© All Rights Reserved. Please do not distribute without written permission from Damn Interesting.
On 19 May 1943, a news report from Berlin deepened the already dreary gloom that clung to the people of Nazi-occupied Paris. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels proudly announced to the world that the German capital of Berlin was officially judenfrei—free of all Jews. As this news buzzed in the background on Nazi-controlled airwaves, a man named Yvan Dreyfus—a Jew residing in Paris—was carefully packing his luggage for a long, illegal journey. A close inspection of Dreyfus’ suitcase would have revealed a hidden compartment containing 200,000 francs in cash, a small stack of passport-sized photographs of himself, and a conspicuous absence of any documentation to identify the owner of the bag.
As Dreyfus stepped outside into the mid-morning, the once-bustling streets of Paris were hushed and tense. Three years prior, swathes of citizens had fled the French capital as the booms of German artillery grew louder in the distance. Millions of Parisians had crammed into cars, trucks, and trains en masse, often with no specific destinations other than ‘away.’ This left the city’s famous arrondissements sparsely populated. The lack of humans was not the only cause for the quiet—the German occupiers had enacted onerous gasoline rationing, and it was difficult or impossible for ordinary citizens to travel by automobile. On the occasion that a car or truck was seen driving in the city, it was usually full of bad news.
As he had been instructed, Dreyfus made his way to the address 25 Rue des Mathurins, and climbed a set of stairs to a decaying beauty parlor on the building’s second floor. There, he was scheduled to meet with the mysterious “Dr. Eugène.” According to confidential sources, this doctor was the head of an illegal escape network that smuggled Jews and other oppressed persons out of Nazi-occupied France. While Dreyfus was an excellent candidate for such a network, there were machinations afoot. Under prolonged torture by agents of the French Gestapo, Dreyfus had acquiesced to a deal. As he ascended the stairs toward the beauty parlor, French Gestapo agents followed at a discreet distance. Dreyfus was the bait in a Nazi snare.
Artist’s reconstruction of the beauty parlor at 25 Rue des Mathurins
A rotund male hairdresser named Fourrier met Dreyfus at the door. Once inside, Dreyfus finally set eyes on the legendary Dr. Eugène. He was a tall, dark figure with piercing black eyes, wearing a trim navy blue suit. Dr. Eugène explained that he would escort Dreyfus to a secret hideout where he would await departure with a group of fellow escapees.
As Dr. Eugène and Dreyfus strolled to the nearby hideout, Dreyfus managed to signal to the doctor that they were being followed. Dreyfus had a plan of his own—to shake the Gestapo tail and actually take the doctor’s underground railroad out of France. Dr. Eugène took his meaning, and the two made an expeditious detour, giving the Gestapo the slip. The French Gestapo never again saw their mole Yvan Dreyfus. But then, neither did anyone else. Things were not as they seemed.
Throughout 1943, French Gestapo agents continued to assemble their dossier on this elusive Dr. Eugène. They learned that he had a surprisingly large network of agents combing Paris for Jews seeking extraction, and that the beauty parlor at 25 Rue des Mathurins was the network’s primary clearinghouse for escapees. Whenever an escapee-to-be arrived at the parlor, if the doctor decided he would furnish his services, he would instruct them to return at a specific time and date, prepared for departure. The escapee must have already concluded all of their affairs in France, including goodbyes to loved ones. They were to produce 10 passport-style photos for use in forged travel documents—five portraits and five in profile. No more than two adults could travel together, and no more than two suitcases per person. Escapees were told to amass their cash and valuables, and hide them in their luggage and in their clothing. Part of the cash was for the network’s fee, the rest to pay for travel and to establish a new life. Importantly, escapees must leave behind all identifying documents so they would not be caught with conflicting names or initials. This included any monogrammed clothing or luggage.
Upon arrival at the beauty parlor on the designated day, the doctor would escort them to the hideout, where he administered travel inoculations—smallpox and typhoid vaccines—and prepared the escapees’ false passports and medical certificates. After escaping France, some individuals would be sent to Spain, others to North Africa or the Americas via neutral ports in Portugal. All future communication between escapees and loved ones still in France would be conducted via Dr. Eugène for the safety of all involved.
Of Dr. Eugène himself, the Gestapo had gathered only superficial knowledge. They knew that he was male, aged approximately 36, and a doctor of medicine. Having seen him from a distance, they knew he was tall and slender, clean shaven with dark hair. Multiple people who had met him mentioned his striking black irises. His acquaintances spoke of his odd mannerism of rubbing his hands together constantly, and his tendency to laugh or sob at strange times. The Gestapo knew that Dr. Eugène mostly accepted Jews into his escape network, but he was also known to accept French Resistance fighters, Nazi deserters, and just about any soul who could produce the wealth-indexed fee of 25,000-200,000 francs (equivalent to about $9,000-$72,000 in modern U.S. dollars).
The escape network seemed very organized and efficient, but the French Gestapo discovered some oversights in execution that hinted at novice clandestine work: Dr. Eugène made no attempt to hide his face from underlings in his network, nor from people seeking escape. He used the same locations and routes repeatedly. His scouts and assistants met face to face, where those more experienced in espionage would know it is safer to designate hiding places around the city for agents to exchange objects without meeting in person—a practice known as a “dead drop.” Most critically, Dr. Eugène did not seem to realize that the beauty parlor clearinghouse was compromised, even after Dreyfus and his close shave.
The French Gestapo found a new mole to present himself as someone seeking extraction—a willing collaborator this time. A chance encounter was arranged with one of Dr. Eugène’s most active scouts, a man named Francinet. The mole told Francinet of his wish to exit the country. Francinet offered to assist. A meeting was arranged for 21 May 1943 at the beauty parlor. When the mole was let into the parlor, French Gestapo agents crashed in and arrested Fourrier and Francinet—but Dr. Eugène himself was not present. Nevertheless, the Gestapo had two of the doctor’s top-ranking agents. It was nothing a little torture couldn’t solve.
Artist’s reconstruction of French Gestapo Headquarters
On the fourth floor of Gestapo headquarters, after a short but eventful visit to the interrogation room, Fourrier gave the Gestapo agents a name: Dr. Marcel Petiot of 66 Rue de Caumartin. The Gestapo sent a car to the address, where agents found Dr. Petiot with his wife and son. This doctor matched the rough physical description the Gestapo had assembled for Dr. Eugène: Tall, dark, and a medical doctor. Agents found hundreds of vials of morphine—many more than a doctor would ordinarily keep on hand—and a cache of the hallucinogenic drug mescaline, also known as peyote. The agents arrested Dr. Petiot and brought him back to Gestapo HQ. For multiple weeks, on the same fourth floor that broke Fourrier, interrogators submerged Dr. Petiot in ice water, drilled holes in his teeth, placed his head in a vice, and administered other such inventive torments, but the man consistently and persistently insisted that he was merely a scout for the network, not its chief officer. Gestapo agents threw the doctor in prison, only to unceremoniously release him some months later when his brother was able to pay a fee. It seemed that the real Dr. Eugène remained as elusive as ever.
