Marie Besnard: The Undertaker’s Best Friend

Nov 14, 2011 - by Marilyn Z. Tomlins

Marie Besnard

Marie Besnard

In France, in the 17th Century, alchemists became wealthy grinding arsenic rock into a colorless and odorless powder and selling the powder to their countrymen who wanted to do away with a wealthy old parent, grandparent, uncle or aunt. There was even an “epidemic” of arsenic poisonings in the year 1670 so that the substance became known as the “succession powder.” Three centuries later, kind and homely Marie Besnard amazed her female friends when she described arsenic as an excellent substitute for divorce. They thought she was joking. But was she? 

by Marilyn Z. Tomlins

Illness and death were no strangers to Marie Antigny, yet, cradling Auguste, her dead husband, in her arms she sobbed uncontrollably.

Marie was 31 years old and she and Auguste, who was two years her senior, had been married for seven years. The two were first cousins – her mother was his father’s sister – and Marie had fancied Auguste since she was 17 years old, but it was not until she was 18 that her parents allowed the two to step out together, and another six years had to pass before they’d given their consent for the two to walk down the aisle. By then Marie was 24 and Auguste 26, and what doctors had described previously as his weak constitution had been diagnosed as tuberculosis. It was 1920 and tuberculosis was an incurable, even untreatable illness, but in Marie’s own words, “We were in love!”

Marie was born Marie Josephine Philippine Davaillaud in the village of Saint-Pierre-de-Maillé, 200 miles south-west of Paris, in the Vienne department close to the beautiful Loire valley.  Her parents, well-to-do farmers, adored her because before she arrived, they lost two infant sons to long illnesses. Her father Pierre Eugène used to cuddle her when he came in from working his fields, and her mother Marie-Louise never failed to tell her that she loved her “for three,” including the girl’s two dead brothers in her affection.

Aged 12, Marie, never having been allowed to forget that illness and death were mankind’s constant companions, herself fell seriously ill. The family doctor diagnosed typhoid and told her parents that should their daughter desire to grow to old age she should never overtax her brain. Accordingly, Marie did not return to her convent school, and, as she would not be ashamed to admit later, she was “uneducated.” She could do a little reading and writing, and she was very good at embroidery which the nuns at her school had taught her, but careful not to “overtax her brain,” she spent her time helping her mother in the house. And then she became the sickly Auguste’s wife.

For the seven years of the couple’s marriage, Auguste was often alone in the marital double bed, while Marie fussed around to make sure that he was comfortable. All on the farm and in the village thought that she was an angel in the way she cared for him, and, after having nursed him through the final six months of his life as if he were the baby she had miscarried in the early part of their marriage, he passed away in her arms. “He held out for six months – it seems that’s the time it takes to cough up a lung – and then he faded away, nothing but skin and bone,” was what she said of his death.

Considered a good woman, one who should not waste away in widowhood, Marie’s friends soon started to encourage her to find another husband; there were many old widowers around who found the days long and the nights cold. Her parents too thought that she should remarry; and they needed an extra hand on the farm.

Grief-stricken, Marie turned down every widower they suggested to her. Then along came Léon Besnard.

The handsome Léon was a healthy 36-year-old friend of a married cousin – Pascaline Vérité - and her husband. He was of a rare breed: At that age he was still unmarried. He was not exactly free, if the gossip going around the family and the farms in the neighborhood was true. According to the gossipers he was Pascaline’s lover and the father of the younger of her two children. Pascaline was however the one who introduced Marie to Léon and she was most persistent that they should marry.  Perhaps Pascaline thought that if Léon married Marie, he would remain at hand, whereas should he marry a woman from another village or town he would be beyond her reach. Or perhaps she was certain that Léon could never love the dowdy Marie who had started to wear eye glasses as thick as the bottoms of the bottles of the locally-made Anjou wine.

On Saturday, August 12, 1928 – Auguste had died just 11 months previously – Marie, 32 years old, and the bachelor Léon were married. Léon worked with his father as a saddler and harness maker, and as those were still the days of the horse and cart, the Besnards did well and never had to wonder where their next meal was going to come from. Marie, as Madame Marie Besnard, started to run a saddle and harness shop that belonged to the Besnards. The shop was in the town of Loudun, 48 miles south from her parents’ farm.

While Marie learned about saddles, harnesses and rope, which was also sold in the shop, she patched up her new husband’s bad relationship with his parents and his sister, Lucie, a widow.  Léon was rather short-tempered and one day in an argument with his father, Marcelin, he had got hold of the old man by his neck. That violent act had caused a total break between father and son, and brother and sister, but because of Marie’s reconciliation endeavor, harmony was restored in the family. The two households were beside one another in Loudun.

Aldous Huxley's Book The devils of Loudun
Aldous Huxley's Book The devils of Loudun

Loudun with just a few hundred inhabitants – still only 8,000 people live there today – was a town with a dark past. Six times – the first in 1482 and the last in 1632 – the pest had almost wiped out its entire population. The final epidemic of 1632 had broken out in the fall and lasted until the middle of the following year. It was a time when no one was allowed to leave the town, and of course no one, not even a beggar, was mad enough to go there. It was said that a heavy scent of lavender, mint and camphor, the three believed to have been a cure for the pest, hung over the town, and a hawthorn branch hung from each front door: Christ’s crown of thorns cut, according to the Christian Bible from a hawthorn, and Christ having risen after death, the tree was believed to bestow good luck.

It was not only the pest that darkened the Loudun sky those years of the 17th century.

So had a strange case of hestero-demonopathy; the case is today known as the “Loudun Possessions.” What had happened was that the nuns in the local Ursuline convent had begun to behave oddly especially when the handsome priest, Father Urbain Grandier, was around. During the day they lay prostrated on the floor of their chapel as if in prayer, but it was not prayers that escaped their lips, but the most terrible profanities, and at night they ranted and raved on their small wooden bunks. The locals had no doubt that the nuns had been possessed by the devil. Just as they had no doubt that the devil had taken residence in the body of Father Urbain Grandier. Not only was Grandier sleeping with several women of the village - one of them the daughter of the local solicitor to the King (Louis XIII) and another, the daughter of the King’s local councilor – he had also written a treatise against the Catholic Church’s law of celibacy for priests.

