Thursday, September 22, 2011

“Queen of Stranglers,” French Serial Killer Marie Ret - 1897


FULL TEXT (Article 1 of 2):

~ STRANGLERS OF PARIS – FOUND IN REAL LIFE. – The Daring Leader of a Band of Parisian Garroters and Robbers, at Last in the Hands of Justice – The Story of Her Startling Career – A Life History as Gruesome and Bloody as Any Ever Traced by Gaboriau Drawing to Its Close – The Heroine’s Strange Personality and Her Thrilling Capture. ~

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After months of patient and novel strategy, exhausting all the resources of the cleverest detectives in the world, Marie Ret, “Queen of the Stranglers,” has at last fallen into the toils of the Paris police.

All Paris breathes easier. All France feels a sense of relief, for with this vicious woman abroad since she began her cruel career of crime no one has felt at ease

Marie Ret is known to have played an important part in at least a dozen horrible murders by strangulation, and several murders are laid to her individual charge. There is little or nothing in modern history of womankind with which to compare the sanguinary career of this “Queen of the Stranglers.” Cunning, unnatural and uncanny as she has been in her mad, murderous life, the one touch of nature that has moved her in years has been her undoing. Her capture was effected through her reckless desire to meet again the man she loved.

Marie’s life history excels in gruesome criminality of the lurid imagination of Sue or Gaboriau. The stamp of the murderess is on her features. Though old in crime, she is but twenty-eight years of age. She is 5 feet 8 inches tall, and has a finely proportioned figure. She stands erect, and defiance is constantly depicted on her hardened face. She is lithe and active, and her strength is phenomenal for one of her sex. She is without fear, and a fiend incarnate when roused.

Her hair is jet black, and her sunken gray eyes are set unusually close together. Her features give evidence that she was once a handsome woman, but her expression now Is more that of a beast of prey than any human being—fierce, lowering and furtive. Her sinister aspect is intensified by several scars, the mark of, desperate hand-to-hand encounters. One gash, more ugly than the others, lies deep in her left cheek and rims across her nose. Her hands are singularly small and soft, indicating that she has done no menial work.

The parentage of Marie is unknown. She seems to have been a waif of the streets, left to mold her own destiny. She chose the worst career imaginable – that of a persistent destroyer of human life. She fell among the wickedest people of the wickedest city, and from her earliest girlhood she has been marked as the companion, instigator, accomplice and mistress of some of the worst Parisian criminals. She made the dens of Belleville and Montmartre her rendezvous. She was loved, in their rough way, by the vicious inhabitants of those districts. They loved her for her daring, and as she grew to womanhood, her influence among the most dangerous organized gangs of the steadily increased.

The exigencies of her career of crime she has applied the power of initiative resource and personal daring which compelled the admiration and docile obedience of successive bands of robbers and systematic murderers. Having played their best parts, as subjects of their “girl queen” they have nearly all gone to the guillotine or are paying the penalty for their crimes in New Caledonia.

But Marie time and time again eluded the myrmidons of the law, for her instruments, her desperate accomplices, false to all else, were true to the last to her, and could not be induced to give the police information concerning her. Three times this Amazon among women, who thoroughly deserves the soubriquet by which she has long been known, “the Terror of the Fortifications,” has been in the grasp of the police, but all the arts of the examining magistrate failed to trap her into convicting herself.

Two years ago Paris was aghast at the perpetration of a series of eleven terrible murders. The method of each was strangulation, and the object in each case was apparently nothing more than murder. The scenes of all the crimes were the vicinities of the principal gates leading out of Paris through the fortifications. The victims were of the lower walks of life or of the middle classes, workmen or small tradesmen. In each instance they were attacked as they were returning afoot to their homes in the city in the dark winter evenings. In no case was the booty obtained more than 100 francs. Everything of value was taken from the victims’ bodies, even their boots and clothes.

It was known that a strong-minded young woman of the lower class of society was the chief actor in these tragedies, and she soon came to be known as “the Terror of the Fortifications.” The Paris fortifications are surrounded by a broad moat full of slimy green water. It was in the water of this moat that the bodies were found, and it was found after examination that each presented similar injuries. The gruesome work was evidently that of garroters, trained by some master hand. That hand is now known to have been Marie Ret’s.

The modus operandi was for Marie to decoy the intended victim into the thick bushes surrounding the fortifications. Once inside he was seized from behind by two accomplices and garroted. To make assurance doubly sure the woman leader herself plunged a dagger into the victim’s heart. After the body had been stripped and the clothing rifled the corpse was cast into the stagnant water of the moat.