• • •
In the spring of 1944, the so-called ‘City of Light’ was smothered under a general wartime blackout. At night, thick curtains were kept closed, and streetlights left unlit. Most of the city’s souls were sequestered indoors by a Nazi-imposed curfew, leaving the streets dark and deserted. This was quite convenient for members of various resistance groups, who could slip unnoticed through the darkness to engage in their widespread acts of sabotage against the Germans, and against one another. Even in the light of day, the Nazis had earned a reputation for draconian unilateral justice, arresting people for minor infractions, or occasionally opting for summary execution. As a consequence, the people of Paris tended to mind their own affairs, and studiously avoid the attention of the occupying regime and its puppet government. But on the evening of 11 March 1944, Madame Marçais of 22 Rue le Sueur told her husband to summon the police. The stink had become unbearable.
The source of the offending aroma was pouring from the mansion across the street at 21 Rue le Sueur. For several days, its chimney had been belching irregular discharges of inky smoke that clung to the air, penetrating every orifice, stinking with a blend described by nosewitnesses as burning rubber, with hints of charred caramel and scorched hair. It impregnated furniture, drapes, and rugs with its oily stench—and these latest eruptions were the most nauseating yet.
Shortly after the Marçais’ call, a pair of Paris policemen appeared on bicycles. They knocked urgently upon the door of 21 Rue le Sueur, but there was no response, and it was locked up tight. Fortunately the concierge of the building next door had a telephone number for the homeowner. The voice that answered the call promised to be there within 15 minutes with the house key. After nearly 30 minutes of waiting, the police summoned the fire department. They feared the smoke was the result of a chimney fire, which could spread and cause wider destruction.
The fire department dispatched a truck, expending precious gasoline. The firemen broke in through a second-story window to investigate the building’s interior. Curious neighbors crowded around the firetruck. Several minutes later, the firemen reemerged, dazed. “Gentlemen,” the fire chief said to the police officers, “come and have a look. I believe you have your work cut out for you.”
The pair of patrolmen entered the mansion and went to the basement as directed, illuminating their way with handheld lights. In the basement, they encountered a scene that was difficult to comprehend: two coal stoves with roaring fires, one with its iron door ajar, revealing oddly shaped objects within. They were hands, feet, arms, and legs—human bodies that had been chopped into parts and shoveled into a makeshift crematorium. As the officers’ eyes adjusted to the dim light, they saw stacks of human parts all around the room, including heads, halves of torsos, and scalps with hair still attached. There was very little blood, as the body parts seemed to be dried out, and a massive heap of ashes. The patrolmen telephoned headquarters for immediate assistance.
When veteran police inspector Commissaire Georges-Victor Massu arrived at 21 Rue le Sueur, he beheld a vast residence filled with curious contrasts. The mansion was of grand construction, with formal salons, a library, six bedrooms, two kitchens, and an enclosed courtyard—yet the interior was in a dilapidated state, with peeling wallpaper and crumbling façades. The numerous rooms were packed with fine furniture, rugs, chandeliers, and artwork, but the expensive antiques were draped in dust and cobwebs. And although the house itself was a nest of neglect, one of the small outbuildings in the courtyard housed a private doctor’s office that was exceedingly clean and well-kept.
The private courtyard at 21 Rue le Sueur
The front room of the doctor’s office was unremarkable—a desk, some armchairs, a table with some magazines, and some bookshelves. The back room, however, was deeply peculiar. It was triangular, about the size of a walk-in closet. In contrast to the handsome front office, it was quite spare, with a bare lightbulb, a metal cot, plain wallpaper, and some large iron hooks on the walls. The only ornamental item was a handsome door appearing to be an exit, but this door failed to open—it was a false door plastered to the thick concrete wall, purely decorative, a door to nowhere. Inspectors discovered a magnifying peephole embedded in the other wall, oriented for observing the inside of the room. The door that led into the chamber was also missing the inside portion of its knob—it could only be opened from the outside.
Back inside the residence, an examination of the basement kitchen found what appeared to be an evisceration station, with a broad wooden board situated between two sinks—perfect for draining blood from a body. And in the middle of the kitchen floor there was a large drain that bypassed ancillary sewer lines and emptied directly into the city’s deep main sewer—perfect for disposing of messy entrails. In one of the cupboards inspectors found an array of mismatched personal items: 20-odd toothbrushes, 20-odd bottles of perfume, combs, lipstick tubes, mascara, fingernail files, and other sundries.
In another outbuilding, police found a metal hatchway in the floor. Opening this cover revealed a ladder leading down into a deep, dark cavity, from which arose a powerful odor of putrescence. Commissaire Massu descended the ladder, and found that the pit was partially filled with quicklime, a chemical compound often used to suppress the scent of decaying flesh. A great many more human body parts were intermixed in the heap of alkaline powder, at varying states of decomposition. Evidently this is where the body parts were dried out for easier burning.
All told, the sum of corpses at 21 Rue le Sueur was considerable—more than a dozen dead. It was now up to Commissaire Massu to unearth a suspect and motive. The property owner was clearly the prime suspect, though the living space appeared abandoned, so the site may have been commandeered by a Resistance cell or the French Gestapo. Were these bodies the victims of an unhinged murderer? Nazi soldiers assassinated by Resistance fighters? Some unimaginable other? In any case, Massu’s first priority was to locate and question the person whose name was on the deed for this property—one Dr. Marcel Petiot.
The mansion at 21 Rue le Sueur had a forwarding mail address: 18 Rue des Lombards in the city of Auxerre, 170 kilometers southeast of Paris. Massu submitted a request for a gasoline allowance. In the meantime, police interviewed other residents of Rue le Sueur regarding any unusual activity they may have witnessed at 21 Rue le Sueur. Neighbors reported frequent goings-on after curfew—people coming and going late into the night, often via bicycle with a small cargo trailer. This was not particularly suspicious, as Petiot was a doctor, and excused from the curfew to attend to emergencies. Some neighbors reported having heard occasional screams radiate from the residence, which they disregarded, assuming that the Gestapo was torturing prisoners there. And curiously, neighbors had recently witnessed an actual petroleum-powered freight truck visit the mansion. It had parked at 21 Rue le Sueur, and its driver had gone inside. Moments later, the driver emerged with arms full of suitcases, which he loaded into the back of his truck. He repeated this back-and-forth process dozens of times with hodgepodge luggage and bags, about 60 items all told. After this long and confusing undertaking, the driver departed.
Massu’s request for a fuel allowance was approved two days later, and his team clambered into a car to make the long drive to Auxerre. Along the way, they would make a stopover at Villeneuve, a village 140 miles southeast of Paris, where their suspect Dr. Petiot had lived just prior to Paris.
