When we think of France, we tend to first imagine the romantic, the gastronomically exclusive, the luxurious, or the destination for classy European travel. When we imagine the atrocious and the wicked, our minds may initially jump to Henry VIII, Nazi Germany, or North American serial killers. Yet it is France where some of the highest (or should we say, lowest) levels of villain have originated, including the shockingly abusive Marquis de Sade, who’s name is the origin of the word Sadism itself. In this account, we explore these darkest and most surprising histories.
10. Marquis de Sade
His title the very origin of the term sadism itself, Donatien Alphonse François, known as Marquis de Sade, was an aristocratic French abuser who was guilty of escalating confinement, humiliation, rape and torture of young women in the name of twisted self-pleasure. Considered to be an author, philosopher and a criminal, Sade combined some very dark concepts with even worse real-life decisions. Born in 1740 to a diplomat serving in the court of Louis XV and living 74 years until his death in 1814 throughout his sordid life and exploits, philosophical in his outlook, Sade was the person whose actions gave birth to the term “sadistic.” His behavior seems to have stemmed from aggressive predispositions as a child including such outrageous behavior as beating the prince of France and the horrendous whipping punishments he received in school for his conduct.
Becoming obsessed with corporal punishment as an adult, he pursued increasingly violent encounters. In 1763, de Sade was married, but shortly he began to rent rooms in which to fulfill his fantasies. His fantasies became increasingly strange as he incorporated crosses into an encounter with a prostitute and was arrested after she complained to police. While imprisoned, he authored 15 manuscripts, including the well known “Justine” and “120 Days of Sodom.” He was soon released but in 1768, he tortured a chambermaid with hot wax after bringing her to his room and first cutting her. She was paid off by the family to keep quiet, but eventually Sade was sent to Italy. At the time of the French Revolution, de Sade was welcomed into the new government, only to be put into an insane asylum during the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte. Still on his path, he pursued the 13-year-old daughter of an asylum employee before his death.
9. Gilles de Rais
A colorful figure who might at first have recalled a dashing adventurer, the now maligned but relatively little-known French Nobleman turned serial killer Gilles de Rais held positions of great privilege but fell to great depths. Depicted in shining armor with long, dark hair, de Rais cast an impressive image. Born in 1404, he fought in the Hundred Year’s War and served as a comrade in arms of Joan of Arc, distinguishing himself with his battle prowess and bravery.
Yet, there was a dark side as this apparently respectable warrior appeared to be a predator capable of abusing and killing the most vulnerable in society. Becoming one of the most twisted abusers and all-around sickos in history, de Rais increased in power as concern over numerous children who had disappeared in the areas surrounding his personal castles developed. After Joan of Arc died in 1431, his time spent fighting was replaced with time spent on his large estate and engaging in extravagance. Extravagance eventually gave way to violence, sex crimes against children and child murder, it appears. Rumors grew, and in the wake of constructing a chapel and selecting children for the choir, an activity followed by yet more disappearances; de Raise was caught and confessed to torturing and murdering over 100 children over a period of 10 years, with the help of his noblemen. Executed by burning and hanging in 1440, de Rais is considered history’s first recorded serial killer and notably, a serial killer of high social standing.
8. Michel Fourniret
Known as the “Ogre of the Ardennes” Michael Fourniret stands out as one of the most brutal and bizarre serial killers in European history. Definitely unassuming in appearance, Fourniret had a rather nerdy, even scientist-like look. He had a high IQ but had trouble holding jobs, and was a human beast with a twisted tendency to engage in sexual abuse and later, murder. His crimes were ultimately characterized by unbelievably strategic pre-meditated brutality against young girls and women aged 12 to 22.
During his first marriage, he was convicted of child molestation and sent to prison. After marrying a second time, he was convicted of voyeurism and assault and while in prison, Fourniret met a woman who would become his third wife after putting an ad in a Catholic magazine. Monique Olivier, a nurse with three children agreed to a horrendous pact where Fourniret would kill her ex-husband if she were to help him lure virgin female victims. Upon release, the couple embarked on a path of sordid horror where they would go for drives and then stop and ask potential young female victims for directions. With the help of his wife in luring the victims, Monsieur Fourniret lured, abused and murdered several girls and women in both Belgium and France before being sentenced to life imprisonment.
