I have read many, many accounts of serial killers, and a common thread in the stories is that although they often have criminal records, and are picked and/or questioned up by police as a part of the murder case, they are usually ruled out or released at some point early in their killing career. But never have I read a story as ludicrous as that of Dr. Marcel Petiot, aka Dr. Satan. Petiot’s criminal career stretched from his teenage years to his mid-life, and ran parallel to a successful military, political and medical career. He was a real life Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Born on January 17th, 1897, Petiot very quickly caught the attention of school authorities with his tendency for violence and inappropriate sexual behaviour. He fired his father’s gun in class, and propositioned a fellow student for sex – at the age of 11. As a teenager, he began his criminal activity in earnest, and found himself charged with theft and damage to public property after he robbed a post box at age 17. His recommended sentence was a psychological evaluation – the first of many times his mental state was officially evaluated. This time – as with his subsequent evaluations – a psychiatrist found him to be suffering from mental illness, and the charges against him were dropped.
Despite his diagnosis, he was drafted into the French army to serve during World War I. After being wounded at the front in the spring of 1917, he was again assessed to be mentally ill, and sent for treatment. While in care, he was again arrested for theft, this time stealing army blankets – but once again the charges were dropped due to his obvious mental illness, which doctors diagnosed as “mental disequilibrium, neurasthenia, mental depression, melancholia, obsessions and phobias,” and sent him to a psychiatric ward for treatment. However, apparently even this further confirmation of his mental illness did not exempt him from military service, as he was once again sent to the front the following year in 1918. After he shot himself in the foot, he was transferred to another regiment after a few weeks of leave. The following year he was again sent for psychiatric evaluation, and his diagnosis meant that he was finally discharged from duty on disability. In fact, the report given to the military recommended that Petiot be committed to an asylum. Instead, he was admitted to an accelerated education program set up for veteran, where he earned a medical degree and began his practice as a physician.
After the war, armed with his credentials, Dr. Marcel Petiot took up residence in the small village of Villeneuve-sur-Yonne, earning himself many new patients with his charm and intelligence. He was a corrupt doctor, purposely prescribing addictive substances to his patients and secretly applying for state medical assistance for many of his patients – meaning that he received payment from both the patient and the state each time he treated them. He began an affair with the daughter of one of his patients in 1926, Louise Delaveau, who disappeared in suspicious circumstances during their relationship – including accusations levelled by his neighbours that they saw Dr. Petiot putting a large trunk in his car, one that looked a lot like a trunk filled with an unidentified woman’s body parts that the police pulled out of the Yonne river a few weeks later. Police claimed that this was coincidence, and Delaveau was officially logged as a runaway.
Despite this recent scandal that tied him to a murder, Dr. Petiot won the mayorship of Villeneuve-sur-Yonne not long after. In 1927, he married Georgette Lablais and they had a son the following year. His tendency as mayor was fraught with scandal – he was accused of stealing everything from taxpayer money to cans of oil from the railroad depot. The latter saw him head to court once again, where he was fined and sentenced to three months in prison, but the sentence was overturned in appeal. His suspension from the office of mayor lasted four months, and only after several more years of complaints and accusations of theft was he officially removed from office in 1931. Just over a month after he was removed as mayor of Villeneuve-sur-Yonne, he won a seat on the general council for the Yonne district – the youngest man to ever sit in that office. During his time on the council, he was charged with the theft of electric power from Villeneuve-sur-Yonne. He was fined and lost his seat on the council, and moved to Paris.
In 1933, now settled in Paris, Dr. Petiot set about growing his medical practice. He built a very successful medical practice, and by all outward appearances, he was a doctor with an impeccable reputation. However, rumors persisted that he was again prescribing to addicts and also that he performed illegal abortions. Plus, he couldn’t keep his kleptomania under control. He was again arrested for theft and assault of a police officer, and was again acquitted because of insanity. He spent a few months in a sanitarium but was once again released despite the doctor’s doubts as to his sanity. In the following years, he repeatedly committed tax fraud and was once again charged and fined for his crimes. By the time Germany invaded France in 1939, he had a pretty hefty criminal record and a laundry list of psychiatric diagnoses.
When the Germans settled in France, Dr. Petiot established himself as a member of the Resistance, but doubts remain as to how actively he was involved. He first began providing false medical records for French citizens who were forced into German labor camps and treating the sick workers who returned, and then found himself charged and convicted of over-prescribing narcotics in 1942. After paying a fine, he then took on the alias of Dr. Eugène and set up a false escape network for Resistance fighters, Jews and criminals looking to escape the Gestapo. He claimed that his network, Fly-Tox, worked in conjunction with Argentinian authorities to safely transport people to South America without the knowledge of the German invaders. What actually happened was horrific – under the guise of inoculating them against various diseases as demanded by the Argentinian government, Dr. Petiot injected them with cyanide, stole all their money and possessions, and disposed of their bodies in quicklime, buried them, or disposed of them in the Seine river. When the Gestapo found out about his organization, they infiltrated it and arrested and jailed Petiot and his accomplices. When they were unable to crack what they imagined was an extensive network of spies – in fact, Petiot, his wife and three accomplices – they released him. By this time, January 1944, the war was on its last legs, and the Germans had other things to worry about. But due to complaints of a disgusting smoke coming from his practice in Paris, the Parisian police stumbled on at least ten bodies buried in his basement. Luckily for Dr. Petiot, they believed his story about the bodies being those of traitors and Germans, and they released him. He promptly went into hiding, living with one of his patients. He changed his name to Henri Valéri, and joined the French Forces of the Interior (FFI), rising to the rank of captain very quickly. When the newspaper Résistance ran a story about Petiot that fall, accusing him of collaborating with the German occupiers, police once again began their search for Petiot in earnest, drafting none other than Captain Henri Valéri to search for the fugitive. A month later, on October 31st, 1944, he was recognized and arrested in the Paris metro.
Dr. Marcel Petiot’s defence rested on his claim to be a Resistance fighter. While he admitted to killing enemies of France, he claimed to have no knowledge of how the bodies ended up buried at his house. He claimed that members of his Fly-Tox organization must have killed them and buried them without his knowledge. However, the judge and jury didn’t find any reason to believe his stories, and Dr. Marcel Petiot was charged with 27 murders, but claimed to have killed a total of 63 “Germans and collaborators” between 1940 and 1945. He was found guilty of 27 murders and 99 other criminal charges, and sentence to death by guillotine. His last words before his decapitation on May 25th, 1945, were: “Gentlemen, I ask you not to look. This will not be very pretty.” Thus ended the reign of terror of Dr. Satan, and one of the most incredible stories of an unparalleled criminal career.