An Unexpected Criminal

The Unspeakable Crimes of Dr. Petiot, by Thomas Maeder

Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909) believed there was an association between physical characteristics and the innate tendency of individuals toward sociopathy and criminal behaviour. Lombroso.JPG

Lombroso’s main idea was inspired -partly- by evolutionary and genetical studies, and proposed that certain criminals had physical evidence of an “atavistic” or hereditary sort, reminiscent of primitive stages of human evolution. These anomalies -called stigmata– could be expressed in terms of abnormal forms or dimensions of the skull and jaw, assymmetries in the face and in other parts of the body.

These associations were later shown to be highly inconsistent, and that’s when new theories based on the environmental causation of criminality became dominant.

Today studies show that serial killers and psychopaths can look extraordinarily ordinary on the outside. Jack Levin –director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University in Boston– says that’s pure mythology that serial killers are loners or antisocial, and that most of those psychopaths may appear successful and perfectly normal, beyond any suspicion.

Dr. Marcel Petiot was one of those psychopaths who wore the mask of sanity in order to  prey on more than 150 men, women and children desperate to escape Nazi-occupied Paris.

On March 11, 1944, police were called to investigate foul-smelling smoke pouring from the chimney of an elegant private house near the Arc de Triomphe. In the basement of 21 rue Le Sueur, they made the first of many gruesome discoveries: a human handcover90248-medium.png dangling from the open door of a coal-burning stove.

Proceeding to the rear of the home, detectives found rib cages, skulls, and internal organs strewn across the floor and large piles of quicklime mixed with fragments of bone and flesh. Were Hitler’s henchmen responsible for the carnage? Or was it the work of French Resistance fighters purging Paris of traitors and German spies?

As the investigation unfolded, a more sinister possibility emerged. The building’s owner, Dr. Marcel Petiot, was a handsome and charismatic physician whose past was littered with bizarre behavior and criminal activity. When he was finally captured eight months later, Dr. Petiot claimed he was a loyal member of the Resistance who helped kill Nazi collaborators. Prosecutors charged that he was a sadistic mass murderer who lured at least twenty-seven innocent people to their deaths with promises of escape. Estimates of the actual number of his victims ran as high as 150.

Thomas Maeder reconstructs one of the twentieth century’s most cruel and disturbing murder case from the first stages of investigation to the sensational trial. The Unspeakable crimes of Dr.Petiot is a compelling reading about one of the most brilliant yet sadistic mind ever known.


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