Since midsummer the police have been gradually gathering in members of the murderous band, until nearly twenty have been taken. But the capture of which they are proudest is that of the woman leader, who was put under lock and key. On Thursday, Nov. 4, more than a dozen murders and many robberies are charged against them. In the lodgings of one member of .the band nearly fifty stolen watches and twenty pairs of boots were found.

The male members of the gang when captured from time to time were induced to furnish more or less information about their male accomplices, but were one and all as mute as oysters when questioned by the Juge d’Instruction concerning their chief. Most of them trembled and turned pale at the mention of her name. Marie’s power over her associates was not that of a handsome woman over the average man, but was the power of a strong will over weaker ones. Even after six men known to belong to Marie Ret’s band had been arrested and convicted on charges of murder two more horrible murders were committed to precisely the same manner as the others, and it is believed that they were committed by Marie herself. Detectives then swarmed about the fortifications, and the woman murderer was driven into deeper retreat than ever.

Despairing of all other means of detecting her the police decided to put Jacques Gozin, a dangerous character with whom she was known to have had intimate relations, under perpetual surveillance. Jacques is a handsome young man, and is reported to be a shop thief. Her infatuation for him was safely relied on to lead Marie eventually to her capture. For five months the shadowing of Gozin proved ineffectual. As the close watch kept upon him made it impossible for him to gain his livelihood by the usual means he was, reduced to an almost starving condition.

Eventually, on Nov. 4, Marie risked everything to see her starving lover. She went to visit him in a low cabaret in the Avenue des Ternes. There several detectives and two gendarmes swooped down upon her. A desperate struggle ensued, and the woman proved almost a match for them even against such odds. She fought like an enraged tigress at bay, and several of the officers bear the marks of a sharp knife which aha managed to use freely before she was overpowered.

Like most murderers Marie Ret was always a woman of very few words, and since her capture she has not betrayed herself. Since her detention she has lived in constant terror of her accomplices giving information about her to the police. She has always been regarded by her associates as being a mascot, but now that she has fallen from power into the hands of the police, like many of her subjects before her, the officials believe that they will halve no difficulty in getting evidence against her from her confederates. The criminal hordes of Belleville and Montmartre are as much relieved by her capture as are the law-abiding citizens of Paris.

Several murders having been laid to her individual charge, this police expect to be able to send her to the guillotine soon after the next assizes.

The capture of Marie Ret will lead at last to the death of Gustave De Feu, known in Paris as the “Murderer made by God.” For three years the guillotine has been hungry for him, but a happy phrase and the sentiment of the French people have, up to this time saved him.

In all the annals of Parisian crime no murderer has excited the same interest as De Feu. His case from every standpoint is unique, and that has been his salvation. He is the first murderer sentenced to the guillotine in France who has not been executed within a reasonable time after sentence had been passed.

Three years have elapsed since De Feu was ordered to the guillotine, but so tremendous was the demand, made by the French public in his behalf that ho was transported for life to the French penal settlement at New Caledonia.

De Feu was a brick mason. He was accounted a good workman. He held one job continuously for fourteen years. He lost it, not through any fault of his own, but as a result of a general strike in the trade.

Up to that time and for months after no one paid particular attention to him. His life had been a regular routine. But the strike altered that.

He had to get work. He, applied at many places and at many places got employment. But he was forced out of every job by a bodily deformity. He had enormous hands – hands that wore out of all proportion to his body; hands that would have looked out of place on the biggest of giants.

They were monstrous hands – three times as large as a human hand should be. They were so large and long and ungainly that all his fellow-workmen laughed at them and ridiculed him out of his position. They were his curse, those hands. But they were strong. Between his fingers and thumbs he could bend money and iron. He could grind a brick to pieces in the palm of his hand, or twist a horseshoe into any shape.

But laughed out of every position De Feu could earn no money, and having no money he could buy no food. When he begged men and women would say to him, “A man with hands like you should be able to make a living.” Thus did his hands place him between two fires.

He was hungry and he could stand it no longer. One night near the Paris fortifications he asked a man for money He was refused. With one hand, De Feu grasped the man by the neck. With the other rifled his pockets. He ran, but at the point of a revolver two gendarmes arrested him. They brought him back to the victim to get his account of the affair. The victim was dead. The one grasp of that monstrous hand had broken his neck.

De Feu was tried, convicted and sentenced to the guillotine. The trial was memorable. De Feu said only one thing. He said: “If I am a murderer, then I am a murderer made by God. I didn’t mean to kill him. It was my hand. I didn’t know It was so strong.”

That was all he said. But that speech caught the French people. They arose en masse in his defense, and for three years he has cheated the guillotine.

