The sensational story of the murderous Pranzini would inspire the young saint to adopt her “first sinner.”
In 1887, the following report appeared in the The Times:
Paris: March 17th
A triple murder was discovered this morning in the Rue Montaigne. A courtesan named Monty, or Regnault, lay dead at the foot of her bed, with two gashes on her throat, while her servant-maid and her daughter, a girl of 12, had been murdered in their bed. The supposed murderer is a man who mounted the stair just as the concierge was putting out the gas. He had vainly attempted to force a safe containing jewels worth 200,000f., and is presumed to have taken the money from the victim’s pocket. She was about 30 years of age. There are no traces of any struggle, but the occupants of the flat below heard a slight noise at 10 o’clock this morning. The concierge appears to have been accustomed to pull the checkstring about sunrise to let out the woman’s visitors.
A mysterious figure mounting the stairs as the gaslight was dimmed, a multiple murder, with one of the victims a courtesan, a theft, and, later, with nothing unusual in the room but a “cuff and belt” with the name “Geissler” inscribed upon them. These facts proved sensational enough to excite the press of the day as the hunt got underway for a thief and a killer, with the only clue being the name inked upon letters found at the scene.
Four days after the murder, a report came out of nowhere that seemed to give the police the breakthrough they needed. An “Italian” had been picked up by police many miles away at Marseilles. The man’s name was Henri Pranzini, and he appeared linked to the murders. The reasons for his arrest were quite simple. Having arrived on a night train at the port city, he proceeded to stay with a prostitute. It was she to whom he gave a locket, and, later, to another woman a watch was sold—both items aroused suspicions given the publicity then circulating about the Paris theft and murders, and police were duly alerted. Pranzini, having been apprehended at a theater in the city, admitted knowing Marie Regnault, but claimed that he had fled the capital for fear of being implicated in the events that had taken place—he denied any wrongdoing. His lodgings were searched by police, however, and therein were found bloodstained clothing. Unexpectedly, a case against this mysterious foreigner had started to form.
By March 23, Paris detectives had returned to Rue Montaigne, and in so doing had noticed that the apartment below that of the murder victims belonged to a watchmaker. Armed with the watch linked to Pranzini at Marseilles, they presented it to the neighbor, who not only recognized it but was able to show evidence of his work upon it; he had repaired it a few days prior to the murder, and, in so doing, had written a serial number on the watchcase before entering this in his work log. The watch found at Marseilles had the exact same numbers. The case against Pranzini began to build.
On March 25, at Marseilles, further circumstantial evidence appeared when missing jewels belonging to the dead woman were discovered at a park Pranzini had visited. And so, the next day, on a train bound for Paris, the detectives surrounding their charge were not sure whether they had the killer, the thief, or merely an accomplice of the mysterious “Geissler.”
The prisoner denied everything: he had not stolen anything nor had he killed anyone; the Marseilles women were liars and, in any event, he had an alibi, alleging that on the night of the murder he was with his mistress, Madame Sabatier. On March 28, when questioned, the woman confirmed this. If this was true, had the police got the wrong man?
Two days later, the other “suspect” came forward. The man in question was Arthur Geissler. In 1881, he had worked with the accused at a Naples hotel, and whilst there was to witness Pranzini’s dismissal for dishonesty. The Paris police now suspected that Pranzini had simply used the name “Geissler” as an alias. Handwriting experts were called upon to analysis the suspect’s writing and that upon the dead woman’s letters from “Geissler”—in their opinion, the samples matched.
Soon after, the examining magistrate was to receive something unforeseen in his morning post. A letter from Mme. Sabatier arrived, and with it came a retraction of her earlier statement: Pranzini had not been with her on the night of the murders. The letter also detailed his movements the day after the murders, one she had spent with him. They dined together before going to the circus, then his mood changed noticeably when they returned to her house. Pranzini sat down and began to weep, recounting a tale of his paying a visit to a “lady,” during which someone came to see her, forcing him to hide in a nearby closet. Twenty minutes later, when he emerged, he viewed a scene of terrible carnage, and, panicking, rushed out into the city streets, where he was to wonder for the rest of the night. Fearing he would be arrested for the murders, Pranzini begged Mme. Sabatier for the funds to leave Paris. These she gave him, later escorting him to a train station where he left for Marseilles.
The alibi had disappeared, and, in its place had come yet more incriminating evidence. On hearing of the retraction, Pranzini protested that his former mistress was out to “ruin” him, and that his innocence would soon be proved.
Police investigations were moving faster, however. Inquires about the murder weapon soon turned up a positive lead. A Paris shopkeeper had come forward to recount a curious tale of a well-dressed man with a foreign accent buying a knife, and soon after returning to buy a much larger butcher’s knife. It was clear to the vendor that the man purchasing the implement was not a butcher, and, furthermore, his description matched Pranzini.
On April 14, 1887, a macabre pilgrimage took place. To avoid crowds, in the dead of night, police escorted Pranzini to the scene of the murders. On these occasions, and in such circumstances, a guilty party was sometimes known to have broken down and confessed all. This was not to be the case with Pranzini, however. Unable to deny having visited the apartment, he denied knowing anything about it other than its sitting room. When reminded of his confession to Mme. Sabatier, he admitted hiding in the bedroom closet when “a man had visited,” and remaining there while the brutal slayings took place. Disbelieving this, the police proceeded to place him in the closet. After only a few minutes, it was clear how untenable such an arrangement would have been in such a confined space. Regardless, Pranzini still maintained his innocence.