Father Urbain Grandier being tortured
Father Urbain Grandier being tortured

Exorcism was a common practice in France and was held publicly and the nuns had undergone exorcism, but it had not stopped them craving for the raunchy priest. Finally in 1634 after Grandier had been tortured, the standard treatment as stipulated in the Church’s Malleus Maleficarum for the crimes of magic, maleficia (a pact with the devil) and demoniacal possession, the King had ordered him to be burned at the stake, but that he could be hung before he was set alight in order to reduce his suffering.  Unfortunately for the priest, the holy water his fellow priests had poured over him to cleanse him of his sins had made his body so slippery that the hangman’s rope had kept slipping over his head so that when a torch was put to the straw at his feet, he was still alive. He had died in silence; he was too weak to cry out, even to utter a single moan. (The Urbain Grandier Case inspired several novels. One was Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun on which the 1970 Ken Russell movie The Devils starring Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave was based.)

Three centuries later, the only “devils” that Marie had to confront and deal with in Loudun were some of the local women. Her Léon had a roving eye.

There was Pascaline.

 Not so long after the wedding ceremony, Léon began to disappear on an evening and the gossipers did not hesitate to let Marie know that they had seen him go into Pascaline’s house. Marie refused to believe the gossipers, one of them her best friend, the post mistress, Louise Pintou.

The gossipers, said Marie, just wanted to make trouble in her marriage.

Léon kept on going out in the evening and eventually Marie also began receiving anonymous letters about his love shenanigans. She decided to confront him. She told him outright that he would have to choose between her and her cousin. “If I took you, Mouche” – his nickname for Marie which means “fly” – “it was because I loved you, so my choice is already made,” said Léon.

He explained that he only went to Pascaline’s to feed the horses they kept in the barn behind her house. He promised Marie that he would immediately construct a barn behind their own house and as soon as he could fetch their horses there would be no reason to go to Pascaline’s house anymore.  

Marie did not find Léon’s promise convincing, so she confronted Pascaline as well.

The Devils the film
The Devils the film

“Madame,” said Marie, employing this polite from of address amongst family and friends which went out of fashion a century earlier, “I’ve learned things that don’t please me. When one has a lover one doesn’t try to marry him off to a relative. You thought that because I came from the country I was green and you could do what you liked with me. Now you’re left with regrets and I have a peaceful home.”

The Besnard house was anything but peaceful. Pascaline out of the way, the gossipers told Marie that Léon was having another affair. This time his lover was none other than the post mistress Louise Pintou.

Pintou (no one ever called her Louise) was in no way attractive. She was a stern-faced woman who tucked her graying hair under a felt hat which was held in place on the top of her head with a peacock-feather pin. But she was certainly available for a love affair because she was a widow.

It was 1941 and Marie and Léon had been married for 13 years and once again he tried to set his Mouche’s heart at ease. He loved only her, he told her. Speaking of his marriage, he told a friend, “Everything’s solid here.”

Yet again Marie decided to ignore the rumors about Louise and Léon. He, at the same time, decided to ignore rumors that he was being cuckolded.

Marie was, as the gossipers said, having an affair with their married neighbor who happened to be Léon’s best friend, a man named Toussaint Rivet.  She laughed the rumor away, but soon it was also being said that she was having another affair. This time the paramour was a German prisoner of war. It was 1945 and the Second World War was over but some wehrmacht soldiers were still being held prisoner in France and while they were waiting to be repatriated home, they worked on the farms. Léon had one Alfred Dietz helping him with his horses. Dietz, nicknamed Ady, who hailed from Hamburg, lived in the Besnard home, in their attic.

Marie was 49 years old. Léon was 53 and had slowed down somewhat from when he was courting Marie. Ady was just 30 years old and he was strong and cut a neat figure because Marie had bought him a pair of pants and a shirt so that he no longer had to wear his prisoner-of-war garb. “Léon sent me to the shops to get the German something decent to wear,” she explained to suspicious friends.

Still not commenting on the rumor that his wife was sleeping with the farmhand, Léon did make it clear that he thought that Ady started to play too important a role in his household. “I am no longer master in my own home. Dietz is the master in the house and I am my servant’s servant,” he complained to a friend one night over a glass of wine.

Ignoring the fact that Marie and Léon’s marriage remained childless and that there were the rumors about infidelity, the two appeared content. No one ever witnessed rows between them, nor even a harsh word, and over the years they had become wealthy. Having started out on their wedding day with just the saddle, harness and rope shop, they had become the owners of six houses, an inn, a café and two farms. On one farm they bred horses and on the other they cultivated vines.

Seeing that neither Marie nor Léon was well educated or manifested financial brilliance or cunning, what newcomers to the village wanted to know was how the two had accumulated such assets.

The answer was that they had inherited their wealth.

Robust themselves, they had the misfortune of having sickly relatives, friends and neighbors who, one after the other had passed away, and grateful for the tender, loving care that Marie bestowed on them during their illness, had made the two their only heirs.

As the owner of the funeral home in Loudun said of all the deaths: “The Besnard family is an undertaker’s best friend.”

And as the locals said each time that Marie and Léon inherited yet again something: “God’s great; He never takes without also giving.”

 

The Dear Departed

The first inheritance was in 1927. This was when Auguste, Marie’s first husband, left her 7,240 French Francs in his will. It was not a substantial amount, but it was not meager either. (At an exchange rate of approximately FF48/US$1 it would have been the equivalent of about US$150, but at that time the monthly rent of a 3-room apartment in the Bronx was $18, a women’s pair of shoes cost between $2.85 and $7.85, and a women’s dress cost $5.)

This inheritance was of course Marie’s alone, but as she married Léon within a year of Auguste’s death, she still had not spent the money so both she and Léon benefited.

The first loss of a loved one that Marie and Léon endured and from which they benefited as a couple, though not immediately, but eventually, was that of his great-aunt, Marie-Louise Lecomte, the sister of his grandmother.