• • •
A view of a street in Villeneuve
It turned out that the Villeneuve police had quite a file on Marcel Petiot, but it was mostly allegations of petty crimes and misdemeanors. Massu learned that Marcel André Henri Félix Petiot was a medic during World War I, but he was removed from duty when his foot was injured by grenade shrapnel. In the hospital, Petiot had experienced seizures, inability to sleep, and severe weight loss. Eventually he was discharged from the army based on a psychological evaluation that found he suffered “fits of depression.” Petiot went on to earn his medical license in 1921 in a special program for veterans. As a physician in Villeneuve, he had been exceedingly well liked. Unlike other local doctors of the day, Dr. Petiot did not turn away “hopeless” cases, or hypochondriacs—he was willing to explore endless avenues of care. Whenever anyone sought medical attention, Dr. Petiot would provide it, even if the patient was unable to pay.
The doctor’s permissive scruples are what led to some of his earliest brushes with law enforcement: he was suspected of providing illegal abortion services, and he was repeatedly caught prescribing narcotics to drug addicts. But rumors and legal trouble did little to diminish his standing in the village. He was always ready with an explanation. If a woman has her mind set on an abortion, isn’t it better that it happen at the hands of a trained physician? If an addict is having severe withdrawal symptoms, why not give them a little drug so they might wean themselves from their dependency? And so on.
Dr. Petiot had his hands especially full treating the residents of Villeneuve for typhoid fever, a bacterial infection that causes fatigue, abdominal pain, digestive distress, vomiting, and death. In the doctor’s assessment, the cause of the village’s chronic typhoid was the outdated sewer system, which failed to keep humans properly separated from their waste excretions. He felt so strongly about this that he ran for local government on the platform of modernizing the town’s sewers. By 1927, Dr. Petiot was also Mayor Petiot. The same year, he met and married a woman named Georgette, and in 1928, they had a son, Gérard. As promised, he executed his plan to upgrade the sewage infrastructure, and soon typhoid was practically wiped out in Villeneuve.
Safe new sewer notwithstanding, Petiot’s political rivals in town began to raise serious allegations that the mayor was doctoring the books as much as he was the citizenry. They accused Petiot of embezzling town assets for his own gain. And there had long been whispers around town that it was wise to hide away small valuables such as jewelry and loose cash before receiving a house call from Dr. Petiot. In addition to his role as mayor, Petiot had been appointed the town coroner, and there were complaints that valuables tended to go missing whenever the doctor removed a deceased person from a home. Nevertheless he was reelected.
In 1933, Petiot had his first serious clash with law enforcement. He broke into the local train station during the night and hauled away multiple barrels of gasoline. He had been waiting for a shipment of gasoline to be delivered via train, but the station manager reportedly did not like the mayor, so he had been deliberately delaying delivery. As town mayor, Petiot was immune from arrest, but he was charged with the theft and forced to defend himself in court. Petiot found a psychiatrist—Dr. Heuyer—who successfully argued before the court that his client was not “mentally responsible” for the act, citing the psychological evaluation that had led to his discharge from the French army. Petiot was acquitted, and somehow his medical and political careers survived this serious undermining of his competence. Later, however, the electric company discovered that Petiot had rewired his meter to power his home for free, and there was no circumventing those charges. Petiot was found guilty, fined, and removed from office.
• • •
Marcel and Georgette Petiot at their wedding
Moving on from Villeneuve, Commissaire Massu and his squad of inspectors arrived in Auxerre on 13 March 1944. Their first stop was an electronics shop—or, more specifically, the apartment directly above it. This was the residence of Maurice Petiot, younger brother of Marcel. Maurice was not at home, however his wife Monique was there, as well as her nephew Gérard, the 15-year-old son of Massu’s prime suspect. The Petiots cooperated with officers, though they had little to say, they were unaware of the doctor’s whereabouts or undertakings. Aunt and nephew Gérard agreed to accompany the police to visit the forwarding address that had been left at Marcel Petiot’s Paris mansion.
The building at 18 Rue des Lombards turned out to be another extravagant property. It appeared to be quite old, formerly something sprawling, like a château. There was terraced landscaping and multiple robust buildings enclosed in imposing stone walls. As detectives explored the grounds and buildings, they mostly encountered dusty, empty, disused rooms. Evidently the Petiot family had an affinity for acquiring large, extravagant dwellings and leaving them vacant. However, one room contained a bed that had been recently slept in. Police asked the Petiots whether the good doctor had been staying here. No, Monique answered, that would be monsieur Neuhausen, a friend who worked as a shopkeeper a few miles away. Commissaire Massu sent a scout to investigate the shop. While searching the cellar at 18 Rue des Lombards, inspectors found several sacks of the same quicklime that had been employed in the pit at 21 Rue le Sueur. Meanwhile, the scout reported back: He had found Neuhausen at his shop, along with something quite odd: an enormous stack of mismatched luggage, about 60 items.
The final stop in Auxerre was the transit station. It was routine for French police to visit a town’s transport hub to monitor for fleeing suspects. Inspectors spotted someone familiar standing on the platform waiting for a train, clutching a suitcase. “Georgette Petiot?” the inspectors asked as they approached. The woman promptly collapsed, and police carried her to the waiting car. There she joined her son Gérard, and her brother-in-law Maurice, who had surrendered to police the previous evening.
When Commissaire Massu and his squadron of inspectors returned to the Paris police station, they found it mobbed with reporters and photographers. The unraveling ‘Petiot Affair’ was front-page news. Massu and his men escorted the three detainees through the crowd for interrogation. All of them professed complete ignorance of the macabre goings-on at 21 Rue le Sueur, and they likewise insisted that they didn’t know the whereabouts of the doctor himself. Georgette said that her husband had received the call about the possible chimney fire, departed to attend to the matter, and never returned. She mostly stayed out of her husband’s affairs.
The French Gestapo, meanwhile, conducted their own parallel investigation into Dr. Petiot. They had a few working theories: One suggested that the disassembled bodies at 21 Rue le Sueur were the remains of German Wehrmacht soldiers and French collaborators executed by the Resistance. Another theory was that Petiot was doing covert work for Britain’s Special Operations Executive as a spy. In either case, Petiot was clearly involved in something extensive and deadly. If he was with the Resistance, he could indeed be the true identity of Dr. Eugène, operator of a clandestine escape network for persecuted Jews. This could be why Commissaire Massu seemed to be dragging his feet on the investigation—he may not want a French patriot to be apprehended. Or perhaps this Dr. Petiot was merely a deranged serial killer. After all, he had been discharged from the military on psychological grounds. The French Gestapo dispatched a telegram to the French police:
Order of German Authorities. Proceed arrest Dr Petiot. Dangerous madman.
