Dr. Marcel Petiot was accused of murdering 27 people during the World War II Nazi Occupation of Paris, having cruelly misled them into believing that he could smuggle them to freedom in South America. His motives for the killings remain mysterious, and one wonders whether he was the “perfect psychopath” who had ingeniously designed an almost foolproof method for mass murder and a nearly impeccable defense for his actions.
His bold and surprising defense when he was arrested by the French at the war’s end was that he had killed 63, not 27, people, and that they were all justifiable homicides—executions of collaborators and members of the Gestapo that should have earned him the praise of a grateful nation rather than an ignominious walk to the guillotine. The doctor took great pride in his supposed patriotic heroism. The few moments during his spectacular trial—“the theatrical event of the year,” as newspapers called it—when he lost his poise and bantering wit were not when the prosecution spoke of crimes that seemed vile even in wartime, but when doubts were cast on his claims as a member of the Resistance. He seemed deeply offended that anyone would dare question his imaginary valor.
Want to know more about Dr. Petiot? Tune in to "Wartime Crimes" on Discovery's American Heroes Channel on 10/18 at 10pm EST for a special interview with Thomas Maeder.
The Germans, who imprisoned and repeatedly tortured Petiot during the war (before the discovery of his crimes), were firmly convinced that he was a loyal French patriot whose secrets they could never discover, whose spirit they could not break, and whose efficient escape network he used to transport Jews from France was impossible to crack—spies that they sent to discover his methods were never heard from again. Genuine resistants who shared cells with him in prison admired his scornful defiance of his captors at the constant risk of his own life.
Petiot thought of himself as courageous, self-sacrificing, and ingenious. According to Petiot, he constructed a network of secret, though admittedly inept, conspirators who helped plan the “escapes” from occupied France of persecuted people fleeing the Germans. Escapes that, unfortunately, seemed to lead no further than the furnace and lime pit in Petiot’s house on the rue Le Sueur. This he denied. South America is a big place, he taunted his prosecutors—go find them!
For many years he was a devoted physician by day, with a large general practice in central Paris. Adoring patients refused, even decades later when no one else doubted his guilt, to believe that he was a criminal, or anything but a saint.
It is true that there were flaws in the case against Petiot. The bodies in his basement seem to have appeared while he was imprisoned by the Germans. He proudly conceded that he had killed, but said that those bodies were not his: He indignantly claimed that someone else had broken in and littered his cellar with corpses. This inconsistency was never explained. Some of his victims actually had been collaborators, though it was not clear that he always knew—or cared. The prosecution argued that he simply took anyone who happened along, whether Jews, resistants, petty criminals, or collaborators who had subsequently betrayed their German masters. In the end, the case against Petiot was persuasive. The prosecutor, a young newlywed who spent his honeymoon carpeting the floor of his apartment with the elements of the Petiot dossier, conceded to me that if he had prosecuted 27 individual murder cases he would have lost them all, baffled by confusing evidence and Petiot’s arrogant and clever defense. But 27 people, all vanished under similar circumstances, all last seen with same individual, could not be coincidence. The odds were on his side.
Petiot’s motive, however, remains obscure. He did not seem to work for money any more than he seemed to care about money in his medical practice, where he sometimes treated indigent patients for free, or bicycled for hours in the middle of the night to minister to an ailing child. Though he must have accumulated a substantial fortune from his crimes, he lived modestly. People seeking to escape were advised to change all of their wealth into cash, gold, and jewels—packaging themselves as perfect victims—but no trace of these riches was ever found.
Even the victims’ clothing and personal possessions, which would have been valuable during wartime scarcity, simply gathered dust in Petiot’s house until they appeared, as teetering tons of suitcases filled with the assorted items the refugees planned to take in their flight, as a backdrop for his murder trial.
The question arises that, if it was important to Petiot to seem like a hero, why didn’t he act like one? He could truly have killed only Germans and collaborators. They were easy to find. This would even have brought him more money, if he cared, for they were the ones with the power and the goods. It would have required no greater effort or risk, and would have made him forever, and in all eyes, a genuine hero. But the dividing line between good and evil people is thin and sometimes ambiguous.
One infamous collaborator was a petty criminal who volunteered to fight against the enemy, he even offered to join suicide squads, and only after being repeatedly and insultingly rebuffed by French organizations because of his sordid past, embittered, went over to the Germans—becoming the head of the French Gestapo. Some bad people used their viciousness to kill for a good cause—criminals transformed by circumstance into heroes. It seems puzzling that Marcel Petiot, who possessed so many of the traditional qualities of a hero, and who aspired to appear as one, should have chosen the path that he did.
The only probable explanation is that the personas of the resistant and the collaborator each only fool half of the people. Marcel Petiot fooled everyone, the French and the Germans, and even those who helped with the abortive escapes of his victims. He was more cunning than anyone.
Soon after my book The Unspeakable Crimes of Dr. Petiot came out I was invited by a prominent forensic psychiatrist to lecture on the case to his medical school class. Afterwards, I remarked to him that I had always been under the impression that psychiatry could do nothing for a pure psychopath like Petiot—that the possibility of cure required that an individual acknowledge that there was something wrong with him and that he seek help from someone else, something that they would never do. “Oh, no, you are wrong,” he assured me, only half in jest. “We have made great progress. There is now a very effective treatment for people like Petiot. You kill them.”
About the Author
Thomas Maeder is the author of five books, including The Unspeakable Crimes of Dr. Petiot (1981), Crime and Madness: The Origins and Evolution of the Insanity Defense (1985), and Adverse Reactions (1994), and coauthor of seven humor books. He has also written for magazines and newspapers, including the Atlantic and Scientific American; designed science museum exhibits; worked in the Office of Research at Georgetown University Medical Center; and consulted and created educational programs in the medical technology and life sciences industries. Maeder lives in Narberth, Pennsylvania.
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