November 7 marked the 100 year anniversary of the trial of one of the world’s most brutal and notorious serial killers.
Henri Désiré Landru was the “Jack the Ripper” of Paris. However, unlike his London counterpart, Landru was captured and put on a trial that drew the attention of the world. Princesses, actors, and famous authors all vied for spots in the clogged spectator gallery. About a quarter of the seats were filled by women who just wanted to get a glimpse of the accused serial lady killer.
He was short, bony, and bald with a long scraggly, pointed beard and vacant dark eyes. He was accused of murdering women, chopping up their bodies, and burning the pieces in a kitchen stove.
Nevertheless, Landru was an object of desire.
“Landru has an uncanny power over women. It is said he fascinates them. They become powerless in his presence,” the NY Daily News noted in July 1921.
Widows and divorcees, middle-aged and lonely, were his prime targets, but some were younger and poor. His lure was lonely-hearts ads, such as this announcement, published in 1915 in Le Journal – “Monsieur, aged 45, single, with no family, savings of 4,000 francs, having own home, wishes to marry a lady of similar situation.”
In a series of ads, Landru spun lies about his name, work, background, and family, which included a wife and four children. He also concealed his lengthy criminal record, primarily for theft and fraud, stretching back to the turn of the century and his status as a fugitive.
French police estimated that he romanced more than 280 lonely women. At least ten of which we know of succumbed to his charms and paid for it with their lives. He also did away with the teenage son of one of his flames and the pet dogs and a cat of two others.
Diary of Death
When Landru was arrested in connection with the disappearance of one of his victims, Célestine Buisson, 47, he was caught attempting to discard a diary, which it turned out held gruesome details about the women he had wooed, including about 11 of those he had sliced, diced, and burned in a stove!
Landru was jailed for about two years while police gathered evidence from Villa Tric and other places he lived in during the war. They found mounds of identification cards, clothes, petticoats, jewelry, and furniture that belonged to the missing women mentioned in his diary.
His neighbors in the small city of Gambais, just outside of Paris, told of foul-smelling smoke coming from the chimneys of his flat and of women who entered the villa but were never seen leaving. An ash heap in the Villa Tric garden yielded charred human bone fragments and teeth.
But, that was all they had – no bodies and no cause of death.
“All they are able to show is that 11 persons I once knew have vanished. Does that prove I killed them?” Landru asked the court.
Prosecutors presented their evidence, including a scientist who analyzed the bone fragments found at Villa Tric. Still, they admitted that they had no idea how the accused might have killed his victims.
Landru’s defense attorney pointed out that it was impossible to say with certainty that they were dead in the absence of a corpse. His explanation for the silence of all the victims? His client, he said, had sold them into white slavery.
Nonetheless, it took the jury less than three hours to find Landru guilty of the murders. His sentence – death on the famed Parisian guillotine.
After his February 25, 1922 execution, he lived on in popular culture, often in odd ways.
A couple purchased the Villa Tric and turned it into a restaurant, The Kitchen Grill. It was advertised as a place where you could have your meals prepared in the same spot where a monster sliced, diced, and burned women, wrote Richard Tomlinson in “Landru’s Secret,” a book about the case published in 2018.
In 1947, film giants Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles released “Monsieur Verdoux,” about a bank teller turned serial killer. It was a comedy. French filmmakers released another Landru film in 1963.
Perhaps the most appropriate memorial is an exhibit advertised by the Museum of Death in Hollywood, which opened in 1995. A severed head, covered by leathery red skin, which is presumed to be the actual guillotined head of the Landru!