Rene Lancelin had no idea what he would find when he returned home on February 2, 1933.
The retired solicitor had been waiting for his wife and daughter, Genevieve, to join him for dinner at his brother-in-law's house. Being concerned at their delay, he and and his brother-in-law went to their home at Rue 6 Bruyere in Le Mans, France and found that the doors were locked from the inside. Although they could see candlelight coming from the bedroom shared by the two family maids, Christine and Lea Papin, nobody came to the door despite their attempts to attract attention. After two frantic hours, the two men became worried enough to go to the local police, one of whom finally got into the house by climbing the back wall and forcing a parlour door. Once inside, the police found that the electric lights weren't working and they began exploring the house using a flashlight.
What they discovered would haunt them for the rest of their lives.
Both Madame Lancellin and her daughter had been brutally beaten to death and were virtually unrecognizable. Blood stained the carpet and one of the women's eyes lay on the floor nearby. An autopsy would later determine that both women had their eyes gouged out while they were still alive and and then physically assaulted using a hammer, a kitchen knife, and a pewter pot. When police searched the house, they found that Christine and Lea Papin's attic bedroom was locked from the inside. After getting a locksmith to open the door, the police discovered the two women in their bed, wearing only kimonos and in each other's arms. Despite being the obvious culprits, they had made no attempt to escape and immediately admitted committing the crime. In her confession to the police, Christine Papin stated that the fuses had blown while she was ironing which somehow led to an argument with Madame Lancelin. She insisted that the killings had been done in self-defense and that she believed that the sisters' lives had been in danger.
It's hard to imagine two less likely suspects for such a brutal murder. Twenty-eight year old Christine Papin and her twenty-two year old sister Lea were both local women, having been born in a village just outside Le Mans. Their father, Gustave Papin, and their mother, Clemence Duree, had a reportedly loveless marriage that ended in divorce in 1913 soon after Lea's birth. While Clemence had claimed that Gustave had sexually molested their older sister, Emilie, no charges were ever laid. Christine and Emilie were placed in a local orphanage while Lea went to live with an uncle. After Emilie entered a convent, Christine attempted to do the same but this was opposed by her mother. Instead, Christine was sent to work as a maid beginning at the age of fifteen. Four years later, Lea also became a maid and they became inseparable. They had been working for the Lancelins since 1927 and, prior to that fatal night, had been known as steady workers with scarcely any problems with their employers. Christine and Lea were completely devoted to each other although Christine tended to predominate her submissive, younger sister. Aside from their being regular churchgoers, there was little else known about them. They had almost no contact with their parents or older sister.
The Papin sisters were arrested and charged with murder. Still wearing their kimonos, they were taken directly to the police station despite the frigid February weather. Problems immediately developed when the sisters were separated and placed in separate cells. Christine was especially devastated and spent much of the eight months awaiting trial crying for her younger sister. She was prone to repeated psychotic episodes in which she rolled on the cell floor and apparently experienced visual and auditory hallucinations as well. During one of these episodes, she needed to be forcibly restrained after attempting to gouge out one of her eyes. When a magistrate investigated, she told him that she had experienced an episode similar to the one that had led to her killing the Lancellins. When the sisters were briefly reunited, Christine enthusiastically removed her blouse and cried "Tell me, yes" (some journalists claimed that she made even more sexually explicit remarks but this was never confirmed). The sisters were kept separated afterward and Christine gave up her attempts at being reunited with Lea.
For such a murder to happen in the relatively peaceful town of Le Mans was disturbing enough, bu the trial and the revelation that the Papin sisters had an apparently incestuous relationship was even more shocking. Newspapers across France carried details of the story, already being described as the "crime of the century". Given the polarized nature of French society at the time, the story aroused considerable political controversy. On one side were the conservatives who denounced the Papin sisters as "les diaboliques" and insisted that they be executed for their brutal crime. On the other side were the left-wing political commentators who viewed the murder as being the result of a class struggle between the bourgeois Lancelins and the protelarian maids. Much was made of the distant relationship between Madame Lancelin and the Papins (although they often referred to her as "Maman" in private) and domestic workers across France were suspected of plotting against their employers.
During the trial, Christine Papin insisted that Madame Lancelin had thrown herself at them under the cover of darkness brought on by the blown fuse. In her testimony, Christine stated that
"seeing that Mme Lancelin was going to rush at me, I flung myself in her face and tore her eyes out with my fingers. When I say that I flung myself at Mme Lancelin, that is wrong. I flung myself at Mlle Genevieve Lancelin and tore out her eyes. While this was going on, my sister Lea leapt at Mme Lancelin and tore her eyes out".
After describing how she and Lea slashed and mutilated the two women, she concluded that "the victims began howling but I don't remember their actually saying anything". Lea confirmed her sister's testimony but she tended to leave all of the testifying to Christine and even went so far as to refer to herself as "deaf and dumb". It was fairly obvious to the court that Lea had simply been following Christine's lead in the killings.
The bizarre sexual overtones of the case, including the strange relationship between the defendants and Genevieve Lancelin's body being undressed after the murder, made for provocative headlines across France. Angry crowds gathered outside the courtroom calling for the death penalty (despite the fact that no woman had been executed in France since the 19th century). While there was speculation concerning the Papin sisters' mental state, three official psychiatric experts argued that they were not mentally ill. There was also the question of whether Lea was as guilty as Christine in the killings. One defense psychiatrist, Dr. Logre, described them as "the extraordinary moral duo formed by the two sisters, in which the younger one's personality was completely annihiliated by the older one's". Although the sexual relationship between Christine and Lea was carefully edited out of the court record, Dr. Logre had no hesitation in talking about the case in his numerous interviews with the press after the trial was over. While he had never actually interviewed the sisters (unlike the official court experts who had declared them to be sane), Dr. Logre diagnosed the Papin sisters as suffering from folie a deux.