Books: Landru’s Secret by Richard Tomlinson
PUBLISHED: 10:52 06 February 2019 | UPDATED: 10:52 06 February 2019
A new book by a Belsize Park author sheds fresh light on the crimes of World War I French serial killer Henri Desire Landru
As France was reeling from the aftermath of WWI, a sensational murder case took Parisian minds away from the post-war treaty being negotiated in the city.
Henri Landru was arrested in April 1919 in connection with the disappearances of women who had answered his lonely hearts ads. His November 1921 trial in Versailles was a cause celebre, with victims’ relatives giving testimony in a packed courtroom under the glare of the press.
“The judge was vain and liked the publicity, but his decision to let photographers into the court room got completely out of control,” says Belsize Park author Richard Tomlinson who spent decades researching the case.
“They were roaming around with magnesium flashes distracting some witnesses, who didn’t want their picture taken. The judge also let spectators into the well of the court so it was more like a bear pit, with no crowd control and 500 people in a court meant for half that number. People even brought picnics.”
Maurice Chevalier and Rudyard Kipling were among the gawpers at Landru’s trial for the murder of 10 women and a teenage boy.
“Landru himself was an extraordinarily volatile character, his behaviour was completely unpredictable. He was a nightmare client for his defence lawyer who couldn’t make him shut up.”
When Tomlinson first came across the case in the 1980s, he was intrigued because the prosecution’s motive of robbery didn’t add up. Sifting through 5,000 pages of evidence in police archives revealed most of his victims were impoverished.
“The first disappearance of Jeanne Cuchet and her son Andre got me hooked,” he says. “It looked wrong. The prosecution argued his interest in her was money, but she was just a seamstress, living in a gritty part of Paris. This material in the archives in Paris proved she was completely broke.”
Landru operated “almost unpoliced” between 1915 and 1919, using aliases and bringing the women back to a rented house in a small town 50km west of Paris, where he killed, dismembered and disposed of their remains – probably through burning and dumping them in ponds..
Just a few unidentifiable fragments of human bone, ash, or suspender clips were found in his garden, causing Landru to demand: “Show me your proofs”.
It was his notebook detailing the gifts and one way train tickets bought for his victims - and a list of 11 names that sealed his fate.
“Until WWI, his career is that of a petty conman and fantasist who was on the run from police for swindling,” says Tomlinson. “In the prosecution’s version he metamorphoses into a supremely cunning master criminal.”
When the sisters of two victims produced strong circumstantial evidence of foul play, Police did not initially investigate.
“Thousands of young French men were losing their lives at the front and they regarded them as loose, weak women who had asked for it. They didn’t care.
“With digitised newspapers you can easily find Landru’s adverts. Chillingly, they are quite cunning. He made himself sound modestly respectable.”
Publicly Police stated that they had traced all the 283 women he had contacted, but in the archives they admit there were 72 missing.
“Perhaps they had moved or died but it opens the possibility that 11 victims wasn’t a complete record of his activities. Witnesses who didn’t appear at Landru’s trial indicated he could well have murdered other women.”
An army doctor biking home to his barracks at midnight in 1917 passed a pond in the woods near Landru’s house and saw a man answering his description dumping a heavy package. He and others reported foul smoke coming from his chimney.
“Because it didn’t fit the chronology of the notebook list, police never investigated it properly. The list is full of absences,” adds Tomlinson who says an extraordinary aspect of the case was it was the relatives who brought Landru to justice.
“If the story has a heroine it is Marie Lacoste a semi-literate housemaid and half-sister to one of the women. She was always suspicious of Landru from early on and she just doesn’t give up. She was a natural born detective, methodical and not intimidated by men.”
Lacaste wrote to the village Mayor, who denied any knowledge of the man she described.
“But his conscience is pricked by another woman who writes about her sister, and when the two join forces, police investigate.”
Tomlinson uncovered evidence that the first murders were unplanned and motivated by fear of discovery. They may also have given Landru a taste for wielding power over “the feeble sex”.
“Once Police arrested him they were overwhelmed by the thousands of leads in his notebook. He had been out there on the Metro and in parks picking up women for sex. They were looking for a simple story to tell the jury. Some of the women had assests worth stealing but most were poor, of different ages, 55-19. The one connecting thread is misogyny; Landru despised women. In 1904 a psychologist described him as on the “frontiers of madness. I think the first murders tipped him over, unleashed this rampage against women. He starts keeping files on them, picking them up out of spite.”
The jury convicted Landru of murder by 9-3. Despite an attempt by his anti-death penalty defence lawyer to commute his sentence to hard labour, he went to the guillotine in February 1922 – still protesting his innocence.
“I think the pressure of hundreds in court baying for his head got to the jury,” says Tomlinson. “What swung it against him were these heart-wrenching scenes as women testified about mothers sisters loved ones, and broke down in court. It was the heart not the head that did for him in the end.”
Landru’s Secret is published by Pen&Sword Books.
For Tomlinson “It has been terribly satisfying to take a journalist’s hunch all those years ago that the case didn’t fit and wading through a lot of material over many years find the documents that proved it.”