Fontainebleau Forest Murderess of the 1800s

One morning in May 1867, some peasants were heading to work and passed a wood hollow frequented by tourists in the Fontainebleau Forest. They saw “a woman lying on the grass, about twenty-five yards from the road, her head concealed by a parasol.”[1] The peasants assumed the woman was resting. But the next day when the woman was still resting on the grass, one of them became suspicious and investigated.

Fontainebleau Forest , Courtesy of Wikipedia

Map of Fontainebleau showing its location in France. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

What the peasant discovered horrified him. The woman was dead, “partially decomposed, lying on [her] … back, [her] right hand clutching a handful of grass, which appeared to have been tor up convulsively, and [her] face frightfully disfigured.”[2] This discovery resulted in a postmortem examination of her body and revealed wolves had mutilated her face. In fact, the only way officials were able to identify the body was through an engraved wedding ring the woman wore. It was also discovered the woman’s death was not natural, which, of course, caused “much excitement” and resulted in a criminal investigation.

The investigation uncovered several facts and led investigators to the town of Fontainebleau. It was home to the palace of Fontainebleau that served as a residence for French monarchs from Louis VII to Napoleon III: Marie Antoinette was known to have redone her apartments in a Turkish style; Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and Empress Josephine refurnished and refurbished their apartments in the new Empire style; and Napoleon III and his wife redecorated their private apartments to suit their tastes. However, on the 7th of May 1867, when two women arrived in Fontainebleau from Paris, they were not there to see the palace.

The women were Madame Frigard and Madame Mertens. They took a room at the Hôtel de France et d’Angleterre and the following morning left the hotel, breakfasted at the little village of Franchart about 10:00am, and then set out on an excursion to the Fontainebleau Forest, which surrounded the town of Fontainebleau and the Palace of Fontainebleau. Upon arriving at the forest, they dismissed their driver, and, later, only a distraught Frigard reappeared. She inquired if anyone had seen her friend Mertens, whom she claimed strayed from her in the forest.

It was soon learned 35-year-old Mathilde Louise Alexandrine Frigard, nee Lebois, was “a small women, middle aged, high-shouldered, [thin-lipped] and otherwise destitute of personal attractions.”[3] Frigard was from Caen, married, and mother to several children. Her husband was a silk mercer who had declared bankruptcy and had lost 7,000 francs that she inherited. Thus, the financially strapped Frigard appeared in Paris with the slender sum of £12 hoping to get a fresh start in life.

In Paris, she decided the best way to reacquire her fortune was to purchase an Italian warehouse in the Rue Montholon. It was owned by Monsieur and Madame Perrot. They were selling their business for £380, of which £200 was to be paid by Frigard upon taking possession and had been slated to occur on the 5th of May.  

Mertens became involved because a general agent in Paris thought she might want to invest with Frigard in purchasing the Perrot’s business. In comparison to Frigard Mertens had a great deal of money. She was born Sidonie Margeurite Dussart, married Monsieur Mertens who died in 1862, and became heir to a small fortune. She was also “young, gay, and handsome,”[4] delighted in intrigue, and took many lovers.

Frigard and Mertens met in February 1867, but Frigard learned that the widow Mertens “had her own plans for the investment of her funds in a lodging-house.”[5] Nevertheless, the two women remained friends, and each day their friendship grew stronger. Mertens viewed Frigard has having moral conduct beyond reproach, although she did notice Frigard was complacent. Because of Frigard’s high moral conduct, Mertens came to have great confidence in her and Frigard began to boast that “‘she was acquainted with a young woman in possession of £320, whom she could easily wind round her finger.'”[6]

On 15 April 1867, Frigard having thoroughly gained Mertens’s trust, decided the only way she could acquire the Perrot’s business was by committing fraud. She accessed the widow’s papers, forged a draft for £160, and cashed it. She then proceeded to pay £60 to the Perrots, sent £12 to her husband, spent £15 on jewelry for herself, and pocketed the rest. About the same time, Frigard realized she could obtain all of Mertens’s money, but she also realized her fraud would be discovered, and she decided to forestall such a catastrophe.

The day predetermined for the remaining £140 to be paid to the Perrots was the 5th of May. As Frigard did not have the money, she begged the Perrots for a four-day delay. Two days later, on the 7th of May, Frigard and the widow arrived in Fontainebleau, and the following day, Frigard reappeared at her hotel claiming she had “lost her friend in the forest and hoped to meet her at the railway station.”[7] With her widowed friend nowhere in sight, Frigard, “called for dinner, pawned a brooch at a jeweller’s to pay the bill … and finally left Fontainebleau by the quarter-past six train for Paris.”[8]

That same evening in Paris, Frigard went to Mertens’s lodgings. The following day, Frigard forged Mertens’s checks. Then she withdrew all of the widow’s funds, arrived at “a settlement with the Perrots, and attained, at last, the object of all her ambition by seeing herself in possession of the Italian warehouse in Rue Montholon.”[9] However, retribution was close at hand as that was the same day Mertens’s body was found lying on the grass with her face chewed off in the Fontainebleau Forest.

