While we’ve all heard of Dr. Death (murderous doctor and surgeon Christopher Duntsch), there have been numerous deadly physicians throughout history that deserve just as much publicity. For the next few weeks, I’ll be delving into a new and juicy story about a killer doctor from the past (or the present!). This week we’re welcoming our first Doctor of Death: Marcel Petiot.
Born on January 17th, 1897, Marcel Petiot was a deadly French doctor who exhibited extreme mental instability and ill behavior from a very early age. As a child, Petiot had a tendency toward violence and inappropriate sexual behavior, and allegedly fired his father’s gun in class and propositioned a fellow classmate for sex when he was 11 years old. At age 17, Petiot robbed a mailbox and was charged with theft and damage to public property. Based on his previous infractions, Petiot was evaluated by a psychiatrist and was determined to be suffering from mental illness. As a result, the criminal charges against him were dropped and he was drafted into the French Army during World War I.
Although Petiot was injured twice during his nearly three years of service (once in the spring of 1917 while on the battlefront and again in 1918 after he shot himself in the foot), he was not relieved of his duties until a doctor diagnosed him with “mental disequilibrium, neurasthenia, mental depression, melancholia, obsessions and phobias” and kleptomania. Instead of being admitted to an asylum after his discharge, Petiot earned a medical degree from an accelerated post-war education program that was designed for veterans. (Sure, Petiot’s mental health diagnoses may have been the product of some early-20th century pseudo-psychiatric jargon. . . but I think it’s safe to say that this man was not fit to be a doctor. Don’t believe me? Keep reading.)
Dr. Petiot began his work as a physician in the small village of Villeneuve-sur-Yonne and garnered a large roster of patients based on his charm and intelligence alone. However, Petiot had a penchant for prescribing addictive substances to his patients and, in some instances, even secretly applied for state medical assistance so that he could collect checks from both his patients and the state each time he provided his services.
All was going well for Petiot until the daughter of one of his patients went missing in 1926. Petiot had been seeing Louise Delaveau romantically and was rumored to have been seen putting a large trunk in his car during the time of her mysterious disappearance. A few weeks later, police retrieved a large trunk filled with an unidentified woman’s body parts from the Yonne river. Despite the glaring connection between Petiot and the trunk, police dismissed the discovery as a coincidence and marked Delaveau as a runaway.
In the same year that he was connected to this potential murder scandal, Dr. Petiot became mayor of Villeneuve-sur-Yonne. Then, in 1927, Petiot married Georgette Lablais and had a son the next year. During his time as mayor, Petiot stole everything he could get his hands on— including taxpayer money and cans of oil from the railroad depot. Petiot was taken to court for the latter and sentenced to three months in prison but his sentence was overturned in appeal. Instead, the corrupt mayor was suspended from office for four months. In 1931, Petiot’s mayoral reign ended and his role as the youngest man to ever sit on the general council for the Yonne district began. Yet, in a short span of time, Petiot was charged with stealing electric power from Villeneuve-sur-Yonne and opted to move to Paris instead to avoid the bad publicity.
By 1933, Dr. Petiot was settled into a growing medical practice that was largely successful and largely criminal. Petiot resumed his old ways of prescribing medications to addicts and even became known for performing illegal abortions. Naturally, he couldn’t stop stealing and even assaulted a police officer— but his questionable sanity afforded him another acquittal. In the years leading up to Germany’s invasion of France in 1939, Petiot found himself to be quite busy and managed to spend a few months in a sanitarium and commit tax fraud all within the same span of time.
During the German occupation, Petiot claimed that he was a member of the resistance and began providing false medical records to French citizens who had been forced into German labor camps. He also treated the sick workers as they returned, but quickly got caught up with the law for over-prescribing narcotics in 1942. Petiot paid a fine, assumed the alias of Dr. Eugène, and got to work setting up a false escape network for Jewish folks, Resistance fighters, and criminals that were looking to flee from the Gestapo. The network, Fly-Tox, was allegedly connected with Argentinian authorities and aimed to safely transport people away from the German invaders and into South America. Dr. Petiot claimed that the Argentinian government required him to inoculate the refugees against various diseases before they could enter their new country. However, Petiot was actually injecting his unsuspecting patients with cyanide, stealing their money and belongings, disposing of their bodies in quicklime and then burying them or dumping them into the Seine river.
The Gestapo eventually caught onto Petiot’s grift and arrested him and his accomplices. The Gestapo was operating under the belief that Petiot, his wife, and his three accomplices were part of a greater spy network. When they failed to crack the case, the Gestapo released Petiot. In January 1944, people began to complain that they smelled rancid smoke coming his medical practice in Paris and the police discovered at least ten bodies that were buried in his basement. Petiot stated that the bodies belonged to traitors and Germans and was subsequently released. Shortly thereafter, Petiot changed his named to Henri Valéri and went into hiding with one of his patients. Joining the French Forces of the Interior (FFI), Petiot quickly became a captain and managed to keep his past under wraps until the early fall.
Everything eventually came crashing down after the newspaper Résistance ran a story that accused Petiot of collaborating with German occupiers. Ironically enough, the police enlisted Captain Henri Valéri to search for the fugitive, but Petiot was recognized in the Paris metro and arrested on October 31, 1944. During his trial, Petiot was adamant that he was only killing enemies of France and that other members of Fly-Tox had killed people without his knowledge and buried their bodies in his basement. Nevertheless, Dr. Petiot was charged with 27 murders (despite his claim that he had killed a total of 63 “Germans and collaborators” between 1940 and 1945″), and 99 other criminal charges. On May 25, 1945, Petiot was executed via guillotine.