Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Dr. Marcel Petiot

An Abnormal Youth

Marcel André Henri Félix Petiot was born at Auxerre, 100 miles south of Paris, January 17, 1897. Neighbors later told many tales of his bizarre childhood, but it is unclear how many were fabricated for the press. He enjoyed torturing small animals to death, they said. His early teachers found Petiot intelligent, reading like a ten-year-old by age five, but he was also a loner with a short attention span. Precociously lewd, he once propositioned a male classmate for sex, and was caught passing obscene photos to other students. At age 11, he stole his father's revolver and fired it in history class. Another time, he staged a circus act at school, standing a friend against a door and throwing knives at him.

Of course, Petiot's parents were concerned. Between 1907 and 1909, they told physicians that Marcel was prone to convulsions and sleepwalking, and habitually wet his trousers and bed. Petiot's mother died in 1912, and his father took a new job in Joigny, 15 miles from Auxerre. Marcel and Maurice lived with an aunt until Marcel was expelled from school, near year's end. Sent to stay with his father, Petiot was soon expelled from a Joigny school for unruly behavior and "over-excitation."

Petiot soon graduated from childhood mischief to criminal behavior. At age 17 he robbed a postbox, and was then charged with mail theft and damaging public property. The court recommended psychological evaluation. On 26 March 1914, a psychiatrist pronounced Petiot "an abnormal youth suffering from personal and hereditary problems which limit to a large degree his responsibility for his acts." It was enough to get the charges dropped in August, Petiot's judge declaring that "the accused appears to be mentally ill."

A pattern was forming. Petiot was expelled twice more, from schools in Dijon and Auxerre, before finally completing his education in Paris, at a special academy, in July 1915. The World War I was in progress, and Petiot was drafted into the French infantry in January 1916, dispatched to the front that November. While fighting in the Aisne district six months later, Petiot was gassed and wounded by grenade fragments. The wounds healed, but Petiot displayed symptoms of mental illness that sent him to a series of clinics and rest homes. Charged with stealing army blankets, he was jailed at Orléans, then transferred to a psychiatric ward at Fleury-les-Aubrais. Doctors there diagnosed Petiot as suffering from "mental disequilibrium, neurasthenia, mental depression, melancholia, obsessions and phobias." Once again, they ruled him not guilty by reason of insanity.

The diagnosis did not keep him out of military service, however. Returned to the front in June 1918, Petiot promptly suffered a "nervous breakdown" and shot himself in the foot. Transferred behind the lines, he displayed convulsions at the Dijon railroad depot in July, lying unconscious for most of a day. That episode earned him a three-week leave, but he was attached to a new regiment in September 1918. Erratic behavior and complaints of headaches sent him back for psychiatric treatment, at Rennes, in March 1919. This time, the diagnoses added were amnesia, sleepwalking, depression and suicidal tendencies. It was finally enough to get him out of uniform; he was discharged with a 40% disability pension in July. Petiot's case was reviewed in September 1920, with his disability rating increased to 100%. The author of that report suggested that Petiot be committed to an asylum.

In fact, Petiot had already entered a mental hospital — but not as a patient. Aided by an accelerated education program for war veterans, he had completed medical school in a stunning eight months and was serving a two-year psychiatric internship Evreux. He received his medical degree on 15 December 1921, from the Faculté de Médeceine de Paris.

Criminal insanity notwithstanding, Petiot had become a full-fledged physician.

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