But the capture of  Marie Ret brings out the true story. De Feu proves to have been a member of her gang of stranglers and now no doubt he will suffer the penalty of his crime.

[“Stranglers of Paris – Found in Real Life,” The World (New York, N.Y.), Nov. 14, 1897, p. 33]

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FULL TEXT (Article 2 of 2): Thirty-two more have been looked up behind the cold, grey walls of Paris. Two hundred and eight are in the shadow of the guillotine, if M. Cochefort, the Chief of Police in this capital of gaiety and crime, is right Eugene Sue’s “The Mysteries of Paris” has been outdone, Marie Ret, of Paris, had a gang of eighteen stranglers which she had gathered around her. More than thirty murders were directly found to have been committed by this organisation of trained assassins, which had for chief a woman, and whose principal black workman was “the murderer made by God” — the man whose hands were built so strong and large that with one simple twist of his awful wrist he could squeeze the life out of a man’s neck as you would squeeze and break a straw. Now, through the capture and incarceration of the murderous clan headed by Pierre Columbin, it has been learned that not only were there others — thirty-two have been arrested in this last great effort — but there were more than a hundred and ninety others. Indeed, it almost teems as if a great clearing house for crime had been established in Pans, whose head-quarters were the dingy lodgings of Columbin, on the Rue de Venice — in the very shadow of Notre Dame, and in a quarter where the police watch as closely as they do in any place on earth — and that under this horrid leadership all the assassins of the earth had gathered here to do their deeds of violence.

The capture of Marie Ret and her crew of desperadoes was accomplished, as in the capture of most gangs of criminals in which a woman or in which women play an important part, through jealousy.

The real panic began in June. Neuilly, Levalloisperril, Courbevoise, and Clichy were driven nearly wild with excitement. Nearly every night some person was reported from one or the other of these towns as missing. Such an epidemic of disappearances never had occurred before in the vicinity of Paris. At the same time the number of corpses found in the Seine began to rapidly increase. Even the hardened Frenchmen who have charge of the awful Paris morgue, where the bodies of the dead are exposed to the public in a great show window, shuddered as day after day and day after day, drowned men and women were brought in labelled by the police, “Found in the Seine.” Each one had on it, somewhere, the marks of violence. More startling than these general signs of murder was the fact that every body found during this period of the Seine’s horrid fertility was minus its shoes and stockings. It has since been discovered that it was a superstition of all the members of the gang headed by the dreadful Columbin to take off and gruesomely preserve the shoes and stockings of the people they had killed.

In something less than three months not less than fifty-four bodies of murdered persons were taken out of the Seine within the very boundaries of Paris. Up to that time, and, indeed, up to this time, no proper arrangements were made for dragging the river outside the fortifications. It is now believed that in the “back-water” of the Seine — these curious eddies which swirl and swing in the curves and little bays of this strange French river before and after the regular confining walls which hold it to a straight course within the limits of Paris— it is now believed that in these “back-waters” not. less than a honored other victims of this frightful crowd are lying, with staring eyes and rigid flesh — dead.


The first capture — the capture which has led up to the incarceration of all the gang — was cleverly made about a week ago. Inspector Gobert was the detective who is entitled to the credit of catching the first of the crew which had for months defied the ingenuity of all the police at Paris. Gobert had been among the forty or fifty men assigned to catch the murderers operating in the suburbs. He had do particular reason for doing so, but he fastened his eyes on a man known as Lambinet, an ex-convict of tremendous stature and great strength, who was celebrated as one who was always armed and who earnestly would make an effort to kill the next police officer who should attempt to put him behind the bars. Many and many a eight Gobert searched for him in those pans of Paris which men of his character frequent. At two in the morning, Gobert, who is a very little man without physical strength, but with a determination which might fit a Samson, wandered around to the “Chateau Rouge,” once the palace of the famous Gabrielle d’Estee, but now the resort of the lowest criminals in Paris. It gets its name from the fact that there is nothing about it which is not painted red. But night after night he found Lambinet missing. Next day murders were always reported from the suburbs; A night or two afterwards the suspected man would turn up. Gobert would question him casually, as one who is of the same class might question him. Always he bad some good excuse for his absence, and under the French law Gobert could nod no reason for arresting him. But one night Gobert talked to him for hours, and certain admissions were made which have not been given to the public and which gave the detective sufficient reason for taking the man to prison. When this occurred they were alone in a little cafe in one of the worst quarters of the town, and Gobert was far from a match for his sturdy, enemy. He devised a clever ruse. First of all he called for pen, ink and paper. With  these he wrote a note saying that he was Inspector Gobert, that he intended to pick the pocket of the convict Lambinet that would dig cover the theft, and that himself to; be unknown as a convict in the nearby Lambinet police station, would doubtless drag the supposed thief (Gobert) off to the station. This note once written and placed in his coat pocket he did as he hid said in it that he would do.

