Christine and Lea Papin

Christine and Lea Papin / Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The haunting story of the murders committed by the Papin sisters has disturbed and puzzled French intellectuals to this day. While there are many debates surrounding the motivation behind their brutal actions — class warfare and insanity among them — it’s difficult to ever fully understand what led them to brutally slay their wealthy employers.

The early lives of the Papin Sisters

Life in the Papin household wasn’t often admirable. Their parents, Clémence Derré and Gustave Papin, were in conflict long before the birth of their children. Surrounded by whispers of Clémence’s, the birth of their first daughter, Emilia, in 1902 brought no celebration.

Gustave, consumed with the thoughts of Clémence’s potential betrayal, relocated the miserable family in 1904.

In 1905, Christine came into the picture, much to her parent’s disgust. With her mother severely depressed and her father deep in his alcoholism, they were unable to adequately care for her.

They sent Christine to live with her aunt shortly after her birth. She was later relocated to a Catholic orphanage at seven. At the age of 10, her sister, Emilia, was also sent away Bon Pasteur Catholic orphanage.

Lastly, Léa was born in 1911, the final child that Clémence and Gustave would have together. In such a tense household, she grew up quiet, nervous, and altogether unintelligent. With an obedient spirit (which would later doom her), Léa was a perfect child, yet her parents sent her to live with her uncle.

The time that the sisters did spend with their parents was cluttered with chaotic arguments, attempted molestation, rape, and other forms of physical and verbal abuse. Eventually, their parents called for a divorce, as their ignorant mother grew jealous of how much attention that Gustave was paying to the girls.

Christine and Lea Papin PortraitChristine and Lea Papin Portrait
Christine and Lea Papin Portrait / Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

In 1926, a troubled Christine and Léa scored a dream position: a live-in maid service in Le Mans. Who were their wealthy employers? René and Léonie Lancelin, along with their daughter, Geneviève. René, a retired lawyer, purchased a gorgeous two-story townhouse on his dime. Employing the Papin sisters extended the luxury of his home to them.

At first, this arrangement seemed stellar. Although it was a job, their residency with the Lancelins guaranteed a stable household without the threat of being sent to an orphanage or random relative. They were well-fed, clothed, housed, and paid. Additionally, the help that they provided to the Lancelins was top-notch, as they were exceptional workers.

So, what went wrong in their employment that led to their tragic actions? A number of factors played into the escalating tension in the Lancelin household. For starters, Christine was still deeply traumatized by childhood abuse, causing her to be emotionally unpredictable. While Léa didn’t share the same instability, she was also obedient and listened to her impulsive sister for cues about how to behave.

Poor treatment from the Lancelins

To add insult to injury, the Lancelin family was ultimately detached from the suffering sisters. While they provided for them physically, they treated them with the same lack of attention as their parents had. In fact, despite being employed by the Lancelin family for nearly seven years, René never spoke to either woman.

“This quarrel with the mother certainly soured the character of the girls, who became sour and taciturn. Since that time, neither my wife nor I have exchanged conversations with them outside of service. They were polite, we felt that the observations would be poorly received and as our house service was very well done…did not give rise to any criticism, we were patient.”

-René Lancelin

To worsen their relationship, Léonie was cold and withdrawn. In addition to double-checking their dusting habits with white gloves, she only communicated to them through written notes. After a while, their elitism wore down on the spirits of the Papin sisters, especially Christine.

As tension simmered between a paranoid 27-year-old Christine, an introverted 21-year-old Léa, and the Lancelin ladies, it seemed to be only a matter of time before the Papins were fired…or took their anger out on their employers. Their conflict came to a devastating fever pitch on one stormy February evening.

The beginning of the gruesome murders

On the evening of February 2, 1933, René, Léonie, and Geneviève weren’t supposed to be home. René was out with a friend and his wife and daughter set out on an evening shopping trip, planning to retire to Léonie’s brother’s house.

On the other hand, the Papins were busy with chores and errands. One such errand was to retrieve the family’s busted iron from a local repair shop.

After picking up the machine, the sisters plugged the still-faulty iron in, leading to an electrical blowout. Since Léonie and Geneviève planned to be gone through the evening, the sisters saw no need to repair the iron that night.

They decided to push off the task until the next morning. While this would’ve worked in their favor if the Lancelin women stayed out, they made the fatal mistake of coming home early.

