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French Marie BESNARD

born Marie-Joséphine Philippine DAVAILLEAUD

Accused French serial poisoner in the mid 20th century

Source :  Cercle Généalogique PoitevinThierry CHESTIER

Born: on August 15, 1896 in Saint-Pierre-de-Maillé, Vienne, France
Died: on February 14, 1980 in Loudun, Vienne, France


Born in Loudun, France, Marie married her cousin, Auguste Antigny, in 1920. The marriage lasted until his death from pleurisy on July 21, 1927 (Antigny was known to suffer from tuberculosis). When his body was eventually exhumed, 60mg of arsenic was found in his remains.

In 1928, Marie married Léon Besnard.

When Léon Besnard's parents inherited family wealth, the couple invited them to move in with them. Soon thereafter, his father died, apparently from eating poisoned mushrooms.

His mother followed three months later, apparently a victim of pneumonia. The parents' estate was left to Besnard's husband and his sister, Lucie, who supposedly committed suicide a few months later. Around this time, on May 14, 1940, Marie Besnard's father Pierre Davaillaud also died, officially due to cerebral haemorrhage, although his exhumed remains contained 36mg of arsenic.

Shortly afterward, the Besnards sublet rooms to a wealthy childless couple, the Rivets, who were friends of Marie's husband. Monsieur Toussaint Rivet died of pneumonia on July 14, 1939, although 18mg of arsenic was later discovered in his exhumed remains. Madame Blanche Rivet (née Lebeau) died on December 27, 1941 from aortitis, although her remains contained 30mg of arsenic. The Rivets' will had named Marie Besnard as their only heir.

Pauline Bodineau, (née Lalleron) and Virginie Lalleron, cousins of Marie, had also named Marie as their only beneficiary. Pauline died aged 88 on July 1, 1945, after mistaking a bowl of lye for her dessert one night. Her remains were later found to contain 48mg of arsenic. Virginie apparently made the same mistake a week later and died aged 83 on July 9, 1945. Her remains were later found to contain 20mg of arsenic.

Marie's mother, Marie-Louise Davaillaud (née Antigny) died on January 16. Her remains contained 48mg of arsenic.

After Marie discovered Léon was having an affair, Léon remarked to a close friend, Madame Pintou, that he believed he was being poisoned, saying "that his wife had served him some soup on a bowl that already contained a liquid." He died shortly afterwards October 25, 1947 apparently of uremia.

A few days after Léon's burial details of his testimony reached the gendarmerie and were passed to an investigating magistrate. As Marie had by now also accumulated most of the wealth of both families, suspicions were aroused of foul play and the magistrate ordered the exhumation of Léon's body on May 11, 1949. A forensic surgeon, doctor Béroud, discovered 19.45 mg of arsenic in his body. Marie was arrested, the bodies of her other alleged victims were exhumed, and Marie was charged with 13 counts of murder.

The presence of arsenic in the bodies of her alleged victims was central to Besnard's trials, the first of which began in February 1952.

Béroud's autopsy report, based on an analytical method developed by Marsh and Cribier, concluded that the victims had been slowly poisoned by arsenic. Further analysis by professors Fabre, Kohn-Abrest and Griffon also found that there were abnormal levels of arsenic in the exhumed bodies. Another report, carried out by professor Piedelièvre in 1954 confirmed the results of the 1952 analysis, but differed in some respects from Béroud's. The presence of abnormally high levels of arsenic were also confirmed by another report by Professor Frédéric Joliot-Curie.

Béroud had difficulty in defending his results under examination from Besnard's lawyers. The defence also claimed that there were errors in the labelling of the jars containing the tissue sample, and that several jars had been lost or replaced. In addition, an investigation at the cemetery was able to show that arsenic may have leached into the soil and bodies from chemicals used on the flowers and from zinc ornaments and other sources. As a result the first two trials ended without a conviction.

The length of the trials, the successful attacks on the evidence and the turning of public opinion in favor of Marie Besnard contributed to her eventual acquittal at her third trial in 1961.

Besnard died in 1980.

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