7. Maximilien Robespierre
The French Revolution saw the unfolding of some of history’s most twisted crimes against humanity, mass paranoia and apparent psychopathic conduct. And the horrors that took place were not the result of decisions by faceless entities or random fights on the street. People with agendas and plans were behind the violence, and one of the most notorious would have to be the unassuming looking Maximillien Robespierre. Born in Arras in 1758 as the son of a lawyer, Robespierre studied in Paris and became a lawyer himself. After time in the Jacobin club where he served as president, Robespierre was elected First Deputy for Paris to the National Convention. Robespierre then rose to power as the most influential member of the ironically named Committee of Public Safety, which would go on to commit some of the most unspeakable crimes against human rights in modern history.
Perpetrating the “Reign of Terror” the committee oversaw the ruthless and often crazed mass purge of anyone who might constitute the littlest amount of opposition to the revolution. Through his firsthand involvement in the “Reign of Terror”, the man with a gentle resting look but a wicked glance and a self-righteous smile saw violence as the answer to dominating those around him. In addition to the countless executions carried out under the bloody hands of this lawyer turned execution master, the Committee of Public Safety aggressively pushed the cult of the Supreme Being as a new religion for France. Eventually, Robespierre became unpopular due to the intensity of his violent campaign and authoritarian nature. On July 27, 1794, Robespierre was himself guillotined, along with 21 close compatriots.
6. Rene Descartes
To see the name of a famous French philosopher and mathematician revered for Cartesian mathematics, developed by Rene Descartes and subsequently named in his honor now included in a list of villains may present a surprise. Yet, while Descartes may not have set out to be wicked, his musings saw him arrive at conclusions that resulted in truly heinous outcomes. Believing living species of animals apart from humans were literal flesh robots, simply automatons, as he called them, without any consciousness, thought or feeling, Descartes cut open live animals in brutal and horrendous fashion in scientific experiments. His work was conducted without any anaesthetic, convinced he was causing no real and experienced harm to other beings.
After all, he saw animals as organic life forms but not as experiential beings. Born in 1596, Descartes believed that since animals are robots, they do not feel pain and are thus open for use in experimentation. The logic of Descartes was possibly supported by popular religious perceptions of humans as distinct from other species. While it is obvious that humans are just another species in the animal kingdom and thus, while we are highly advanced, our physiology and psychology are shared with other species, many scientists viewed animals as robots during the 20th century. Concerning, some 21st century scientists remain stuck in this illogical viewpoint. By considering how many Cartesian assumptions are held in regards to animal welfare, it is conceivable that more compassionate treatment of animals would accompany such reconsideration.
5. Marcel André Henri Félix Petiot
During times of war, human rights abuse and chaos, some fight back or help. In a certain number of cases, chaos provides the perfect cover for opportunists, including deranged serial killers. An opportunist of the highest degree, Marcel André Henri Félix Petiot was a doctor, a madman and a killer of multitudes who took advantage of the Nazi occupation of France to unleash a scourge of vicious murders. Diagnosed as being mentally ill at the age of 14, Petiot, born in 1897 in Auxerre, served in WWI but then apparently self-harmed in a very extreme way: with a grenade.
Eventually released from the hospital and discharged from the military with a disability pension, Petiot ambitiously embarked in a course of medical studies and became a doctor in 1921. Soon, he began distributing drugs and stealing in town before starting a romance with a girl who soon disappeared – for good.With the onset of WWII, the man who became nicknamed “Docteur Satan” cemented his reputation as a notorious serial killer when he was found to have no less than 23 bodies stashed in his home once post-World War 2 investigations were carried out. Many victims were killed after fleeing the Nazis and being offered “inoculations” by Dr. Petiot, which actually consisted of deadly doses of cyanide poison. Found guilty of murder, he was beheaded under the guillotine on May 25, 1946.
4. Jeanne Weber
The worst serial killers and violent offenders in history have not always been of the male gender and this is no exception in the case of France and its villains. Born in 1874 in a Western French village, Jeanne Weber was a monstrous predator and an apparently insane woman who killed at least 10 children in a horrific series of strangling incidents. What is especially shocking is the number of crimes she was able to commit due to being let go. Had more attention been paid to what was actually taking place, her mini reign of terror could have been sooner forestalled.