When Léonie and Geneviève swung by their home on the way to Léonie’s brother, they found their power system in disarray. Rather than being understanding of the simple electrical failure, Léonie started a rage-induced attack on the two Papin sisters on their first-floor landing.

Unfortunately for Léonie, Christine had more pent-up rage in her pinkie than Léonie had in her entire body. As soon as the attack started, Christine smashed a hard jug over the head of Léonie. Meanwhile, Geneviève attempted to fight for her mother, much to her regret.

In response, Christine turned to Geneviève and gouged the poor girl’s eyes out. A misguided Léa looked to Christine for direction, who told her to perform the same horrendous act on Léonie. Léa, obedient as ever, tore Léonie’s eyes from her head.

The brutal finish

A now defenseless duo, Léonie and Geneviève had no chance against the sisters. Christine and Léa took this opportunity to escalate their vicious crime. After raiding the kitchen, the sisters took turns beating the Lancelin women with hammers, knives, and kitchenware until they were undoubtedly dead.

Additionally, they stabbed them beyond the point of recognition, cutting up their faces, their chests, their thighs, their butts, and their genitals. After two hours of overkill, the attack died down. The Papin sisters retired to their room with the weapons, stripped naked, and curled up under the sheets, waiting for René’s return.

“Seeing that Mrs. Lancelin was going to throw herself on me, I jumped on her face and I tore her eyes off with my fingers…During this time, my sister Lea jumped on Mrs. Lancelin and also tore off her eyes.

“When we did that, they laid down or squatted on the spot; then I rushed down to the kitchen and went to get a hammer and a kitchen knife.”

-Christine Papin

Of course, Léonie and Geneviève didn’t make their dinner date with René, and the worried husband returned home to look for his family. He found his townhouse pitch black, locked, and painfully silent. With police assistance, he was able to break into the home, discovering his murdered wife and daughter.

While he initially feared that his two housekeepers had also been slaughtered, he was surprised to find the Papin sisters in perfect health…and covered in the blood of the Lancelin ladies. To his devastation, they took immediate responsibility for the murders of Léonie and Geneviève.

Following their arrest, Léa remained rather quiet, frightened, and reserved. Christine’s behavior, paranoia, and outrage only continued to escalate behind bars. At one point, she attempted to claw her own eyes out, forcing the officers to put her in a straight jacket while awaiting her punishment for her crimes.

In and beyond the courtroom, discussions of motivation were brought to the table.

Doctors cited psychosis and mental instability as possible reasons behind the gruesome slayings.

Some believed that the sisters shared a psychotic disorder — folie à deux — that caused them to hear voices, experience severe paranoia, and violently snap on the Lancelins. Considering their family history, this wasn’t a weak defense.

However, many thinkers felt that the sisters’ actions were nothing more than a rebellion against the upper class. They saw their violent actions as backlash for the cold, callous, and detached way that the Lancelins treated the duo.

Some people even idolized the women, feeling that they had made an example of their elitist employers. The courts were not so forgiving.

“Christine watches me. She is always beautiful and young. She smiles as in the old days: with irony! I come apart, I shrivel up, I sweat from fear, I faint.”

-Léa Papin, France-Soir, 1966

What happened to the Papin sisters?

At the end of the day, murder was murder. While some felt that they were insane at the time of the crimes, the courts found the Papin sisters competent. Since Christine was seen as the ringleader, she was sentenced to death by guillotine in the Le Mans public square near the end of 1933.

However, a self-harming meltdown in her holding cell caused the court to reduce her sentence to life in prison. Still, Christine’s mental instability only escalated. She ended up refusing food and succumbing to starvation in 1937.

On the other hand, Léa was viewed as an accomplice to the spine-tingling crimes, receiving a lesser sentence: 10 years in prison. After eight years of good behavior, Léa was freed without her sister at her side. She moved back in with her mother, Clémence, and lived quietly under the radar until her passing.

While the world may never fully understand what led the Papin sisters to violently murder their wealthy employers, the brutality of their crime will remain infamous in France for the rest of history.

A deeper dive — Related reading from the 101:

The Papin sisters aren’t the only killer bit of history in France…

As the Papin sisters proved, sweet-looking households can hold murderous secrets.