Madame Lecomte died on Monday, August 22, 1938 at the age of 86 of “old age.” Ill for some time, Marie nursed her lovingly, and it was Marie who placed a coin over each of the dead woman’s eyes to keep them closed. It was no secret in the family that the old lady had FF60,000 – a considerable sum – in an account at the local post office and as she was childless there was much speculation over who she would remember in her will.  Despite that Marie was the one who looked after her she left the entire amount in the account to Léon’s parents. Furious on learning this, Léon refused to attend the funeral. “She’s one of the family and you ought to go,” Marie pleaded. “Oho! So I’m to be generous even though she wasn’t,” he replied and his black suit and tie remained hanging in the closet. Marie, deciding that he was right, also did not go to the funeral. “Léon would have been angry if I’d gone,” she explained to friends.

The second death was that of Toussaint Rivet, Léon’s best friend and the man Marie was supposed to have an affair with. The local baker, he died just 11 months after Madame Lecomte, on France’s National Day – July 14. He was 65 and was unwell for only a short time and again Marie stepped in to help Blanche his wife care for him. The doctor gave the cause of death as “galloping consumption.” Not a poor man, he named only the distraught Blanche in his will, but Marie was there to hold her when she cried and to take her a bowl of tasty soup on a cold and rainy evening.

Pierre Eugène Davaillaud, Marie’s father, was next to pass away and this time Marie and Léon immediately benefited from the man’s death. He died on Tuesday, May 14, 1940 – 10 months after Toussaint Rivet – and the doctor gave the cause of death as a “cerebral congestion.” Marie, as she and Léon walked behind the coffin to the cemetery, knew that she and her mother Marie-Louise were to share her father’s assets which included two farms, one being the farm she grew up on. Immediately, Marie and Léon took Marie-Louise in with them, and from then on, early each morning mother and daughter, both in black, walked to church and prayed for the soul of the dear departed one.

Within four months of the death of Marie’s father, Léon’s grandmother passed away. Louise Gouin was 92 and yet again the cause of death was “old age” and again no one was surprised and again Marie had stepped in to nurse the old lady. She left her assets to Léon’s parents.

It was Monday, September 2 1940.

Two months later and even before Marie and Léon could hang away their mourning clothes, Marcelin, Léon’s father died. He was 58 and as the family said he was too young to die.  The cause of his death was not established but he had collapsed with severe stomach pain, vomiting and diarrhea after having eaten mushrooms. He left his assets which included the house next door to that of his son and daughter-in-law to his widow Marie-Louise. She, at 69 and almost 10 years his senior, joined him in the family tomb in the local cemetery four months later on Thursday, January 16, 1941. The cause of her death was given as “double pulmonary congestion.” Again Marie nursed her until her final breath, but not having forgiven Léon for how he had got hold of her husband by his throat, she left all her assets to Lucie, her widowed daughter and Léon’s sister. Over and above the real estate which thus went to Lucie, so too did the sum of FF262,425.

Lucie was already living in the house next door to Léon and Marie and there two months later, on Thursday, March 27, after not having been seen around for three days, Léon found her hanging from the stairwell. He ran home to call Marie. “My God! When I saw her I thought I’d faint. Even if you haven’t much affection for someone, it’s terrible to see them hanging like that,” recounted Marie.

Lucie, had not yet drawn up a will – or no one could find one although she often said, “I will not leave that Marie woman even a teaspoon” – French law designated her next-of-kin as her heir. This was her brother Léon. Publicly manifesting great sorrow at his sister’s death, he said privately to Marie, “At home, when I was small, I was treated just like a bastard.” He had his revenge, and no one found it strange that someone who’d been so vehement about who should not inherit from her would die intestate.

Marie and Léon were not finished with illness and death yet.

Nine months after Lucie’s suicide, on Saturday, December 27 1941, Blanche the widow of Toussaint Rivet died. She was 58 and the cause of her death was given as “acute uremia.”  Her illness was brief and Marie was at her bedside constantly. As she lay ill, Léon bought her house on a life annuity contract which was and still is popular in France when an elderly or old person wishes to sell their home. Under this annuity contract the ownership of Blanche’s house was transferred to Léon without her having to vacate the property and without him having to pay her a lump sum but instead he undertook to pay her a minimal amount each month until her death.  Her death occurring so quickly after the signing of the contract, he acquired the house without having handed over a centime. As it turned out, the life annuity contract was superfluous because Blanche, grateful for Marie’s empathy and care from the time she had become a widow, made Marie her sole heir.

To all appearances, Marie and Léon lived quietly and worked hard running their farms and looking after their real estate portfolio for the following three and a half years, and then, on Sunday, July 1, 1945, the two yet again joined a funeral procession behind a coffin.

Pauline Bodineau, an 88-year-old widowed cousin of Marie died. Pauline and her 83-year-old spinster sister Virginie, had moved in with Marie and Léon when they had become too frail to care for themselves despite that Marie’s mother was also still living with the couple. As with Blanche’s death the family doctor gave the cause of Pauline’s as “acute uremia.” He said that “feebleness due to old age” hastened her death. Virginie died eight days after Pauline, also of “acute uremia” which was also aggravated by “feebleness due to old age.”

As the gossipers did not fail to point out, Pauline had appeared perfectly all right until she ate a bowlful of lye (used as a washing powder) mistaking it for dessert. Eight days later Virginie had made the same mistake and died.

Speaking of Virginie’s death Marie said, “She could not understand that Pauline had died. She was still looking for her on the day of the funeral although she was pleased to be going to a ceremony. And then she realized that her sister was no longer there. She died quietly. We were sorry, of course, but it wasn’t a surprise, as she’d reached the age of dying.”

Marie and Léon were the only people to inherit the two sisters’ assets.

For the following year and a half Marie and Léon enjoyed their wealth. Marie bought fur coats and Léon bought horses. They attended mass each Sunday. When Marie heard that someone was ill she went to ask if there was anything she could do to help. The couple also donated generously to charity. “The only woman in town who can go to communion without first having to go to confession is Marie Besnard,” said the local priest of Marie.

The second anniversary of the death of the two old spinsters was close when Marie, aged 51, found herself back where she was in 1927 when she was 31. She was cradling her dying husband in her arms. Léon, 55, was suffering from “acute uremia” and the doctor said he had little hope of the patient pulling through.  Next, Léon had a heart attack and slipped into an irreversible coma. On Saturday, October 25 1947, a cold fall day, he passed away. The doctor gave the cause of death as “uremia coma.” Marie’s name was the only one in his will.

