Dr. Marcel Petiot, who thrived in Paris during World War II, is now
forgotten; but with a little luck, he might have been remembered today
as a French national hero.
After making a living as a doctor, drug peddler, and abortionist,
Dr. Petiot hit on a brilliant new racket during World War II. While
the German army occupied France, he discreetly put out the word that
he could arrange for people to flee the Nazi tyranny and reach another
country through a secret escape route.
Desperate, wealthy would-be refugees furtively came to his mansion
carrying all their wealth in money and valuables. Though they were
ready to pay large sums to escape, Dr. Petiot was willing to accept
only modest fees, protesting that he was a patriot, not an extortionist.
It didn’t matter, because they would never leave France and
Dr. Petiot would get all their wealth anyway. He took them to the cellar
of his mansion where he murdered them, probably by poisoning. The fortified
cellar was equipped with a furnace in which he disposed of their remains,
while he became rich on the money and jewels on which they had planned
to live abroad.
The Strange Story of Dr. Petiot
There was little curiosity about Dr.
victims; during the war the Communist-infested French Resistance murdered
so many people, both German soldiers and alleged French collaborators,
that mysterious disappearances were commonplace. But many Frenchmen
accepted Resistance terrorism as patriotic acts against foreign oppressors
and native traitors.
Countless other people disappeared voluntarily, fleeing France and
the German occupation. Dr. Petiot had the wit to see that in these
chaotic conditions, an independent criminal could flourish by catering
to the desperation of those who wanted to leave — and who would
be untraceable if they should meet misfortune along the way.
Dr. Petiot was charming, subtle, and quick-witted. He disarmed his
victims by expressing anxiety that they might betray him; they tried
to assure him that they were trustworthy, never asking themselves whether
he himself could be trusted.
One day a neighbor called the police to complain about the foul smoke
belching from Dr. Petiot’s chimney. Breaking into the vacant
house, the police found the cellar full of human parts: skeletons,
leg bones, severed hands, a skull. Other bodies were being consumed
in the roaring furnace.
A little man identifying himself as Dr. Petiot’s brother arrived
on a bicycle; he was actually Dr. Petiot himself. He told the police
that they had happened on an execution chamber of a Resistance cell
called “Groupe Fly-Tox,” where Nazis and collaborators
got their just deserts. The bones in the cellar, he explained, were
those of France’s enemies and traitors, not innocent people.
The police accepted this explanation and, having no wish to incur
the wrath of the vindictive Resistance, decided not to pursue the matter.
With the magnificent effrontery of the true master, Dr. Petiot thanked
them in the name of “La Resistance” and departed smartly.
(Closer inspection might have found that one of the deceased “Nazis
and collaborators” was a boy of seven years.)
Soon, however, the police realized their mistake and put out a nationwide
alert for Dr. Petiot, who had vanished. He was eventually found in
another Resistance group, where, under an assumed name, he had ascended
to the rank of captain in a mere six weeks. He also bore various fake
identification cards, including one from the Communist Party.
At his trial, Dr. Petiot defended himself with confidence and aplomb.
Yes, he admitted, he had killed 63 people, but they were all Nazis
and collaborators who deserved their grim fate at the hands of Groupe
Fly-Tox. Instead of being tried as a criminal, he said, he should have
been decorated for heroism by General Charles de Gaulle, like other
There was one problem with this stirring defense: nobody had ever
heard of Groupe Fly-Tox. Dr. Petiot refused to name any confederates
(he had none); the court delayed his death sentence for more than a
year in the hope that someone would step forward to confirm that Groupe
Fly-Tox had actually existed. None did. In May 1946 Dr. Petiot paid
with his head on the guillotine.
If only he had been able to prove he was a bona fide terrorist, Dr.
Petiot might have gotten not the guillotine but a monument.
Copyright © 2011 by the Fitzgerald
Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. This column was published originally
by Griffin Internet Syndicate on December 21, 1999.
Joe Sobran was an author and a syndicated columnist. See bio
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