John is a retired librarian who writes articles based on material gleaned mainly from obscure books and journals.
A terrible crime occurred in the early evening of 2nd February 1932 in the French city of Le Mans (which is well-known for its 24-hour motor race). Four women were involved in a violent murder—a mother and daughter who were the victims, and their maids, sisters Christine and Léa Papin, who committed the crime. The case gave rise to many theories as to what could have prompted the two young women to become murderers.
Murder at the Lancelin House
The household consisted of René Lancelin, a retired solicitor; his wife Léonie; their 27-year-old daughter Geneviève; and their live-in maids, 27-year-old Christine Papin and 21-year-old Léa Papin.
On the day in question, René had been playing cards with friends at another house but had arranged to call home to collect his wife and daughter so that they could all go out to dinner together. What he found was a locked front door and a house in darkness. He had not taken a house key with him, so had to ask a policemen to gain entry on his behalf. They found the two women lying dead in the hallway, having suffered injuries so severe that their faces were unrecognizable.
The maids were in their room at the top of the house, with their door locked. When this was broken down they were found naked in bed together. They immediately confessed to the murders.
The story they told was that a domestic argument had turned to violence. Christine had taken a faulty electric iron to an electrician to be repaired, but when she returned with it and plugged it in, it turned out that it had not been repaired after all and all the lights in the housed promptly fused.
Léonie blamed Christine for this and threatened to dock her wages for the damage caused. Christine refused to accept the blame and a furious argument broke out.
The shift from shouting match to physical assault was sudden and particularly nasty. Christine seized a pewter jug and hit Léonie with it, knocking her to the floor. Geneviève Lancelin came to see what was going on and was immediately attacked by Christine. Léa Papin also arrived and was told by her sister to go to the kitchen to find more weapons. She returned with a hammer and a knife and proceeded to join her sister in raining blows on the two victims, who were soon dead.
An Open and Shut Case
The sisters were arrested and kept apart for eight months before the case came to trial. This had a worse effect on Christine than on Léa—she became depressed and suicidal and had to be restrained in a straitjacket at one stage. However, both sisters were declared mentally fit enough to stand trial.
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The trial was held in September 1933 and attracted huge public attention in France. This was a very unusual case, given that women rarely exhibit physical violence of this nature, leading to murder.
Not surprisingly, both sisters were found guilty. Christine was sentenced to death and Léa was given a ten-year prison sentence with hard labour. Christine’s sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment.
The Papin Sisters After the Trial
Christine’s mental condition went rapidly downhill, as she found it impossible to live without her sister. She was soon transferred to a mental hospital, where she died four years later from a wasting disease.
Despite being the more submissive of the sisters, with her personality subsumed into that of her dominant sibling, Léa turned out to be more resilient. She was released after eight years and went to live with her mother, under a false name. It is not certain when she died, but it could have been as late as 2001, when she would have been about 90 years old.
Searching for an Explanation
What could have caused the Papin sisters to go so terribly off the rails? Their family background might offer some clues, in that their father had been an alcoholic and was accused by their mother of raping his eldest daughter Emilia, who later became a nun. When their mother left their father, the two younger sisters were cared for by relatives but also found themselves in an orphanage at one time.
It is clear that Christine and Léa became completely dependent on each other, both becoming housemaids and always working together. They would live in seclusion within the households that employed them, rarely going out except to attend church on Sundays and run errands for their employers. They made dresses for themselves which they had few opportunities to wear.
There is also a strong suggestion that the sisters were lesbian lovers, as evidenced by how they were found after the Lancelin murders.
However, the relationship between the sisters was not one of equals, because Christine dominated her younger sister Léa, who was much quieter and withdrawn. That said, Léa proved to be more capable of living without the presence of the other sister and to be stronger in psychological terms.
It is possible that the murders were sparked by jealousy on the part of Christine Papin, who saw Geneviève Lancelin as a threat to her relationship with Léa. This is just one of many theories that arose at the time and have been discussed since. The Papin case has inspired many books, plays and films over the years that have sought to explore the complex personalities involved and to explain the motivation behind such an unusual event.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.