Murderous Maids: The Scandalous Crimes of the Pepin Sisters
On a cold February night in 1933, retired lawyer Monsieur Lancelin was supposed to meet his wife and daughter Genevieve for dinner at his brother-in-law's house. When he arrived at his home to pick them up, he found the door bolted from the inside and no lights on, apart from a flickering candle in the attic window. Arriving at his brother-in-law Monsieur Renard's home, he discovered that the two women had not arrived. Returning to his home along with his brother-in-law, they brought along several policemen who forced the window to the parlor. Once inside, the men discovered that the electric lights did not work. With only a flashlight for illumination, the men crept upstairs to find a scene out of a horror film.
The two women had been beaten to a pulp, their faces unrecognizable. Their fingernails had been uprooted and most distressing, both women had had their eyes gouged out. Blood stained the carpet till it felt like red moss. When the policemen slowly approached the attic, they discovered the two family maids, Christine and Lea Pepin, wearing kimonos, in one bed, clutching each other. The two women confessed readily to the crime. They had taken off their clothes which had been stained, and washed their hands and faces. They had also cleaned the murder weapons, which consisted of a carving knife, hammer, and pewter pitcher which had been so damaged as to render it useless.
The reason for their crime? The elder sister Christine (1905-1937) claimed that while ironing, the fuses blew, it was the second that week that it had occurred, which set off a confrontation between Christine and Madame Lancelin. The two sisters were arrested and marched off to the police station, still in their kimonos, despite the February weather. The crime shocked and stunned the town of Le Mans. The two sisters had worked for the Lancelin family for six years since 1926 when Christine was 21 and Lea fifteen. The sisters had a reputation for being good workers, quiet, who kept to themselves. They had no outside friends that anyone knew off. Their work references described them as honest, industrious and proper. They had no criminal record, appeared to have no vices and were regular church-goers. Yet suddenly, and without the slightest warning, these two quiet maids had turned into monsters. The citizens of Le Mans didn't rest easy in their beds, probably wondering which one of them, might be the next victims of their servants.
Overnight, the two sisters became infamous in France. It was the crime of the century according to the French press. Janet Flanner, under her pen name, Genet, wrote about the case for The New Yorker, spreading the sisters infamy across the Atlantic. There was speculation that the two sisters were lovers because they were found in bed together. Suddenly the names of Christine and Lea Papin were known throughout the land. The case piqued the interest of intellectuals such as Jean Cocteau, and Jean-Paul Satre, who believed that the crime was evidence of a class struggle, the working class rising up against the bourgeoisie. The two women routinely worked twelve to fourteen hours a day, with only a half-day off a week. At the trial, it was revealed that Madame Lancelin routinely wore white gloves to test that the furniture had been dusted to her expectations, that she commented on Christine's cooking by having formal notes delivered to the kitchen by her youngest daughter Genevieve who still lived at home. Madame had also once forced Lea to get down on her knees to retrieve a piece of paper she had forgotten while cleaning. Madame also allowed them to have heat in their attic bedroom (how kind!), and gave them enough to eat although Christine did not know if her employer was kind because she had never spoken to them in six years of service.
While in prison, Christine exhibited extreme behavior. According to witnesses, she had extreme visions and unholy reactions. She also kept calling for her sister Lea, who had been seperated from her in the prison environment. When the two sisters were reunited, Christine's behavior was inappropriately sexual towards her sister. In July of 1933, Christine experienced some kind of episode, where she tried to gouge her own eyes out, leading her to be restrained in a straight-jacket. After the episode, she recanted her statement to police, telling them that she had had a similar episode the day of the murder, and insisting that she alone had committed the crimes, not her sister. The judge dismissed her statement as a way of trying get her sister off, and the jury at the trial treated it with the same contempt. Also, Lea insisted that she had taken part in the murders.
Eight months after their arrest, the sisters were finally tried for their crime in September of 1933. The trial was a national event, attended by vast numbers of the public and the press. Police had to be called in to control the crowds outside the packed courthouse. The sisters denied having had a sexual relationship, but never made any attempt to deny the murders. Despite the evidence that insanity ran in their family, (their paternal grandfather had been given to violent attacks of temper and epileptic fits, and some relatives had died in asylums or committed suicide), the two women were convicted of the crime. Christine received the harshest sentence, death by guillotine, which was later commuted to life imprisonment. Lea, received a lighter sentence, of ten years hard labor, because the jury felt that she had been so dominated by her sister.
Christine and Lea Papin had grown up in villages south of Le Mans. They had another sister, Emilia, who became a nun. Christine and Emilia had lived in an orphanage at Le Mans for several years. Lea had been looked after by an uncle until he had died, then she too had been placed in an orphanage until she was old enough to work. As they grew older, Christine and Lea worked as maids in various Le Mans homes, preferring, whenever possible, to work together. Later on, their mother revealed that Emilia had been raped by their father, who was a drunk, when she was only 9 years old. Their mother had visited the two sisters regularly but there was always a certain degree of friction between her and Christine. Two years before the murders, there was a complete rift between the girls and their mother, apparently caused by disagreements over money. Their mother wrote to them on occasion after this rift, but was ignored.
While in prison, Christine's condition deteriorated rapidly. Profoundly depressed over being separated from Lea, she refused to eat, becoming progressively worse. Transferred to an asylum in Rennes, she never showed the slightest sign of improvement and died in 1937. Lea was released from prison in 1941, her sentence being reduced for good behavior. She went to live with her mother in Nantes, where she got a job as a maid in a hotel under a false name. No one knows exactly when she died. Some people say 1982, but a documentary filmmaker named Claud Ventura claimed that he discovered Lea was still alive and living in a hospice in 2000, when he was working on a documentary about the sisters. This woman died in 2001, but the jury is still out on whether or not he was correct.
The two sisters seemed to suffer from what is called shared paranoid disorder. This condition tends to occur in small groups or pairs who become isolated from the world. They often lead an intense, inward-looking existence with a paranoid view of the outside world. It is also typical in shared paranoid disorder that one partner dominates the other, and the Papin sisters seem to be a perfect example of this.
Jean Genet was so taken by the case, that he loosely based his most famous play Les Bonnes or The Maids on it. In his play, the two women (or women played by men) role play the part of Mistress while the real mistress is out of the house. The crime has continued to fascinate writers and filmmakers in France as well as other countries. Ruth Rendall has written a novel based on the crime as have several others. Two films were released in the last ten years, an English film called Sister, My Sister, starring Joely Redgrave and Jodhi May, based on a play by the American playwright Wendy Kesselman, and a french film, Les Blessures Assassines (called Murderous Maids in English) by filmmaker Jean-Pierre Denis. Having seen both films, they deal with the relationship between the two sisters differently, particularly in regards to alleged sexual nature of the relationship. In Les Blessure Assassines, Lea looks to Christine as her protector/savior and is a willing participant in the relationsip. In Sister, My Sister, Lea seems more aware that what she is doing with Christine is very wrong. Both films are definitely worth watching, and the violence is wisely kept to a minimum or off-screen.