May 11, 2007
The Case of Marie Besnard
On May 11, 1949, the body of Leon Besnard was exhumed.
Leon's wife, Marie, has been called the Queen of Poisoners. She was accused of having poisoned 13 people in Loudun, France, and was tried 3 times, but was ultimately acquitted on all counts.
Marie was born Marie Davaillaud in 1896, and was remembered by classmates as being "vicious and immoral" and "wild with boys." She was 23 when she married her cousin, Auguste Antigny, a frail man known to suffer from tuberculosis. Marie was 27 when he died, apparently of pleurisy, and two years later she married Leon Besnard.
Leon and Marie lived modestly, but hoped for better things. When two wealthy aunts of Leon's died, and left the bulk of their estates to Leon's parents, the couple invited the parents to move in with them. Soon thereafter, Leon's father died, apparently from eating poisoned mushrooms. Leon's mother followed three months later, a victim of pneumonia. The parents' estate was left to Leon and his sister, Lucie, who committed suicide a few months later.
Meanwhile, Marie's father had succumbed to a cerebral hemorrhage.
The Besnards then took in a wealthy couple, the Rivets, as boarders. The Rivets were childless, and soon became attached to the Besnards. Monsieur Rivet died of pneumonia, and Madame Rivet soon followed, stricken with nausea and convulsions, which her doctor attributed to "the chest sickness". The Rivets had named Marie Besnard as their sole beneficiary.
Two elderly cousins were the next to go, Pauline and Virginie Lalleron. Pauline died after mistaking a bowl of lye for her dessert one night, and, amazingly, Virginie made the identical mistake a week later.
The Besnards by this time had amassed six houses, an inn, a cafe, and several stud farms. Leon had taken a mistress, Louise Pintou, who was the Loudun Postmistress, and had invited her to move into the Besnard home. Marie had also taken a lover, a handsome German ex-prisoner of war. Leon died at home, apparently of uremia, but not before he had told friends that he believed he was being poisoned, and asked them to demand an autopsy if he died.
Marie's aged mother had also died the same year.
Naturally, by this time rumors were flying. Death threats were sent through the mails to some of the local gossips. Madame Pintou, who had openly accused Marie, had her home broken into, where the burglar proceded to selectively destroy every gift Madame Pintou had ever received from Leon. Another pair of accusers was forced to flee Loudon after arsonists burned their home.
One acquaintance remembered that Marie had once recommended arsenic as an alternative to divorce.
Finally, on May 11th, the body of Leon Besnard was exhumed, and investigators found approximately twice the arsenic levels in his remains that would have been necessary to kill him. Twelve other bodies were then exhumed: both sets of parents, Marie's first husband, the Rivets, Marie's sister-in-law, the elderly cousins, a grandmother-in-law, and a great aunt. (The autopsy on Marie's first husband was possible only because the undertaker had accidentally left Auguste's shoes on, and his toenails were preserved enough to be tested for arsenic.) Of the 13, 12 bodies were found with significant traces of arsenic. One death had exceeded the French statute of limitations, so Marie was charged with 11 deaths.
At Marie's first trial, her lawyers attacked the testimony of the toxicologist, Dr. Georges Beroud, in particular his assertion that he could tell the difference between arsenic and antimony with the naked eye. The lawyers demanded a new trial, and Marie was sent to jail in "preventative detention" while a new panel of experts was assembled.
While Marie was incarcerated, 3 informers reported to the police that Marie had attempted to hire them to "rub out" some of the neighborhood gossips.
The new panel of four experts took 2 years to examine the forensic evidence. They were forced to eliminate 5 of the charges - there was simply not enough of the physical evidence left to test for arsenic. In the meantime, Marie's lawyers had learned of a new theory that arsenic could enter a body from the ground through the actions of anaerobic bacteria.
The second trial was also ended up being ruled a mistrial. The experts could not agree, and one of them became so upset he left the witness stand, sat down and folded his arms, and refused to testify.
A third trial was held seven years later. (Marie was free on bond during this period.) There was very little physical evidence left to test, and the experts admitted that their techniques were not up to date and that "too many factors escape us." In addition, the defense attorneys had learned that the Loudun cemetery concierge had grown potatoes near the burial sites and had sprinkled his garden with fertilizers containing arsenic.
On December 12, 1961, Marie Besnard was acquitted. The jury had taken only 3 hours and 25 minutes to deliberate.
Photo Credit: © Steve Knight