Updated: Jun 5, 2022
I made a video of this case, here if you are interested, but if you prefer the text version, here it is!
This case is so famous, it has caught the attention of a number of French intellectuals as an example of the oppressive classes and to bring attention to the plight of workers, among other topics. There is a collection of some of these works that you can buy if you are interested in reading it. The story has been adapted for plays and films as well. So of course, we must be talking about the Papin sisters. It was of extra interest to me because it’s about sisters who kill, much like my sister and I, but the comparisons stop there. A lot of the original subject matter in this case is in French which I unfortunately don’t understand, so I primarily had to research using secondary sources and translations. But on to the case.
These sisters were born in Le Mans, in western France. Although they were six or seven years apart, they had an incredible bond with each other. So to start out with, Christine Papin was born on March 8, 1905 and Lea was born on September 15, 1911. They also had an older sister who joined a convent. From what I was able to find out, their parents had a troubled relationship. Gustave and Chemence dated for a while, then she became pregnant so they ended up getting married in 1901. His family reportedly did not approve of the match and found Chemence to be unpleasant and were concerned about rumors that she was involved with her boss, but Gustave was madly in love, and besides she was pregnant. So despite his parents disapproval, he went ahead and married her. However, things didn’t stay happy for long between them. Gustave started to suspect that Chemence was having an affair with her boss and this wasn’t helped by persistent rumors to this effect. To test this suspicion he proposed that they move to another city. Chemence to all appearances overreacted to this suggestion and threatened to commit suicide. This confirmed the affair to Gustave and really deteriorated the marriage. Gustave started drinking heavily as an escape. Not long after Lea was born, Gustave filed to divorce Chemise.
By all accounts Chemence was a terrible mother to her children in addition to apparently not being the most faithful wife. She sent her oldest child, Emilia, to an orphanage when she was ten. Christine and Lea also didn’t have great childhoods. They were sent to live with their aunt and uncle for a time before also being sent to an orphanage. In the orphanage they were subjected to abuse, both physical and verbal. Christine wanted them to also follow their older sister into a convent, however their mother decided that instead they would go to work, so in the orphanage they were trained as servants. This is kind of where their personalities seemed to be formed. Christine was the more outgoing of the two, and the leader. She became a hard worker and excellent cook in time. Lea was very subordinate to her sister, withdrawn and introverted.
After leaving the orphanage and finding employment, they did well at a few places but it was short-lived. Their mother was unhappy with the low wages they were earning and forced them to find new jobs often so they could find better pay.
This takes the sisters to the Lancelin family. Christine became employed in the Lancelin house and later Lea joined her, marking the first time the sisters would find employment together. Rene Lancelin was a retired lawyer who employed the girls together and they worked there for seven years. Rene’s wife Leonie praised the girls at first for their hard work and service. She was always demanding, but as the years went on Leonie struggled with depression and mental illness. After a time it is alleged that she became abusive towards the Papin sisters for any small errors. She would check the cleanliness of the house with a white glove and would physically attack and abuse the sisters for any mistakes that they made, often hitting their heads on the wall. No one knew what was going on in the house however, where outside sources have said they believed the girls were treated well, given good food and a heated room. So all this takes us to February 2, 1933.
This is where the story goes from really sad to gruesome and horrific. Leonie Lancelin and her daughter went out shopping that day, leaving Christine and Lea to run errands. One of these errands was to pick up an iron which was out for repairs. When they got home and plugged it in, a fuse blew and the electricity went out. Since the Lancelins were out and not expected to return soon, the sisters planned to replace the fuse in the morning since the family wasn’t due to return until the late morning. However, Leonie and her daughter came back unexpectedly, and when Madame Lancelin was informed that there was no electricity she flew into a rage and attacked the girls. At this point is when Christine lost it and fought back. She couldn’t hold back her anger anymore after the years of mistreatment. When Genevieve jumped in to help her mother, Christine turned on her, gauging her fingers out with her eyes. At that time Lea did the same to Leonie, when prompted by Christine. Now that the Lancelins couldn’t see, Christine and Lea went and grabbed a knife and a hammer to kill the women and mutilate their bodies. It ended up being a bloody scene, with teeth everywhere. The skulls and faces were unrecognizable or gone completely. Eyeballs were found meters away from the bodies and there were deep gashes and lacerations across both women’s bodies. It is estimated that this attack took up to two hours. Afterwards, the girls lit a candle and went to bed.