Louise Pintou, retired from the post office, did not hesitate to tell anyone who cared to listen that a few days before Léon exhaled his final breath he told her that Marie was poisoning him. He was vomiting into a bucket she was holding for him when he told her. She recounted the conversation:

Léon: “Oh! What was it they made me take?”

Pintou:  “Who, the prisoner?” (She referred to Ady Dietz, the German prisoner of war).

Léon:  “No, Marie. It was at the farm. We were going to have soup.  I saw some liquid in my plate and Marie poured the soup onto it. I ate the soup and I vomited almost immediately.”

Another villager went about repeating what Pintou said. This was a man named Auguste Massip, a wealthy bachelor farmer who lived in a castle, the Château de Montpensier. He was said to be Pintou’s new lover.  Soon Massip’s castle was set alight and next Pintou’s house was broken into and ransacked although nothing was stolen, but one of her living room carpets was found on Marie’s lawn.

Massip, certain that Marie was the arsonist and full of hatred of her, wrote an anonymous letter to the local gendarmerie.  He accused Marie of having poisoned Léon. (The gendarmerie nationale is a police force that keeps law and order in the countryside and in towns of fewer than 20,000 inhabitants. Unlike the national police force which falls under the Ministry of Interior, the gendarmerie nationale falls under the Ministry of Defense.)

Writing anonymous letters was and remains almost a national sport in France, and in a small town like Loudun the corbeau - the crow, the nickname for such a letter writer - was soon taken in by the gendarmes for questioning. Without the gendarmes having to employ any strong-arm tactics, he named his source as Pintou and told them of the conversation she had had with the dying Léon. The gendarmes took Pintou in as well and she repeated what she had told Massip. Both Massip and Pintou were thanked for being so helpful and told that they could go home.

Marie, aware of the gossip, and the gendarmes showing no interest in questioning her, tearfully denied to friends and neighbors that she had anything to do with Léon’s demise. “I told the doctor to do everything in his power to save him because I knew that in losing my husband I would lose all my happiness,” she protested.

She similarly denied a rumor that she wanted Léon out of the way in order to marry Ady.  On Léon’s last night on earth, the German was at the dinner table with the soon-to-be-widowed Marie and her mother.

On Tuesday, October 28, Marie cut a sad figure at Léon’s funeral. That her mother was at her side and Ady was with the mourners did little to console her. And so too the fact that there was just one name in Léon’s will – hers. She would later say of the will, “It was in the year we were married that Léon and I made wills appointing the survivor heir to all our property. That’s the custom with us. It doesn’t mean one is thinking of dying; it’s a way of saying: ‘Now we’re together for life, what’s mine is yours, what’s yours is mine,’ and that’s the way wills are usually made once one is married.”

With the wealth came problems. Marie had always left the management of their finances to Léon and he was also always the one who dealt with the farmhands. Having not only to make financial decisions but also to keep watch over the hired help who were often lazy, she found difficult.  She could, as she said, depend on only one person: Ady. He, however, began speaking of returning home to Germany and he did. So upset was Marie about this that she consulted a tarot reader to find out whether his return was in the cards. It was; away for only a few months he returned to France and to Loudun and to Marie’s attic room.

No sooner had Ady returned than Marie’s mother, Marie-Louise Davaillaud, her eyesight so poor that she was almost blind, took to her bed. The year 1949 had just begun and a bad epidemic of influenza was raging and Marie-Louise had gone down with it. Marie nursed her mother lovingly and on January 16 she cried bitterly as she listened to the doctor tell her that her mother, her last living relative, was dying because “her machine has run out of steam.”

Marie Besnard
Marie Besnard

Marie was her mother’s only heir, inheriting the woman’s FF263,873 nest egg.

Even before Marie-Louise Davaillaud was buried, the gossipers were saying that Marie had murdered her mother because the old woman opposed her daughter’s liaison with Ady. They also spoke of how Marie-Louise often had traces of blows on her face and that she told them that her daughter was hitting her. “Misfortune came to us when Alfred,” (Ady) “arrived. My son-in-law would certainly be alive now if that German had never come,” she was supposed to have said.

The gendarmes could hardly continue to ignore the gossip and alerted the police of the nearest big town – Poitiers 40 miles south – to open an investigation. (After the gendarmerie nationale has established that a crime might have been committed, it hands a case over to the national police.) Poitiers’ Inspector Normand was put in charge of the case. He was to report the findings of his team to an examining magistrate who would inform the prosecutor’s office which would have to decide whether there was sufficient evidence to prosecute Marie for murder. Initially, the investigation would focus only on the death of Léon.

Examining Magistrate Pierre Roger’s first step was to request an exhumation order for the remains of Léon from the Ministry of Interior. Roger, who was addressed as “Judge,” was – at 25 years of age – the country’s youngest examining magistrate.

 

Digging up the bodies

On Tuesday, May 11, 1949, one year and seven months after Léon’s death, Marie’s local advocate Maître Demeule (in France an advocate is addressed as maître) knocked on her door. He had come to escort her to the cemetery for the exhumation of her husband’s remains.  

Three days previously Marie had spent four hours at gendarmerie headquarters being questioned by two senior police officers. As she had told Maître Demeule, the police wanted to know what kind of poison she had used to kill Léon. “They listed all the poisons in France so that I could say which one I’d used. What with? What with? What with? But I wouldn’t answer. They threatened me,” she said. The police had also taken in Ady to question him about his employer’s death, and he had not returned to his attic room in Marie’s house until 1.30 a.m. when he was crying like a child. The police had driven him seven miles out of town where they had dropped him off and he had to walk back to town.

Maître Demeule had two nuns in his car for further support for Marie.

At the cemetery the police would only allow a howling Marie and the two nuns in. At the gravesite where men in white overalls had already removed the tombstone, Marie fell down on her knees, shouting, “My poor husband! I want to see him, I want to see him!” Present at the grave were the mayor of the village, a police surgeon and several gendarmes. So too Examining Magistrate Roger and he told the nuns that they should take Marie away as she need not be present when her husband’s coffin was lifted from the grave – and opened. Three hours later, having sat with the nuns in the supervisor’s lodge, Roger told her that she could go home. Maître Demeule led her to his car.

At eight in the morning on Thursday, July 21 – almost two and a half months later – Poitiers’ Inspector Normand and his colleague Inspector Nocquet arrived at Marie’s house. They told her that they were taking her to Poitiers.