 
“With the most elaborate care — so elaborate that he knew that Lambinet would discover him— he took from the letter’s pocket whatever there was in it of value. Lambinet saw what was going on at once, instantly seized the little detective in his herculean grasp and dragged him to the nearest police station. No one there knew Gobert, but when they came to search him they found in his pocket the note telling the details of his plan. A moment afterwards the great Lambinet was amazed to find himself thrown on the floor and held a prisoner by half-a-dozen gendarmes.

The next day, probably through information furnished by Lambinet, all the police of Paris were concentrated in the suburbs. The true details of how M. Cochefort arranged the tremendous drag-net which he spread all around Paris that night will probably never be known, but it is certain that the net was big and that the net was strong, and, moreover, that when the morning dawned the net held in its meshes the very fish for which it had been spread. This showed an intimate knowledge of the workings of the gang. There is very little doubt now that their long immunity from capture had been due to the cleverly planned system of espionage of the police. M. Cochefort says that the gang had had trained pickets whose business it was to notify their fellows when the police decided to descend on Neuilly, and that that night, the gang was certain to operate in Courbevois.

After Lambinet, the next member of the gang to be taken to the Central Depot of the police was one named Gustavo Constant, and known as “The Terror.” He almost escaped justice by a most extraordinary trick. From the fact that the police who caught him and the police who examined him at the depot – where every prisoner captured during the night in the Parisian district is taken the next morning – never suspected that his capture was moiré than a chance happening or dreamed that he was the member of any gang, it seems probable that the drag-net plan was known only to Couchefort. Constant was caught in Clichy, almost in the act of assassination. He doubtless regarded his capture as a matter of chance, quite as did his captors. The story of how he attempted to escape the consequences of his deeds is told now from his own confession. It is a curious fact that very nearly every one of the men who have been arrested have since their incarceration – and only a few days have passed – expressed an entire willingness to reveal not only the wrongdoings of their fellows, but to tell of their own sins. M. Bertillon, who system of  measurements for the identification of criminals has, I understand, recently been adopted by the police of New York City, and who is in charge of the criminological department of the Paris Depot, says that this anxiety to confess is one of the strangest freaks he has ever known in his study of  wrongdoers.

Each prisoner, when taken into the depot, is questioned as to his name, &c., as prisoners are questioned in other police headquarters. Then he is taken up a stone stairway, winding in a tower so sharply that the gendarme who precedes him and the gendarme who follows him are hidden by the curves of the way. After he reaches the upper floor, where he waits for measurement and definite recording, he is placed in a little box, so arranged that no prisoner can see any other prisoner. A guard passes before each one and casually examines him about once in every five minutes. During the few minutes occupied in going up the winding stairway and during the few moments while he was not under the watchful eye of the guard in the box, Constant almost choking himself to death, tearing his throat and chest horribly with his own fingers and otherwise awfully mutilating himself with no other instrument than his own hands.

When he was taken to plead he showed these wounds and claimed self-defence. In ordinary circumstances he would have escaped. It was only the fact that Cochefort knew that he was a member of Columbin’s gang that led to further investigation. Then the fingers of the dead man, whom Constant claimed had assaulted him, were placed on the marks of his neck and found not to fit. It was then peen that his own hands, which are distinguished by several peculiarities, would have made bruises and wounds exactly like those which his body showed. The dead man was taken back to him once more for the ordeal of the “confrontation” — the one relic of barbarism which still stands on the statute books of France — and Constant broke down and told all about his shrewd plan for escaping punishment.

The organisation operated under August Columbin was told off in groups and vedettes, the former taking up a position at frequented crossroads, while the latter lay in ambush down the side-roads ready at a signal to approach the victim or the police. When it came to attacking, the knife, revolver or “American fist “ — an iron-spiked knuckle-duster — was employed.