Late that night, Rene came home to find the house dark and assumed that his wife and daughter had gone on to the party they had planned to attend so he went as well. Upon noticing that they were not at the party he became concerned and rushed home, only to find all the doors locked from the inside and dark with the exception of Christine and Lea’s room, which was lit by a candle. Rene got suspicious and went to the police who broke into the house and there found the bodies of Leonie and Genevieve. When the police broke down the door to the girls room they found them naked in their bed along with the bloody knife and hammer. The girls immediately confessed to the killings and were arrested on the spot. They were defiant when caught, saying that they would go if they want to and Lea shut down after a look from her sister and did not speak about the crime. They later said that they had killed the women in self defense, and that they were being attacked and would rather kill than be killed. They also said that they used a knife and hammer, trading the weapons back and forth several times between them. They also later claimed that they had no remorse for the attack and also no hatred towards the women they killed, but that they did not want to accept the abuse from them.
This case immediately caught the attention of the public. The girls had no prior criminal history or anything in their past that would cause concern. They were reported to be very religious and attended church regularly. So of course everyone wondered what could have happened to turn these meek and well-behaved women into murderers. The general public wanted them to be executed, however this case really caught the interest of French intellectuals of the time who argued that this tragedy was the result of the class struggles. Still others said that the sisters were insane and struggled from mental disorders, pointing out that their uncle had committed suicide and their grandfather had a quick and violent temper. Some speculated that this was a case of “twin psychosis” or shared delusional disorder.
When the girls went to trial, Christine was considered to be the main aggressor, with Lea being her accomplice. They were found both sane and guilty, with Christine being sentenced to death by guillotine and Lea was given the lesser sentence of 10 years in prison with hard labor.
Christine really struggled being away from her sister and while she was waiting for her sentence to be carried out she tried to gauge her own eyes out. She was put in a straight jacket and her sentence was also commuted from a death sentence to life in prison.
Here it gets even weirder. Christine still couldn’t handle being away from Lea. After 8 months apart she begged to be housed with her sister. She started acting more erratically, begging to be with her sister, rolling on the floor and using profane and sexual language. Now I don’t know if this can be corroborated because it was denied by the sisters, but the psychologist said he uncovered that the girls had an incestous relationship with each other. People have speculated that this is supported by the fact that the girls rarely wanted to go anywhere or hang out with anyone else when they were employed as servants. They preferred to keep to themselves and just be around each other. The courts however rejected Christine’s request to be with her sister and in protest she refused to eat. She also suffered bouts of depression and was taken to a mental institution. She did not recover and died on May 18, 1937 related to malnourishment from starving herself.
Lea however stayed in prison for 8 years, after which she was released as a result of good behavior. Reportedly she moved in with her mother, changed her name to Marie and lived a quiet life. It is said that she died in 2001 after suffering a stroke. She was buried next to her sister.
So this was quite the story and caught the attention not only of the press and significant figures of the time, but the imagination of the public as well and inspired films, articles and books. There were two notable movies made that are loosely based on the Papin sisters and this case that I watched so you don’t have to. One is entitled Sister My Sister, made in 1994 which was an adaptation of a play. The other one is the 2000 film, Murderous Maids, a French film on the subject.
Sister My Sister is kind of a strange film. It really seemed to focus on the idea of a sexual relationship between the sisters even though this was just speculation. It also portrayed Christine as being somewhat unstable although there didn’t seem to be any reports before the murders of this being the case. It also focused on the troubled relationship that they had with their mother and the resentment that Christine felt for her mother, along with Lea’s desire for her mother’s approval and love. It seemed to hint that there was growing resentment from Mrs. Lancelin (Danzard in the film) because she suspected that the sisters were engaged in a relationship she found inappropriate. In addition she and Christine both suspect that Lea has some interest in their mistresses daughter. It’s really slow and meandering for much of the movie, with splashes of really awkward parts that are uncomfortable to watch.
Murderous Maids is much more recent, and a French film so it is subtitled. It’s also not an easy movie to track down and watch right now. The oldest sister, Amelia, who became a nun is featured a lot more prominently in this version and as a figure of influence in the story. This one also put some focus on a sexual relationship between the sisters. If you just watch the movies you would take this as fact, however there was never confirmation that a relationship existed between them like this, and it was just a claim from a psychologist at the hospital after their arrest that he said he uncovered. So we really have no idea if it’s true or not. If I had to pick, I would definitely say that Murderous Maids is a better film although I liked some of the acting in Sister My Sister better.
Both films take some liberties with the facts of the case and fixate on some of the speculative parts. Both also depict how dehumanizing the conditions the girls lived in were, despite this perhaps being standard practice at the time. They were expected to adhere to their station and treat their employers with deference at all times, despite any abuse they suffered. The films really do help to embody the idea that the girls were somewhat sympathetic figures, although Sister My Sister really played up the sensational and somewhat lurid details more I think.
So, now that we went over the case, has anyone watched either of these movies? I’m a little sad that I did! What are your thoughts on this case? I would love to hear from you. Do you feel sympathetic towards the sisters the way a lot of the intellectuals of the time did?