All hypotheses were impossible to verify, however, as the medical examiners were not having any success identifying the bodies extracted from the basement and the lime pit at 21 Rue le Sueur. The victims had not merely been dismembered limb by limb, but the entrails had been removed, the faces and scalps surgically detached, fingerprints scraped away, and the parts desiccated in quicklime. The forensic lab’s report stated that the person(s) responsible for these dismemberments possessed “great and intimate knowledge of human anatomy.” The cause of death was entirely unclear. There were no detectable fatal wounds, lesions, or fractures. Toxicological tests found nothing out of the ordinary in the tissues. The remains also lacked the contextual clues normally found in clothing, jewelry, and personal effects. Examiners had some vague indications of gender, age, color of the eyes, color of the hair, and skin tone, but not much more. This information was woefully inadequate to match bodies to missing persons in a war-torn city where dozens disappeared daily—some to the Nazis, some to the Resistance, and some to escape networks. But medical examiners noted grimly that this particular modus operandi is something they had seen elsewhere in recent months—in scores of dead bodies pulled from the river Seine.
The Petiot affair as front-page news in Le Matin with the headline ‘The mysterious mass grave of Rue le Sueur’
The powers-that-be in the Nazi party were eager to draw the public’s attention to the sordid story—the German war effort in Europe was not going well. The Royal Air Force were bombing German industrial sites with increasing frequency, Allied forces had gained a toehold in Axis Italy, and the formerly infighting French Resistance were organizing into a unified syndicate, the Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur, better known as the FFI. The unraveling Petiot affair was an excellent distraction from these embarrassing Nazi setbacks. The Germans—with a tight grip on the Parisian press—executed a media blitz against Dr. Petiot in newspapers and radio, calling him “the greatest murderer of history.” Subsequent sobriquets included the “Butcher of Paris,” the “Monster of Rue le Sueur,” “Doctor Satan,” and “Modern Bluebeard.”
• • •
Even as French inspectors posted wanted signs featuring Petiot’s photograph, law enforcement and journalists continued to look into the doctor’s history: After losing his mayoral status in Villeneuve, Dr. Petiot had moved to Paris and established a new private practice in the city’s celebrated Opéra arrondissement. Far from the sleepy avenues of Villeneuve, Opéra was a bustling metropolitan neighborhood dominated by theaters, night clubs, bars, and brothels—a popular tourist destination. Residents became aware of their newest neighbor by way of a leaflet offering medical services, everything from painless childbirth to cancer cures. Moreover, it explained that the doctor’s fees would always be proportional to the income of the patient, and veterans would be treated for free. Petiot was admonished by the French Order of Doctors for the unsubstantiated medical claims, but the advertisement worked, and soon Dr. Petiot was in brisk business.
One peculiar episode in Dr. Petiot’s storied life occurred in a bookshop in Paris in 1936. While perusing the volumes, a book on electricity and mechanics caught his attention. In his spare time he had been working on an electromechanical invention to treat constipation, and he thought this guide might prove useful. He left the store with the book, failing to visit the cashier. A store employee caught up to and confronted the sticky-fingered physician, and although Petiot claimed it was merely a slip of the mind, the encounter devolved into fisticuffs. Petiot was arrested for shoplifting and assault. During police questioning Petiot behaved erratically, weeping and acting confused. The commissaire ordered a psychiatric evaluation. The attending psychiatrist concluded that Dr. Petiot was suffering from a mild manic depressive psychosis, and recommended a stay at a psychiatric facility to recover. Petiot admitted himself to a private clinic just outside Paris. After a stay of just 18 days, his psychiatrist was satisfied that Dr. Petiot was lucid and of sound mind. A panel later convened to review his request for release, and concluded that Petiot did not exhibit any psychological deficits that should compel him to remain under psychiatric care. They did note that Petiot had unbalanced tendencies, though they hastened to clarify that it did not rise to the legal definition of insanity.
Marcel Petiot as a young doctor
Upon resuming his private medical practice in February 1937, Dr. Petiot’s popularity only grew among Opéra’s “underworld” clientele. Tangling with the police had given him an air of rebelliousness that appealed to potential patients seeking quasilegal and downright illegal medical attention; or treatment for ailments looked down upon by most doctors, such as venereal diseases, which were common in the brothel-strewn arrondissement. Dr. Petiot began investing these earnings into real estate around Paris and Auxerre. Dr. Petiot, his wife Georgette, and their son Gérard enjoyed this cycle of increasing wealth for a little more than two years—until France was upended by the arrival of the Nazis.
The record is particularly murky regarding Dr. Petiot’s activities after the columns of German troops marched into Paris in 1940. Petiot continued his medical practice as one of the few remaining doctors, treating Parisians and Germans alike. The doctor continued to acquire real estate, now at depressingly low prices due to the occupation. It was during this time that Dr. Petiot purchased the mansion at 21 Rue le Sueur, and began filling it with the vast inventory of antiques he gradually cultivated from the city’s dwindling dwellers.
In 1941, the German Reich Main Security Office established Active Group Hesse, more commonly known as the French Gestapo. It was operated by French citizens, though this was merely window dressing. The Nazis installed criminals and corrupt officials in the agency leadership. The French Gestapo’s stated mission was to conduct counterinsurgency against Resistance fighters, but it operated much like a mafia, looting French citizens on behalf of the Third Reich. Members of the Gestapo grew wealthy from their commission on the spoils. Less encumbered by war rations, agents criss-crossed the city in luxurious gasoline-powered cars, sheathed in fine suits, extravagantly armed, arresting and executing Jewish citizens with little pretense, seizing cash and valuables in the process.
Rumors began to circulate in Paris about “Dr. Eugène” of the French Resistance, and his mysterious underground railroad. Dozens of Parisians disappeared into the network, including Jews, German deserters, criminals, persons wanted by the French Gestapo, and some people who merely regretted the residency, and had the means to pay the fee. It was amid this milieu that the French Gestapo originally arrested Dr. Petiot under the suspicion that he was “Dr. Eugène,” only to later release him. In the subsequent months, Dr. Petiot stayed off the radar of law enforcement—that is, until the fateful night of the foul-smelling smoke that led to the discovery of the dismembered bodies at his mansion. Since then, there had been no credible sightings of Dr. Petiot, despite the massive manhunt, extraordinary media coverage, and his wife and brother languishing in jail. It seemed he had slipped away yet again. Perhaps he had taken his own underground railroad and fled the country.
• • •
Nazi-controlled newsmedia continued to prosecute the “Butcher of Paris” in absentia, distracting Parisians from the turning tide of the war. But this grisly true-crime drama was not sufficient to smother the news when more than 150,000 Allied troops landed on the French beaches of Normandy on 06 June 1944. The people of Paris learned that American, British, and Canadian forces were on their way, the front lines inching toward the occupied capital. Next to this news, a single unaccounted-for serial killer suspect was of scant interest.