Painting by Renoir of the Fontainebleau Forest in 1886, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Painting by Renoir of the Fontainebleau Forest in 1886. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Investigators quickly pieced together what happened. Shortly thereafter, Frigard was located in Paris having “left her name and address at the jeweller’s.”[10] Frigard was arrested and tried at the Assize Court at Melun where it was learned that whenever the two women dined together, Mertens frequently felt unwell, often drowsy and sick.

“The medical examination shewed that death had occurred about an hour after eating; further, that the deceased had been strangled while asleep. The suspicion … [was] that the unfortunate woman had been drugged at her meal … been led half unconscious to a secluded spot, and murdered while she in a stupor.”[11]

Supposedly, her death had been accomplished by Frigard “kneeling on her stomach, and at the same time compressing her trachea, or in some other way arresting respiration.”[12]

At trial, the courtroom was packed every day, and news of the Fontainebleau murder reached not only England but also the United States. The crime was intriguing and Frenchmen were more intrigued than anyone because according to La Semaine des Familles, “As soon as the sitting room of the court of Seine-et-Marne opens, it is filled with an elegant crowd … and is even more interesting than the … the tamer Balty entering the cage of his lions.”[13] Yet, despite the continental interest, a wax Frigard did not end up display at Madame Tussaud‘s.

Everything that happened at trial was reported in the press. For instance, newspaper journalists noted that when Frigard entered the courtroom, she displayed no emotion. The fact that the murderess was not a stylish woman was also mentioned:

“[She] wore a shabby-genteel dress, coquettishly put on. Her gown said to be the same she wore on the day of the murder — an alpaca, of a faded yellow colour … Over this was a black silk mantle. Her bonnet was of the modern fashion — a little patch on the top of the head — with a violet and beads in front. Her kid gloves were manifestly old [and] frequently pulled down over … a pair of rather handsome lace manchettes.”[14]

Famous Boulders of Fontainbleau Forest, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Famous boulders of Fontainebleau. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Frigard did not deny any of the findings or accusations associated with the tragedy, but she did deny committing the murder. According to Frigard, a rendezvous was planned near Franchard between the women and a man named Williams, who was an alleged lover to Mertens. Once the three met, Frigard maintained she left “the lovers in the forest, and had no knowledge of the consequences. No trace, however, could be found of the man Williams. The result of the trial was that the woman Frigard was found guilty … [and] condemned to penal servitude for life.”[15]

After the guilty verdict, Frigard confessed to two rather astonishing facts. First, she declared “the actual poisoning was not premeditated, that she had only administered a little prussic acid to her friend to make her sleep in order that she (Mdme. Frigard) might be at liberty to elope with the famous scapegoat and often referred to ‘William.'”[16] She also announced she was pregnant, and conjecture was the father was the mysterious man named William.

Another bombshell of sorts was reported in October. During the trial a prayer book of Frigard’s had been produced to show her devotional nature. However, because of strange symbols in the book, it was later examined more closely, and white pieces of paper were discovered lodged between its pages. When they were submitted for chemical analysis, they proved to be impregnated with doses “of arsenic sufficient to destroy the life of at least one person.”[17]

Around the time Frigard gave birth, several newspapers mistakenly reported she had given birth to twins (a boy and a girl), but in actuality, on 27 December, after a difficult labor, Frigard delivered a single daughter whom she named Louise-Paulin. It was reported she did not evince the slightest tenderness for the child or ask to see it. Then because Frigard was in exhausted from the delivery, in “pursuance of a ministerial decision the child [was] … not suckled by the mother, [but instead] … sent to the Melun Hospital.”[18]

References:

  • [1] “The Fontainebleau Murder,”in Hull Advertiser and Exchange Gazette, 20 August 1867, p. 7.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] “The Fontainebleau Murder,” in Southern Reporter, 22 August 1867, p. 4.
  • [4] “The Fontainebleau Murder,” in Hampshire Advertiser, 17 August 1867, p. 3.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] “The Fontainebleau Murder,” in Southern Reporter, p. 4.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] “The Fontainebleau Murder,” in Hampshire Advertiser, 17 August 1867, p. 3.
  • [11] “The Fontainebleau Murder,” in Hull Advertiser and Exchange Gazette, 20 August 1867, p. 7.
  • [12] British and Foreign Medicochirurgical Review, Volume 40, 1867, p. 325.
  • [13] La Semaine des Familles, 24 August 1867, p. 751.
  • [14] “France,” in Daily News, 12 August 1867, p. 5.
  • [15] The Fontainebleau Murder,” in The Spectator, 17 August 1867, p. 4.
  • [16] “Souvenirs of Madame Frigard,” Whitby Gazette, 19 October 1867, p. 3.
  • [17] Ibid.
  • [18] —,  in London Daily News, 31 December 1867, p. 5.

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