Christine and Léa had grown up in villages south of Le Mans. They had another sister, Emilia, who became a nun. Both of them spent time in institutions as a result of the breakdown of their parents' marriage. As they grew older, they worked as maids in various Le Mans homes, preferring, whenever possible, to work together.
From about 1926, they worked as live-in maids in the home of Monsieur Rene Lancelin, a retired solicitor, in Rue Bruyere, Le Mans. The family was also made up of his wife and adult daughter, who was still living with her parents (another daughter was married). The two maids were extremely quiet and retiring young women, who kept to themselves and appeared to have no interest but each other.
|Christine (right) and Lea (left) Papin|
On 2 February 1933, Monsieur Lancelin was supposed to meet his wife and daughter for dinner at the home of a friend. When they did not turn up, he was concerned and went back to their home. He was unable to get into the house because the doors were locked on the inside, but he could see the glow of a candle through the window of the maids' room. He then went to the police and one of them got into the house by climbing over the back wall. Inside, he found the bodies of Madame Lancelin and her daughter. They had both been beaten to the point of being unrecognisable, and one of the daughter's eyes was on the floor nearby. Madame Lancelin's eyes had been gouged out and were found in the folds of the scarf around her neck. The two maids were found in their room upstairs, naked in bed together. They confessed to killing the two women. The weapons used had been a kitchen knife, a hammer and a pewter pot that had stood at the top of the stairs.
The sisters were placed in prison and separated from each other. Christine became extremely distressed because she could not see Léa, but at one stage the authorities relented and let her see her sister. She threw herself at Léa and spoke to her in ways that suggested a sexual relationship. In July 1933, Christine experienced a kind of "fit", or episode, in which she tried to gouge her own eyes out and had to be put in a straitjacket. She then made a statement to the investigating magistrate, in which she said that on the day of the murders she had experienced an episode like the one she had just had in prison, and this was what precipitated the murders.
|The Papin sisters during the trial|
The women went on trial in September 1933. Crowds gathered outside Le Mans courthouse and police had to be brought in to control them. During the trial, the girls stated that an argument had developed between Christine and the Lancelin women. Léa had then joined in the fray, and Christine had yelled at her to "tear her eyes out" in reference to Madam Lancelin. The daughter had received similar treatment, and Christine had then gone to the kitchen to get weapons that were used to finish the women off. The blows and hacks were directed almost entirely to their heads, virtually obliterating their faces. The maids gouged the eyes out with their fingers.
Christine's death sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment, which was normal in the case of women. While in prison, she showed acute signs of madness and an intense longing for her sister. She became severely depressed because of being separated from Léa, and frequently would not eat. Before long, she was transferred to a mental asylum at Rennes, where she died of cachexia on 18 May 1937.
Léa Papin was released from prison in 1941, her sentence having been reduced to eight years because of good behaviour. She then lived in the town of Nantes, where she was joined by her mother and earned her livelihood as a hotel maid under a false name. She was thought to have died in 1982, but this was questioned in 2000 by the French filmmaker Claud Ventura. Ventura made a documentary film, En Quete des Soeurs Papin (In Search of the Papin Sisters), in which he claimed to have found Léa alive in a hospice in France. She was partly paralysed as the result of a stroke and could not speak, though she was shown in the film. This Léa died in 2001. It is not known if Ventura had documentation to prove the identity of his Léa.
The Papin sisters became an inspiration for a number of books and films:
Trailer for "Sister My Sister", a 1994 film, with Joely Richardson as Christine and Jodhi May as Lea.
Trailer for "Murderous Maids", a French 2000 film ("Les blessures assassines"), with Sylvie Testud as Christine and Julie-Marie Parmentier as Lea.