On 14 July, thousands of Parisians gathered in the streets to celebrate Bastille Day, as Paris police declined to enforce prohibitions on gathering. In mid-August, Parisians from all walks of life refused to go to work—a city-wide general strike. Electricity and gas services were shut off, and the metro ground to a halt. On 20 August, a group of armed FFI fighters marched into the City Hall of Paris and seized control of the premises. Scattered firefights broke out in the streets. The same day, Commissaire Massu’s investigation into the Petiot affair was cut short when he was arrested by the FFI, accused of collaborating with the Germans. Several days later, the French 2nd Armored Division and the American 4th Armored Division rolled into Paris with a list of grievances. Nazi strategists in Paris concluded that victory was not possible. Hitler ordered General Dietrich von Choltitz, the military governor of Paris: Reduce Paris to a “heap of burning ruins,” then retreat. General Choltitz was a strident supporter of the Nazi party, however he elected to ignore the Fuhrer’s orders, and signed a surrender on 25 August 1944. The members of the French Gestapo scattered into hiding. The Third Reich continued to harass Paris from afar, executing bombing raids and sending V-1 missiles into the city, but Paris was no longer clenched with fear.
Allied troops marching into Paris
With the excitement and horror of the Liberation of Paris, and the extraordinary task ahead of France to restore a working government, the story of Dr. Petiot faded from public attention. However, on 19 September, about a month after the Liberation, the newspaper La Résistance published an article titled, “Petiot—Soldier of the Reich.” It was credited to a sworn statement by one Charles Rolland. The article told a contorted tale of Dr. Petiot entangled in prostitution, drug trafficking, and collaboration with the Nazi occupiers. A month or so later, a letter to the editor appeared in La Résistance which began, “All accused persons should be considered innocent until proven guilty. Because of law and justice I have the right to defend myself and to ask you to print my answer.” Dr. Petiot had broken his seven-month-long silence. The hand-written letter read in part:
Rolland never existed except in the imagination of the police. […] Far from having committed dishonorable acts, far from having forgiven my torturers, and farther still from having helped them, immediately following my exit from the German jail, I resumed my place in the Resistance under a new alias, requesting a more active role in order to avenge the hundreds of thousands of French people killed and tortured by the Nazis. […] Having lost all but my life, I will continue to serve and make sacrifice under an assumed name.
The doctor’s letter claimed he had only ever killed enemies of France—Nazis and collaborators—all under the auspices of the Resistance. Further, he claimed that he was still working for the Resistance under an assumed name, remaining in hiding until all Nazi collaborators had been flushed out, and risk of a successful German counteroffensive had passed.
Petiot was certainly correct regarding one detail: Charles Rolland was not a real person. Neither was the author credited for the La Résistance article. The fantastical story was a fiction, published under an alias, the writeup crafted specifically for the purposes of goading Dr. Petiot into jumping to his own defense. Law enforcement correctly suspected that he could not resist challenging the heap of printed falsehoods, especially if a little truth had been sprinkled in. Petiot’s letter to the editor made authorities reasonably confident that their suspect was still living somewhere near Paris. He was most likely still practicing medicine. And, they now had a handwriting sample.
The commanding officers of the regional FFI sent out an order: All field offices were instructed to discreetly obtain and send in handwriting specimens for all doctors and medics attached to the FFI. Dozens of bits of paper arrived in the following days, taken from reports, doctors’ notes, envelopes, and correspondence. One in particular showed striking similarity to Petiot’s letter. It belonged to an FFI captain going by the name Henri Valéry, a medical doctor stationed at the Reuilly armory. Valéry had enlisted in September 1944—approximately six months after Petiot’s disappearance.
On the morning of 31 October 1944, a police captain and two FFI men stood on the platform of St. Mandeé-Tourelle station as Captain Henri Valéry entered, oblivious to the police presence. With his FFI uniform and thick, dark beard and mustache, Valéry did not look much like Petiot. Nevertheless the police captain approached the man and stared into his piercing black eyes. “You are caught, Petiot! Unless you deny who you are, I arrest you in the name of the law.” Dr. Petiot neither denied nor resisted. When newspapers caught wind of the arrest, the “Doctor Satan” media mania began anew.
Dr. Petiot shortly after his capture
Under interrogation, Petiot claimed that he was part of a Resistance group called “Fly-Tox,” and working under its purview. He explained that he was a patriot who had first helped fellow Frenchmen by issuing them with medical certificates exempting them from German conscription. Later, he helped French Jews escape the country as Dr. Eugène. Later still, he liquidated Nazis directly as a Resistance fighter. He even took up arms during the Liberation beside his countrymen, he said. He told interrogators of a “secret weapon” he had developed for the Resistance, a device that could kill a person from 30 meters away without making a sound, but he declined to elaborate lest the deadly secret fall into the wrong hands. Despite his readiness to confess to killing Nazis and collaborators, he was adamant that he was not responsible for the remains found at his mansion at 21 Rue le Sueur. He explained that when the French Gestapo released him from prison, he immediately went back to his hometown of Auxerre. When he returned to the mansion on Rue le Sueur months later, he found it strewn with decomposing bodies. He was framed, he claimed, probably by the French Gestapo.
When a pair of Resistance interrogators asked Petiot for the names of other Fly-Tox members who could corroborate his story, he refused on the grounds that it would endanger them. When pressed for the names of any Resistance personnel who could vouch for his participation, the doctor eventually relented and furnished a name: Pierre Brossolette. The interrogators were well aware of Brossolette. He had been a major figure in the Resistance, elevated to hero status when he threw himself out of a sixth floor window of French Gestapo headquarters to avoid spilling Resistance secrets. It had been in all of the newspapers. Under his interlocutors’ patient needling, Petiot finally named another associate, codename “Cumuleau.” This was another prominent Resistance figure who had died. Asked to describe Cumuleau’s appearance, Petiot could not. They asked Petiot for his service number. “Forty-six” he responded, which was a far lower service number than either of his interrogators had ever heard of.
Searching Dr. Petiot’s apartment, inspectors found the identification papers he had used to enlist in the FFI. It was a full set of genuine legal documents for a Dr. François Wetterwald. Police tracked down Dr. Wetterwald’s mother and interviewed her, discovering that Dr. Petiot had come to her door posing as someone with international connections—a member of the Red Cross, or an FFI agent. Petiot had learned through a mutual acquaintance that her son was imprisoned in Germany, and Petiot told Madame Wetterwald that he hoped to arrange a prisoner exchange to bring her son home. All that was needed to arrange the exchange, he explained, was her son’s identification papers and medical license. Petiot used these documents to sign up for the FFI as François Wetterwald, and his alias became “Dr. Valéry.”
On 10 November 1944, notices began to appear in newspapers and radio broadcasts around Paris, asking citizens to visit the police if they had any loved ones who had disappeared between 01 January 1942 and 11 March 1944. Respondents were invited to come to police headquarters to identify familiar luggage among a large, mixed collection. People who recognized bags were allowed to look inside for familiar clothing or effects. In this way, a number of disappearances were linked to bags that had once been stored at Dr. Petiot’s mansion.
