Dr. Edmond Pommerais was a spendthrift and gambler who was not above doing whatever it took to become rich. His story begins with his efforts to become a wealthy doctor of homeopathy. When that failed, he decided it would be easier to obtain a rich wife and attempted to do so through several matrimonial agency offices. However, during the search, as he was riding an omnibus, he overhead a Mademoiselle Dubizy speaking and learned that she was a heiress.
Pommerais followed her home and contrived an introduction to her family. Once introduced, he began to court her and soon proposed marriage. Because he was a doctor, his social position seemed suitable, but Mademoiselle Dubizy’s mother was not convinced that he was the proper husband for her daughter. To overcome her objections, he mentioned his wealth and showed her foreign securities that he claimed were his own but were borrowed from friends.
Eventually, though his deception, Dr. Edmond Pommerais overcame Madame Dubizy’s opposition to the marriage, but she still mistrusted him. She therefore stipulated that her daughter’s property, “which yielded about £100 a year,” must be kept separate and that she must retain control over it.
Dr. Edmond Pommerais was also aware that his wife would receive about £2,000 upon the death of her mother and that there would be no restrictions on this money. Interestingly, soon after his marriage, his mother-in-law died. The Dublin Evening Mail reported:
“Madame Dubizy, whose health had previously been excellent, died suddenly, with symptoms strongly suggestive of the action of a violent poison.”
Dr. Edmond Pommerais received his mother-in-law’s money soon after her death in 1862, but the amount he received was far less than he expected. Therefore, it did not take him long to bankrupt the estate and find himself again short on funds. Because he needed more money he hit on a diabolical scheme and approached his former lover, a woman named Séraphine de Pauw. Pommerais had treated her husband when he was ill, and he had died. However, it was unclear whether there was foul pay connected with his death. In any event, Pommerais now told his former lover that he had a plan to provide for their future:
“He proposed to insure her life for £22,000, paying for her the first annual premium, which would amount to £758; and he told her that if, soon after this operation had been effected, she pretended to be seriously ill, the companies would gladly buy up the policies by giving her an annual income of £240, of which he would take half as reimbursement of his outlay.”
De Pauw did not want to commit fraud. Still the doctor somehow convinced her to do so and she agreed to get a policy naming him as the beneficiary. Despite de Pauw’s previous good health, sometime after she got the life insurance policy she fell ill and died after vomiting and suffering a racing heart. However, before her death de Pauw told her sister and several friends of Pommerais’ plan to defraud the insurance company, a tactic that an American socialite and murderer named Harry T. Hayward also used. According to the Morning Advertiser:
“Pommerais’ injunctions to secrecy did not prevent Madame Pauw from telling several of her friends and neighbors what she was hoping for. ‘If the thing succeeds,’ she said, ‘my fortune and that of my children is made.’ She repeated frequently that on the policies being brought up she was to have 3,000f. a year. All she had to was to make the doctors believe that she was really ill, and to keep her bed for about a fortnight.”
When de Pauw died, her sister believed Pommerais had murdered her and went to police. They in turn contacted Auguste Ambroise Tardieu who was considered one of the foremost forensic and toxicology experts of the time. He had gained international fame as early as 1843 and had gone on to serve as both a professor and the dean of the medical faculty in Paris. He was also appointed President of the French Academy of Medicine.
Tardieu was also making significant strides with his ground-breaking forensic and toxicology work. He had gained a stellar reputation because of his studies related to victims who had been strangled, smothered, or asphyxiated versus those who had been hanged because he could show differences between their deaths. In addition, he recorded and published what he learned in his studies, which thereby allowed his findings to be accessed by a wide class of professionals interested in medicine and forensics.
Tardieu believed that de Pauw had been poisoned. He requested that her body be exhumed so he could examine it for signs of poisoning. He then conducted several tests for various poisons, but each test proved negative. Because Tardieu knew the specifics of de Pauw’s death, he ultimately decided that she had been poisoned by an alkaloid toxin and extracted some of the it from her organs, which he then injected it into a large dog. Within a few hours the dog vomited and showed signs like those de Pauw had displayed before she died. However, the dog did not die.
In the meantime, investigators learned that immediately after de Pauw’s death, Dr. Edmond Pommerais began trying to collect money from the insurance company. A neighbor named Mademoiselle Hurlmond also alleged that when she told Pommerais of de Pauw’s death he was not surprised and that he tried to insist her death was from an accidental fall down the stairs:
“He went upstairs, coolly approached the corpse of her who had so long been his mistress, assured himself that she was really dead, and then withdrew, leaving it to be supposed that her death had really been caused by a fall on the staircase. ‘That is all nonsense,’ exclaimed Mdlle. Hurlmond, ‘Madame de Pauw never fell downstairs.’ And as La Pomerais appeared to insist, ‘Don’t swear,’ she said to him, ‘you know well enough that I know all about Madame de Pauw’s affair.’”
Investigators also conducted a search of Pommerais’ home and discovered that he possessed numerous poisonous drugs. Among them was digitalin, a drug that contains the active constituents of digitalis and is used to increase cardiac contractility and functions as an anti-arrhythmic agent to control the heart rate. However, when administered in high doses it can be lethal. Investigators also discovered Dr. Edmond Pommerais had purchased the digitalin shortly before de Pauw died and he could not explain why most of it was gone. In addition, police found that she mentioned the drug in letters stating that she took it for “stimulation.”
Tardieu knew he needed to conduct another test. He obtained digitalin from Pommerais’ stock and injected some into the dog, which then died from heart paralysis. Tardieu had proved the genius behind Pommerais’ scheme as the doctor knew there was no scientific way to detect digitalin at the time. Tardieu also thought that it was highly likely that Dr. Edmond Pommerais had convinced de Pauw to administer the medication to herself, thereby setting up his alibi. However, despite Tardieu’s beliefs, he still could not prove that Pommerais had killed de Pauw.
