"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, September 29, 2014

Arsenic is a Girl's Best Friend

"If you commit murder for insurance money, or for mere pleasure, make it wholesale. Never stop at one."
-Edmund Pearson, "Rules For Murderesses"

In that notable club, "The League of Accused Poisoners," Marie Besnard ranks up there with Adelaide Bartlett and Madeleine Smith in the prized "How the Hell Did They Get Away With It?" category.

Besnard was born in provincial France in 1898 to well-to-do farmers. In 1920 she married Auguste Antigny. Soon after the wedding, Marie let everyone know that her husband was a poor, sickly creature who would not survive for long. Sure enough, in 1929, after a long period of sickness, he died of tuberculosis—at least, that was the official verdict at the time.

Scandalously soon after Antigny’s death, Marie was consoling herself with a dashing young fellow named Leon Besnard. They quickly married, to the despair of his relatives (her new sister-in-law was fond of referring to Marie as “this horror of a woman.")

The newlyweds lived happily and prosperously together. They owned land, a vineyard, fine horses. Marie, it was rumored by their ever-antagonistic neighbors, found an extra measure of contentment in the person of their handsome young German farm-hand.

All in all, life for the Besnards seemed pure sunshine except for one small cloud: Marie’s nearest and dearest displayed an alarming tendency to drop stone dead around her. The fact that the Besnards profited financially from all these burials was a curious coincidence. Over the next ten or fifteen years, the list of fatalities included:

Leon’s Aunt Louise. Died after drinking from a bottle of wine the Besnards had given her.  When Leon learned—during her funeral—that she had left her money solely to his mother and sister, he angrily threw some holy water on her grave and stalked off, fuming.

Marie’s father. Died immediately of a “cerebral hemorrhage” after taking some medicine his daughter gave him.

Marie’s mother.

Leon’s father. Bad mushrooms. Much later, the investigation into his death inspired Marie to utter one of the greatest lines in criminal history: “I can’t imagine how the doctor found arsenic in him; I was not even there.”

Leon’s mother. Pneumonia. So they decided.

The Besnards’ best friend, Toussaint Rivet. Marie was his wife’s heir. The next fatality on the list should be no great shock by this point. It was…

…Toussaint’s widow Blanche. After her husband’s death, she gave her house to the Besnards in return for a small stipend of money and free lodging for life. That life did not last for very long after the deal had been signed. Death certificate ruled “aortitis,” or an inflammation of the heart.

Leon’s sister Lucie. She was found hanging in her house. The verdict was suicide, even though she was an extremely devout Roman Catholic and had shown no desire whatsoever to end her life.

Leon’s cousin Pauline Bodineau. Ate a bowl of lye thinking it was her dessert. The sort of simple mistake that could happen to anyone. She was followed in death one week later by…

Her sister Virginie Lalleron, who made exactly the same error with what must have been a remarkably appetizing-looking stash of lye. Before her death, she told a policeman that Leon was trying to take her stash of gold away from her, but she was ignored.

In the midst of all this carnage, Marie learned that Leon was having an affair, and his days were also swiftly numbered. Shortly before his demise, he told his lady friend, “If I die, see there is an autopsy.” He knew his Marie.

Soon after Marie became a widow a second time, she was arrested, not for the reasons you might be assuming, but because she couldn’t resist broadening her résumé by forging the signature of one of her lost loved ones to a money order. She was sent to prison for two years.

In the meantime, someone finally noticed that Marie had left quite a trail of corpses in her wake. They were all exhumed, and they were all (including Antigny) found to contain whopping amounts of arsenic.

Once the relevant authorities took a peek at the analyst’s report, they wasted no time bringing Marie back to the dock early in 1952, on far more serious charges than forgery.

After the prosecution had presented the court with this monotonously long list of dead bodies and poison analyses, and pointed out that thanks to all these deaths, Marie had acquired the collected wealth of two families, it was unanimously felt that this was an open-and-shut case if ever there was one. It didn’t help Marie’s case that she so looked like a professional poisoner. She was a pale, forbidding-looking woman, who, in the black she had had to adopt so frequently, looked like a sinister possum. When asked to comment on the remarkably high mortality rates that surrounded her, she would sigh about her "poor darlings" and croon in a high, nasal voice, “I pray for my dead every day.” Onlookers didn’t doubt that, but they could not help but wonder with a shudder just what she was praying for.

This wealth that had landed Marie in the dock was, ironically, able to provide her with an absolutely top-notch defense team. When they arose to begin their seemingly hopeless task, they had quite a surprise for everyone. They contended that, whatever Marie’s doings may have been, the Marseilles lab that had analyzed the bodies was an amazingly inept and sloppy institution. They seemingly could not perform the simplest tasks without making a bungle of the business. The lawyers were able to make a plausible case that no report coming from this lab could be trusted.  In addition, the defense was able to introduce the possibility that arsenic in the soil of the cemeteries may have leached into the bodies. The increasingly flustered and angry medical men were, against their will, miraculously transformed into witnesses for the defense.

With these witnesses hopelessly discredited, the case against Marie collapsed like a sand castle when the tide rolls in. The court adjourned. In the meantime, while Marie sat in prison, several informers went to the police with the news that Marie had tried to hire them to kill Leon's girlfriend and several other neighbors who were gossiping about her.

However amateurish the lab work may have been, the authorities were convinced they had a human scorpion on their hands, and they were determined she not get away with it. The court met again. Although they brought on different scientists, from different labs, who came up with essentially the same damning findings, the defense vigorously mounted challenges to each and every single word the expert witnesses said. The end result was another adjournment while the court decided how to handle the conundrum of a very guilty-looking defendant who had very little utterly unassailable evidence against her.

Marie’s third trial came in 1961. (Since the conclusion of her second trial, she had been free on bond.) By this time, both the prosecution and the public were so weary of the whole thing that they threw up their hands and allowed her to have an acquittal. She died in 1980, no doubt quite content at the results of a lengthy job well done.

1 comment:

  1. Good Lord, what a monstrous person. After a few murders, why would anyone have anything to do with her? In fact, if I had been a relative, I would have killed her first; there's no way any court would have convicted me, especially after Besnard's first trial.


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