There’s a scene in Gone with the Wind in which Rhett Butler gives Scarlett some advice:
I told you once before that there were two times for making big money, one in the up-building of a country and the other in its destruction. Slow money on the up-building, fast money in the crack-up. Remember my words. Perhaps they may be of use to you some day.
That quote came to mind as I read the non-fiction book The Unspeakable Crimes of Dr. Petiot from Thomas Maeder. Marcel Petiot (1897-1946) certainly knew how to cash in on the realities of the German Occupation of France. Of course, he’s not alone in this, but there’s something particularly horrific about this opportunistic, sadistic serial killer who fed off the terror of the Gestapo by promising safe passage to South America to those who could pay his fee. It’s impossible to create a spectrum of cruelty when it comes to murderers, but Dr. Petiot is right up there with the worst–not just for the numbers involved but for the way he capitalized on fear, preying on the most vulnerable people.
The book opens on March 6, 1944 at 21 rue La Sueur in Paris, a three-story nineteenth-century building in the affluent sixteenth arrondissement owned by Dr. Marcel Petiot. A “greasy, foul-smelling smoke began pouring from the chimney,” and by March 11, one of the residents, who could stand it no longer, telephoned the police. Firemen broke into the building, and the police made a macabre discovery next to two coal-burning stoves. A pile of body parts and chunks of flesh, a large pile of quicklime, rooms “crammed with an incredible assortment of furniture, art objects, chandeliers, and gadgets stored in chaotic piles,” but also a bizarrely constructed triangular room with a fake door and iron rings on the wall. The police on the scene knew that they had stumbled onto a mind-boggling crime scene, but before the case was solved, many questions (not all of which were ever answered) were raised.
This was the beginning of the infamous Dr Petiot case, and although this book could easily be categorized as ‘true crime,’ it’s also a look into the historical realities of the time, for it shows how a diabolically intelligent serial killer could operate by preying on those who were willing to take enormous risks to escape the Gestapo. Jews disappeared every day, and if dozens disappeared after making contact with Petiot, was there anything to report? And who would you report the disappearances to?
One of the fascinating aspects of the Petiot case is the glimpse into the heavily fragmented society which was pieced together under German occupation. Many government officials had heard rumours of an escape network run by a doctor, and while some turned a blind eye, in 1943, the Gestapo investigated an organization that “arranges clandestine crossings of the Spanish border by means of falsified Argentinian passports. ” Yvan Dreyfus, a wealthy Jew in prison awaiting deportation was unknowingly set up as part of the trap to snare Petiot’s escape network–a network which in reality did not exist–unless death is an acceptable escape route. Dreyfus disappeared after meeting Petiot, and a witness later claimed that someone else had seen Dreyfus dead at 21 rue La Sueur.
Ironically the mystery of the disappearance of Yvan Dreyfus led to Petiot’s arrest, torture and incarceration by the Gestapo–all things that unfortunately fed Petiot’s claim that he was a resistance hero, ran a group known as Fly-Tox and that he should be lauded for executing French traitors. Petiot argued that he’d ‘disappeared’ several French criminals who had collaborated with the Germans and then decided to take Petiot’s escape route. These people were just a few of Petiot’s victims, but most of his victims remained unidentified as they were Jews who’d kept their desperate flight secret.
The book covers Petiot’s childhood and his early adult life before this chameleon hoofed it to Paris and formed a niche for himself embezzling the state and eventually turned to murder. There are some very relevant details to be found in the Gestapo files and also in the backgrounds of the non-Jewish victims who took a one way trip to Petiot’s house. Then of course there’s the spectacular trial…But overriding the entire story is the question of just how this man, with multiple scandals in his past, a stay in a mental hospital after being declared insane and the instigator of various criminal acts was able to continually operate freely within society with all the privileges of being a physician.
Throughout the investigation, despite all the facts gathered, the question of just who Petiot was remained unanswered. No image of a human personality emerged, no motive surfaced; one could scarcely even imagine greed or sadism in a person who seemed to exist only as an incredibly dexterous performance. Petiot had fooled the French, the Germans, the Resistants, the courts, the psychiatrists, his friends and his own wife. He had acted as a solitary enigmatic force amidst a world in which he did not participate, and which he regarded only with scorn.
This is the second book I’ve read about Petiot. I’ve also seen the fantastic film Dr. Petiot, and I’ll be watching a documentary soon. For this reading I saw his resistance to Gestapo torture as just more evidence of the man’s arrogance and narcissism. The most poignant aspect to the story has to be the mountains of suitcases found amongst the loot of the mostly unidentified victims.