It was in August last that the number of murdered bodies taken out of the Seine began to frightfully increase. The thirty- two men safe under lock and key range from seventeen to thirty years of age, including the following, whose expressive sobriquets are quite in keeping with the traditions of a city where organized crime has flourished to an extent unknown either elsewhere in Europe or in America, Columbin, the captain, is twenty-five. When arrested he was dressed as a respectable workman, his favourite character. He is fair, about middle height, and of very slight, even fragile figure. He has pale blue eyes, close cropped fair hair, high cheekbones, and peculiarly forbidding expression of calculating cruelty in his sinister eye. Other members are Pierre Chretien, called “Little Pierre,” because his diminutive stature and childlike aspect enabled him, when dressed as a boy, to attract the sympathy of passers-by pretending to be lost; Adolf Collin, called “The Rat,” owing to the singular rodentlike formation of his mouth and protruding teeth; Gustave Constant, called “The Terror,” his part being to lead the attack on a victim in front by blinding him or her; Eugene Chanier, called “Garters,” as hew always affected these pedal adornments; Gabrielle Gauthier, called “Woodenhead;” Jacques Girod, called “Bird,” as he occasionally earned a living at neighbouring fairs by imitating birds’ singing; Ferdinand Darbelle, called “The Sardine,” and Georges Weerth, expressively termed “Hatchetface.” The latter is only seventeen years of age, but is reputed the most blood-thirsty member of the entire gang.


Domiciliary visits made after the capture of the desperadoes revealed a big collection of instruments of their ghastly trade, which Cochefort describes as a “veritable museum of crime.” They include a length of telephone wire having a leaden ball fastened to one extremity; a bludgeon weighing nearly six and a-half pounds, and an elastic bait for closing over the mouth of the person attacked.

The most horrible instruments were the knuckle-dusters, with projecting spikes four inches long emerging from between the fingers when the hand of the wearer was shut. These spikes were about two inches apart. They were plugged into the victim’s eyes while he was at the same time being assailed from behind. Nothing could be more ghastly than the whole collection, nothing more callous than the subsequent disposition of the victim’s body.

This band had only one woman attached to it. Cochefort said they were wise in this, for otherwise they could not have escaped detection so long. She was used as a decoy. A man would be returning quietly home at about midnight from a suburban party. Suddenly he hears cries for help. He hurries to the crossway, where he sees a woman running toward him screaming, with her face bathed in blood. When in the act of listening to her story, he is felled like an ox from behind. If the blow should fail, and he rushed forward, he was blinded by a thrust of the long-spiked knuckle-dusters. It is needless to say that none of the victims of the desperadoes has ever lived to tell the tale, nor was anything known of their fate except that they were missed by their friends, and that in some cases their bodies were found long afterward.

The members of the gang now talk freely, in fact, boastfully, about their deeds. Over fifty victims have been found, and it is the opinion of the police that many more are lying in the backwaters of the Seine, which are being carefully dragged.

The flexible wire with the leaden ball at the end is a new instrument of  assassination to the Paris police. It was used cleverly. The wire is about one hundred feet long. Constant, the man in whose house, it was found, became exceedingly expert in his aim. Holding the end of the wire firmly in one hand, he could hit the back of a pedestrian’s head with the leaden ball at a distance equal to the full length of the wire. This had advantages. In the first place, he could kill without tackling and without the noise of a pistol. In the second place, throwing the ball in semi-darkness, he could pull it back by the wire, and if anyone saw the victim fall, they would find no evidence of the connection of the murderer with that of the distant pedestrian.

The victims were chiefly workmen and small shopkeepers of the surrounding district. No well-to-do person would trust himself late at night in the places where the gang operated. Men, however, were not the only objects of the attack. The class of unfortunate women suffered heavily, it being the practice for the woman’s “ ami de rencontre “ — really a member of the gang —to lead her down the road to the river, where she would be suddenly garroted, her pockets rifled, her clothes taken. Whether the robbery was fruitful or not, her body was cast into the river to save further trouble. Most of the bodies of women picked up in Seine were entirely nude, although in some cases the only articles taken from them were boots and stockings.”

It was only too patent that there must be many victims still missing, for since the discovery of the gang people are turning up every day at the prefecture with stories of missing friends and relatives who disappeared about the time the gang was operating.

Not until a huge police net was thrown for weeks over the entire suburbs did the crimes begin to lessen, and men were arrested one by one. They are now offering to give evidence against each other, but the police are anxious to get Columbin, the only one who has not spoken, to tell what he knows. They believe this band, large as it is, to be only a part of a huge conspiracy of crime which cannot be extirpated until the unseen director is safe in gaol. But the men have so far refused to admit any connection between their gang and any other. They deny the statement that there is a great controlling power that organises these bands of murderers which have been so frequently caught in Paris of late.

[“Black Mysteries of Paris Cleared At Last – Eugene Sue’s greatest novel more than revealed by horrid fact,” The World (New York, N.Y.), Jan. 9, 1898, p. 35]

[“It is need-less to say that none of the victims of the desperadoes” correction of error in original by guessing at missing words (in italics)]

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For similar cases, see: Female Serial Killer Bandits

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