Newspapers, as much as the police, now began to seek information on Henri Pranzini. The little they did uncover was that he was of Italian stock, but born at Alexandria in 1856. His career, such as it was, had been everything by turns, and nothing for long. Joining the Egyptian Post Office, he was dismissed for theft. Serving as an interpreter with the Russian Army, he was later to serve in the same capacity to the British Army then in the Sudan. There were claims he had travelled as far as Afghanistan and even to Burma; other more sinister claims of crimes committed elsewhere were alluded to, but, in the end, it seemed he belonged nowhere and to no one. By the time he came to Paris, in 1886, he was penniless, but it wasn’t long before that changed on making the acquaintance of a number of women, one of whom was known as “Madame de Montille,” but who would later come to the attention of the world as Marie Regnault.
A trial date was set for early July. The prosecution’s case was as follows: Marie Regnault, her servant Annette Gremeret, and her child were all murdered in the early hours of March 17, 1887. Although money and jewels to the value of 200,000f. were stolen, an attempt to force the safe with a much larger amount had failed. One weapon, a butcher’s knife, had been used in all the murders, the servant having been killed while trying to aid her mistress, the child killed asleep in her bed.
The authorities believed that a man known to Regnault had arrived at approximately 11 pm that night. Items left at the scene of the crime—cuffs and a strap with the name “Geissler” marked on them—were there simply to leave a false scent, which initially they did. The accused, Pranzini, was arrested three days later with items belonging to the principal victim. In addition, he knew the victims, and even admitted having been at the apartment on the night of the murders, but claimed to have been concealed in a closet throughout. Needless to say, all France awaited the trial’s opening.
At this time, 200 kilometers to the north of Paris, in the town of Lisieux, there lived a 14-year-old girl called Thérèse Martin. One Sunday, at the end of Mass, a religious picture fell from her missal. On it was an image of the wounded and pierced Divine Hands. It seemed to her as if the Precious Blood had fallen to the ground without notice. There and then, she later recounted, Thérèse resolved to place herself at the foot of the Cross, and to “thirst” there for the good of souls, especially desiring to “snatch sinners from the everlasting flames of Hell.”
The trial opened on July 9, 1887. In a densely packed courtroom, the evidence mounted while the defendant continued to assert his innocence. A tale of courtesans and criminals was paraded for all to hear. The Times’ Paris correspondent observed, with disdain, that the trial had revealed to the world a cruel and depraved aspect of that city’s life.
Finally, on July 13, with all the witnesses examined, and after an attempt at a defense from Pranzini’s advocate, the defendant was asked if he had anything further to say. “I am innocent,” was the only reply. And, with that, the jury retired at 4:45 pm. They returned three-quarters of an hour later: the verdict was guilty. The sentence quickly followed, and was one of death.
Before this was to be concluded, however, there were to be two avenues of appeal, one legal, and a final one for clemency. The first was quickly dismissed, and the president of France rejected the second. By the middle of August, it was clear Pranzini was to die.
That summer, press reports of the murders on the Rue Montaigne and the subsequent trial had gripped all France; Lisieux was no different. By the end of August, even the youthful Thérèse Martin had heard of the “notorious criminal Pranzini” and the sentence passed upon him. She also knew of his impenitence and, as a result, feared his being lost for all eternity. To avert that “irreparable calamity” she decided to employ “all the spiritual means” she could think of, she later wrote in The Story of a Soul. And so, as the condemned man awaited his fate, Thérèse began to offer the “infinite merits of Our Savior and the treasures of the Holy Church” for his salvation. Battle had commenced for the soul of a murderer.
At 4:30 am on August 31, 1887, the cell door was gently opened to reveal two prison guards and a chaplain. It is said, at this, the prisoner turned pale. Walking through the prison as a single bell began to toll, Pranzini’s step became noticeably less firm as the gates of La Roquette opened to reveal a public square with, at its center, a scaffold, and waiting by it, his executioner.
“My God, I am quite sure that Thou wilt pardon this unhappy Pranzini. I should still think so if he did not confess his sins or give any sign of sorrow, because I have such confidence in Thy unbounded Mercy; but this is my first sinner, and therefore I beg for just one sign of repentance to reassure me.”
Declining assistance, and feigning bravado, Pranzini started to walk forwards, and, as he did so, the gendarmes there to escort him drew their swords.
At the foot of the scaffold, he began to totter before turning to the chaplain and asking for the crucifix, which he took and kissed. The bell continued to toll as, mounting the scaffold, he broke down and a pathetic struggle ensued, before, finally, he was forced down upon the machine. At two minutes past five, the blade was pressed into action, and, at first descending slowly, its pace soon quickened…and, with that, the bell fell silent.
“The day after his execution I hastily opened the paper…and what did I see? Tears betrayed my emotion; I was obliged to run out of the room. Pranzini had mounted the scaffold without confessing or receiving absolution, and…turned round, seized the crucifix which the Priest was offering to him, and kissed Our Lord’s Sacred Wounds three times. …I had obtained the sign I asked for, and to me it was especially sweet. Was it not when I saw the Precious Blood flowing from the Wounds of Jesus that the thirst for souls first took possession of me?
…My prayer was granted to the letter.”