With the police banging on his door, Marcel Petiot’s career as a serial killer looked set to come to an abrupt end. He must have known that he couldn’t outrun the law forever. But what if he chose to hide in plain sight? The story of Petiot and his unbelievable attempt to avoid justice is, quite simply, one of the most bizarre episodes in history.
Born on January 17, 1897, in Burgundy, France, Petiot had always been a troubled soul. He allegedly spent his youth as a criminal and a delinquent; he sometimes shot his father’s gun in school, and he apparently badgered classmates for sex from a young age.
However, in March 1914, Petiot – who was then just 17 – went to a psychiatrist, who determined that he was psychologically unstable. And ominously, it was the first of many such diagnoses he would receive over the years.
During World War I, however, Petiot enlisted with the French Army and was accepted despite his condition. But although he developed a large rap sheet for stealing and other offences, he didn’t get a discharge from duty until 1919.
After the war, then, Petiot joined a program designed to support the career development of ex-servicemen and qualified as a medical doctor. With his credentials in place, he subsequently relocated to the city of Villeneuve-sur-Yonne in northern France – the place where many believe that his reign of terror began.
In 1926, Petiot became embroiled in an affair with Louise Delaveau, the daughter of one of his clients. And when Delaveau disappeared, suspicious neighbors reported seeing Petiot hauling a bulky case into his car. Yet despite the discovery of a similar trunk filled with human remains in the Yonne river weeks later, police dismissed Delaveau as a runaway.
So, after an improbable political career as mayor of Villeneuve-sur-Yonne, Petiot moved to Paris in 1932. There, he set up a medical practice that quickly became a success – despite rumors that Petiot was overseeing illegal abortions and overprescribing addictive medicines.
Then, in 1940, the German war machine rolled into France and subdued the military opposition. For French citizens, daily life was consequently in a state of constant upheaval. However, for Petiot, it was an opportunity in disguise.
Initially, Petiot seemed to be a genuine supporter of the French Resistance. He supplied fake disability documents to help French citizens avoid forced labor under the Germans, and he treated workers who had become ill during this toil.
So, having established himself as sympathetic to the cause, Petiot took on the codename Dr. Eugene and presented himself as a key player in a secret escape network known as Fly-Tox. And what’s more, he asserted that he could secure transport to Argentina for individuals fleeing the Nazis – in return for a hefty fee, of course.
The only problem, however, was that Fly-Tox did not exist. Instead, three co-conspirators sent Resistance fighters, Jews and anyone else looking to start a new life to Petiot, who proceeded to slaughter the fugitives.
And Petiot’s technique was terrifyingly effective. First, he would convince his victims that they needed vaccinations in order to travel to Argentina. Then, using this subterfuge, he would inject them with deadly cyanide. After that, Petiot would spy on his victims’ final moments through a hole in the wall, pocketing the large fee along with any valuables that the hapless fugitives had in their possession.
Using this technique, Petiot is thought to have murdered as many as 60 people, disposing of their bodies by burning them, burying them in quicklime or by throwing them into the Seine. The Nazis, meanwhile, suspected that he was operating an extensive escape route for wanted people. Little did they know, however, that he was actually murdering them all.
Finally, the French authorities caught on to Petiot’s nefarious deeds. On March 11, 1944, neighbors reported a foul-smelling smoke coming from the doctor’s Paris home. And when police entered the property, they discovered a horrifying scene.
Apparently, Petiot’s 19th-century mansion was littered with decaying body parts. Indeed, one staircase was stacked with bags of dismembered limbs, while more body parts were discovered burning in stoves. Police officers, in fact, thought that they were looking at the bodies of around ten individuals.
But as the media went wild with stories of the “Butcher of Paris,” Petiot went on the run. He hid in the houses of friends and grew facial hair to obscure his identity. Eventually, he took on the alias “Henri Valeri” and made the unusual step of joining the French Forces of the Interior (F.F.I.). This was made up of Resistance fighters who supported regular troops as Allied forces began liberating France.
As Valeri, then, Petiot excelled in his role within the F.F.I. and swiftly earned the rank of captain. Moreover, it was in this capacity that he attracted the attention of the French police, who wanted his help with a very important case – the hunt for Marcel Petiot.
And for a whole month, Petiot pretended to assist police officers as they searched the streets of Paris. Eventually, however, on October 31, 1944, someone recognized him at a Metro station and he was promptly arrested. The reign of the “Butcher of Paris” was finally at an end.
Now, although Petiot admitted to killing a total of 63 people, he insisted that these had only been enemies of France – Germans and those who collaborated with them. However, his defense lawyer failed to convince the judges and jurors that Petiot had been a genuine Resistance fighter.
Eventually, then, Petiot was charged with 27 murders and sentenced to face the guillotine. Finally, on May 25, 1945, he was executed. It was the final chapter in one of the most bizarre murder mysteries of the 20th century.