took 12 years to find her innocent of poisoning
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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