“On the crisp spring morning of March 18, 1946, some four hundred spectators and one hundred journalists packed the Cour d’assises of the Palais de Justice on the Ile de la Cite. Everyone was eager to see the man accused of killing twenty-seven people, chopping them into pieces, flushing their inner organs into the sewer, and then disposing of the other remains in his lime pit or burning them in his basement stove. All the while, he amassed a fortune. This was expected to be, the Washington Post reported, ‘the most sensational criminal trial in modern French history.’ ”
The subtitle of DEATH IN THE CITY OF LIGHT is The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris. In that Paris was occupied by hundreds of serial killers wearing the uniform of the Third Reich, it seems unfair that the Parisians had to worry about one of their own taking lives for profit. If possible, it was made worse by the identity of the killer. He was Marcel Petiot, M.D.
Two years earlier, residents of the fashionable 16th arrondissement, notified the police about black smoke coming from the chimney of a house that appeared unoccupied. Neighbors had noticed that, on occasion, a man on a bicycle with a cart filled with items under a canvas would come to the house. At other times, the man would open the door to people who always arrived at night and who always carried heavy suitcases. The police learned the house belonged to Marcel Petiot, a family physician. When he was contacted by phone, he requested that the police not enter the house until he arrived there in no more than fifteen minutes. After waiting more than 30 minutes, the police called the fire brigade, fearful that the fire might spread.
When the firefighters entered the basement, they saw the coal stove that was spewing the smoke into the air. “Jutting out were the charred remains of a human hand. On the far staircase was a pile of debris, which turned out to be a skull, a rib cage, and several other recognizable bones. Arms and legs had been strewn about in parts. A split-torso and two otehr skulls lay on the floor.” A large crowd had gathered outside, a crowd who included a man who identified himself as the brother of the owner of the house. First, he challenged the police on their patriotism. Then, he explained that the body parts belonged to Germans and to those he called traitors to France. He claimed to be the leader of a resistance cell and that his life would be in danger if the police told their superiors that he had been there. The police guaranteed that they would not endanger him. A few days later, when a picture of Doctor Petiot was in the newspaper, the police realized that the man on the bike was the doctor himself.
Born in 1897, Petiot was drafted into the French Army in 1916. In 1914, he had been diagnosed with a mental illness. Throughout the war, other doctors made the same diagnosis but, given the terrible losses of trench warfare, Petiot was repeatedly sent back to the front. Even shooting himself in the foot wasn’t enough to get him discharged. That did not happen until the war was nearly over and he was discharged and awarded a disability pension. He enrolled in medical school and received his degree with unusual rapidity. Pharmacists were reluctant to fill his prescriptions when they believed that the dose or the medication would endanger the patient more than the illness being treated. Pharmacists didn’t have the right to criticize doctors but at one point one refused to fill a prescription for a child because the dose would have killed an adult. Whether true or part of the legend, Petiot was said to have responded, “Isn’t it better to do away with this kid who does nothing but annoy his mother?”
Petiot loved money and he quickly devised a method of getting it by cheating his patients. He didn’t charge his patients but, without their knowledge, he was enrolling them in a public assistance program that paid him in full.
After the Germans established themselves in France, Petiot found a fool-proof method of getting rich. He let it be known that he had connections that would allow him to get Jews out of France. They brought him the money he demanded, they came to his house with the two suitcases they were allowed to pack, and they disappeared.
David King provides substantial evidence of Petiot’s success as a people smuggler. His clients truly disappeared. What is overwhelming is the absolute evil of the man. He killed French Jews, he killed Germans, he killed members of the resistance. He sold drugs to the addicted and he performed illegal abortions. There was nothing he would not do for money and little he would do to uphold his Hippocratic Oath.
A DEATH IN THE CITY OF LIGHT is a book in much the same style as those written by Erik Larson. It is a narrative of facts that reads like fiction. Because there were so many victims who were mentioned so briefly, it was difficult to connect with any of Petiot’s victims. The doctor and his associates are as dispicable and immoral as any of the conqueror’s of the city. There is a hero. Commissaire Georges-Victor Massu of the Homicide Squad gets into Petiot’s life meeting the members of the Gestapo, the underworld, spies, Resistance fighters, and all the other people who descend on a city at war to do their worst.
This is a worthwhile read for anyone who is interested in the period and it is one of the very few that looks at life in the most important of the occupied cities.