The Papin Sisters: Murderous & Incestuous French Maids
Allow me to set the scene. The year is 1900. The location is Le Mans, France, yes, that Le Mans that hosts the world’s earliest grueling 24-hour car race.
Enter Clémence Derré and Gustave Papin. They are not in love. They are dating, sure, but the relationship is mostly sex, arguments and toxicity. Clémence is, “considered to be of low morals and unsuited for motherhood.” Gustav is a considerable alcoholic with violent tendencies. What a match!
In fact, it’s rumored that Clémence is having an affair with her boss. That doesn’t matter, though. She becomes pregnant, and Gustave marries her in October of 1901 solely out of social obligation. Five months later in March of 1902, with almost zero celebration, the couple has a daughter, who they name Emilia.
Now, the rumors are swirling that Clémence is still having sex with her boss. Gustave grows increasingly jealous and angry. A raging alcoholic, he frequently verbally and physically abuses his wife and young daughter.
Gustav decides to end the affair by getting a job in another city, but Clémence says that she will commit suicide before moving out of Le Mans. The marriage is rapidly deteriorating into a toxic cesspool, but nevertheless, Clémence becomes pregnant again, and gives birth to another baby girl in 1905. They name her Christine.
Between Gustav’s alcoholism, and Clemence having almost 0 maternal instinct, Christine is immediately sent to be raised by her aunt, Gustave’s sister. That’s definitely for the best, as the Papin household is accustomed to acts of physical and verbal violence, molestation and rape.
Six years later, in 1911, the unhappy couple welcomed yet ANOTHER baby girl. This one, they named Lea. Shortly after Lea is born, Clémence discovers that Gustav had been repeatedly raping Emilia, their first daughter, now age 9. Clémence immediately files for divorce, and Emilia is packed up and sent off to a Catholic orphanage called Le Bon Pasteur.
You see, Clémence was an utter shitbag of a mother. She blamed 9yo Emilia for seducing her own father . Immediately asking for and obtaining a divorce from Gustav, she only wanted to be free. To get further revenge on her children, she sends word to Gustave’s sister that 6yo Christine was to be sent to the same orphanage to join Emilia. Christine had happily lived with her paternal aunt for six years. Wanting to wash her hands of maternal responsibility in full, Clémence sends Lea, the youngest, to live with a great uncle.
Now, the orphanage and convent, Le Bon Pasteur, is not a nice place. Words cannot express that enough. It was known for taking in “disgraced women and girls,” but it was also known for its cold, loveless atmosphere and harsh punishments for even the most minor infractions.
However, all three sisters seemingly flourished in their environments…Lea with her great uncle, and Emilia and Christine in the orphanage. Emilia had taken her vows and become a nun, and Christine was planning to follow in her footsteps.
Clémence received word of this and flew into a rage. She had planned for all 3 of her daughters to return to her when they were of working age, as she had planned to find them jobs as live-in maids. Deeming Emilia a lost cause, Clémence removed Christine from the convent and brought her back to Le Mans, finding her jobs in local bourgeois households around the city. During all of this, Clémence’s great uncle died, so Lea was then sent to Le Bon Pasteur where she remained until she was 15…when she could be legally be employed. You guessed it…Clémence, once again, sends word to the convent, calling Lea home. Just like she had done Christine, Clemence pushed Lea out into the community as a maid-for-hire as well.
Even though they had not grown up together, Lea and Christine became inseparable, forming a tight-knit bond, and spending every minute together when they were not working. They even requested to work together when they were able.
Now, it’s important to describe France at this time. WWI had taken place from 1914-1918. France had 1,322,000 dead and three million wounded, almost 4,000,000 casualties. It was devastating for the country, especially its economy. The fallout ended up continuing through roughly 1932.
France was entering a Great Depression. Like much of Europe, France struggled to recover from the devastation of WW1. Getting war reparations from Germany had proven fruitless, as the French economy was based on small businesses not financed by shares. It invested little on the stock exchange, putting most of its confidence into gold.
