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Hélène Jégado at her trial, historical print (ca. 1851)
|Died||26 February 1852|
|Cause of death||Execution by guillotine|
|Criminal charge||3 murders, 3 attempted murders and 11 thefts|
Hélène Jégado (1803 – 26 February 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.
Early life and crimes
Hélène Jégado was born on a small farm in Plouhinec (Morbihan), near Lorient 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. After 17 years, she accompanied an aunt to the town of Séglien. She became a cook for the curé where an incident arose where she was accused of adding hemp from his grain house to his soup.
Her first suspected poisoning occurred in 1833 when she was employed by another priest, Fr. François Le Drogo, in the nearby village of Guern. In the three months, between June 28 and October 3, seven members of the household died suddenly, including the priest himself, his aging mother and father, and her own visiting sister, Anne Jégado. 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 returned to Bubry to replace her sister where three people died in the course of three months, including her other aunt, all of whom she cared for at their bedside. She continued to Locminé, where she boarded with a needleworker, 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 in the same town, the widow Lorey offered Jégado a room; she died after eating a soup her new boarder had prepared. In May 1835, she was hired by Madame Toussaint and four more deaths followed. By this point in time, she had already put seventeen people in their graves.
Jégado worked as a cook in other households in Auray, then Pontivy, Lorient, and Port-Louis where she was employed only briefly in each one. Often, someone fell ill or died. Among her most infamous murders is of a child, little Marie Bréger, who died at the Château de Soye (Ploemeur) in May 1841, ten years and one month before her final arrest. 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 late 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, the capital city of the region.
Although there is not much information stating why she committed these crimes, it can generally be linked to psychological issues. The psychopathology model explains that her offenses can be linked to her psychological problems. It is possible that these problems erupted at a young age after her mother died. It is not uncommon for a child to develop abandoned child syndrome due to the parents passing. Jégado once stated that murdering people gave her a sense of power, which she enjoyed.
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 on July 1, 1851.
Later inquiries linked her to 23 suspected deaths by poisoning between 1833 and 1841, but none of these were 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.
Jégado's trial began on 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.
There are few comprehensive accounts in English.
- Fuller, Horace W. (1889), Green Bag, vol. 1, Boston: The Boston Book Co., Causes Célèbres, Hélène Jégado, pp. 493–497.
- Gaute, J.H.H. & Odell, Robin (1996), The New Murderer's Who's Who, London: Harrap Books.
- Griffiths, Arthur (1898), Mysteries of Police and Crime, London.
- Heppenstall, Rayner (1970), French Crime in the Romantic Age, London: H Hamilton.
- Meazey, Peter (2012), The Forgotten Poisoner, the life and crimes of Hélène Jégado, Amazon, Kindle.
- Wraxall, Lascelles (1863), Criminal Celebrities, London.
- Bouchardon, Pierre (1937), Hélène Jégado, Paris: Albin Michel.
- Meazey, Peter (1999), La Jégado: Histoire de la célèbre empoisonneuse, Guingamp (22)and paperback (2006).
Fictionalized accounts :
- Teulé, Jean (2013), Fleur de Tonnerre, Paris: Éditions Julliard.
- English translation (2014), The Poisoning Angel, London: Gallic Books.