Saturday, March 1, 2014

Two tickets for Gambais, one return

In my blog post of 22 March 2010 entitled First rural residence [display], I described a simple roadside house in the country to the west of Paris that Christine and I rented in 1968-9 for six months or so.

Our neighborhood had a funny name, Mocsouris, which seems to mean, nonsensically, “making fun of a mouse”. This place name, sometimes spelt Moque-Souris, surely has more obscure etymological and historic origins of which I’m unaware. In a cadastral document of 1825 from Brittany, for example, this name reappears with an even more curious spelling.

Our house was located on the edge of a neighborhood called Maulette, which lies between Mocsouris and the town of Houdan. Our baby daughter Emmanuelle decided immediately that, at a rhyming level, “Maulette” sounded a lot like “toilette” (body-washing in French). So, she started to refer to her towelling for washing, in the form of a glove, as a “gant de Maulette” (Maulette glove-washer).

Meanwhile, Christine and I imagined naively—as the renting agency had informed us—that our postal address was Houdan. Today, thanks to Google Maps, I realize that we were in fact residing in the commune of Gambais, which was associated with one of the most notorious serial killers in French criminal history: Henri Désiré Landru [1869-1922], who was guillotined for the murder of 11 women.

Our house in Mocsouris had a vast backyard, which was an ideal summer setting for our 2-year-old daughter. Today, thanks to Google and the curious demolition of a section of our former neighbor’s garden wall, Emmanuelle is offered a glimpse of her first backyard.

Click to enlarge

This neighbor was a prosperous farmer. Today, my primary recollection of this fellow is that he taught me a French noun: tâcheron. The word tâche means a task. So, a tâcheron is somebody who's employed to perform tasks. In reality, it’s a disparaging term, evoking the use of unskilled workers for a brief period, at a minimal cost, before their being cast aside.

Getting back to Landru, you can find out all about him through an excellent Wikipedia article [display]. The title of this blog post is a celebrated line attributed to the mass murderer. From his Paris apartment, he used newspaper ads to find lonely females, often widows, offering them marriage. Their first (and last) outing was a visit to his country house in Gambais. Landru had the habit, at the train station in Paris, of requesting two tickets for Gambais, but only one return. (I traveled daily on that line when we were living in Gambais.) As soon as a victim settled down in Landru's charming house in Gambais, she was strangled, chopped into pieces and burnt in a kitchen oven. Then Landru made arrangements for recuperating all the dead lady’s possessions.

I was reminded of this sinister individual through a series of astonishing old photos of Landru’s trial that Gallica (website of the Bibliothèque nationale de France) has just published on the Internet.

Some of the witty interventions of the “Bluebeard of Gambais” during his trial in Versailles have gone down in history.

— Denying that he had ever killed anybody at Gambais, Landru called upon the court to “show us the corpses”.

— Landru declared: “If the women I knew have anything to complain about, then let them step forward.

— When a woman in the crowded courtroom couldn't find an empty seat, Landru proposed gallantly to give her his place.

Police investigations into Landru’s crimes had been concentrated, understandably, upon his house in Gambais.

A dramatic exhibit during the trial was the actual cast-iron kitchen oven in which Landru had transformed his victims into ashes.

After Landru’s trial and beheading, this oven was auctioned. Its most recent owner is the popular French TV personality Laurent Ruquier, author of a play about Landru. The house in Gambais, too, was soon sold by auction. Its first owner transformed it into an elegant restaurant, with a delicately-chosen name: Au Grillon du Foyer (Homely Grill).

Later, it became, for all intents and purposes, an ordinary house. During the time that we spent at Gambais, Christine and I never went out of our way to locate the house in question. Consequently, it’s only today that I realize—thanks to Google—that we were in fact close neighbors. A few kilometers after our house in Mocsouris, you reach the village of Gambais.

On the right-hand side of the road, there’s a lugubrious church and cemetery.

A few hundred meters further down the road, Landru’s house is nested alongside a row of prim and proper modern dwellings.

Throughout his trial, Landru persisted in claiming—against tons of evidence—that he had never harmed anybody. At the foot of the scaffold, at dawn on 25 February 1922, in the grand avenue of Versailles, Landru's lawyer made a last-minute request. Would the condemned man finally admit, in the face of God, that he had indeed killed all those women? The artist replied politely, before stepping aboard his steel-blade jet for Eternity: "The answer to that question, dear lawyer, is part of my hand luggage." And the severed head of the Bluebeard of Gambais soon found its way (God only knows how) into a Hollywood museum.

If only I had known of this proximity, back at the time we were residing in Gambais, I might have delighted my dear mother Kath Skyvington with horror stories about Landru. Indeed, I was so ill-informed and absent-minded that I didn’t even think of taking my parents to Gambais when they visited us in Paris. In fact, I don’t believe that any of us have returned there as pilgrims over the last 46 years.

No comments:

Post a Comment