Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Henri Landru

Henri Desiré Landru

He was a little man, shorter than most, with a bald head and thick, brownish-red beard. His eyebrows were thick and bushy and arched above his dark eyes, giving the impression that he was always astonished or surprised. By physical appearance, Henri Landru was not the type of man that one would suspect of being able to romance more than 300 women out of their life savings. But there was something special about this bourgeois second-hand furniture dealer and automobile mechanic that vulnerable women found irresistible. And for 10 of them, their willingness to believe the lies Landru told them would cost them more than their meager fortunes — the price they paid for falling under the spell of this 20th century Bluebeard was their life.

Born of parents of modest means in 1869 during the middle of France's 3rd Republic, Landru's childhood and early years were as nondescript as he was. His mother was a housewife and his father was employed as a fireman in the furnaces of Paris' Vulcain Ironworks. Young Henri was considered a bright lad who attended Catholic school and was admitted as a sub-deacon in the religious order of St. Louis en l'Isle. His schooling ended, like many boys of that era, around his 17th year after he took courses in engineering at the prestigious School of Mechanical Engineering.

Drafted by the military at 18, Landru excelled in the armed forces, reaching the rank of sergeant by the time of his discharge four years later.

Clearly by his teen years Landru had realized that he was cleverer than most and was glib with the ladies. In 1891, he seduced his cousin, Mademoiselle Remy, who became pregnant and bore him a daughter. Two years later Landru married Mme. Remy, while he was quartermaster of the regiment at St. Quentin. Upon their marriage, Landru left military life and went into business as a clerk.

His employer, however, was unscrupulous and absconded with the money Landru had given him as a bond, leaving a strong impression on Henri. Incensed with this blow which fate had dealt, Landru apparently made a vow to get "revenge" through a life of crime.

Despite his standing as a deacon and member of the choir of his church, Landru became a swindler in addition to his legitimate businesses as furniture dealer and garage owner. His targets were most often the middle-aged widows whom he would meet through the furniture business. Used to following the direction of their husbands and faced with the prospect of long, lonely, poverty-stricken lives, these women would come to him to sell their possessions. Landru would prey on their fears and in addition to taking their possessions, would woo his victims and entice them to let him invest their meager pensions, which he would promptly steal.

The scam worked well for some time, until 1900, when Landru made his first appearance in a French courtroom as a criminal. He was sentenced to a two-year prison term for fraud after he tried to withdraw funds from the Comptoir d'Escompte using a fake identity. Upon his arrest Landru attempted (some say pretended to attempt) suicide in jail.

He remained married to Mme. Remy and together they had four children.

For the next decade, Landru was in and out of prison seven times (apparently the 3rd Republic had no "three strikes" laws) serving as much as three years at a time. Sometime around 1908, he apparently struck upon the scheme that would eventually bring him face-to-face with the guillotine.

In that year, Landru, already serving a sentence in a Parisian prison for fraud, was brought to Lille to stand trial for another scam. He had placed a matrimonial advertisement in a newspaper, portraying himself as a well-to-do widower seeking the companionship of a similarly situated widow. In return for some counterfeit deeds, Landru persuaded a 40-year-old widow to part with a 15,000-franc dowry. Mme. Izore was left destitute and sought recompense through the courts. She would have to content herself with the knowledge that Landru would serve an additional three years for by the time the gendarmerie caught up with Landru the dowry was gone.

He was released shortly before World War I, most likely with the understanding that he would re-enlist in the French Army. He had already driven his father to suicide over his lawlessness and left his family penniless and humiliated. Landru's mother had died in 1910. He drifted around the countryside, well aware of the fact that he had been convicted in absentia for various other offenses and sentenced to lifelong deportation to New Caledonia.

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