New evidence shines light on France’s most notorious serial killer

Henri Désiré Landru, a convicted swindler who operated under different names in Paris during World War 1, may have killed substantially more women than the ten whose murders he was sentenced for, according to new evidence.

Door Jan van der Made

Sloppy police work, misogyny, and the absence of forensics as we know it today may have prevented investigators from unearthing up to 72 other possible murders. Today, the Villa Tric, the house where Landru is thought to have killed at least seven women, is still empty. The house is surrounded by a high hedge and its front gates closed with black and red combination locks.

Le Villa Tric in Gambais

The villa lies in the fields near the town of Gambais, some 50 kilometers southwest of Paris is not far from a dense forest. A farmer who lives nearby said he is tired of the constant stream of visitors (“five or six every day”) looking for Landru’s suspected crime scene, leaving footprints in the fertile land and destroying the crops. “I remember my grandfather talking about Landru,” he says, refusing to be filmed. “He came and went. He was a quiet man, kept to himself.”

Landru with his mistress Fernande Segret

“The house was quite a long way from the village itself,” says Richard Tomlinson, author of the recently published book Landru’s Secret – The Deadly Seductions of France’s Lonely-Hearts Serial Killer, “so it was easy for him to come and go, and I think a lot of the time he wasn’t seen.” The facts: Henri Désiré Landru, was convicted of swindling in July 1914 and sentenced to four years hard labor with exile for life in the French prison facility on New Caledonia in the Pacific.

However, he managed to escape justice and lived under assumed names in different locations in Paris. He was married, had four children, and a mistress. But that was not enough for him. During the First World War, he contacted hundreds of women, often by means of lonely-hearts adverts in newspapers. He would take them to his country house in Gambais, buying a return ticket for himself, and a single journey for his guest. At least ten women and the son of one of them disappeared after meeting with him.The report cites misuse of funds and slow decision-making, but by 2006 some 90 per cent of the houses were allotted to people with extreme economic or physical problems. The remoteness of the villa was why Landru chose it in the first place. Evidence proving Landru guilty beyond a doubt was never found. The police did find burnt human bone fragments and scraps of women’s clothing beneath a pile of leaves in Landru’s shed. While this material was highly incriminating, it could not be linked directly to the women whom he was accused of killing at Gambais

Some of Landru's victims

But the major lead was a list in his carnet - a notebook in which he had lined up the names of ten women and one 17-year-old youth who had all disappeared - and meticulous notes on times and places where he met or took some of them. On top of that police found possessions of some of the women in a garage in Clichy that Landru rented, including identity papers, wigs, hair clips and shoes. He was also seen taking money from the accounts of the ladies he “befriended” in some cases with his wife posing as one of the disappeared women forging their signatures. There were also witness reports, but it was here that things went wrong. Doctor Jean Monteilhet declared during the trial that took place more than two years after Landru’s arrest in 1919, that he had seen a ‘thick, nauseous smoke’ coming out of the chimney of Villa Tric while passing it on his bicycle. A few miles onward when he continued through the forest and passed by the pond there, he got a flat tire, and stopped to repair it. After a while, Landru appeared in his camionnette, stopped, dragged out a ‘heavy package’ and dropped it in the water.

Pond near Gambais where Landru was accused of heaving dumped bodyparts

'The problem with the testimony,' says Tomlinson, who spent months sifting through the archives of the French police, digging up court records and eye witness accounts, “is that this incident happens directly between two disappearances [of women] which were on the list, the list of names in Landru’s carnet. “The doctors’ evidence just does not fit the chronology in the list,” he says. Police investigations had found that Landru had contacted 283 women, many through ‘lonely hearts’ ads, but because of the atmosphere of chaos and anxiety caused by the war and a general lack of manpower in the police force the whereabouts of dozens of them remained unknown. “The police did not trace all of the women. The files Landru kept in his garage and the records in the Paris Police Archives show quite clearly that they didn’t trace 72 women,” says Tomlinson. It doesn’t mean that Landru killed those 72 women, but it does mean that the police didn’t do a thorough investigation.”

Why kill?

The First World War may have been instrumental in shaping Landru’s killing spree. The prosecution tried to prove that Landru, who was defended by the brilliant anti-death penalty lawyer Vincent de Moro Giafferri, aimed to steal from women with savings, kill them to prevent them going to the police and then sell their furniture and other possessions in order to make a living.

But Tomlinson, in his book, points out that the first two people to have been killed, Jeanne Cuchet and her son André, were poor. The youngster André was 17, and in January 1915 learnt that he would soon be drafted to fight in the trenches where he would most likely die. His mother was desperate to take him out of the country in order to spare her son the horrors of war.

Tomlinson believes that she blackmailed Landru. In exchange for sex, he had to organize her and André’s escape from France to North America. According to Tomlinson, he had to make them disappear or face a life of hard labor in New Caledonia.

Landru at his trial

“The killing of André and his mother drove him mad,” he says, shaping Landru into the serial killer he would become.

The bitter end

But no matter how many women Landru may have killed, his fate couldn’t have been worse: in 1922 he was beheaded by the guillotine. His arrest, in 1919, would not have been possible without the relentless persistence of the sisters of two of the disappeared women who assembled enough evidence that the police were forced to investigate Landru. “He was only caught actually as the result of the actions of women, not men in particular,” says Tomlinson.“There was a sense of unity,” he comments. “We want to work together, but we don’t want to give away everything we have. When I left the square, I was emotional.” Drenched in misogyny

The trial itself was a victory for the women. “You have to imagine a time and a trial that was absolutely drenched in misogyny, and Landru played on that,” says Tomlinson. “He tells the jury: ‘ignore these cackling hens, ignore these women, because they are women. And he tries to intimidate them into silence. "And you know this because you can see this from the photographs of the trial, but several of them won’t have it. "They stare straight back at him until he has to look away, and they are just determined to send him to the guillotine," he says.

Landru being led to the guillotine for his execution