“Why?”she  asked.  “Would it be for long? Ought I to take things for the night?”

“We’ve nothing to say, we’re taking you and that’s all,” they replied sternly.

Ady was taken to Poitiers too.

The two sat on the rear seat of the unmarked police car, Inspector Normand between them.

At Poitiers police headquarters Marie learned that arsenic was found in Léon’s remains. Ten tins (the kind in which vegetables and fruit are normally preserved) of body matter – bones, head and pubic hair, fluids, the contents of his stomach and larynx, even his eyes – had been taken from the grave. The analysis was done by Toxicologist Dr Béroud and his colleague Toxicologist Dr Michel Médaille, both based in the city of Marseilles on the Mediterranean. They found 19.45mg/L of arsenic in the remains. They described it as a large dose.

By then Marie, certainly being able to afford it, had hired the top Paris advocate, Maître René Hayot and the top Poitiers advocate Maître Henry du Cluzeau to advise and defend her. According to French law a legal counsel must be present at the interrogation of a suspect, and therefore Hayot and Du Cluzeau had rushed to police headquarters to be at her side; Hayot having expected that Marie would be taken in for questioning had left Paris for Poitiers the day before.

“You’re going to confess now. You stuffed your husband full of arsenic,” Inspector Normand told Marie.

At 7 p.m. the two inspectors handed Marie over to Examining Magistrate Roger for further interrogation. She would later describe Roger as having an “enormous head” and having a “nasal voice.”

Marie heard Roger tell her that she was under arrest on suspicion of having poisoned her husband with arsenic. She thought she would be able to go home, but the two inspectors returned and escorted her back to their car.

Marie would later recall the conversation in the car as follows:

Inspector Normand: “Do you know where you’re being taken? To prison. Come on, be reasonable, admit everything and we’ll go back to the Judge. He’s very kind you know.”

Marie: “What have I to admit? Take me where you like, I can’t say things that aren’t true.”

Inspector Normand: “That’s too bad. Your punishment will be worse.”

Marie was driven to Poitiers’ Pierre Levée Prison. She was locked into a cell which had just one tiny barred window underneath the ceiling. She would wear prison garb, sleep on an iron bed and wash in a basin fastened to the wall. The toilet was a dry bucket that she would have to empty out once a day and keep clean.  “The door with its peep hole was closed on me. I heard the key turn. I was alone,” she would recall.

A bizarre ritual would now commence in the cemetery of Loudun.  The remains of 12 of Marie’s dead relatives, friends and neighbors were to be exhumed.  Some cop-hating journalists felt sorry for her and wrote of her as “the Good Lady of Loudun.”

The first of the 12 bodies to be exhumed was that of Auguste Antigny, Marie’s first husband. The two Marseilles toxicologists found 60 mg/L of arsenic in his organs. Suddenly, with two poisoned husbands Marie was no longer written of as a good lady, but of the “Black Widow of  Loudun.”

Soon, as each exhumed body revealed the presence of arsenic, Marie’s media supporters further diminished. UN AUTRE POUR MARIE! the headlines announced after each exhumation. ANOTHER ONE FOR MARIE!

Toussaint Rivet’s remains contained 18mg/L of arsenic and his wife Blanche’s body contained 30mg/L of arsenic.

Pierre Eugène Davaillaud, Marie’s father’s remains contained 36mg/L of arsenic.

The 88-year-old Pauline Bodineau’s remains contained 48mg/L of arsenic and that of her sister Virginie Lalleron, 20mg/L.

Marie-Louise Davaillaud, Marie’s mother’s remains contained 48mg/L of arsenic.

Large doses of arsenic were also found in the remains of Marie-Louise Lecomte, Léon’s great-aunt who died aged 86, and of Marcellin Besnard, Léon’s father, and of Lucie, Léon’s sister who had, as it was believed, committed suicide by hanging.

The amount of arsenic found in the remains of the 92-year-old Louise Gouin, Léon’s grandmother was described as “weak.” As Roger told Marie during one of his interrogations of her, “Madame Gouin’s coffin no longer existed because her remains had already been exhumed a few years back to make space in the tomb for the bodies of other family members , but a few of her bones had been kept in a little box though. In these conditions it was not possible to take samples of the viscera but although Dr. Béroud did find weak traces of arsenic in the bones, he told us that he can not conclude that there was any poisoning.”  (It is the custom in France for all or most members of a family to be buried in the same tomb which often is the size of a small apartment.)

No arsenic was found in the remains of Marie-Louise Besnard, Léon’s mother.

Marie was accordingly charged with the murder of 11 people and not 13. Her first victim having been her first husband Auguste Antigny in 1927; the last, her mother, Marie-Louise Davaillaud in 1949.

Still insisting on her innocence, she did all the same hire yet another top Paris advocate - Maître Albert Gautrat.

Marie’s first act under the three advocates’ guidance was to request another analysis of her husband’s remains. Roger refused. He described Dr. Béroud as a most trusted toxicologist.

  “Perhaps he made a mistake,” Marie pleaded.

 “No, it’s not possible. A scientist like him doesn’t make mistakes. His decisions can’t be disputed. There will be no second examination,” said Roger.

After eight months in Pierre Levée Prison, Marie was taken by train to Paris and incarcerated in Petite Roquette Prison in the center of the capital: According to French law her mental state was to be assessed by experts and could be done more efficiently in Paris.

Having become a “star” in France, although for the wrong reasons, she was given a cell in Section 5 of the prison which, as she would boast with pride, was reserved for “the elite.”

Three psychiatrists began to assess her. She mocked their questions. Back in her cell at the end of each day, she would describe that day’s psychiatrist as “stupid” to her guards.

After one session with a Dr. Beaussart, she recalled: “He asked me what’s this? and showed me an ink blot on a piece of paper. An ink blot, I replied. No.No. What do you see? he insisted. A fine mess, I told him.”

Three months later Marie was taken back to Poitiers’ Pierre Levée Prison.  

French justice was slow (still is) and 30 months passed and 1952 had already arrived before Marie was told that her trial was to commence on Thursday, February 20.