Caught on repeated occasions, Weber was able to escape the consequences of several murders by having deaths blamed on medical problems supposedly suffered by children and through legal assistance. In a series of ghastly incidents, Weber strangled children to death, including her own son and allegedly, her two other children or those either foolishly or ignorantly placed under her “care.” After causing a series of deaths and at times being caught in the act of strangling before she could kill her victim, the serial killer was finally caught for good. Her final victim was the son of an innkeeper whom Weber strangled with a blood-soaked handkerchief. Incarcerated in an insane asylum in 1908, Weber ultimately, ironically, strangled herself to death 10 years later.
3. Joseph Vacher
A bizarre mad killer known as the “French Ripper,” Joseph Vacher was a terrifying answer to England’s notorious, albeit far more mysterious “Jack the Ripper.” Born on a farm in the French Alps in 1869, Vacher was the youngest of 15 children born to poor parents. Joining the army at age 17, the young man was known for having a hot temper and a dose of what might now be called narcissism. Throughout his bizarre and violent life, Vacher committed a bizarre series of murders, targeting workers including teenage boys, teenage girls and an adult woman, many of them shepherds. In carrying out these acts of horror, he earned himself the nickname “The Killer of Little Shepherds” and a place in the dark corners of public imagination.
The horror started when he attempted to kill his unrequited love, shooting her and then shooting himself, but failing to end either life. Once released a year later from a mental asylum, Vacher had a scarred appearance and suffered partial paralysis. He became a hobo, wandering in search of temporary jobs and begging for change, blending into crowds of wandering workers as he began a terrifying spate of random murders that ended when he attacked a woman gathering wood, and was captured. After a confession to 11 killings in “moments of frenzy” the killer was tried and executed by guillotine on October 28, 1898. He wore a white rabbit fur hat and shouted out bizarre statements during the trial, and was physically dragged to the guillotine as he would not walk.
2. Louis Darquier de Pellepoix
The Nazis are notorious for committing unspeakable war crimes targeted at Jews and many other identifiable groups. Yet, some of the darkest perpetrators of war crimes complicit in WWII atrocities were in fact French. A notorious promoter of brutal crimes against humanity, Louis Darqier de Pellepoix was a French World War 1 Veteran missing an arm and an eye and also, any vestige of humanity in his person. Active as a proponent of French fascism and anti-Semitism, he was appointed by Nazi Germany as the head of the Vichy French “Office for Jewish Affairs” or the Commissariat General aux Questions Juives.
An ingrained anti-Semite and collaborator with Nazi Germany, Darqier was a thug who oversaw “economic Aryanisation” which simply meant stealing from Jewish businesses and carried out the despicable work of deciding “who was a Jew.” Rightly derided as “Hitler’s Parrot,” de Pellepoix was a thoroughly unpleasant man with little going for him who accomplished little of meaning personally and then intensified the persecution of Jewish people through his agitation. In his official role, he acted on his prior statements including a 1937 hate speech where he advocated for violence against Jewish people, including “expulsion or massacre if necessary.” Following the end of World War 2, he was sentenced to death by the French High Court of Justice in absentia, however, an execution was never carried out due to his protection through residence in Spain.
1. Jean Leguay
A high ranking official in the Fascist Vichy French regime, Jean Leguay was the Second in Command of the French National Police at the time the German Nazi invasion and occupation was taking place. An especially dark-hearted bad actor, Leguay was charged in 1979 with crimes against humanity long after the end of World War 2 for playing a significant role in arranging the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, which saw the arrest of over 12,884 Jewish people, including 4,051 children who were then deported to death camps. Disturbingly, Leguay was accused of persuading Germans to persecute Jewish children as well as adults.
Following the end of WWII, Leguay gained presidency of London-based Warner Lambert Inc., a company since merged with Pfizer Inc. After his time with Warner Lambert, Leguay took presidency of Substantia Laborities, Paris. French Law does not place a time limit on prosecution for Crimes Against Humanity and in 1986, Leguay was charged with crimes against humanity for the second time in his life for the act of involvement in seeing 444 Jewish people be deported from Paris to Nazi death camps. It is the debased and shockingly cruel nature of his deadly campaigns as well as length of time it took for him to even be charged that is bound to outrage and cause one to question the efficacy of justice in bringing down former war criminals. Leguay died from cancer in 1989 at the age of 79. Shortly after his passing, the judiciary stated that his guilt in committing crimes against humanity was beyond doubt.