One artifact that would prove problematic for Dr. Petiot was found in his pocket at the time of his arrest: A child’s ration card. The name on the card was “René Wetterwald”, but this was not the original name—it had been rubbed off and altered from “René Kneller.” René Kneller was the 7-year-old son of Kurt and Greta Kneller. The Knellers had been Jews living in occupied Paris, and they had grown weary of the mortal dread that a knock on the door could bring. After a close brush with a deportation squad, the Knellers decided to take up an offer for help from their family doctor, Dr. Marcel Petiot. On 17 July 1942, “Dr. Eugène” received the small family. They had obediently packed their bags with clothing, valuables, and cash, and acquired passport photos. They were not wealthy, but the doctor had agreed to accept their furniture as payment; he would collect it after their departure. The Knellers disappeared into the mansion at 21 Rue le Sueur, escaping capture by the Nazis. Soon a few of the Knellers’ friends and relatives began to receive postcards from Greta, describing a hard journey to Argentina and a husband in deteriorating health. Confusingly, these postcards were signed “Marguerite,” a Gallicized spelling of her first name “Margareth,” and this despite the fact that she went by her middle name. Authorities tried and failed to locate the Knellers in Argentina.
Similar stories began to condense from the fog of evidence—people evidently disappeared into Dr. Petiot’s network, followed by postcards and letters describing a hard journey and health problems, usually with the oddly formal signoff of a full name. Many of the letters looked alike. Police began to suspect that “Dr. Eugène” wasn’t actually helping people escape from France, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. Rather, detectives suspected that the family physician Marcel Petiot was inviting desperate people to bring all of their cash and valuables to his office, where he had a small, triangular room that could not be opened from the inside, where he injected the would-be escapees with a lethal substance under the guise of travel vaccinations, and shut the door until they collapsed into a dismemberable state. Or, perhaps the lethal substance was a poison gas released in the chamber once it was closed. In any case, the passport photos were a red herring, the corpses inconvenient remnants, and the cash, gold, and jewelry his reward.
Petiot vehemently denied detectives’ interpretation of the facts, and police lacked any physical evidence to back it up. However French citizens continued to report that their loved ones had ascended the stairs of the shadowy beauty parlor at 25 Rue des Mathurins, never to return. Authorities tried and failed to locate the missing people in their alleged new countries of residence. Long-time acquaintances of Dr. Petiot came forward to confess long-standing suspicions of macabre practices on the part of the hand-wringing, kleptomaniacal physician. And a meticulous examination of Petiot’s past found an appalling number of mysterious deaths had occurred in his proximity, including witnesses against him in legal proceedings back in Villeneuve. The doctor had a lot to answer for.
• • •
The trial of Dr. Marcel André Henri Félix Petiot began on 18 March 1946. It had been an eventful 16 months since his arrest—Allies had captured Berlin, ending the war in Europe. And the Americans had invented and deployed devices that shattered the very atoms of creation, a development which finally persuaded the Empire of Japan to surrender. Meanwhile, the reformed French police had found and arrested many of the top brass of the former French Gestapo, and following a swift trial there was a swift firing squad.
Petiot’s accused accomplices had all been released from prison due to lack of evidence against them—among them his wife Georgette, his brother Maurice, and his scouts Francinet and Fourrier. Only Marcel Petiot remained detained. He had been examined by a panel of psychiatrists, one of whom was coincidentally Dr. Heuyer, who years earlier had convinced the court in Villeneuve that Petiot was not “mentally responsible” for stealing gasoline. This time, however, the consensus was that he was mentally sound. Insanity was off the menu.
In the courtroom at the Palais de Justice, some 500 humans crowded into the gallery for a view of the spectacle. For his defense, Petiot had hired Maître René Floriot, an infamous and masterful defense attorney—now playing advocate for “Dr. Satan” himself. The prosecution was to be led by Pierre Dupin, appointed just six weeks earlier after the prior prosecutor abruptly resigned. Near the back wall of the courtroom the heap of evidence was on display, most prominently a towering stack of approximately 60 suitcases, handbags, travel trunks, and other baggage.
Seven men sat in the jury box. The various principal officers of the court were assembled behind a long, elevated bench at the foot of the courtroom, like a stage in a concert hall. The presiding judge Marcel Leser stood at its center, flanked by court magistrates, the prosecution, and the defense. The presiding judge wore a red robe, the attorneys were draped in black. A door at the back of the courtroom opened, and in stepped Petiot, clean-shaven once again. There was an armed guard at each of his elbows as he proceeded to the prisoner’s box, looking handsome and benign as he stood at the rail in his favorite suit—gray with lavender pinstripes and matching purple bow tie. A cacophony of cameras clicked and flashed as the doctor smiled amiably to the crowd. Petiot finally waved the photographers away, saying, “Gentlemen, please! That’s enough for now.”
It took 90 minutes to formally read out all of the charges, including 27 counts of murder. He was suspected of many more murders, including the disfigured bodies found in the river Seine, but the prosecution only charged him for those that might convince a jury. Under questioning, Petiot maintained his claim that he had fought as a patriot for the Resistance. He explained that he had been operating a legitimate escape network for oppressed Jews, but whenever a known criminal or Nazi collaborator sought his services, he liquidated rather than evacuated. He further insisted that the bodies at 21 Rue le Sueur were not his handiwork—it must have been the Gestapo framing him, or perhaps his Fly-Tox comrades had appropriated his mansion while he was imprisoned by the Nazis. Asked for names of these comrades, Petiot refused to expose them to the same injustice he was currently suffering. He seemed to possess deep knowledge of some aspects of the Resistance, yet he was unable to answer questions about explosives commonly used by Resistance fighters. He openly sobbed at times.
Petiot punctuated the trial with outbursts and counter-accusations, and responded to questions with sarcasm, all to the dark delight of the crowded gallery. The citizenry was still numb to the deaths of men in the wake of the war, so much so that when an attorney asserted that “human life is sacred,” the response from the gallery was open laughter. During breaks in the proceedings, audience members crowded around the prisoner’s box, asking Petiot to autograph copies of the book he had written while awaiting trial: Luck Vanquished, written by “An Evil Genius?” It was a book on gambling and chance, its opening line reading, “This is a serious book that I wrote to amuse myself, for I’m one of those depraved people who enjoy working.”
Scenes from the courtroom. On the lower right Petiot signs autographs during a break.
On the morning of the trial’s third day, there was fresh commotion over a news article that had appeared in America’s New York Herald Tribune written by Paris correspondent David Perlman. The article featured an interview with two of the jurors and presiding judge Leser, quoting them referring to Petiot as “an unbelievable demon,” “a terrifying monster,” and “an appalling murderer.” If true, this interview exposed troubling bias in the judge and jury who had not yet seen all of the evidence. In spite of this possible miscarriage of justice, Petiot’s attorney Floriot did not move for a mistrial, he was content to replace the two offending jurors with their alternates.