In 1926, Christine becomes a maid for a the Lancelin family at 6 rue Bruyère. Monsieur René Lancelin is a well-respected attorney and his wife, Madam Léonie Lancelin, is a socialite. Their youngest daughter Genevieve lives at home with her parents, whereas her older sister had married and left the nest. After about six months of stellar work, Christine convinces Madam Lancelin to bring Lea on as her chambermaid. Now, both sisters lived with the Lancelins in their home. They are treated exceptionally well, paid standard wages, and have ample time off. They share a small upstairs bedroom that was has a dresser and two twin beds, along with a heater. They even have a balcony overlooking the main street, which was considered very luxurious at the time. There are some oddities, though. Monsieur Lancelin never spoke to the sisters, and actually never spoke a single word to them in the 7 years of their employment.
Christine and Lea work exceptionally hard and the Lancelins frequently their praises, often complimenting them in front of dinner guests. In their time off, they only go to church on Sundays, to a local farmer’s market, and also to a fortune teller. The fortune teller advises them that their souls had been bound together as husband and wife in a previous life or incarnation, thus explaining their close bond.
But not everyone likes the sisters. Christine is known as a hard worker and very intelligent, but also known to become petty and insubordinate at times. Lea is introverted and obedient. Their bond, however, is starting to turn heads in town. Shopkeepers and former employers begin to discuss how peculiar they are in their manner, and describe their personas as cold and distant.
But things are going great with the Lancelins. Madame Lanceline even becomes a sort of mother figure to the two sisters. They call her “maman,” whereas they call their biological mother “that woman.”
Recognizing that they were sending their wages back home to their shitbag mother, Clémence, Madame Lanceline advises the girls to cut her off, and goes so far as to WRITE Clémence a letter, more or less telling her to fuck off and leave her daughters alone.
Roughly six years later, in late 1932, Madame Lanceline begins to succumb to mental illness. Her personality changes. She goes from being a light-hearted socialite and mother figure to the two girls, to a physically and verbally abusive tyrant. She develops extreme depression an scrutinizes everything. She yells and screams at Christine and Lea, telling them that they missed dirt while sweeping. She performs “white glove tests” on furniture to ensure that it had been dusted, and then pinches them if it isn’t up to her expectations. She slaps them for having an undone button on a blouse. She starts to wake the sisters up in the middle of the night to scrub the kitchen multiple times, only to dump trash on it and make them do it all over again. The abuse got so bad that she would slam their heads against the walls whenever something did not suit her. One night, tired of the abuse, Lea tells Christine that if the abuse continues, she would fight back and defend herself.
On February 2, 1933, it all comes to a head.
The day was dark, cold and rainy. Madame Lancelin and her daughter, Genevieve, go out clothes shopping for a dinner party later that evening that the family was planning to attend. Monsieur Lancelin goes in to his office as usual, with plans to go to the party directly from work, meeting up with his wife and daughter there.
Once Madame Lancelin and Genvieve return home, they first notice that all of the lights are off. Madame Lancelin calls the sisters to inquire about the darkness, and they explain that the power outage was due to a faulty iron that Christine had plugged on a previous day. The repairs for this blown fuse had been deducted from their collective pay. Madame Lancelin flies into a fit of rage and begins to beat and slap both Christine and Lea on the first floor landing. She strikes them around their face and pulls their hair. Christine grabs a pewter jug and smashes Madam Lancelin over the head. Genevieve then jumps into the fight, trying to protect her mother. Christine grabs Genevieve, screaming, “I’m going to massacre them!” and gouges out Genvieve’s eyes. Lea holds off further attacks by Madame Lancelin, and Christine orderes her to “smash her head into the ground! Tear her eyes out!” And she did. She gouged out Madam’s Lancelin’s eyes as well.
Now that their employers are seriously injured and lacking their eyes, the two sisters go into the kitchen to look for other weapons. They collect a hammer and a knife.
The Papin sisters then beat and stab the Lancelin women for roughly two hours. When the mother and daugher finally die from their torture, Christine and Lea prepare their corpses just as they would wild game. Later on, Christine would recount that she “was just following a recipe for a rabbit dish from an old cookbook.”
They butcher them, gut them, and then mutilate their genitals. They even used Genevieve’s menstrual blood as a sort of baste, rubbing it all over her and her mother.
