Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Henri Landru

Bluebeard Meets Madame Guillotine

Landru just before he was executed
Landru just before he was executed

French justice is swift. Just two months passed from the time of his conviction until Landru received word that his execution was imminent. Unlike American justice, where a prisoner is well aware of his or her execution date, the French system does not inform the condemned until very shortly before the execution.

The guillotine is a curious method of execution and although it is generally held to be humane, there is some question about how quickly one dies after being decapitated.

Two doctors in the 1960s wrote that "death is not instantaneous. Every vital element survives decapitation... it is a savage vivisection followed by premature burial." Drs. Piedlievre and Fournier go on to discuss how the brain is capable of breaking down complex sugars in the neurons into oxygen for as long as six minutes after decapitation.

Eyewitness accounts also call into question the swiftness of the onset of death after beheading. "Did it, those who saw the grimacing heads in the basket wondered, kill instantaneously?" writes Colin Wilson. "In the 1790's this question was much debated, as when Charlotte Corday's head was held up and slapped by the assistant executioner, men swore that it not only blushed but 'showed most unequivocal signs of indignation.'"

In an even more graphic account written in 1905, a French doctor experimented with the head of an executed criminal:

"The head fell on the severed surface of the neck... I was not obliged even to touch it in order to set it upright. Chance served me well for the observation, which I wished to make.

"Here, then, is what I was able to note immediately after the decapitation: the eyelids and lips of the guillotined man worked in irregularly rhythmic contractions for about five or six seconds. This phenomenon has been remarked by all those finding themselves in the same conditions as myself for observing what happens after the severing of the neck...

"I waited for several seconds. The spasmodic movements ceased. The face relaxed, the lids half closed on the eyeballs, leaving only the white of the conjunctiva visible. ... It was then that I called in a strong, sharp voice: 'Languille!' I saw the eyelids slowly lift up, without any spasmodic contractions — I insist advisedly on this peculiarity — but with an even movement, quite distinct and normal, such as happens in everyday life, with people awakened or torn from their thoughts.

"Next Languille's eyes very definitely fixed themselves on mine and the pupils focused themselves. I was not, then, dealing with the sort of vague dull look without any expression, that can be observed any day in dying people to whom one speaks: I was dealing with undeniably living eyes which were looking at me.

"After several seconds, the eyelids closed again, slowly and evenly, and the head took on the same appearance as it had had before I called out.

"It was at that point that I called out again and, once more, without any spasm, slowly, the eyelids lifted and undeniably living eyes fixed themselves on mine with perhaps even more penetration than the first time. There was a further closing of the eyelids, but now less complete. I attempted the effect of a third call; there was one further movement — and the eyes took on the glazed look which they have in the dead.

"I have just recounted to you with rigorous exactness what I was able to observe. The whole thing had lasted 25 to 30 seconds."

Regardless, in February 1922, Landru was brought before the guillotine.

Landru bade farewell to his attorneys and presented them with some artwork he had drawn while in prison. Had they looked inside the frame, his attorneys would have found a written confession from Landru admitting his crimes and the means by which he disposed of the bodies, but this was not discovered until nearly five decades later. He declined to hear a Mass and rejected the traditional glass of brandy from his jailer. Landru indignantly refused to make a statement, saying the very question was an insult.

Landru stood before the guillotine, which had been the preferred form of execution in France since its revolution a little over a century before. He knelt down and within moments, the blade had fallen and one of the coldest mass murderers of all time died without ever expressing remorse for his crimes.

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