As the court examined each murder accusation, Petiot denied most, but claimed credit for some, including a trio of known criminal gangsters: Jo the Boxer, François the Corsican, and Adrien the Basque. The prosecution conceded that these three men had worked with the French Gestapo, and thus a Resistance fighter might have been justified in killing them—but the gangsters had been accompanied by three women… why kill them? “What would you have wanted us to do with them?” Petiot asked, evoking gasps from the audience. When asked why he killed a Jewish couple who fled Holland to escape the Germans, Petiot cried out, “They came from Berlin!” and his attorneys produced a police report in evidence supporting the claim. Petiot asserted that these were not Jews, but spies sent by the Gestapo to expose Fly-Tox. “Yes, they were in hiding,” Petiot spat sarcastically. “They were in hiding like me, when I was a young husband: I’d go under the sheets and call to my wife, ‘Yoo-hoo! Try to find me!’”
Day five of the trial consisted of a field trip. Dr. Petiot invited the whole court—judge, attorneys, jurors, and journalists—to visit his mansion at 21 Rue le Sueur to examine the premises. In a light drizzle, police on motorcycles escorted the 15 cars through the city, the motorcade parking before a crowd of onlookers. Petiot played gracious tour guide in the vast, dusty, dilapidated residence, matter-of-factly presenting the coal stoves in the basement, the location of the lime pit, the kitchen with its unconventional drainage system. When they came upon the highlight of the visit—the curious triangular room with a peephole looking inside—Petiot explained that it was not an execution chamber as had been suggested, rather he had been planning to install an X-ray machine here, a fact which he had neglected to mention previously.
The court tour of 21 Rue le Sueur. Top left: arrival of the motorcade. Bottom left: The crowd enters the private courtyard. Right: Court officials look into the quicklime pit.
Over the following days, a range of witnesses testified for the prosecution, including former Commissaire Massu, who had attempted suicide while under arrest for collaboration (he was ultimately acquitted). Police testimony mostly validated the defense’s claim that evidence had been poorly handled while in police custody. Resistance fighters took the stand to attest that they had never fought with Petiot nor heard of Fly-Tox. Old associates from Villeneuve testified of Petiot’s unscrupulous character—his theft of gasoline and electricity, and reputation for kleptomania. There was the matter of the shoplifted electromechanics book. One witness, a psychiatrist on the panel that had found Petiot mentally fit to be tried, was unable to say why the doctor had been found insane regarding the theft of fuel years earlier, yet declared sane for this trial. Petiot’s defense attorney René Floriot detected an opportunity to hoodwink the inattentive psychiatrist: “And was the panel not concerned with the behavior of Petiot’s sister?” he asked the witness.
“His sister showed no signs of mental weakness,” the psychiatrist replied absently.
“Petiot has no sister!” Floriot pronounced with a flourish, to gales of laughter from the audience.
One expert witness for the prosecution, a graphologist, examined the strange correspondence allegedly sent by Dr. Eugène’s escapees. The graphologist concluded that the writings were genuine, but that the words written were contradictory to the writers’ true feelings. To challenge graphology’s power to make such a determination, Floriot scribbled something on his notepad and handed it to the witness. “Tell me if what I have written here corresponds to my private conviction.” The note said that the monsieur graphologist was “a great servant who never makes a mistake.” The witness declined to assess the document.
Another witness for the prosecution was Jacques Yonnet, a military intelligence expert who had been instrumental in drawing Petiot out of hiding. It was his expert opinion that Petiot must have been working for the Germans—if the Nazis truly suspected that Petiot was a resistance fighter, the Gestapo would certainly have shot him rather than released him. This elicited an inventive and protracted outburst of profanity from Petiot, a tirade that should not be translated in polite company, except to say that the defendant denied the accusation.
Petiot became curiously fixated on one witness’s claim that the doctor had been seen with dirty hands and black fingernails. Petiot explained that his hands were dirty because he had adjusted the gears on his bicycle in case he needed to make a quick getaway from the Gestapo. The presiding judge pointed out that the Gestapo traveled in cars, and that no bike, regardless of gear adjustment, was likely to be an effective escape vehicle. “If I did have dirty hands,” Petiot shouted, “at least I didn’t dirty them by swearing an oath to the traitor Pétain!” This was in reference to Philippe Pétain, the Nazi puppet chief of state of occupied France, to whom all judges had been required to swear an oath of loyalty.
“I forbid you to say such insulting things!” Leser warned the defendant.
“Insulting to whom?” Petiot laughed. “Pétain?”
A photograph shown at the trial, a heap of human ashes from Petiot’s basement
For all the witnesses, there were none who claimed to have seen Dr. Petiot hurt anyone or handle dead bodies, let alone commit murder. And there was the uncomfortable fact that no single body from 21 Rue le Sueur had been positively identified, and no cause of death had ever been determined for the faceless victims. The prosecution’s case was built entirely on hearsay and circumstantial evidence, a shaky corpus delicti at best in a city where more than 60,000 people had disappeared during the occupation. Still, it was impossible for jurors to ignore the scores of suspicious deaths and disappearances that surrounded the doctor, both inside and outside of 21 Rue le Sueur. The mood of the proceedings darkened when, at the request of the prosecution, the court bailiff rummaged through the scores of bags in evidence until he found and displayed for the jury a crumpled piece of laundry. It was a pair of home-made pajamas for a young boy, hand-sewn from some of his father’s worn out shirts. The shirts were monogrammed “K.K.”—Kurt Kneller, father of René Kneller, the same boy whose ration card had been found on Petiot when he was arrested. “Those must be the pajamas that the boy slept in on the last night,” Petiot responded, explaining that the Knellers did not want to carry dirty laundry to their new home in Argentina, especially with a monogram that contradicted their new identities. The jurors seemed unconvinced.
Witnesses for the defense followed, including a veteran who spoke warmly of Petiot’s skill and generosity as a doctor. Another told of Petiot’s achievements during his mayorship in Villeneuve, including the updated sewer system, and successful education reforms. Another witness was a Resistance fighter who had spent five months as Petiot’s cellmate in the French Gestapo prison. He insisted that Petiot knew far too much about the Resistance to be a fraud, and that the two of them had discussed Fly-Tox as far back as 1943. He testified:
You can’t be wrong about a man when you’ve spent long months with him in a cell a few meters square. Just the way that Petiot spoke when he addressed the Germans was an example and an inspiration to all of us. He’s an exemplary patriot.
Other prisoners testified to corroborate these claims, blaming the Nazi-controlled newspapers during the occupation for having prematurely declared the doctor’s guilt.
