La Mans – Southwest of Paris – 1920. L’Amour was a picturesque town with a population of perhaps 1,000 people. It was the sort of place where everyone knew everyone else and their business. The Papin sisters, Christine, 16, and Lea, 11, were abandoned to an orphanage by their vain, pleasure-seeking mother, Clemence, so she could enjoy a life free of responsibility. They had an elder sister, Emilia, whom their alcoholic father raped when she was only 9 years old. She eventually became a nun. There was a history of mental illness in the family. The sisters’ paternal grandfather displayed a violent temper and had epileptic fits. Some relatives died in asylums or committed suicide. Clemence was an abusive woman who hated everything about her girls, even their appearance. The girls formed a close bond with one another, a survival tactic in response to their mother’s abandonment. Set against this troubling backdrop was the strange relationship that would develop between Christine and Lea. Christine was of average intelligence, and would one day be completely dominant over younger sister Lea. Léa was of low intelligence and eventually her personality virtually disappeared into Christine’s personality.
One day, Clemence decided to send Christine out to work in order to earn money for her self-indulgences. The nunnery informed Clemence that Lea was too young to join her but Christine refused to go without her sister. Too bad. Christine was sent away to be a maid. The extreme stress Christine experience was ignored. The oversight would prove to be a major mistake. Six years later, Christine was a free woman, long out of the orphanage and she had a good reputation as a maid with the elite class. Although the girls’ employers never had a bad word to say about Lea, they claimed Christine had a “difficult” personality and she would eventually be dismissed for insolence on more than one occasion.
In 1926, Christine secured a job with Monsieur René Lancelin and his family, being his wife and adult daughter. He was a retired solicitor. The family lived in luxury. Madame Lancelin offered Christine the job right away, but the latter asked if the Madame would also employ her sister. It was a strange request. However, Madame advised Christine if she performed as expected, she would consider employing Lea. Of course, Christine worked better than any maid ever had for the Lancelin family and soon Lea joined her in the Lancelin household. That meant that Genevieve Lancelin now had a servant to wait on her. For some months, Clemence visited the two sisters regularly but there was always friction between her and Christine. Two years before the murders, there was a complete rift between the girls and their mother, caused by disagreements over money. Their mother wrote to them after this rift, but was ignored.
The sisters shared an attic room together and expressed no outside interests in the community, except for being regular church-goers. They were obsessed with one another and eventually began an incestuous relationship. They braided each other’s hair. They made clothes for one another. They went everywhere together. It was the only love the girls had ever experienced. At first Madame Lancelin took no notice of the goings-on between her two maids. The girls’ housework was impeccable. Madame was heard to refer to them as “two pearls.” However the girls and the Lancelin family were very distant. Madame was rather like Clemence. There was little conversation between Madame and the girls, except a curt morning greeting and the continual orders Madame gave the sisters. Madame was critical of the girls and frequently reminded them of their low social status. The girls were exploited by their employer, who made them work fourteen-hour days, with only half a day off each week. Understandably the girls transferred their pent-up anger for Clemence onto Madame Lancelin. Secretly, they mocked and imitated the Madame.
As if that wasn’t uncomfortable enough, Madame couldn’t help but notice all the time the girls spent in their room. This was most odd indeed and Madame became suspicious about the girls’ relationship. One night she spied on the girls and caught them making love. This didn’t sit well with Madame. Madame informed the rest of the family but nothing came of it. On 2 February 1933, the girls were ironing a dress for Madame. The faulty iron blew out the electricity. Madame demanded an explanation and when Christine informed her of the problem with the iron, Madame yelled at the sisters. She made remarks about their incestuous behavior and Christine flew into a rage. She grabbed a blunt object and struck Madame in the face. Madame fell to the floor, screaming. Christine hit Genevieve who also fell to the floor. Christine then bludgeoned Madame repeatedly until she stopped screaming. Christine did the same to poor Genevieve.
Like vultures, the sisters tore out the eyes of both Madame Lancelin and Genevieve. They didn’t stop there. Using a hammer and a butcher knife, the sisters attacked the corpses repeatedly, seeking revenge for every unkind word Madame had ever uttered at them. Hours later, Monsieur arrived home, looking for his wife who hadn’t arrived for an evening with friends. He was locked out of his own house. Finally, he called police who assisted him in entering the house. They discovered the horrible corpses of Monsieur’s wife and daughter. The police assumed it had been a break-in and they expected to find the sisters massacred in their bed. Instead, they went upstairs to find the two girls making love, completely unbothered by their crime. The sisters had made no attempt to leave the house.
The sisters admitted their guilt and were placed in separate prison cells. 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” in which she tried to gouge her own eyes out and had to be put in a straitjacket. She made a statement to the magistrate, in which she said that on the day of the murders she had experienced an episode like the one she had in prison, and this was what precipitated the murders.
The trial was a national event, attended by vast numbers of the public and the press. Police had to be called in to control the crowds outside the packed courthouse. That year, Christine was sentenced to death by guillotine. As if she hadn’t laboured enough, her sentence was later commuted to hard labour for life. While in prison, Christine’s condition deteriorated rapidly. Profoundly depressed over being separated from Lea, she refused to eat and was transferred to an asylum in Rennes. She never showed the slightest improvement and died in 1937 at the young age of 32. Leah was sentenced to ten years had labour and released in 1943. Christine had clearly been the dominant of the two and Leah had simply followed along. After the evil influence of her twisted sister was over, Leah settled into a quiet life, returning home to Nantes to Clemence, who accepted her daughter. Somehow the dysfunctional mother-daughter remained intact. Lea got a job as a maid in a hotel under a false name.
The case had a huge impact on the public and was debated furiously by the “intelligentsia“. The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartrenots.Jean Genet was so taken by the case, that he loosely based his most famous play Les Bonnes or The Maids on it. Two films were released in the last ten years, an English film called Sister, My Sister, starring Joely Redgrave and Jodhi May, based on a play by the American playwright Wendy Kesselman, and a french film, Les Blessures Assassines (Murderous Maids in English) by filmmaker Jean-Pierre Denis.The films portray the relationship between the two sisters differently, particularly in regard to alleged sexual nature of the relationship.