Tardieu then arranged for a final test by scraping up some of the vomit in de Pauw’s room off the floor. He used three frogs to conduct the test: The first frog was used as the control subject, the second was injected with digitalin from Pommerais’ stock, and the third received an injection from the vomit scraped from the floor. A test on the floorboards was also conducted to determine they contained no toxins. When the second and third frog died, Tardieu determined that de Pauw had indeed died from a toxic dose of digitalin and that Pommerais was most likely complicit in her death.
Because Pommerais was a doctor there was a significant battle between the defense and prosecution related to Tardieu’s findings. Once the defense got underway, confidence faltered in Tardieu’s findings because the defense argued that dogs and frogs were nothing like humans and that any findings related to them were ludicrous. Thus, when the jury went out people were unsure as to what verdict they might return, and, according to the Shields Gazette and Daily Telegraph, Pommerais was apparently hoping things would go his way:
“While they were in their private chamber the prisoner sat with his arms folded, his eyes bent to the ground, his lips firmly closed, and his features ridged. When the first stroke of the bell was heard which announced that his fate had been decided, and that the Jury were returning to their places in Court, his muscles relaxed and his face became flushed.”
When the jury returned, although they acquitted Dr. Edmond Pommerais of killing his mother-in-law, they found him him guilty of killing de Pauw. The judge then pronounced a sentence of death by guillotine and he was led away by gendarmes as the crowd lingered for a time, conversing in groups before dispersing.
Earlier that morning before the beginning the trial, Pommerais had been searched to assure that he carried no hidden weapons or poison. Now in his cell he was forced to put on a strait jacket, or the camisole de force. In addition, soon after he reluctantly agreed to appeal his conviction to the Court of Cassation, but his appeal was rejected and his sentence firmly upheld. In response, opponents of capital punishment and his immediate relatives rallied round him and tried to induce Emperor Napoleon III, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, to grant him imperial clemency. However, it was reported:
“The facts of his guilt were too palpable to admit of doubt, and the Emperor sealed his doom by the rejection of the appeal made on behalf of the convict. Even the opponents of capital punishment will be ready to admit that such a cold-blooded monster has only received his deserts, and that if ever a convict went to the scaffold amidst the execrations of civilised men, that convict was La Pommerais, the French prisoner.”
The night before his execution, Pommerais’ father and wife came to visit him one last time. They were separated by a double grating and clasp hands throughout the visit. Journalists reported that the father was greatly anguished and that his wife, soon to be a widow, was devastated. She reportedly clung to the grating till the very last minute not wanting to leave her husband. Several newspapers also indicated that after his death she passed the rest of her life in a convent.
Crowds had begun thronging the Place de la Roquette beginning the night before his execution. The multitude grew so enormous that there were reports of no less than 30,000 spectators present to witness his gruesome beheading. In addition, that same evening, wine shops in the immediate neighborhood stayed open and Dr. Edmond Pomerais could hear jests, ribald songs, and revelry as they drifted into the prison cell where he waited to die.
On Thursday morning, 9 June 1864, Pommerais was awoken at 5:30am. After necessary preparations the prison gates were thrown open. A hush fell immediately over the immense crowd and they waited and watched as the condemned man made his way to the guillotine.
“[Doctor Edmond-Désiré Couty de la] Pommerais, with a paletot thrown over his shoulders, was seen to mount the steps of the scaffold, supported on side by the Abbé Croze, who held up the crucifix before his eye, and on the other by one of the jailors. The cord which bound his feet did not prevent him from moving and he advanced with a steady step, but with his head bent, towards the fatal instrument. He paused for a brief instant, once more embraced the priest, gave himself up the executioner, and was laid on the plank. The cord that held the machine was cut, the ponderous blade rushed down, and exactly as the prison clock gave the last stroke of 6[am] human justice and the inhuman curiosity of the mob were satisfied.”
That was not the end of Dr. Edmond Pommerais’ story:
“After the execution, a doctor took the head, and putting his mouth to the left ear cried, “La Pommerais!” The eyelid of the left eye shook, and half opened, and the doctor saw through the eyelashes the half-extinguished eye looking at him. The experiment was then repeated on the other side, and the doctor, putting his mouth to his right ear, against “La Pommerais!” The eyelid of the right made an effort to open, and a tremulous movement was made by the lip, as if the head were shuddering!”
The head and the headless body were then placed in a carriage. The crowd’s inquisitiveness did not stop. Some curiosity seekers rushed towards the spot where the carriage stood attempting to touch the coffin, but mounted Paris Guards kept them at a distance and maintained order. However, the crowds continued to remain for some time, and it was late in the morning before they finally dispersed. However, the crowd did not need to worry about catching sight of the murderer because his wax figure was soon placed in Madame Tussaud‘s exhibition, alongside other murderers in her London Chamber of Horrors.
-  Dublin Evening Mail, “The Execution of La Pommerais,” June 11, 1864, p. 1.
-  ibid.
-  ibid.
-  Morning Advertiser, “A French Poisoning Case,” May 7, 1864, p. 3.
-  ibid.
-  Shields Gazette and Daily Telegraph, “The Sentence of La Pommerais,” May 28, 1865, p. 6.
-  Dublin Evening Mail, p. 1.
-  Glasgow Herald, “Execution of La Pommerais,” June 13, 1864, p. 3.
-  Taunton Courier, and Western Advertiser, “La Pommerais,” July 6, 1864, p. 5.