Early that February morning Marie was driven to the court house.  Smartly dressed in her widow-black and small hat covering her dyed-black hair, she listened to the Clerk of the Court read the acte d’accusation – the indictment. Not only was she accused of 11 poisonings but also of fraud having cashed pension payments meant for an aunt of hers. She would describe the man’s voice as “boring” and what he was reading as “all the horrors I had been listening to for months from Examining Magistrate Roger.”

Presiding over the Court was Judge Michel Favard to be addressed as Monsieur le President – Mister President.

At noon, the indictment read, Mister President Favard began his questioning of Marie.  She would also describe him as “stupid” because in his indictment he mentioned how she had once removed her panty for a walk along a river when she was accompanied by several men of the village.

Marie ended her first day in court in tears and unable to eat the meal the prison warder’s wife had kept warm for her.

The next day Dr. Béroud, the toxicologist, gave evidence. Explaining the Marsh Test he had employed in detecting arsenic in the remains of the victims, he not only confused everyone in court but it appeared that he was confused himself. (The Marsh Test was developed in 1836 by the English chemist James Marsh of the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich, England. He passed hydrogen sulphide through the tissue suspected of containing the poison.)

“Is that the same thing or approximately?” Maître Hayot, one of Marie’s Poitiers lawyers, asked him at one stage of one of his confusing explanations.

“Approximately the same thing,” he replied.

“No, Doctor, there’s no ‘approximately’ in science,” retorted the lawyer.

“Can you assert that a criminal hand administered the arsenic?” Maître Gautrat, Marie’s Paris lawyer, intervened, addressing Dr. Béroud.

“Oh no! I’m not saying that. Oh no! What I’m saying is that I found arsenic,” he replied.

He was also unsure of how many containers of body matter his laboratory in Marseilles had received but said that it was irrelevant how many there had been, just as the method he had employed to detect arsenic was also irrelevant. He could, he said, identify arsenic merely by looking at body matter. (The Poitiers police had dispatched the containers to his laboratory in ordinary cardboard boxes. The boxes had not been sealed.)

“Arsenic forms white rings,” he stated.

“Here,” said Maître Hayot and handed him six full glass vials. “Tell me which of these tubes contain arsenic?”

Béroud chose two.

“Aha Dr. Béroud!” laughed the lawyer. “I owe it to you to tell you – but don’t repeat it – that not one of these tubes contains arsenic. All the rings you saw here are antimony rings. Here is the guarantee of the laboratory that gave me these vials.”

Dr. Béroud having showed that his analyses of the remains of Marie’s 13 dead relatives could not be trusted, Mister President Favard sentenced Marie to two years incarceration on the fraud charge but suspended the arsenic case until further analyses could be done of the remains.  However, new body matter would be needed and for that the bodies would have to be exhumed yet again.

Three toxicologists – the Professors Henri Griffon, Louis Fabre and Michel Kohn-Abrest – were appointed to carry out the new analyses.  All three were based in Paris: Professor Griffon was the head of the Toxicological Laboratory of the Paris Police and the inventor of the nuclear physics test for finding arsenic in hair, known today as the Neutron Activation Analysis. The professor had acquired a degree of fame in 1945 when he formed part of the forensic toxicology team that had to determine how Dr. Marcel Petiot had killed his victims. (Dr. Petiot was guillotined for the murder of 26 people, many of them Jews, in German-Occupied Paris in the years 1942-1944. You can read our article “The Doctor Will See You Now” on this site at http://www.crimemagazine.com/dr-petiot-will-see-you-now.)

A month later the bodies were exhumed and first Marie learned that no arsenic was found in any of them and then a few days later she was told that arsenic had indeed been found, but in some of the bodies only. She would however have to remain in prison, but not in Poitiers but in the fortress prison of Hâ in the town of Bordeaux, 155 miles further south because the case had been transferred to the jurisdiction of that town.  A different examining magistrate had been appointed – Henri Steck – and a different judge would preside over the hearings – Henri de Pourquery de Boisserin.

Once Marie was incarcerated in the Bordeaux prison a fourth advocate joined her defense team. This time it was a woman – Maître Jacqueline Favreau-Colombier, 38 years old, blonde and attractive and living locally. “I’ll get you acquitted. You’ll leave prison,” she said to Marie on their first meeting.

Favreau-Colombier’s associates echoed her words when they learned of a scientific report that states that arsenic could enter a buried corpse from the soil. (We know today that arsenic which is a metalloid  -- has both properties of a metal and a non-metal – is a natural element of soil and of rock, and it can enter the hair on a corpse through means of anaerobic – not needing oxygen – bacteria. The concentration of arsenic in soil is miniscule though: approximately 1-40 parts of arsenic to a million parts of soil. Arsenic in fertilizer and in insecticide also transfers to soil.)

Examining Magistrate Steck brought another expert in forensic toxicologist to the case – Professor René Piédelièvre – to assist the three Paris experts.  Like Professor Griffon, Piédelièvre, who was president of the Medical Council of France and chairman of the Society of Forensic Medicine, had also been involved in the Petiot Case.

Traces of arsenic were indeed found in the soil of the cemetery. How had it got there?  The cemetery’s supervisor readily admitted that he had once grown potatoes in the cemetery and had used fertilizer. He had also sprayed the young plants with insecticide.

Marie’s retrial was however to go ahead. It opened on Monday, March 15. It was 1954 and two years and one month had gone by since the first trial. Marie had remained in prison serving the two-year sentence she had been given in the fraud case against her.

Marie’s life from the testimonies of both prosecution and defense witnesses was one of petty arguments, jealousies, lies, rumors and anonymous letters. Some neighbors spoke of her as a saint, someone who was always willing to drive an ill relative to hospital or to fetch a child from school. Others remembered how she had told them that arsenic was a good substitute for divorce. Some of her former employees described her as most generous, yet others said that she was the meanest person they knew.

Ady was back in Germany, but one of the defense witnesses had gone to see him and relayed what he had been told. Ady had denied to him that he had ever been Marie’s lover. “I swear on the heads of my brothers and my mother that I was never Madame Besnard’s lover and I cannot believe she poisoned anyone,” he had told the witness. He also told the witness that the French police had beaten and threatened him to force him to tell lies.

As in the first trial Marie’s advocates again made fools of the toxicologists.  They questioned Professor Griffon on his Neutron Activation Analysis for finding arsenic in hair. They wanted to know for how long one must expose hair to radioactivity. They knew that the reply was that hair had to be exposed to radioactivity for no less than 26.5 hours. 

