At a farm in rural Brittany, France, a nightmare descends on the Picard family. Their two-year-old daughter, Pauline, has disappeared – and for weeks they scour the countryside in vain. Then, a miracle seems to happen. A girl who is apparently identical in appearance to Pauline is discovered more than 200 miles away. And yet in spite of their joy, the Picards begin to suspect that things aren’t quite as they look.
In April 1922 the Picard family were living in the tiny village of Goas al Ludu, close to Chateaulin in northwest France. There, they kept a small farm and raised their nine children amid the rolling Brittany countryside. But their idyll was about to be shattered by a bizarre ordeal that continues to puzzle researchers to this day.
Towards the beginning of the month, the Picards’ two-year-old daughter, Pauline, disappeared. And so, heartbroken, the family searched the area around the farm, hoping to find the missing girl. Yet even though the authorities and local volunteers joined the effort, Pauline seemed to have vanished into thin air.
After weeks had gone by with no sign of Pauline, the Picards began to accept the fact that their daughter might never be found. And even though no one could recall anybody matching the description being in the area at the time, some started to blame passing Romani people for the girl’s disappearance. Then, just when it seemed as though all hope had been lost, there was a sudden breakthrough in the case.
More than 200 miles away in the city of Cherbourg, a lost girl exactly fitting Pauline’s description was discovered wandering the streets. So, the Picards hurriedly boarded a train east, hoping to be reunited with their daughter at last; and at first, it seemed as if the story would have a happy ending.
In Cherbourg, the Picards met with the girl and – even though they could not explain how she had come to be in the city – were quickly convinced that she was their missing daughter. But as they talked to her, a problem became apparent. Although Pauline had been taught to speak the Breton language, this little girl seemed unable to understand it.
What’s more, the girl in Cherbourg did not appear to recognize the Picards. Yet in spite of this, the desperate parents took the child home, where neighbors expressed their view that she was the Pauline they had known. Satisfied that the matter had been resolved, then, the residents of Goas al Ludu attempted to move on with their lives.
However, on May 26 the villagers’ quiet world was turned upside down once more when a farmer who was out walking around a mile from the village made a disturbing discovery: he stumbled upon the mutilated corpse of a young girl lying in a field. Shockingly, the girl’s head had been removed, while a pile of clothes sat folded nearby.
Horrified, the farmer rushed to notify the police. And by the time he returned with the authorities in tow, a number of residents – including the Picards – had arrived at the scene. However, even though the family believed that Pauline had been safely returned home, they recognized the folded clothes as those that their daughter had been dressed in on the day she had vanished.
Meanwhile, although a head was discovered close to the body, its face had been partially consumed by wild animals to the point where it was impossible to identify. Could it be that the Picards had made a mistake – and their daughter had met with a grisly fate? And if so, who was the young girl who had now settled into their home?
Then, as the authorities searched for answers, the mystery only deepened. It seems that the body had been discovered in a well-searched part of the local area. And in view of this, it was deemed impossible that nobody would have spotted the remains if they had been there since Pauline’s disappearance.
Indeed, it seemed as if the body – along with the clothes – had only been laid there some time recently. But by whom? The question remained unanswered. And when investigators took a closer look at the head found close to the remains, the whole affair grew even more bizarre. Apparently, while the body was that of a young girl close to Pauline’s age, the skull had belonged to a grown man.
Now, police were faced with a seemingly impossible task. Not only did they have two possible murder victims to account for, but they were still unsure as to whether Pauline was alive. Meanwhile, the mysterious little girl continued to live with the Picards – although they had begun to question whether she really was their daughter.
Then, just days after the body was discovered, there came yet another twist in the tale. Apparently, the Picards were approached by Yves Martin, a local farmer. And after leading the conversation to the whereabouts of the missing girl, he was informed that she had been found. He supposedly then retorted by saying, “Are you sure it’s Pauline?”
Moreover, it’s claimed that Martin went on to profess a guilty conscience – before omitting a crazed laugh and wandering away. And according to contemporary reports, the farmer was admitted to a lunatic asylum the very next day. So, had Martin murdered Pauline and then dumped her body in the field?
Frustratingly, the mystery appears to have gone unresolved. In an article dated June 14, 1922, the French newspaper Le Petit Parisien reported that the girl who was initially thought to be Pauline had left the Picards’ home and was staying in a hospice. However, later articles claimed that she had begun to speak in Breton – and could recall details about life in Goas al Ludu.
Were these reports evidence that the girl was Pauline after all? Or was she simply repeating what she had learned during her spell at the Picards’ farm? The media at the time did not reach any definitive conclusions, and many have speculated on what actually happened to Pauline and the mystery girl.
Apparently, some locals believed that Pauline was neither murdered nor, after an unsuccessful reunion with the Picards, now languishing in a hospice. They allegedly claimed that the girl had instead been kidnapped by a rich family who had left their own dead child in her place. However, this story does not explain the role of the little girl from Cherbourg – nor how the Picards managed to confuse her for their own daughter.
Over the years, many conflicting opinions have emerged on the events that baffled Brittany throughout the spring of 1922. In his 1932 book Wild Talents, for example, the American writer Charles Fort implied a paranormal explanation for the events. Meanwhile, some commenters have drawn parallels with cases like those of missing children Bobby Dunbar and Nicholas Barclay.
On both of these occasions, grieving parents identified strangers as their own missing children – despite significant evidence to the contrary. Did the Picards fall victim to the same phenomenon? If so, the mystery becomes far simpler. It’s the case of a murdered girl, an unwanted child and some wishful thinking on the parents’ behalf. But whether this is the whole truth of the matter may never be known.