Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Henri Landru

A Unique Killer

Once the war started, Landru, who was still married to but estranged from Remy, began the scams that lead to his downfall. Perhaps it was the war with its heretofore-unknown measure of death that turned Landru into a murderer; perhaps it was the years spent in undoubtedly harsh French prisons, or perhaps it was something else.

The Earl of Birkenhead, eminent Oxford don and author of Famous Trials of History, discounts the theory that Landru was driven by bloodlust to kill his female suitors. "There seems to be no evidence of that," he writes in the marvelous 1929 follow-up to Famous Trials. "A man who embarks on this kind of adventure must shake himself free of entanglement... It is therefore inevitable that a proportion of the women would be difficult to shake off and some must have shown no great disposition to hand over their property.

"The obvious means of overcoming their attachment," Birkenhead surmises, "was to destroy them, and to do so was only too easy... We must therefore postulate that he was callous and inhuman — an assumption which offers no difficulty, seeing that his very mode of life was impossible for any other kind of man."

Well-known criminologist Colin Wilson calls Landru "a callous ruffian who deserved to be guillotined;" the entry in Wilson's Encyclopedia of Murder recounts the savoir-faire that made Landru attractive to his victims. His sense of humor and strong will certainly came out during his detention, interrogation and at his trial.

Perrault's fairy tale about the blue bearded monster that kills his wives but is done in by a young woman's curiosity is a well-recounted story. Not only does it exist in French literature, but in African, Spanish and Chinese legend as well. If ever a serial killer resembled a mythic figure, it was Henri Landru as Bluebeard.

There is not a lot known about Landru, but by his actions, it is possible to develop a simple profile of this modern Bluebeard. His victims, both the living and the dead, were among the more vulnerable members of society, so he was clearly without conscience (few serial murderers are ever stricken by remorse or guilt for their actions, except to say that they are sorry to have been captured). There were so many victims of his confidence schemes — the contemporary estimates numbered about 300 — that he was clearly greedy.

He was probably a romantic man, able to sweep lonely women off their feet, and since his physical appearance was more comical than handsome, he must have been a smooth, fast-talker. His sexual appetite reportedly was ravenous.

Landru was intelligent and silver-tongued, not only with the ladies, but also with his fellow soldiers and other men. All the while he was taking advantage of women, Landru was also defrauding weary recently discharged soldiers of their pensions.

Landru was not a simple psychopath like other serial murderers. He had a sense of right and wrong, but did not apply the same rules to himself. He justified conning one soldier out of his detachment pay because the man had a mistress, despite the fact that Landru also had a mistress and was cheating on her as well as on his wife. He showed a sense of remorse over some of his actions — not his homicides — expressing embarrassment in court that his wife, the long-suffering Remy, would find out that he had been cheating on her because of certain testimony!

Putting a label on Henri Landru is difficult because he does not really fit into a specific crime classification. At best he can be called a multiple murderer, rather than a serial or spree killer.

He cannot really be considered a serial killer, because serial killers are currently defined as persons who kill three or more victims, in different locales and in either an organized or disorganized fashion, with some sort of cooling off period between the killings. Most often the killings are the culmination of a build-up of anger or lust, and the murderer finds a sense of release after the slaying. They have a great deal of control over their victim selection and time of the crimes, and their identities are not usually known until the time of arrest. Landru meets some of these criteria, but the time gaps between slayings was caused by his need to get close to his victims in order to obtain financial reward. If sex or anger was at the root of his murderous need, Landru could easily have killed his victims shortly after he got to know them. Or better yet, his selection of victims would have been more random.

Spree murderers, on the other hand, are killers whose crimes take place in different locales, in a disorganized fashion, but within a fairly short period of time. Often, spree killers are not in control of victim selection or the time of killing. They are usually on the run from at least the first offense (often before). Law enforcement agencies often know the identity of a spree killer before arrest. Henri Landru was in control of his victim selection and in the time of their deaths. He was not pressured into a "hurry-up" situation by law enforcement pursuit and never appeared to be on the lam despite his conviction in absentia.

Landru killed for money or to rid himself of a tiresome or inconvenient lover. His method of killing is unknown, but evidence at his villa suggests that the slayings were most likely clean, and that the victims were probably not defiled in any way. It is possible that Landru killed during a sex act, but there is no evidence that suggests this was the case. Lust was not his primary motive, and he is distinctive among multiple murderers because anger, revenge or sexual release were at best secondary motivators.

Most killers for financial gain do not destroy the evidence of their victims' deaths. In insurance or inheritance scams, proof of death is often required — few killers want to wait a decade or so to collect their ill-gotten reward. But Landru obviously took great pains to cover up his crimes. He sought to avoid detection and make it look like his victims were still alive.

In effect, Landru created a different classification of multiple killer; he was the male version of a Black Widow spider, one that takes what it needs and then kills its mate without remorse. Henri Landru combined the worst characteristics of the most terrible type of criminal.

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