Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Dr. Marcel Petiot

Smoke Signals

Dr. Marcel Petiot, police mugshot
Dr. Marcel Petiot,
police mugshot

On Monday morning, March 6, 1944, foul smoke poured from the chimney of a stylish home at 21 Rue le Sueur, Paris. Neighbors suspiciously eyed the three-story 19th-century house, with its private stable and courtyard, once the home of a lesser French princess. As the hours — then days — dragged on with no abatement of the noxious smoke, a neighbor finally went to complain on Saturday, March 11. He found a note tacked to the door: "Away for one month. Forward mail to 18 Rue des Lombards in Auxerre."

Police were summoned, and a pair of officers arrived on bicycles. Neighbors informed them that the owner of the house, Dr. Marcel Petiot, maintained a separate residence two miles away, at 66 Rue Caumartin. Some noted the mysterious parade of callers at Dr. Petiot's empty house during the past six months, including nightly visits from a stranger with a horse cart. Some months earlier, two trucks had stopped at No. 21, the first removing 47 suitcases, while the second delivered 30 or 40 heavy sacks of something unknown.

The officers telephoned Dr. Petiot at home. He asked whether they had entered the house, and upon receiving a negative reply he cautioned, "Don't do anything. I will be there in 15 minutes." A half-hour later, with the smoke worsening and no sign of Petiot, the patrolmen called for fire-fighters.

Entering through a second-story window, firemen searched the upper floors before entering the basement. They soon emerged, one vomiting, their chief telling the cops, "You have some work ahead of you." Three officers next went downstairs, where a coal-fed stove was found burning full-blast, a human arm dangling from its open door. Nearby, a heap of coal was mixed with human bones and fragments of several dismembered bodies. It was impossible to count the victims in this tableau of grisly disarray.

Lawyers pose with human bones (AP/WideWorld)
Lawyers pose with human bones
(AP/WideWorld)

Stunned, police left the basement at about the time Dr. Petiot arrived on his bicycle. "This is serious," Petiot remarked. "My head could be at stake." Then, after questioning each of the lawmen to ascertain that they were French, Petiot identified the basement dead as "Germans and traitors to our country." Petiot claimed to be "the head of a Resistance group," with 300 files at home on Rue Caumartin "which must be destroyed before the enemy finds them." The French policemen, embittered by years of Nazi occupation, allowed Petiot to leave.

Seven months would pass before they saw him again.

Meanwhile, a search of the death scene proceeded. In Petiot's garage, police found a large heap of quicklime mixed with human remains, including a recognizable scalp and jawbone. A pit had been dug in the stable, filled with more quicklime and corpses in various stages of decomposition. On the staircase leading from the courtyard to the basement, police found a canvas sack containing the headless left half of a corpse, complete but for its foot and vital organs.

Commissaire Georges-Victor Massu, a 33-year police veteran with more than 3,200 arrests to his credit, immediately took charge of the case. Examining the death house, he noted basement sinks large enough for draining corpses of blood, and a soundproof octagonal chamber with wall-mounted shackles, a peephole centered in its door. Massu was still on the scene at 1:30 a.m., when a telegram arrived from Paris police headquarters. It read: "Order from German authorities. Arrest Petiot. Dangerous lunatic."

To French patriots, that order from German invaders suggested Petiot might indeed be a hero of the Resistance. Police dragged their feet on the way to Rue Caumartin — and found Petiot's apartment abandoned, no trace of the doctor or his family. Rather than search for him, detectives grilled the workmen who had remodeled the house on Rue le Sueur. When Parisian authorities learned that Petiot had been jailed and tortured by the Gestapo from May 1943 until January 1944, it eliminated the rationale for an urgent manhunt.

Wanted poster of Dr. Marcel Petiot & his wife
Wanted poster of Dr. Marcel
Petiot & his wife

Back at Rue le Sueur, searchers collected mutilated remnants of at least 10 victims, though Chief Coroner Albert Paul told reporters that "the number 10 is vastly inferior to the real one." In addition to identifiable bones and body parts, Dr. Paul cataloged 33 pounds of charred bones, 24 pounds of unburned fragments, 11 pounds of human hair (including "more than 10" whole scalps), and "three garbage cans full" of pieces too small to identify. Based on the substantial pieces, Paul said the oldest victim was a 50-year-old man, the youngest a 25-year-old woman. None bore any knife or gunshot wounds, nor had they been poisoned with any toxic metal. Organic poisons could not be ruled out from the samples in hand. At Petiot's apartment on Rue Caumartin, police found quantities of chloroform, digitalis, strychnine and other poisons, plus 50 times a typical physician's stock of heroin and morphine.

Clearly, there was something odd about Dr. Petiot — but he was gone. Patriot or villain, he had slipped away, leaving police with three questions:

Who were the victims of 21 Rue le Sueur?

How did they die?

And where was Dr. Petiot?

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