Murdering Maids: How the Papin sisters shocked and inspired 1930s France
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.
On the evening of 2 February 2 1933, retired solicitor Rene Lancelin became concerned that his wife and daughter had failed to show up for a dinner engagement at a friend’s and on returning home, was further perturbed to find the property was locked from the inside. Having alerted the police, an officer scaled a back wall into the family home and discovered the corpses of Lancelin’s wife and daughter. The victims had been beaten about their heads to the point they were virtually unrecognisable and had their eyes gouged out during the attacks. The Lancelin’s live in maids, Christine and Lea Papin, were found naked in bed together and immediately confessed to the killings. They stated that after an argument between Madame Lancelin and Christine, the pair had used a pewter pot, a kitchen knife and a hammer to carry out the attack, and gouged the victims’ eyes out with their fingers.
While awaiting trial, Christine would experience a ‘fit’ in which she tried to gouge her own eyes out, and made an official statement to suffering a similar episode shortly before the murders. With Christine clearly mentally unbalanced, the sisters’ unnaturally close relationship also came under scrutiny, as it appeared to be incestuous in nature. The Papin sisters’ had lived a sad life tainted by familial breakdown, the alleged rape of their elder sister by the girls’ father and Christine’s dominance of her younger sister.
The killings were the subject of fierce debate, with many seeing them as being symbolic of a class struggle. Dramatist and activist Jean Genet’s play The Maids revolved around disturbed sisters trapped in an endless cycle of low-paid drudgery who fantasise about murdering their mistress. The perceived exploitation of the working classes by the bourgeoisie was thrown into stark relief by the savage murders and Genet’s fictional response to them. As for Christine and Lea, the former wasted away and died in an insane asylum in 1937 while the latter lived on under an assumed name, after her release from prison, until at least 1982, though it’s claimed she may have died in a hospice as late as 2001.