Trigger warning: this article contains details of gruesome acts of violence that some readers may find disturbing.
Seldom in history has a murder case left such a large impact on the field of criminology as the case of the Papin sisters in 1933. These two sisters were working as housemaids for an upper-class family in Le Mans, France when they brutally murdered their employer’s wife and daughter in a way that horrified the world and fascinated criminal psychologists.
Was the killing a fit of psychosis by a pair of undiagnosed victims of mental illness? Was it a cold-blooded act of class warfare in response to the mistreatment of the lower classes by their bourgeois counterparts?
Many have speculated about the Papin sisters’ motivations for killing these two women, but many questions about the events leading up to the murder still remain. Additionally, although one of the Papin sisters died in prison, the other sister was released and then disappeared from the public eye. Then, 59 years after her release from prison, a woman claiming to be one of the Papin sisters appeared in a documentary. However, the woman shown in the documentary had a stroke and could not speak, so it was nearly impossible to confirm her identity.
The brutal and seemingly spontaneous nature of the murder and the fact that one of the Papin sisters went missing only to apparently resurface 59 years later makes this case an extremely interesting one, even if it is hard to swallow. Since no one has determined with certainty what the Papin sisters’ motivations were for killing those two women, you can decide for yourself whether it was a psychotic fit or an act of rebellion.
The Background of the Papin Sisters
The two Papin sisters involved in the murder grew up in villages around Le Mans in western France, and came from a troubled family. When their parents, Clemence and Gustave, were dating, it was rumored that Clemence was having an affair. However, when she became pregnant, the two got married anyway. The marriage was an unhappy one and their father Gustave was a heavy drinker.
There were three Papin sisters in total. The eldest sister Emilia was raped by her father and then, having been blamed for the rape by both parents, was sent off to Bon Pasteur Catholic Orphanage (which was known for being especially brutal). Emilia’s younger sisters Christine and Lea were also sent to Bon Pasteur Catholic Orphanage until the age of 15 when they became legally employable.
After the orphanage, Emilia joined a convent and became a nun, effectively cutting off all connections with her family. Once Christine and Lea were old enough to join the workforce, their mother Clemence forced them to work as live-in maids around Le Mans. Both of the sisters were said to have done satisfactory work, and they preferred to work together whenever possible.
Many of the Papin sisters’ former employers claimed that Christine and Lea didn’t talk to each other all that much, but that it was clear that they were inseparable despite being eight years apart in age. Their lack of conversation came across as eerie to many of their employers, giving the impression that the two of them were communicating telepathically.
The Lancelin Family
In 1926, Christine and Lea Papin were both employed as live-in housemaids in the mansion of Rene Lancelin, a retired solicitor living with his family in Le Mans. Rene had a wife and two daughters, one of which had moved out of the house to live with her husband.
For many years, the sisters did a satisfactory job despite poor working conditions which included 14-hour days, and only a half-day off per week. This was customary for housemaids in France during that time. However, some years into their employment with the Lancelin family, Madame Leonie Lancelin was believed to have developed depression and began to take out her sorrows on the Papin sisters. Madame Lancelin became very critical of the sisters. At times, she was even physically abusive, slamming their heads against walls on multiple occasions.
The Final Straw
On the evening of February 2, 1933, Monsieur Lancelin was supposed to meet his wife and daughter at a family friend’s house for dinner. Madame Lancelin and her daughter Genevieve had been out shopping all day and when they returned home to prepare themselves for the dinner, they found that all of the lights in the house were off. According to the story, the Papin sisters explained to Madame Lancelin that Christine had urinated into an electrical socket, shorting the power throughout the house, and that they had not been able to finish their ironing work as a result.
Apparently, Madame Lancelin became infuriated and began to physically strike the sisters while verbally reprimanding them. It became too much for the sisters and they attacked the mother and the daughter.
As the story goes, Christine first pounced on Genevieve and clawed her eyes out with her bare hands. Then, upon the instructions of Christine, Lea attacked Madame Lancelin and clawed her eyes out as well. At some point during the attack, Christine ran to the kitchen and fetched a knife and a hammer, which they used to further mutilate their victims. At some point, one of the sisters grabbed a heavy pewter pitcher and struck the victims with that as well.
When the police arrived after having been alerted by Monsieur Rene Lancelin, they found the Papin sisters sitting naked in the same bed upstairs, both covered in blood and appearing completely calm and remorseless.
The bodies of the two Lancelin women were found downstairs lying in pools of blood. Blood was smeared on the walls and all over the floors. An intact eyeball was found at the bottom of the staircase. Experts who investigated the scene estimated that the entire attack had gone on for around two hours.
The Trial and Sentencing
Both of the Papin sisters remained chillingly calm during interrogations, openly admitting to the murder and recalling the event down to the minutiae. During their trials, the defense tried to have them acquitted on the grounds of mental illness, citing their disturbing childhood, evidence of sexual relations between the two Papin sisters, and past records of hysterical seizures as evidence.
The defense also tried to claim that the sisters were acting in self-defense. During their testimonies, each of the sisters tried to protect the other by claiming sole responsibility. Regardless, both sisters were convicted of murder.
Christine was sentenced to death and Lea was given a 10-year sentence on the grounds that she had been persuaded by her dominant sister to commit the heinous acts. The sisters were placed in different prisons.
On the one occassion they were allowed to meet, Christine threw herself into Lea’s embrace, started unbuttoning her blouse, and said, “Please, say yes.” The scene led many to believe that the sisters had a history of an incestuous sexual relationship.
While in prison, Christine had a hysteric attack and attempted to gouge her own eyes out, which forced officials to place her in a straitjacket. Eventually, Christine’s death sentence was changed to life imprisonment. But, being so devastated by the separation from her sister (as evidenced by the numerous letters she wrote to the court begging for them to be reunited), she refused to eat and eventually died of cachexia, a syndrome that basically causes one to waste away.
Lea ended up getting released from prison in 1941 after serving eight years of her 10-year sentence due to good behavior. Apparently, she went to live with her mother upon her release and got work as a maid once again under a false identity.
The murder and trial sparked hot debates all over France and inspired many academic and artistic works. French dramatist Jean Genet wrote a play about the sisters called The Maids, philosophers and psychiatrists, including Jean-Paul Sartre and Jacques Lacan, spoke and wrote about the criminological implications of the case, and a film based on the events titled Murderous Maids was released in 2000.
Interestingly, while certain accounts have said that Lea Papin died in 1982, a French filmmaker named Claude Ventura claimed to have found her in the year 2000. During the process of filming his documentary In Search of the Papin Sisters, he allegedly located Lea and interviewed her for the film.
The woman he claimed to be Lea, however, had suffered a stroke that rendered her incapable of speaking. Furthermore, the woman in the documentary died in 2001. Was the woman in the documentary the real Lea Papin who brutally murdered Madame Leonie Lancelin? Did the real Lea Papin die in 1982? It remains a mystery to this day.