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The Papin Sisters: From Maids To Murderers In Twentieth Century France

Christine and Léa Papin were two French sisters born in the early 20th century. Despite a small age gap between the two siblings, Christine being born March 8, 1905, and Léa born on September 15, 1911, the two were undeniably inseparable from one another. The seven-year gap between the two sisters seemed to have no effect on their affinity in spending time together.

The two girls grew up around the Le Mans region of Northwestern France and were the children of Clémence Derré and Gustave Papin. The girls were not destined for a healthy adulthood, as their family is known to have been a toxic place to grow up. Rumours were whispered that Clémence had an affair with her employer, but the couple continued to stay together after she fell pregnant with Léa.

Gustave was certain that his wife was having an affair, and in an effort to put a wedge between her and her lover, he found another job in a different area of France that required the family to move. From reports, Clémence responded poorly. She threatened suicide if she was forced away from Le Mans, leading the Papins’ parents to eventually file for divorce and Gustave to begin drinking heavily.

A Different Childhood

Although the deterioration of their parents’ marriage would have been distressing enough, the two youngest Papin sisters were held under the care of their aunt and uncle. The eldest of the three Papin sisters, Emilia, was allegedly raped by her father in 1912 at the age of 9 or 10. After this, Emilia was sent to the Bon Pasteur Catholic Orphanage.

Not long after Emilia was shipped to the children’s home, Christine and Léa soon followed. Reports vary on what exactly the purpose of the orphanage was. Some accounts label the orphanage as a mental institution, where the girls were given treatment due to the breakdown of their parents’ marriage.

Regardless, the three sisters spent their adolescence at the orphanage, which seemed to have a profound effect on them all. Emilia, the eldest sister first began her journey to becoming a catholic nun, which she later achieved before estranging herself from the Papin family entirely.

Christine also showed interest in becoming a nun but her mother would not allow her, instead seeking to put her in regular employment.

According to The Vintage News, “Christine was described as a hard worker and a good cook who could be insubordinate at times.” Léa seemed to show different qualities, being described as “quiet and introverted but obedient, and was considered less intelligent than Christine.”

After reaching the age of work at the time, the two girls took employment as maids in the many homes around Le Mans. However, they would never work apart and reportedly insisted that they do their work together at all times.

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The Lancelin Family

One of the homes that the two Papin sisters worked in was that of René Lancelin. René was a retired solicitor and lived in the mansion with his wife Léonie, and their younger daughter Genevieve. The two Papin girls were employed as live-in maids for the Lancelin family around 1926.

Rumour has it that Madame Lancelin developed a severe mental illness in the following years, and was prone to physically hit both Christine and Léa. These accounts are unconfirmed.

Still, it is believed that nothing untoward occurred in the Lancelin household during the many years the Papin sisters worked and lived there. That was, until 1933.

The Incident

On 2 February 1933, René Lancelin was arranged to have dinner at a friend’s house with both his wife and daughter. When the two failed to arrive, he headed home in search of them.

After arriving at his mansion, Monsieur Lancelin found that all the doors were locked from the inside. Despite appearing as if nobody was home, he could see the light of a candle through a window of the maid quarters.

Fearing that something had happened, René fetched the aid of the local police, who were able to get into the home by climbing over a garden wall. Once inside, they found a scene of horrific cruelty and depravity.

On the floor of the home lay the unmoving bodies of Léonie and Genevieve. They had been attacked so violently that there was very little to recognise them by. Sickeningly, Madame Lancelin’s eyes had been gouged out and were found in the folds of the scarf she was still wearing. Similarly, the young girl had been attacked in a similar fashion, and one of Genevieve’s eyes was found on the floor.

Both Christine and Léa Papin were found in their appointed room on the upper floor of the mansion. They were reportedly both in the same bed, and both of them were naked. Here the two sisters calmly confessed to the atrocity that had taken place on the floor below, explaining how they had used a kitchen knife, a hammer and a metal pot to murder René’s family.

Unsurprisingly, they were arrested immediately and brought into custody of the French police.

The Trial of Christine and Léa Papin

The two sisters were not allowed to stay together in prison. Kept in separate cells, Christine reportedly suffered significantly as a result of being isolated from her sister. Upon the moments where they were allowed to see each other, the two sisters would embrace. Some have theorized that the sisters actually fostered a sexual relationship with one another.

Unsurprisingly, the case and trial of the Papins was heavily documented in the French press. Some scholars of the time proposed that the case was actually a result of the proletariat acting out against the oppressive behavior enforced by the bourgeois.

Crowds were present in front of the courthouse in September of 1933, desperate to hear the verdict being decided inside. The court heard discussions of the mental illness that ran through the Papin family, as well as the abuse their father enacted. If persuasive enough to convince the court, the Papin sisters could have seen their crimes excused due to insanity.

This was not the case. The two were both found guilty for their crimes, with Christine sentenced to death and Léa receiving a reduced sentence in response to her verdict as an accomplice.

While originally sentenced to death, Christine’s verdict was later changed to life imprisonment. Christine did not handle prison life well. She often had violent fits of madness, would refuse to eat, and had a low, solemn mood. Suffering significantly due to her life in prison, Christine died just a short span of years later in 1937.

Conversely, Lea was released in 1941 and began living with her mother. Many had believed that the younger sister had died in 1982. Yet Lea can be seen in the film “In Search of the Papin Sisters”. In the film, Lea is in poor physical health, having suffered from a stroke at some time in the past. The remaining Papin sister was unable to speak due to the paralysis, leaving any information of the crime she took part in lost to history.

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