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The Strange Case of the Papin Sisters known as Murderous Maids

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 whit