Marie Besnard – the Good Lady of Loudun

Marie Besnard (1896–1980), also known as ‘The Good Lady of Loudun’, was an accused serial poisoner in the mid 20th century. Besnard was first charged with multiple murder on July 21, 1949, under her given name, Marie Joséphine Philippine Davaillaud. After three trials lasting over 10 years (the first held in Poitiers), Besnard was freed in 1954, then acquitted on December 12, 1961. Born in Loudun, France, the only child of frugal parents, Marie was educated at a convent school where classmates remembered her as “vicious and immoral.” She was “wild with boys,” and adept at “snitching other people’s things and Iying to cover up.” Marie married her cousin, Auguste Antigny, in 1920. The marriage lasted until his death from pleurisy on July 21, 1927. When his body was exhumed, 60 mg of arsenic was found in his remains. In 1928, Marie married Léon Besnard.  The newlyweds were quick to realize that fortune lay beyond their grasp while certain of their relatives were still alive. There were rewards in store when two of Leon’s great-aunts died in 1938 and 1940 but the bulk of the inheritance was claimed by Leon’s parents, leading the Besnards to invite the couple to to move in with them. Soon thereafter, his father died from eating poisoned mushrooms. His mother followed three months later, a victim of pneumonia. The parents’ estate was left to Besnard’s husband and his sister, Lucie, who committed suicide a few months later. Locals joked about the “Besnard jinx,”.  Around this time, on May 14, 1940, Marie Besnard’s father Pierre Davaillaud also died due to cerebral haemorrhage, although his exhumed remains contained 36 mg of arsenic.

Shortly afterward, the Besnards sublet rooms to a wealthy childless couple, the Rivets, who were friends of Marie’s husband. Monsieur Toussaint Rivet died of pneumonia on July 14, 1939, although 18 mg of arsenic was later discovered in his exhumed remains. Madame Blanche Rivet (née Lebeau) died on December 27, 1941 from aortitis, although her remains contained 30 mg of arsenic. The Rivets’ will had named Marie Besnard as their only heir. Pauline Bodineau, (née Lalleron) and Virginie Lalleron, cousins of Marie, had also named Marie as their beneficiary. Pauline died aged 88 on July 1, 1945, after mistaking a bowl of lye for her dessert one night. Her remains were later found to contain 48 mg of arsenic. Virginie apparently made the same mistake a week later and died aged 83 on July 9, 1945. Her remains were later found to contain 20 mg of arsenic. Marie’s mother, Marie-Louise Davaillaud (née Antigny) died on January 16. Her remains contained 48 mg of arsenic. Watch Venemous women: poison murderesses in 19th century Germany

For all of its adventure, married life was paling for Marie. By 1947, she had fallen for a handsome German P.O.W. living in Loudon. After Marie discovered Léon was having an affair, Léon remarked to a close friend, Madame Pintou, that he believed he was being poisoned, saying “that his wife had served him some soup on a bowl that already contained a liquid.” He died shortly afterwards October 25, 1947 apparently of uremia. Marie intimidated her accusers, sending garbled death threats through the mail. A burglar invaded Madame Pintou’s home by night, destroying every gift she received from the Besnards. The Massip brothers, having passed the Pintou rumors on, were forced to leave Loudon when arsonists destroyed their home. A few days after Léon’s burial, details of his testimony reached the gendarmerie and were passed to an investigating magistrate. As Marie had by now also accumulated most of the wealth of both families, suspicions were aroused and the magistrate ordered the exhumation of Léon’s body on May 11, 1949. A forensic surgeon discovered 19.45 mg of arsenic in his body. Marie was arrested, the bodies of her other victims were exhumed, and Marie was charged with 13 counts of murder. From jail, Marie made last-ditch efforts to arrange her alibi. A friend was asked to spike the family’s wine with arsenic, creating reasonable doubt, but he refused. The defendant tried to put a contract out on Madame Pintou and the Massip brothers, but her contacts ran to the police, in search of leniency in other cases. Shaken by her failures, the defendant told a visitor, “I am lost. I am guilty.”

An investigation at the cemetery was able to show that arsenic may have leached into the soil and bodies from chemicals used on the flowers and other sources. The first two trials ended without a conviction. The length of the trials, the attacks on the evidence, and the turning of public opinion in favor of Marie Besnard contributed to her acquittal at her third trial in 1961. Besnard died in 1980. Watch L’Affaire Marie Besnard

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