On February 2, 1933, Christine and Léa Papin committed a gruesome crime. But were they motivated by madness, blood lust, or class warfare? To this day, we still don’t know—it’s just one of the many questions about this perplexing case that has gone unanswered for nearly a century.
Born into a dysfunctional, working-class family, the Papin sisters were raised by aunts, uncles, and a Catholic orphanage. Christine had wanted to become a nun, just like the girls’ older sister, Emilia, but their mother forbade it. Instead, both Christine (born in 1905) and Léa (born in 1911) took up employment as “the help” for wealthier families.
In 1926, the two sisters, who preferred to work together, took live-in positions as maids for René Lancelin, a retired solicitor who lived in Le Mans, France with his wife Léonie and their adult daughter Genevieve.
By all outward appearances, things were going well. The sisters ate the same food as the rest of the family, lived in heated rooms, and were paid the standard wage of the time. Christine in particular was praised for her cooking and needlework.
What wasn’t so apparent was that the sisters worked 14-hour days, with only one half-day off each week, and that Léonie Lancelin was a demanding mistress, who often performed “white glove tests” throughout the house and chastised the two maids severely for any perceived failings.
On the night of February 2, 1933, the Lancelins were supposed to meet for dinner at the home of a family friend, and weren’t expected back at the house until late. Léonie and Genevieve had been out shopping, and when they returned home before dinner to find the house dark, the mistress of the house was not pleased.
According to Christine and Léa Papin, the power had gone out when Christine plugged in a faulty iron. Since the family wasn’t expected home until late, the sisters had decided to wait until the following morning to have the iron repaired.
The sisters later testified that when they told Léonie about what happened, she flew into a rage and attacked them on the landing of the stairs. At first, the two sisters were just defending themselves, especially when Genevieve joined in the fray. Or so they said. But their ire quickly went far beyond self-defense.
The two sisters gouged out the eyes of their employers and, once the women were blinded and unable to fight back, beat them with a pewter pitcher and a hammer, then stabbed them with a knife taken from the kitchen. Observers of the crime scene later noted that it appeared as though the women’s bodies had been scored like the loaves of bread that Christine prepared each day.
Once they were done, they locked all the doors in the house and went up to their room, taking only a candle for light. That evening, when his wife and daughter didn’t arrive at dinner as planned, René Lancelin became concerned. Returning home and finding the house dark and all the doors locked, he fetched the police.
The police climbed over a garden wall to access the house, where they found the gruesome crime scene. Both women had been beaten and mutilated to the point that they were almost impossible to recognize. Léonie’s eyes were found in the folds of the scarf around her neck; one of her daughter’s eyes was found underneath her body, the other on the stairs.
When the police broke open the door to the sisters’ room, they expected to find Christine and Léa in a similar state. Instead, they found them huddled together in bed, naked. A candle was burning and there was a hammer on a nearby chair, with blood and bits of hair still clinging to it. Upon being questioned by the police, the sisters immediately confessed.
The story of the gruesome murder caused a firestorm in the media. Psychologists came to the defense of the women, arguing both that the two sisters were suffering from folie à deux, otherwise known as shared psychosis or shared delusional disorder. Meanwhile, notable French thinkers declared that the attack was a manifestation of class warfare, the inevitable result of the mistreatment and exploitation of the working class by the wealthy.
Among those who discussed and analyzed the case were such notable French intellectuals as Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Lacan, and Jean Genet. As for the sisters themselves, their explanation was simpler. “I’d rather have had our bosses’ hides than for them to have had ours,” Christine declared.
While the sisters claimed self-defense, their representation cited a family history of mental illness, including a cousin who had died in an asylum and an uncle who had committed suicide.
The court was having none of it, however, and decided that the two sisters were guilty after only 40 minutes of deliberation. Christine was sentenced to death by guillotine, while Léa, who was the meeker of the two and was considered to have been in the thrall of her dominant older sister, was sentenced to ten years of hard labor.
Separation of the siblings proved to be particularly hard on Christine. The elder sister suffered bouts of depression and even one episode in which she attempted to claw out her own eyes—an event that led to her being confined to a straitjacket and also contributed to the commutation of her sentence to life in prison.
At one point, authorities relented and allowed the two sisters to see each other again, at which time Christine reportedly “threw herself” at Léa and began unbuttoning her blouse. This, along with their having been found in bed together in the aftermath of the murders, led some to suspect an incestuous relationship between the two siblings.
What we do know is that Christine eventually stopped eating, at which time she was transferred from the prison to a mental hospital in the city of Rennes. However, on May 18, 1937, she died of cachexia, more commonly known as wasting, as a result of refusing to eat.
Léa fared better, serving only eight years of her ten-year sentence before moving to the town of Nantes under an assumed identity. There, she made a living for herself the only way she knew how—as a maid.
Léa Papin is thought to have died in 1982, though Claude Ventura, a French film producer, claims that he encountered her when he was working on the 2000 documentary En Quête des Soeurs Papin, or In Search of the Papin Sisters. The woman that he claimed was Léa had suffered a stroke which rendered her partially paralyzed and unable to speak. She died in 2001.
In Search of the Papin Sisters wasn’t the only film on the subject. The crime has served as the inspiration for dozens of books, movies, plays, songs, television shows, comic books, paintings, and even an opera. Perhaps the most famous example is Les Bonnes (The Maids), a 1947 play by Jean Genet that is still staged to this day and has since been adapted to film.
The story of the Papin sisters captured the attention of journalists, intellectuals, and psychologists of the time, and it has continued to fascinate storytellers in the years since. Though we may know what motivated the sisters to become killers, it’s a story that we have told one another over and over in an effort to understand this brutal and shocking crime.