Later that evening, Monsieur Lancelin returns to the residence and is greeted by a locked door. He assumes that his wife and daughter had already left for the dinner party, so he continues on his way. Of course, they had not yet arrived. He becomes worried, so he and a friend travel back to his home. The entire home is dark except for a candle burning upstairs in the Papin Sisters’ room. Without entering, the two men walk to the closest police department down the street and bring an officer back with them.
As the officer enters the residence through the garden, he shines his flashlight into the home. The light settles on a single eyeball that’s lying on the ground in a pool of blood.
He continues into the home and discovers the scene of the crime at the top of the stairs on the second floor. Madame Lancelin and her daughter are mutilated beyond recognition. Madame Lancelin’s eyeballs are found drapped around her neck inside of her scarf. One of Genevieve’s had already been discovered, and the other is underneath her body.
Fearing that the sisters had met a similarly grisly fate, the officer continues up the stairs to their room. The door is locked, but he hears hushed voices speaking. He repeatedly knocks at the door but no one will answer. He calls for a locksmith to open the door. Inside, they find the Papin sisters…naked in bed, kissing and holding one another. A blood and brain-covered hammer rests on their nightstand. They immediately confess to the murders, but claim self-defense.
The sisters are immediately imprisoned and separated from one another. They both act out and call and cry for one another. Christine becomes so distressed and suicidal that she tries to tear her own eyes out. She has violent fits, horrible hallucinations, attacks guards, goes on a hunger strike, and is eventually put into a straightjacket to keep her from self-harming. Prison officials finally allow the two sisters a short visit…only for them to immediately begin kissing, with Christine rabidly trying to undress Lea, unbuttoning her blouse while begging, “Please say yes!”
The case ends up going to the courts. Over 40 journalists come from Paris, with even more from other cities across the country. Because France has always allowed quite a bit of tabloid fanfare surrounding criminal cases, the pair is known as the “Criminal Sisters.” A mob of people surrounds the courthouse, demanding their execution by guillotine. No woman had been guillotined since 1887.
The defense argues that the sisters were went temporarily insane. As evidence, they cite a cousin who died in an asylum, a grandfather prone to violent attacks, and an uncle who had committed suicide as evidence of a hereditary disposition toward insanity. Experts ruled that the siblings had succumbed to a condition known as Folie à deux (“Madness of Two”), which is a shared psychosis. Such a condition presents as a variety of symptoms like paranoia, hearing voices, inventing fictitious threats that somehow require self-defense, and even unusual sexual behavior.
The true crime magazine “ALLO POLICE!” manages to interview the sisters, providing the first report on the incestuous nature of their relationship. (Read article)
The article also calls Christine the “masculine one,” and Lea her mistress…this ties into the stereotype behind the assertion that the pair had succumbed to Folie a deux.
The court decides that the sisters were sane and therefore guilty. Christine Papin is sentenced to be put to death by guillotine in the public square at Le Mans on September 30, 1933. Lea Papin is considered an accomplice and given a lighter sentence of ten years of hard labor.
While Christine waited in the holding cell for her punishment, she became unhinged and tried to claw her own eyes out. On January 22, 1934, President Albert Lebrun issued a stay of execution for the elder Papin and her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in an asylum. Christine soon began to starve herself over not being able to see her sister and died as a result on May 18th 1937.
Lea Papin was released after only eight years on good behavior in 1941. She then went to reside with her mother and lived a long and quiet life under an assumed name…again working as a maid in local homes.
Fast forward to present-day. Twenty years ago, in 2000, while making a film In Search of the Papin Sisters, Claude Ventura claimed to have found Léa living in a hospice center in France. The woman had suffered a stroke and was partially paralyzed and unable to speak. There is one single photograph of this grey-haired woman. She passed away in 2001.
Prominent intellectuals like Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Jean Genet held up the crime as an example of class warfare…that their crime mirrored a system in which figures such as servants lived in terrible conditions as opposed to their high-class employers, who enjoyed plenty of everything.
Communist Party publications saw the sisters as victims of class oppression.
Benedict Andrews, who with Andrew Upton co-authored the salty new version being used in London, and which was first produced in Australia in 2013 with Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert as the maids.
There have been more than 50 plays and 30 feature-length films made about the pair.
Sister my Sister
A Judgment in Stone