Life seemed to be against the Papin sisters, Christine and Lea, from the time of their births, in 1905 and 1911 respectively. They were born into a highly dysfunctional family. Their mother reportedly had affairs, and their father was an abusive alcoholic. Their mother never showed them any affection, and was so mentally unstable that she threatened to commit suicide at least once. It must have felt like a blessing to both girls when they were sent to live with aunts and uncles as young children, though it meant they were separated from each other for many years.
By 1926, both sisters were old enough to work. Luckily, they were able to find a live-in domestic work that allowed them to stay together in the home of Rene Lancelin, a lawyer. Also living in the home were Lancelin’s wife, Leonie, and his adult daughter, Genevieve.
They were reportedly good servants, if slightly strange. They went to church every Sunday and did not cause any trouble. But they were very unsocial and even spent their time off together sitting in their shared bedroom. Mrs. Lancelin was a strict employer, but both girls seemed amenable to her constant demands.
Things went along fine in the Lancelin home for 7 years. But on the night of February 2, 1933, the Lancelin women did not show up for a dinner party at a friend’s home. Mr. Lancelin became concerned and went home to find the house quiet yet locked from the inside. Worried, he called the police.
When the police were able to get inside the house, they discovered a scene that would disturb the entire country of France. Mrs. Lancelin and her daughter had been beaten to death. Their heads had been beaten so bad they were not recognizable, and their eyes were gouged out.
The police then went to check on the Papin sisters. They were safe, laying together in bed in their nightclothes. In their room was a hammer covered in blood and human hair. They confessed to the murders right away, saying that they had killed both women after an argument with Mrs. Lancelin. Both were immediately arrested.
While in jail awaiting trial, Christine showed signs of severe mental illness. She suffered fits during which she tried to gouge out her own eyes. And Lea appeared to be completely under the control of her older sister. Police even wondered if they were involved in an incestuous relationship.
The case drew attention from many important French thinkers of the day. Many argued that the murders were a result of the harsh class struggle in France. Some said they should not be blamed since they had to work under difficult conditions for rich people who treated them poorly.
In September 1933, the two were found guilty. Lea received a prison sentence, but Christine was sentenced to death by guillotine, despite her mental illness.
Soon after the original sentencing, Christine’s sentence was changed to life imprisonment. She eventually had to be moved to mental asylum because as her illness worsened and she began to refuse to eat. She died in 1937 after spending the preceding years wasting away. Lea was released in 1941 and lived under an assumed name. She may have died as late as 2000. Their crime is still one of the most shocking crimes in French history.