Hélène Jégado


Hélène Jégado

Hélène Jégado at her trial, historical print
(ca. 1851).

Hélène Jégado (1803-1852) was a French domestic servant and serial killer. She is believed to have murdered as many as 36 people with arsenic over a period of 18 years. After an initial period of activity, between 1833 and 1841, she seems to have stopped for nearly ten years before a final spree in 1851.

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Early life and crimes

Hélène Jégado was born on a small farm near Lorient (Morbihan) in Brittany. She lost her mother at the age of seven and was sent to work with two aunts who were servants at the rectory of Bubry. Little is known of her early life until she became a cook in the nearby village of Guern.

Her first suspected poisoning was in 1833 when she was working for François Le Drogo in Guern. In the three months between June 28 and October 3, seven members of the household died suddenly, including the priest, and her own visiting sister. Her apparent sorrow and pious behaviour was so convincing she was not suspected. Coming shortly after the cholera epidemic of 1832 the deaths may have been put down to natural causes.

Jégado went to replace her sister in Bubry and three people died, including her other aunt. She continued to Locmine, where she boarded with a needlewoman, Marie-Jeanne Leboucher—both Leboucher and her daughter died and a son fell ill. It is possible that the son survived because he did not accept Jégado’s ministrations. When a widow in the same town offered Jégado a room, she died after eating a soup her new boarder had prepared.

In 1835, Jégado was employed as a servant in a convent in Auray, but rapidly dismissed after several incidents of vandalism and sacrilege.

Jégado worked as a cook in many households and was employed only briefly in each one. Often, someone fell ill or died. Most victims died showing symptoms corresponding to arsenic poisoning, though she was never caught with arsenic in her possession. There is no record of suspected deaths from 1841 to 1849, but a number of her employers later reported thefts; she was apparently a kleptomaniac and was caught stealing several times.

Her career took a new turn in 1849 when she moved to Rennes.

Arrest

In 1850, Jégado joined the household staff of Théophile Bidard, a law professor at the University of Rennes.

One of his servants, Rose Tessier, fell ill and died when Jégado tended her. In 1851, one of the other maids, Rosalie Sarrazin, fell ill as well and died. Two doctors had tried to save Sarrazin and because the symptoms were similar to those of Tessier, they convinced the relatives to permit an autopsy. Jégado aroused suspicion when she announced her innocence before she was even asked anything, and she was arrested July 1, 1851.

Later inquiries linked her to 23 suspected deaths by poisoning between 1833-1841, but none of these was thoroughly investigated since they were outside the ten-year limit for prosecution and there was no scientific evidence. Local folklore has attributed to her many unexplained deaths – some of which were almost certainly due to natural causes. The most reliable estimate is that she probably committed about 36 murders.

Trial

Jégado’s trial began December 6, 1851 but, due to French laws of permissible evidence and statute of limitations, she was accused only of three murders, three attempted murders and 11 thefts. At least one later case appears to have been dropped since it involved a child and police were reluctant to upset the parents by an exhumation. Jégado’s behaviour in court was erratic, changing from humble mutterings to loud pious shouting and occasional violent outbursts against her accusers. She consistently denied she even knew what arsenic was, despite evidence to the contrary. Doctors who had examined her victims had not usually noticed anything suspicious, but when the most recent victims were exhumed, they showed overwhelming evidence of arsenic and possibly antimony.

The defence lawyer, Magloire Dorange, made a remarkable closing speech – arguing that she needed more time than most to repent and could be spared the death penalty since she was dying of cancer anyway.

The case attracted little attention at the time, pushed-off the front pages by the coup d’état in Paris.

Jégado was sentenced to death by guillotine and executed in front of a large crowd of onlookers on the Champ-de-Mars in Rennes on February 26, 1852.

References

There is no reliable recent account in English. The most detailed is the chapter by Victor McClure in the book “She Stands Accused” (see link below).

  • Gaute, J.H.H. & Odell, Robin (1996), The New Murderer’s Who’s Who, London: Harrap Books.
  • Heppenstall, Rayner (1970), French Crime in the Romantic Age, London: H Hamilton.
  • Griffiths, Arthur (1898), Mysteries of Police and Crime, London.
  • Wraxall, Lascelles (1863), Criminal Celebrities, London.

In French :

  • Bouchardon, Pierre (1937), “Hélène Jégado”, Paris: Albin Michel.
  • Meazey, Peter (1999), “La Jégado: Histoire de la célèbre empoisonneuse”, Guingamp (22): Éditions de la Plomée, paperback (2006).

External links

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