On the sixteenth and final day of the trial, 04 April 1946, Floriot summed up the defense case by asserting that Petiot was a patriot—a wounded veteran who took on the selfless occupations of medicine and civil service. He was beloved by his patients, respected by his Resistance comrades, and defiant in the face of torture from the Nazis. The doctor had admitted to 19 of the 27 killings, but these he justified in the name of the Resistance, legal under General de Gaulle’s wartime proclamation, “There is no crime or misdemeanor when the crime or misdemeanor has been committed in the interest of France.” As for the other eight murder charges, the prosecution had not proven that Petiot had anything to do with those disappearances, and none of the bodies had been positively identified. And what little physical evidence existed was hopelessly contaminated by the police when they allowed the public to rummage through the seized suitcases. Floriot’s dramatic six-hour summation was met with a standing ovation from the gallery.
In accordance with the French legal system, the defendant was offered the final word. Petiot, moved by his attorney’s performance, merely wiped away tears, stood, and said to the jury, “I can do… nothing. You are Frenchmen. You know what you have to do.”
The jury of seven citizens left the courtroom to deliberate under the guidance of presiding judge Leser and the two court magistrates. Just before midnight, the jury emerged with their verdict. Deliberation had lasted just over two hours. The jury found Petiot not guilty for the murder and robbery of one victim—Denise Hotin—due to lack of evidence. For the 26 other counts, he was found guilty, condemned to death. Amid a storm of photographers’ magnesium, Petiot cried out, “I must be avenged!” The guards hurried him out in handcuffs to await the inevitable in his cell.
Given the condemnation of Dr. Petiot in the newspapers, the impossibility of impartial jurors, the pollution of the evidence, and the rushed prosecution, most historians agree that Dr. Marcel Petiot was not the recipient of a fair trial. However it is also generally agreed that he was neither a true Resistance fighter nor a legitimate escape-network operator. He was probably responsible for the deaths of the people found in his mansion, and the scores of similarly disfigured victims found in the river Seine. Still, there are some ill-fitting facts that hint at a more complex narrative than that of a mere wealth-seeking serial killer: There were multiple Parisians who said that “Dr. Eugène” had refunded their fees once he deemed they were not in actual danger. Additionally, records from police interviews before the trial identified several people who were familiar with a Resistance group called “Fly-Tox,” so it is possible there was such an organization, even if isolated. And throughout the occupation, Petiot seemed to have inexplicable access to strictly rationed resources—considerable quantities of coal for the body-burning furnaces, fuel for quicklime freight, and his substantial cache of morphine and mascaline.
An autographed photo of Dr. Petiot
The timeline of events also raises questions. Petiot was released from the Gestapo prison in early January 1944, yet it was not until mid-March that someone hauled away the leftover luggage and burned the bodies. No explanation was ever offered for this time gap. And Petiot surely would have seen and smelled the thick smoke belching from his own chimney, yet the conspicuous cremation continued for days. To account for these inconsistencies, some historians suspect that Petiot had agreed to work with the Nazis under torture, and that his release from prison and sudden cleanup had something to do with Gestapo plans. If true, it is little wonder he kept it to himself—collaboration would be a more damning admission than mere murder in post-war Paris.
The “secret weapon” Petiot described to police interrogators never materialized, nor did the enormous hoard of cash, gold, and jewelry he allegedly amassed from his liquidated victims—around 250 million francs by police estimates ($90 million in modern U.S. dollars). Authorities thoroughly searched all of Petiot’s properties for this treasure, but only found a few small stashes.
Another unresolved question in the Petiot affair is the doctor’s method of killing his victims. Some have speculated that the injections he administered to his victims under the guise of vaccinations were actually sodium cyanide, which can kill an adult in minutes. This is a reasonable guess, as the toxicology of Petiot’s day could only detect cyanide for a few days after the victim died. Author David King, in his book Death in the City of Light, found records suggesting that the doctor instead filled the chamber with a gaseous form of cyanide—specifically hydrogen cyanide, the same poison gas used by Nazis at their death camps. This is also a reasonable guess, as the small three-sided room could have been quickly rendered lethal by dropping a few pellets of potassium cyanide into sulfuric acid. In either case, Petiot probably first injected the victim with morphine and mescaline to ensure calm compliance.
One perplexing retelling of the Dr. Petiot story appears in the book The Great Liquidator by the late John V. Grombach, published in 1980. It largely follows the known facts, but it makes a few eyebrow-raising claims. Ordinarily these might be dismissed as embellishment, but Grombach’s résumé makes it difficult to disregard his version of events. During and after World War 2, Grombach was the director of a secret U.S. espionage agency known as “The Pond,” until the agency was absorbed by the CIA in 1955. In The Great Liquidator Grombach claims that Petiot had been an intelligence asset during the war, passing on gossip from his German patients. According to Grombach, Petiot’s reports were responsible for alerting the Allies to several key wartime events: the development of the V-2 missile, the German counteroffensive known today as The Battle of the Bulge, and Germany’s effort to build an atomic bomb. Grombach claimed to have had special access to Petiot’s unpublished autobiography, wherein the doctor confessed to many of the “liquidations,” and divulged his method of execution as the injection of air into a vein to cause an embolism and cardiac arrest. It is unclear whether Grombach actually held such a manuscript, and if so, whether it was legitimate, as there is no record of its existence apart from Grombach’s claims.
In the French legal system, a condemned prisoner was never told in advance when their execution was to occur. At 4:15 a.m. on 26 May 1946, Petiot was dozing in his cell when he was awakened by a prison guard. Outside the cell stood a small gathering of anxious officials, among them Petiot’s defense attorney Maître René Floriot, and the lead prosecutor Pierre Dupin. “I know what this is,” Petiot said. He stood up, washed himself in the basin, and changed into his favorite suit—gray with lavender pinstripes. He was granted his final request: some time to write farewell letters to his wife and son. After 20 minutes of writing he put down his pen, stood up, and said, “Gentlemen, I am yours.” He accepted the traditional cigarette, declined the traditional glass of rum. The prison chaplain offered last rites, which Petiot dismissed with a wave, until he was reminded that the ritual would comfort his soon-to-be widow.
Workers clean and disassemble the guillotine following Petiot’s execution.
The group escorted Petiot to the clerk’s office, where he signed the register to release him from prison into the custody of the executioner. The group then walked to the prison’s inner courtyard, where a freshly assembled guillotine stood. It would be beheading, like a criminal, not a firing squad, like a soldier. An observing physician later said that Petiot “moved with ease, as though he were walking into his office for a routine appointment.” Dr. Petiot smiled to the executioners, and smoked his last cigarette. The officials shaved the nape of his neck and bound his hands behind him.
Pierre Dupin asked Petiot if he had any last words or confessions. “None!” Petiot replied. “I am a traveler who is taking all of his baggage with him.” At 5:05 a.m. the executioners positioned Petiot at the foot of the guillotine, strapped him to the bascule, leaned him forward into the lunette, and pulled the lever.