submerging them in quicklime or incinerating them. In 1941, Petiot bought a house at 21 Rue le Sueur. He purchased the house the same week that Henri Lafont returned to Paris with money and permission from the Abwehr to recruit new members for the French Gestapo. Petiot failed to keep a low profile. The Gestapo eventually found out about him and by April 1943, they had heard all about this “route” for the escape of wanted persons, which they assumed was part of the Resistance.
Discovery of murders
On 11 March 1944, Petiot’s neighbors in Rue Le Sueur complained to police about a foul stench in the area and large amounts of smoke billowing from a chimney of the house. Fearing a chimney fire, the police summoned firemen, who entered the house and found a roaring fire in a coal stove in the basement. In the fire, and scattered in the basement, were human remains.
Le Matin of 14 March 1944 reporting the discovery of 21 Rue Le Sueur
In addition to those found in his basement, human remains were also found in a quicklime pit in the back yard and in a canvas bag. In his home, enough body parts were found to account for at least ten victims. Also scattered throughout his property were suitcases, clothing, and assorted property of his victims.
The extensive coverage of the Petiot affair soon escalated into a full-blown media circus. Newspapers dubbed the doctor the Butcher of Paris, Scalper of the Etoile, the monster of rue Le Sueur, the Demonic Ogre, and Doctor Satan.
Evasion and capture
During the intervening seven months, Petiot hid with friends, claiming that the Gestapo wanted him because he had killed Germans and informers. He eventually moved in with a patient, Georges Redouté, let his beard grow, and adopted various aliases.
During the liberation of Paris in 1944, Petiot adopted the name “Henri Valeri” and joined the French Forces of the Interior(FFI) in the uprising. He became a captain in charge of counterespionage and prisoner interrogations.
When the newspaper Resistance published an article about Petiot, his defense attorney from the 1942 narcotics case received a letter in which his fugitive client claimed that the published allegations were mere lies. This gave police a hint that Petiot was still in Paris. The search began anew – with “Henri Valeri” among those who were drafted to find him. Finally, on 31 October, Petiot was recognized at a Paris Métro station, and arrested. Among his possessions were a pistol, 31,700 francs, and 50 sets of identity documents.
Trial and sentence
Petiot was imprisoned in La Santé Prison. He claimed that he was innocent and that he had killed only enemies of France. He said that he had discovered the pile of bodies in 21 Rue le Sueur in February 1944, but had assumed that they were collaborators killed by members of his Resistance “network”.
But the police found that Petiot had no friends in any of the major Resistance groups. Some of the Resistance groups he spoke of had never existed, and there was no proof of any of his claimed exploits. Prosecutors eventually charged him with at least 27 murders for profit. Their estimate of his gains ran to 200 million francs.
Petiot went on trial on 19 March 1946, facing 135 criminal charges. René Floriot acted for the defense, against a team consisting in state prosecutors and twelve civil lawyers hired by relatives of Petiot’s victims. Petiot taunted the prosecuting lawyers, and claimed that various victims had been collaborators or double agents, or that vanished people were alive and well in South America under new names. He admitted to killing just nineteen of the twenty-seven victims found in his house, and claimed that they were Germans and collaborators – part of a total of 63 “enemies” killed. Floriot attempted to portray Petiot as a Resistance hero, but the judges and jurors were unimpressed. Petiot was convicted of 26 counts of murder, and sentenced to death.
On 25 May, Petiot was beheaded, after a stay of a few days due to a problem in the release mechanism of the guillotine.