In May 1949, a man’s body was exhumed. What investigators found led to the arrest of his wife. Not just for HIS murder, but for the murders of 10 other innocent victims…
It was a bleak time for Marie Besnard. Her husband, Leon’s elderly parents had come to live with them at the start of 1940.
Only a few weeks later, Leon’s father died. Food poisoning from a dangerous mushroom.
Three months after that, Leon’s mother died, too. Pneumonia.
And then, a month on, Leon’s sister, Lucie, hanged herself from the staircase of her house.
To make things worse, Marie’s elderly father passed away, too. A cerebral haemorrhage.
The fourth funeral Marie and Leon attended in less than a year.
But even the darkest clouds have silver linings…
Leon’s parents were rich. And because Lucie was dead, their entire fortune went straight to Leon. The couple also inherited a substantial sum from Marie’s father.
It was the end of any financial worries the couple may have had.
Now, they could live a life of luxury.
Leon Besnard was Marie’s second husband. Her first had died of tuberculosis just seven years after they’d married, on 11 July 1927. Marie was just 27 at the time.
She married Leon, who ran a leather goods business, just a year later.
It was hardly a surprise to the residents of Loudun, the small town in western France where Marie lived.
Marie Besnard was an attractive woman. Tall, imposing even, with strong features and glossy dark hair. In her school days, she’d earned a reputation for being ‘wild with boys’.
Now, though, it was 1940. Marie was over 40-years-old, and dealing with the deaths of four family members.
Soon after the last of those four funerals, Marie and Leon had house-guests. Their friends, Touissaint Rivet and his wife, Blanche.
The Rivets didn’t have any children. And because they’d known the Besnards a long time, they named them sole beneficiaries in their joint will.
And while staying in Loudun with Marie and Leon, Touissaint got pneumonia.
He died that summer of 1940.
Blanche followed him to the grave eight months later. Heart problems.
Marie and Leon inherited again.
Within another couple of years, Marie’s two elderly cousins came to stay.
And while they were staying with Marie and Leon, both of those elderly cousins died.
They’d eaten cleaning fluid. Apparently, they’d mistaken it for dessert.
All the residents of the Loudun were sympathetic. The Besnards had had such a run of bad luck.
And the bad luck would continue…
It was around this time Marie discovered Leon was having an affair with a local woman called Louise Pintou.
Leon was scared. He told Louise he thought he was being poisoned.
‘She served me soup in a bowl that already contained liquid,’ he said.
He died soon afterwards, on 25 October 1947. The cause of death was renal failure.
Marie had the couple’s inherited fortune to herself.
But Louise Pintou couldn’t forget what Leon had told her before he died.
She wrote to the town’s public prosecutor.
An exhumation of Leon’s body was ordered for 11 May 1949.
The result of the autopsy shocked the small town. Before he’d died, Leon had ingested a large amount of arsenic over a period of time.
Exhumations were ordered on Marie’s dead relatives. Arsenic was found in the body’s of Leon’s parents, the Rivets, Marie’s father and cousins, and several other relatives.
It seemed obvious to everyone what had happened. Marie and Leon had worked together, planning and carrying out the murders to get rich.
When he’d betrayed her, Marie had done away with Leon too.
On 21 July 1949, Marie was arrested and charged with Leon’s murder, and the murders of 10 others.
The spirited, good-looking Marie Besnard insisted she was innocent. Her husband and her relatives had died of natural causes.
Across France, the press had a field day. Marie was branded the Black Widow of Loudun, the Queen of poisoners, a scheming and callous murderer.
She had motive. For killing her relatives it had been greed. For killing her husband it had been revenge.
She had opportunity. All the victims had been staying with her, eating at her table.
But when her trial came three years on, in February 1952, Marie Besnard pleaded not guilty.
Her defence lawyers were ready for a fight.
They argued the arsenic found in the bodies didn’t come from food prepared by Marie, but from the soil in Loudun’s cemetery.
An expert confirmed arsenic was present in the soil at the graveyard. It had probably come from the fertilisers used on the graveyard’s flowers, and the many zinc ornaments used to decorate the tombs.
The case was adjourned. More time was needed to study the scientific evidence.
Marie Besnard was kept in prison until her trial came to court again in March 1954.
The judge listened to both sides’ arguments about the scientific evidence.
This time, Marie’s defence claimed there had been contamination at the lab where the autopsies had taken place and some jars containing tissue sample from the dead bodies had been mislabelled, and some had even been lost.
For the second time, the case was adjourned. This time, Marie was granted bail.
It was seven long years before the trial came to court again. Seven long years in which the lawyers examined the case, and in which Marie Besnard waited her fate.
By December 1961, 11 years had passed since Marie had been arrested.
But at last, the jury had reached their verdict.
Marie Besnard was found not guilty on all counts. She was acquitted.
Marie had lost years of her life waiting for the verdict, but received no compensation as was the case in French law.
She lived out the rest of her days in privacy before dying at the age of 84 in 1980.
Before dying a free woman.