The press called Henri Landru the real-life Bluebeard, after a lord in a French fairytale who murders his many wives...
25 February 1925. The courtyard of Saint-Pierre de Versailles prison, France.
A man stands, his arms behind his back, facing the guillotine.
When asked if finally he’ll admit to the eleven killings for which he is about to be executed, the man smiles.
‘That, I’ll carry with me to the beyond,’ he says.
And with that, he steps forward and places his head onto the guillotine.
The blade falls.
Henri Landru is dead.
But his story, one of greed and murder, would live on.
Henri Landru was born in a run-down part of Paris in 1869. His father was a fireman, his mother stayed at home.
It was an easy childhood. Henri worked hard at school, studied engineering and did well in the army when he was drafted in for military service.
He also did well with women. Being short, and wearing a thick, red beard, Henri Landru didn’t look like the type of man who’d set hearts racing.
But he had a way with words. And by the time he was 22, he’d charmed his cousin Remy into his bed. Two years after having his child, she married him.
What he lacked in physical stature, Henri made up for with charm.
Soon after his marriage, Henri left the army and started work as an accounts clerk in a local business.
While working there, Henri’s boss cheated him out of some money.
It was a double-cross that would have a lasting impact on the young man.
And it gave him ideas…
Indeed, his next job gave him the opportunity to swindle people himself. He found work as a dealer of second-hand furniture and was able to use his charm to coax elderly women into selling valuable possessions to him. He even managed to woo them out of their pensions.
In 1900, he was sentenced to 2 years in prison for fraud. Over the next decade, Henri was sent to prison a further six times. It was a fact that weighed heavily on his father’s mind.
Eventually, believing he had failed to bring up his son properly, Henri’s father killed himself.
But it’s almost as if Henri’s father had been a sort of moral compass for him. With him dead, there was nothing to stop him taking his crimes even further…
The plan was simple.
With the First World War raging, many women in France were becoming widows. And some of them were rich.
Henri placed an ad in the Paris newspapers. It ran…
Widower with two children, aged 43, with comfortable income, serious and moving in good society, desires to meet widow with view to matrimony.
It was, of course, a lie.
Remy was still alive. And over the years, she’d given Henri four children.
But the lie worked. Henri Landru’s trap was set.
Over the next five years, Henri would run the ad to meet more and more widows.
He’d lure them to a villa he rented just in a town called Gambais, just outside Paris. There he’d charm them into signing over their assets and their money to him.
Then, he’d kill them, dismember their bodies and burn them in his cast-iron stove. Not a trace of the victims remained.
Or so Henri Landru thought.
Later, investigators would find in the property a number of burnt items of women’s clothing.
Over five years, ten women went missing. Ten women who’d replied to a friendly lonely-hearts ad. And the 16-year-old son of one of these women went missing, too.
Henri was clever, taking care to write postcards from the ‘missing’ women to their families.
But he wasn’t quite clever enough.
In 1916, a woman called Célestine Buisson had fallen victim to Henri Landru. Her family had no idea what had become of her and so her son moved in with her sister, Mademoiselle Lacoste.
Célestine’s son died three years on, in 1919. Mademoiselle Lacoste was frantic, desperate for her sister to return.
She remembered Célestine had spoken to her of visiting a man in Gambais.
She wrote to the town’s mayor, who put her in touch with the family of another woman who’d disappeared in similar circumstances.
Finally, a connection was made between the eleven missing persons.
The net began to close to Henri Landru.
Police investigators were on to him.
They found Monsieur Henri Landru owned some very incriminating notebooks in which were written the names of the eleven missing persons.
They also found in his stove tiny fragments of human bones and women’s clothing.
Henri Landru was arrested. And although no bodies had been found, the evidence of the bones and the notebook were enough for Henri to be charged with eleven counts of murder.
All the papers across Europe were full of the story.
And because of his beard, Landru came to be known to the public as the real-life Bluebeard – after the wealthy, bearded lord in a French fairytale who murders his many wives and keeps their bodies in a secret room in his castle.
When Henri Landru stood trial in November 1921, he refused to admit to his crimes.
‘I have nothing to say,’ he told the courtroom over and over.
He was found guilty and sentenced to death by guillotine. Not once did he show remorse, sorrow, or regret, even in his very final moments before the executioner’s blade.
When his cell was being cleared after his death, the prison staff found a pencil sketch of an iron stove. The stove was much the same as the one in which Henri had burned the bodies of those eleven victims.
There was a message, scrawled on the back…
It is not the wall behind which a thing takes place, it read. But indeed the stove in which a thing has been burned.
Was this Henri Landru’s way of finally admitting his guilt? And if so, what were the secrets he said he’d take with him to the beyond?
We’ll never know…
Who was Bluebeard?
Bluebeard is a character in a French fairytale by Charles Perrault. The character Bluebeard was a lord and lived in a big castle. Everyone was scared of him because of his long, blue beard. He has been married many times, but all his wives have disappeared. One day, he scares his neighbour into letting him marry his beautiful daughter. Some time later, Bluebeard has to go away on business. He gives his new wife the keys to the castle, telling her she can do whatever she likes but she must not open the door to a particular room in the basement. As soon as Bluebeard’s left, curiosity gets the better of her and she goes to open the door to the room in the basement…