Meet the French doctor who promised Jews safe passage from Nazis, only to rob and murder them.
Marcel Petiot

Paille/FlickrMarcel Pétiot’s mugshots.

The inherent grisliness of murder makes it hard — if not impossible — to describe any murderer as “better” or “worse” than another. Still, Marcel Pétiot was truly superlative in his horror, mainly because of the circumstances and motivations behind his acts: He promised safety and freedom to those leaving Nazi-occupied France, only to strip them of their possessions and lives.

Despite his infamy in France, many elsewhere have never heard his story. As with many serial killers, internal struggle marked much of Pétiot’s early life.

Born in France in 1897, multiple schools throughout France expelled him for his behavior, though he did finish his schooling by age 18, in 1915. Pétiot then enlisted in the military, however the extent of his service is debatable as he spent long periods of time away on “rest,” likely due to his kleptomania.

Eventually, his consistent thievery — particularly of military blankets — got him jailed for a short period in Orleans. Military officers finally discharged Pétiot with disability benefits at the recommendation of a psychiatrist who believed Pétiot had a mental breakdown of sorts: Indeed, the troubled officer had literally shot himself in the foot and required a hospital stay.

After his bout in the military came to a close, psychiatrists recommended Pétiot be committed to an asylum. Instead, he interned at one while attending medical school. Pétiot graduated in eight months, and with his medical degree in hand went to work in Villeneuve-sur-Yonne in 1921.

There, Pétiot almost immediately became addicted to two things that would define the rest of his life: narcotics and murder.

Marcel Pétiot’s First Victim

It’s never been proven, but many suspect that Pétiot’s first victim was Louise Delaveau, his lover and the daughter of one of his patients in Villeneuve-sur-Yonn. She disappeared in 1926, shortly after the two began having an affair. No one heard from Delaveau again.

Though when authorities began conducting an investigation into her disappearance, neighbors reported that they had seen Pétiot putting a large trunk into his automobile — perhaps, some said, with her body inside. Police investigated it, but found nothing to link Pétiot to the crime.

Shortly after Delaveau’s disappearance, Pétiot decided to run for mayor of Villeneuve-sur-Yonne — a seat he won since he hired someone to cause a commotion during a debate and fluster his opponent. The corruption continued in-office: The first thing Pétiot did upon becoming mayor was embezzle the town’s money.

After a brief cycle of resigning political posts only to be voted into another, Pétiot, his wife, and their young son moved to Paris and began to build up a successful medical practice at 66 Rue Caumartin.

During all of this, Pétiot was briefly institutionalized for his persistent kleptomania. While the outbreak of WWII and the fall of France to the Nazi regime likely overshadowed whatever concerns anyone may have had about that, Pétiot didn’t evade the law entirely.

The physician was fined 2400 francs for his prescribing illicit narcotics, a charge for which he would have gone to trial had the two addicts set to testify against him not disappeared under mysterious circumstances shortly before the trial began.

Paris Ww2

Wikimedia CommonsParis during World War II.

For Pétiot, Nazi-occupied France provided the perfect backdrop in which he could commit his crimes. Indeed, the country stood divided primarily by Nazi sympathizers and those actively trying to overthrow — or outrun — the Gestapo. Pétiot capitalized on the state of fear, taking advantage of the latter.

He began to conceive a plan that would be both fiscally, and corporally, lucrative.

This started by professing himself a member of the French Resistance, perhaps to garner public trust and admiration and thus better conceal his illicit acts, which increasingly involved the sale of illegal drugs. He went so far as to invite Jews to his practice at 66 Rue Caumartin, promising them safe passage out of Nazi-occupied France.

He also offered his home as a safe house for resistance fighters, petty thieves, and hardened criminals trying to outrun the law. Still, what seemed like a noble cause on his part would turn out to be the beginning of one of the most horrifying killing sprees in history.

Abby Norman
Abby Norman is a writer based in New England. She's currently writing a memoir for Nation Books. Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, The Independent, Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, Hippocampus Magazine, The Atlantic, The Mary Sue, and Quartz.
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