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it took 12 years to find her innocent of poisoning 11 people
Marie Joséphine Philippine Davaillaud was born in Loudon, France, on August 15, 1896. An only child educated at a convent school, some of her childhood playmates described her as somewhat mean. In 1919 she married her cousin, Auguste Antigny; he died on July 21, 1927, with the official cause of death listed as tuberculosis. In 1929 she married Léon Besnard, who owned a rope shop in Loudon.
The Besnards lived comfortably until 1940, when Léon's parents inherited family money and were invited to move in with their son and daughter-in-law. Léon's father died a few weeks later, after eating poisonous mushrooms, and his mother died of pneumonia three months later; their estate was split between Léon and his sister, Lucie. Léon inherited the entire estate after Lucie committed suicide a few months after their mother's death. The Besnards' bank account grew even more after Marie's father died of a cerebral hemorrhage on May 14, 1940.
Following the string of family deaths, the Besnards took a wealthy childless couple into their home. Touissaint and Blanche Rivet were so thankful for the Besnard's hospitality that they made them the beneficiaries of their wills. Touissant died of pneumonia on July 14, 1940; Blanche died of aortitis on December 27, 1941.
Although the Besnards had suffered an extraordinary number of deaths over a short period of time, few in Loudon suspected anything other than bad luck was responsible. That began to change, however, after one of Marie's elderly cousins, Pauline Bodineau, who was living in the Blanchard home, died on July 1, 1945. According to Marie, her cousin had mistaken a dish of lye for a desert and had eaten it. Suspicions were further aroused when another cousin, Virginie Lalleron, died in the same manner on July 9, 1945. Marie just happened to be the only beneificiary listed on both of the cousins' wills. Despite neighbors and friends being by now quite suspicious, no criminal investigation was initiated.
On January 16, 1946, Marie's mother, Marie-Louise Davaillaud, died, apparently of old age. Not long after collecting yet another inheritance, Marie learned that Léon was having an affair with a neighbor, Louise Pintou. Léon died on October 25, 1947; his doctor listed the cause of death as uremia.
Following the death of Léon Besnard, Louise Pintou sent a letter to the public prosecutor in which she stated that Léon had expressed his concern to her that he was being poisoned by Marie. Authorities initially dismissed Pintou's letter, but repeated demands by her and others that Léon's death be investigated finally forced them to give in. Léon Besnard's body was exhumed on May 11, 1949, and an autopsy found that he had ingested a large amount of arsenic over a period of time. This discovery led to the exhumation of other bodies, and by the time the investigation was over arsenic had also been found in the bodies of Léon's parents and sister, the Rivets, and Marie's first husband, cousins, mother, and father. Marie Besnard was arrested and charged with 11 counts of murder on July 21, 1949.
Besnard went on trial in February 1952. During the proceedings, Besnard's attorneys, René Hayot and Albert Gautrat, questioned the methods Dr. Georges Béroud used to find the arsenic in the bodies, accused the laboratory that did the tests of losing and mishandling some of the evidence, and presented evidence that the source of any arsenic found in the bodies could easily have come from the soil in the cemetery in which the bodies had been buried. Unable to come to a verdict, the court ruled that it needed more time to review the scientific evidence and adjourned. The court reconvened in October, took a little more testimony, and then adjourned again. The Besnard trial remained on hold, and she remained in jail, until March 1954. After hearing both sides present very different interpretations of the scientific evidence the judges again declared that they needed more time to come to a decision. This time, however, they allowed Besnard to post a 1,200,000-franc bond and await her next court appearance outside the confines of a jail.
Besnard was not called back into court until November 20, 1961. As they had before, both prosecution and defense presented very different interpretations of the scientific evidence. But, unlike before, this trial actully ended with a verdict. Over eleven years after being arrested, Marie Besnard was found not guilty on all counts on December 12, 1961. She died a free woman in 1980.
The Illustrated Crime Encyclopedia Westport, CT: H.S. Stuttman, Inc., 1993
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This page was last updated on September 02, 2018.