According to the report Griffon had given the examining magistrate, he had exposed the hair samples for just 15 hours. His analyses could therefore not be regarded as scientific proof of the presence of arsenic in the hair of the 11 deceased. His colleagues, when being questioned, fared no better and one after the other turned red in the face on admitting to the advocates that there were aspects of detecting arsenic which remained a mystery to them and that this prevented them from proving that arsenic was present in the remains of Marie’s alleged 11 victims.  Professor Michel Kohn-Abrest even admitted that he had made a mistake in the report he had handed to the examining magistrate. He had, he said, in one place written 100 milligrams when he should have written 20 milligrams.

The gravedigger’s testimony further confused not only the prosecution but also the defense. He told of how the exhumed remains were left lying uncovered and unprotected on the ground beside the opened tombs and how remains and soil were then picked up haphazardly with a trowel and thrown into boxes.

On Wednesday, March 31, the judge adjourned the trial for further analyses of the remains to be carried out. Three additional experts – the Drs. Albert Demolon a physicist, Paul Lebeau a chemical engineer and Maurice Javillier Lemoigne a biologist – were appointed to carry out the new analyses.

Marie was granted bail of FF1.2 million.  She was delighted at not having to remain in prison, but she burst into tears on hearing the amount she would have to lay down for her freedom and that she would have to remain locked up until she could find the money. She claimed that the reports in the newspapers about her wealth were exaggerated, that she was a poor woman. What she inherited from Léon had indeed been seized by the Court which had then appointed a trustee to manage her estate. Twelve days passed and only then could she return home when two second cousins, staunch believers in her innocence, had handed over FF210,000 towards her bail and a Paris bank had supplied the balance.

At home in Loudun those who had given evidence as defense witnesses welcomed Marie back. Pascaline also welcomed her back – in a way. She sent Marie her greetings via a villager. “Her greetings! You can take them back again, but without mine!” Marie rebuked the messenger.

In the weeks and months that followed, Marie would drive herself in her small ramshackle car to the cemetery to put flowers on the graves of those she still stood accused of having fed arsenic. Speaking of those dead relatives, she one day told a neighbor, “I know that my dear ones are watching over me. They know I have done them no harm and I draw strength from the hope that our dead are not dead and they guide our steps.”

While waiting to hear when her new trial would commence, Marie, the woman who admitted that she had little education, began to write her memoirs.

 

The third trial

Judge Henri de Pourquerry de Boisserin had given the three experts three months to report to him their conclusion of the analyses of the remains. The three months passed and then the year ended and so did the next and the next and then in June 1958 – almost three years later – the three requested permission from the judge to exhume the bodies yet again.

More weeks passed and one of the experts – Albert Demolon – fell ill and died and had to be replaced.  Months went by before Professsor Frédéric Joliot-Curie, the Nobel physicist laureate (1935) and son-in-law of Marie and Pierre Curie accepted to come on to the case. (The Polish-born Marie was the discoverer of Polonium and Radium. She shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics with her husband Pierre.  In 1911 she received a second Nobel Prize, that time in Chemistry.)

Hardly had Professor Joliot-Curie come on board than he died. Just 58 years old he’d been in poor health following a viral hepatitis infection and succumbed following surgery for an internal hemorrhage.

“This moral slowness wore out my nerves and my health,” Marie would one day write in her memoirs. She, who was 53 on her first arrest in 1949, was two months from her 62nd birthday and a new trial was still nowhere in sight.

Finally, three years later, on Friday, November 17, 1961, Marie set off from Loudun for her third trial. For the duration of the trial she was to be locked up in a prison hospital.

“Once more accused, I once more became a prisoner. I had to go through all the formalities of committal. I can’t explain what I felt. Innocent but twice in court, I knew once I entered the prison what they would do. I knew what I would be asked and what I had to reply. It was like living in reality through a nightmare one would rather forget. One can say: I forgive everyone, as God has told us to, but there are moments when that doesn’t come easily. One has to make an effort,” she would scribble in a notebook for her memoirs.

Of the first day in court, on Monday, November 20, Marie said her heart stopped beating on seeing the judge, a different one from her second trial.  Like his predecessor the new one had a very aristocratic name – Nussy Saint-Saëns. The prosecutor was also a different man – Louis Guillemin. She considered Nussy Saint-Saëns’s examination of her as “gentle, almost protective” but she resented his questions which she described as “this way, that way, every way, on the same subject.” But she felt she had nothing to fear from him or anyone on the prosecution team because “I was speaking the truth.”

Some of the witnesses of the previous trials were no longer alive. Others had moved away. One had even settled in the United States.  Then there were witnesses who retracted their previous testimonies. One was a tiny bent old lady of 74: She was Louise Pintou. She said that Léon had never told her that Marie had put something in his soup.  Massip, the man who had written anonymously to the gendarmes to denounce Marie, was one of those who was no longer alive.

Two days into the trial the questioning of the three new experts began. Marie would describe them in her memoirs. One had a small head perched on a big body and he was coughing, snuffling, throwing anxious glanced around the court room. Another she described as a sensitive and humane man, but Professor Griffon she said was an “odd specimen. Three inches of leg and the rest in proportion.”

Professor Joliot-Curie’s replacement in the case, Professor  Pierre Savel, director of the Nuclear Physics Laboratory of the Collège de France where he had worked with Professor Joliot-Curie, tried to explain by drawing charts and making mathematical calculations on a blackboard what radioactivity was. When he began to explain what Zoë – France’s first atomic pile – developed by Joliot-Curie was all about everyone stared blankly into space. (The name Zoë was derived from Z for zero, as the pile’s nuclear capacity was low, O for oxide of uranium and E for eau lourde, or heavy water.)

Maître Gautrat, one of Marie’s Paris advocates, stepped up to the blackboard next and with his own charts and calculations illustrated how experts could be wrong.  His venom was especially aimed at Professor Griffon whose report of his analyses was an inky mess of scratched out typed data.  “This here,” he said, waving the professor’s report in the air, “is the proof of a veritable fake!”

