Christine and Léa Papin grew up outside Le Mans, France, along with their older sister, Emilia. While Emilia went on to become a nun, supposedly after being raped by their father, Gustave, Christine and Léa went on to become some of the most notorious murders in French history. They were left to fend for themselves against parents who were supposedly psychologically and physically abusive (Hendrix). At some point in their lives, all three Papin sisters were placed in religious orphanages, and the notorious sisters were both raised by an aunt or uncle for part of their lives. Christine nearly followed in her older sister’s footsteps to become a nun, but her mother would not allow it and insisted that she work instead. Léa remained in the religious orphanage she was placed in until she was 15 (Lin 2019).
The Papin family was dysfunctional from the start, violence and molestation common place for the three Papin sisters. They witnessed many fights between their parents, both of a physical variety and a verbal variety (Hendrix). When the long-expected divorce finally happened, not because their father had been raping his oldest daughter, but because their mother, Clémence, was reportedly jealous of her (Hendrix), the two younger Papin sisters, who were seven years apart in age, were admitted to a mental institution. It was apparent that the divorce had greatly affected both. During their stay, it became obvious that the two were inseparable, despite rarely seen talking to each other. It appeared to many that they had an almost telepathic connection (Budanovic 2017).
It was 1926 when the sister became live-in servants for a retired lawyer who lived in Le Mans, René Lancelin. Lancelin lived in a mansion with his wife and one of his adult daughters, Genevieve; his other daughter had moved out to live with her husband by the time the Papin sisters moved in to work for him. As servants, the sisters worked 14 hours a day with only half a day off each week; this was not uncommon for servants at the time, as they were at the disposal of their employers (Budanovic 2017).
For most of the time of their employment, nothing of note happened. The sisters remained as quiet as before and dutiful performed their jobs. There was little interest in the outside world shown by them and they still spent most of their time together (Budanovic 2017). Madame Lancelin, however, was reportedly a fairly particular woman and often treated the sisters less than kindly. Supposedly, she had a habit of pinching them and abusing them in other small ways if she was unhappy with how they worked (Hendrix).
Up until February 2, 1933, the sisters did their jobs as they were expected to and their landlord was happy as long as they did so. On February 2, 1933, René was supposed to have dinner at a friend’s house with his wife, but Madame Lancelin never showed up for the event (Budanovic 2017).
René headed to his home to find out why his wife had never shown up and found the house dark and without power, save a light coming from the room of the Papin sisters. The entire scene was suspicious, including the doors to the house locked, and René went to the police. Upon entering the house, with the aid of the police, the gruesome discovery of the bodies of his wife and daughter was made (Budanovic 2017). The two women were dead, with their eyes gauged out, their faces beaten in, and slashes likely caused by a knife all over their legs. Their skirts were supposedly pulled up and their underwear down when found, though it was considered improper at the time to take photos of exposed genitals so crime scene photos show them full clothes (Lin 2019), and had likely been tortured for a short time before death. Reportedly, Christina and Léa rubbed the blood from their victims all over their bodies before cleaning the rest of the house (Hendrix)
According to the experts, the assault on the two women began on the middle floor of the mansion between Christine and Madame Lancelin. Madame Lancelin had said something about her work that had upset her and Christine snapped. She lunged at Genevieve at the top of the stairs and gauged her eyes out with her thumbs, while Léa assaulted Madame Lancelin in a similar manner on Christine’s orders. While she was gauging out her eyes, Christina ran downstairs to retrieve a kitchen knife and hammer, which they used in the murders. The knife, hammer, and a nearby pewter pot were used to beat the heads of the Lancelin women in and they were cut up for approximately 30 minutes (Lin 2019).
The sisters were found in their room, lying naked together on the bed. They reportedly confessed to the murders immediately, eerily calmly and without visible remorse for their actions. A pewter pot, a kitchen knife, and a hammer were collected as the murder weapons. While in custody, the sisters were separated which caused Christine a great deal of stress. When they were reunited for a short period, she reportedly threw herself into her Léa’s arms and said things that implied to those nearby that the sisters had developed a sexual relationship (Budanovic 2017).
Christine suffered an episode while in custody, during which she attempted to scratch her own eyes out. She reportedly told police, after being restrained, that she had had a similar episode on the day of the Lancelin murders, suggesting that she may have been suffering from some form of mental illness (Budanovic 2017).
During the trial, people began to argue that the trial was a representation of the oppression and stress of the class struggle. The Papin sisters were the working class, fighting back against their employers, the bourgeoisie. Those who argued this insisted that the murders reflected how poor the conditions most working-class people were in when working for the rich (Budanovic 2017).
In the conclusion of the trial, it was found that Christine was the mastermind behind the horrific events that perspired on that night. The motive was supposedly a feud Christine was having with Madame Lancelin, and Christine was sentenced to death for her role in the deaths of Madame and Genevieve Lancelin (Budanovic 2017). The history of mental illness within the Papin family was taken into account, as well as the violent tendencies of their parents. When Emilia was two-years old, Gustave declared he had gotten a new job and would be moving his daughter and wife with him to another town away from Le Mans, partially because he was suspicious that Clémence was cheating on him. Clémence responded to this by threatening to kill herself if they moved, though she did not. This instance can be used to argue that some mental illness was present in their family, beyond the abuses the sisters were put through. In that same vein, however, other experts insisted that there were no instances of mental illnesses in their families and that the sisters were sane (Lin 2019).
While Christine was sentenced to death, the court came to a different conclusion about Léa; they found that she was less her own person, and more an extension of her sister’s personality. Léa did not receive the death sentence like her sister, and was out of prison in 1941. Christine’s sentence was eventually reduced to life in prison, but the depression she fell into at being separated from her sister and could no longer eat or function. She died in 1937 (Budanovic 2017).
After her release in 1941, Léa moved back in with her mother and presumably attempted to resume a normal life. She reportedly managed to get another job using a new identity at a hotel in Nantes. Her date of death is in question, as she was thought to have died in 1982, but in 2000 Claude Ventura, filmmaker behind “In Search of the Papin Sisters,” claimed she was alive. In the documentary, a woman can be seen paralyzed and speechless after a stroke that Ventura claims is Léa Papin. The woman from the movie died in 2001 (Budanovic 2017).
Budanovic, Nikola. “The Papin Sisters and the Murder Case That Still Haunts France after More than 80 Years.” The Vintage News, 10 Jan. 2018, www.thevintagenews.com/2017/05/12/the-papin-sisters-and-the-murder-case-that-still-haunts-france-after-more-than-80-years/.
Hendrix, Dani. “The Papin Sisters: The Horrible Truth Behind the Murders They Committed.” Criminal, vocal.media/criminal/the-papin-sisters-the-horrible-truth-behind-the-murders-they-committed.
Lin, Kimberly. “Papin Sisters: The Shocking Housemaids’ Crime That Shook France.” Historic Mysteries, Historic Mysteries, 18 Sept. 2019, http://www.historicmysteries.com/papin-sisters/.