Landru: France's chilling killer who inspired Chaplin

·4-min read

While French soldiers were dying by their thousands at the front during World War I, the country's first modern serial killer was murdering the lonely women left at home and burning their bodies in his kitchen stove.

In a cautionary tale for the Tinder generation, Henri-Desire Landru -- nicknamed "Bluebeard" for bringing to life the folk story about a killer who prayed on lovelorn women -- lured his victims with personal ads promising romance.

His trial, which opened exactly a century ago, both captivated and horrified France, with the little bald charmer with his long black manicured beard mesmerising the packed courtroom.

In one of his many dramatic flourishes during the three-week trial, Landru denied all the charges and demanded: "Show me the bodies!" knowing that all that remained of his 11 victims was ash.

The prosecution wheeled in Landru's stove in an effort to upstage him and it later made its way to a Paris wax museum before being bought by one of France's most famous television hosts.

Landru's piercing gaze and strange charisma not only hypnotised the press, it inspired books and films, including a Charlie Chaplin movie, "Monsieur Verdoux".

- Hunting in the classifieds -

An odd jobs man who called himself an engineer and inventor, Landru patented a motorcycle but never put it on the market -- the first of his many scams.

Born in Paris in 1869, the altar boy turned bad had spent three stints in prison before being sent to the notorious Devil's Island penal colony in French Guiana as the Great War broke out.

He managed to escape in the chaos of mobilisation, adopting more than 90 false identities and moving a dozen times to stay one step ahead of the police.

With men away fighting and many women left alone, Landru began to hone his deadly ruse.

- Fatal attraction -

He published a small ad in the classified columns of newspapers proposing marriage and pretending to be a rich widower seeking a soulmate.

Some 283 women replied, but only the lonely singletons or rich widows interested him. Neat and nimble, he spoke well and put his victims at ease with jokes.

From 1915 to 1919 Landru repeated the same modus operandi.

He lured the chosen fiancee to an isolated rented home in Gambais, west of Paris, had them nominate him as their proxy to pocket their savings and then killed them.

It is believed he then part-burned the bodies in his kitchen stove. Neighbours reported foul smells.

Another particularly chilling detail was revealed at the trial: Landru always bought himself a return train ticket to Gambais but got only a one-way for the women.

In all he killed 10 women and one of their sons. No trace of their bodies was ever found. And there is strong suspicion had he killed a 12th person.

- Capture -

On April 12, 1919, the most wanted man in France was arrested in Paris after the sister of a victim had recognised him on the street and alerted the police.

His capture and conviction owed much to the persistence of Inspector Jules Belin, who in the absence of hard evidence and a confession gathered clues that convinced the jury.

The profile that emerged of Landru in court was that of a meticulous, obsessive man.

He recorded everything in his notebook -- the physical details of the women, his purchase of dozens of hacksaws, and, next to the names of his victims, a time, presumably the exact moment he killed them.

- Courtroom drama -

The legend of Landru was firmly forged when his trial opened two and a half years after his arrest.

For three weeks ordinary people and high society types flocked to the trial in Versailles by train on the "Landru express", at once horrified and fascinated by the man standing in the dock and his diabolical methods.

The novelist Colette covered the trial for the "Le Matin" newspaper, describing the spectacle and the mesmerising effect Landru, who was quite the actor, had on his audience.

On November 30 Landru was sentenced to death and executed early on February 25, 1922.

Just before the guillotine came down, Landru's lawyer asked if he wanted to ease his conscience.

"That, sir, is my little suitcase," he said, taking his secrets with him to his grave.

- Enduring fascination -

Horrifying as his crimes were, Landru inspired a devoted following in France.

While he awaited trial in prison, several thousand people voted for him as an undeclared candidate in an election.

Behind bars he received some 4,000 letters from admirers, including 800 proposals of marriage.

Even after he lost his head some claimed he was still alive.

Rumours persisted that he was secretly released, with sightings all over the world.

Landru became a popular culture bogeyman, the punchline of dark, often sexist jokes.

There have been numerous books, comic strips and films made about him, including Chaplin's "Monsieur Verdoux" and Claude Chabrol's "Landru", as well as classic songs by Charles Trenet and Serge Gainsbourg.

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