Griffon gripped the edge of the witness box when even the judge called him incompetent. “I must confess that a report like yours leaves a disagreeable impression,” said Nussy Saint-Saëns. He added, accusingly: “People used to be more accurate. You blame typing errors and omissions. Where an important piece of work is concerned one should himself check the work to be handed in. Unfortunately, nowadays people who do their work conscientiously are considered fools.”

Marie would claim in her memoirs that she suffered a heart attack in court while that argument was going on and that her advocates then advised her not to attend each and every court session, but after her doctor had injected her with camphor she had felt better.

She also felt good when Professor René Piédelièvre, one of the experts from the second trial, again gave evidence and in his testimony described all of Griffon’s figures as worthless and that no conclusion could be drawn from them. So much did Marie like what he said that she likened him to the Holy Ghost. She would write in her memoirs: “The Holy Ghost had come down to lighten the darkness.”

An agronomist, Professor Henri Bastisse, head at France’s Center of Agronomic Research, called as a witness by the defense, also enjoyed Marie’s praise.  He too went to the blackboard to jot down calculations and charts to show that the soil of Louvun’s cemetery did indeed contain arsenic. “Gentlemen and experts, verify my calculations for yourselves. Yours are wrong and mine are right.  The dead were buried in an arsenic reserve. If you don’t like my conclusion you know what you can do,” he said.

One of the three experts especially did not like the professor’s conclusion and shouted from his seat that he stood by his calculations and his analysis. At that Professor Bastisse stuck out his tongue at the expert, picked up his coat, slung it over his arm and said, addressing the judge: “Monsieur le Président, there’s nothing more for me to do here. I’m wasting my time. That woman is innocent, that’s all I have to say.” He then walked from the court room while the judge shouted at him to return. “No. No,” he called over his shoulder. “That’s how it is. That woman is innocent and I’ve proved it. Good afternoon!”

What also angered the judge was that the three experts had handed their reports over to the newspapers who had not hesitated to publish them and to express the opinion that Marie was innocent.

Marie’s advocates in their final arguments mocked the trial as well as the previous one. They said that the first trial of 1952 when the experts were shown to be a confused and incompetent bunch of men was the real one.  They said that the judge in that year found it impossible to convict Marie, and again in the current trial there was again nothing – no evidence, no proof of murder – to convict her. They asked the jury not to commit the biggest error possible by finding Marie guilty.  Said Maître Jacqueline Favreau-Colombier: “Say to yourselves that if today Marie Besnard is in the dock, tomorrow it might be you. Understand what it is to be the prey of public rumor.” She continued that Marie was in the dock only because of the ambitions of Inspector Nocquet of the Poitier police who had arrested her in 1949. “Ah! If she had been guilty, what a fine career lay ahead of him!” she said.

Maître Gautrat, who had represented Marie since 1949, spoke next. He told the jury of nine – all of them male – that when they were seated around their table to deliberate they would have with them an invisible but uncompromising person – their conscience.  They would have to live with that person for the rest of their existence. He continued to describe Marie as an “unfortunate innocent” who had suffered torture since that year of 1949, in other words for the previous 12 years.

On Tuesday, December 12, Prosecutor Guillemin in his final argument scaled down the state’s accusation and asked the jury to find Marie guilty of only three murders. Those were of her two husbands and her mother. Such a scale down was because, as he said, “on the scientific plane I experience doubts.”

By French law the jury would deliberate in the presence of Judge Saint-Saëns and two assisting judges who had been present throughout the trial, sitting on each side of Saint-Saëns, but remaining silent. For a conviction the law required a guilty vote from seven of the jurors.

Three hours and 25 minutes later the court was recalled. The jurors had reached a verdict.

Back in court, Judge Saint-Saëns would ask the jurors the same question 11 times. “Did Marie Davaillaud, widow Besnard, deliberately administer to (name of deceased) a poisonous substance likely to cause a more or less rapid death?” (In France a married woman retains her maiden name in all documents becoming known as i.e. Marie Davaillaud, épouse or veuve Besnard – wife or widow Besnard.)

Marie would write in her memoirs that back in the box of the accused, her head was blank, that she was “at once tense and far away, as much concerned with not wavering and not showing my emotion as with listening and knowing.”

To each of Judge Saint-Saëns’s questions the head juror, speaking for the jurors, replied firmly “No.”

Marie was innocent.  Of the no’s she would write: “I shall hear them for ever.”

A big black purse hanging from her right arm, Marie, 65, in an expensive astrakhan coat and woolen booties on her feet, walked unsmilingly from the courthouse into a cold November afternoon and went home to Loudun.

Marie’s memoirs was published in Paris the next year, in 1962. The book – Mes Memoires – was an instant bestseller and Marie, demurely dressed and wearing a little white hat with a veil that covered half of her face, was interviewed by France’s top journalist, Pierre Dumayet, for the State’s black and white television network, TF1, the only network in the country at that time and on the air from 6 p.m until 11 p.m. only. The book was then translated into English by Sybille Bedford (1911-2006) and published in the United States a year later by Farrar, Strauss and Company under the title The Trial of Marie Besnard. (Sybille Bedford was a German-born, twice-divorced biographer, travel writer and legal reporter who wrote in English.)

Bedford, in her introduction in the book, makes it clear that she believed in Marie Besnard’s innocence. “Marie Besnard lived through one of the most terrifying experiences that a human being can know.  She was accused of murdering 13 people by poison, one of whom was her own mother. In the course of trial and retrial – there were three of these – she spent five years in prison, and was finally and fully acquitted only in 1961, after a lapse of 12 years’ time,” she wrote.

Marie died peacefully in her bed in 1980. She was 84 years old. She donated her body to science.

 

Arsenic and No Case?

On Friday, December 22, 1961 – in Time magazine’s first issue after Marie Besnard had walked away from the courthouse an innocent woman, the magazine ran a story on the case. It headlined its story Arsenic & No Case, a play on the title of the 1944 movie Arsenic and Old Lace directed by Frank Capra and starring Cary Grant. The movie was based on the 1939 play by Joseph Kesselring which told the story of two sweet old ladies who murdered lonely old men. Judging by the headline alone, the magazine reflected the doubt of many that Marie was really innocent.

Today, more than 30 years after Marie Besnard’s death and more than 60 years after the commencement of the case, France is still divided over whether she was innocent or a most prolific arsenic poisoner;  someone who not only got away with murder but became wealthy from it.

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