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France: Arsenic & No Case

4 minute read

On a hot July morning in 1949, a police commissaire in the town of Loudun, north of Poitiers, knocked on the door of Marie Besnard, a dowdy, 52-year-old widow, and ordered her to come along. The charge: that she had poisoned with arsenic her mother, father, two husbands, father-in-law, mother-in-law, sister-in-law, grandmother-in-law, two cousins, great-aunt, and two close friends. Last week, after twelve years and three trials, one of the century’s most intricate murder cases—and one of the longest—came to an end.

Exhumed & Examined. The legend of Marie Besnard began in the gossip mills of Loudun. Over the years, Marie and her husband Léon had inherited from relatives six houses, two farms, an inn and a café. Amid all this affluence, Léon invited his mistress, Loudun Postmistress Louise Pintou, to move in with him and his wife. But when it was whispered that Marie herself took a lover—a former German prisoner of war 30 years her junior—Léon apparently protested. Several days later, after becoming violently ill over lunch, Léon died; local doctors certified that death was due to uremia.

The gossips had it otherwise. But only after the death of Marie’s 78-year-old mother 15 months later did the police begin to take the rumors seriously. Exhuming the body of Léon Besnard, they found it to contain a heavy dose of arsenic. The state took 31 months to build its case. Townspeople recalled that Marie had once recommended arsenic to an unhappily married friend as a substitute for a hard-to-get divorce and that Léon had asked friends to have an autopsy performed if he died suddenly. Postmistress Pintou flatly accused Marie of murdering their Léon. Thirteen Besnard relatives who had died since 1927 were exhumed and examined by Marseille Toxicologist Georges Beroud; each body showed traces of arsenic. Each of the deceased also had left an inheritance to Marie Besnard. Discarding two of the bodies to make its case more solid, the state opened Marie’s first trial at Poitiers in February 1952, charging her with eleven murders.

But Marie’s lawyer quickly shattered the state’s case by disproving Dr. Beroud’s contention that he could tell arsenic from antimony with the naked eye. Adjourning the trial, the judge sent Marie Besnard back to “preventive detention,” appointed a panel of three new experts. They spent two years re-examining the bodies brought up from Loudun’s cemetery, eliminated five more corpses from the list of victims.

Experts & Superexperts. At Marie’s second trial, which opened in Bordeaux in 1954, three informers who had been placed by police in Marie’s cell claimed that she had planned to hire some Marseille gangsters to rub out her gossipy neighbors—but again the uncertainties of toxicology came to her aid. The experts could not agree, and one became so flustered that he had a tantrum on the witness stand, sat down, crossed his legs, folded his arms, and refused to speak. Thoroughly bewildered, the judge called for a panel of “superexperts,” released Marie Besnard on bail, ordered a new trial in “the near future.”

Last month, seven years later, Marie Besnard’s third trial was called to order in Bordeaux. One by one, the superexperts were called to the witness stand and discredited by Defense Attorneys Albert Gautrat and René Hayot. Squirming in discomfort, the scientists admitted that their methods were not up to date, that “too many factors escape us.” Witnesses suggested that the arsenic could have entered the bodies after burial from the soil, offered testimony that the cemetery concierge at Loudun had grown potatoes near the graves and had sprinkled the patch with fertilizers containing arsenic. Smoothly the defense counsels also demolished the testimony of Loudun’s gossips. Defendant Besnard also remembered that Postmistress Pintou had eaten with her after accusing her of poisoning Léon’s soup. Murmured Marie: “Perhaps you had an antidote for arsenic.”

Alarmed, the prosecution scaled down its charges, said that it would try to convict Marie for only three murders. But the case was lost; the jury took three hours and 25 minutes to acquit Marie Besnard. Unhappily for Marie, the state is not bound to pay her 1 franc of indemnity for the years she spent in preventive detention. The whole case, said one weary attorney, was a powerful argument for cremation.

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