Friday, September 17, 2010

Murder on the Metro

by Gayle K. Brunelle

On the afternoon of May 16, 1937, the train doors opened at the Porte Dorée station of the Paris subway to reveal a single passenger, a woman sitting on a bench with a nine-inch stiletto buried in her neck. There were no witnesses and little evidence to help the police unravel the first murder ever committed in the Paris Métro. The baffling crime captivated the French reading public as journalists and the police uncovered the shocking truth about the victim. Laetitia Toureaux was not who she seemed to be. The beautiful young Italian immigrant, a cheerful widow, who called herself “Yolande,” was a friendly, hard-working factory worker by day.

But by night, Toureaux was a “limier-en-jupons,” a sleuth addicted to the seamy Paris underworld of dance halls.

The trail of investigation into Toureax's murder led to the Comité Secrète d’Action Révolutionnaire, a secret right-wing terrorist organization popularly known as the Cagoule, or “hooded ones.” Obsessed with the Bolshevik threat they perceived to be growing in France, Cagoule leaders were determined to overthrow France’s democratic Third Republic government. In its place, they aimed to install an authoritarian regime allied with Italy's Fascists. They did not shrink from committing violent crimes and fomenting terror to accomplish their goal.

With Benito Mussolini as their patron and Italian fascism as their model, the Cagoule obtained funds from powerful industrialists, clandestine support from the French military, and the quiet approval of World War I hero Philippe Pétain. In 1936, Laetitia Toureaux became enmeshed with this dangerous group of terrorists and the lover of Gabriel Jeantet, one of its leaders.

Much of the press coverage of the Toureaux case was not really about the sensational murder. Rather, the focus was on Toureaux herself. It derived from journalistic anxieties about assertive young women, the so-called flappers and single female of the inter-war period. Lack of actual breaks in the case was by no means a hindrance to the flood of reporting about it. On the contrary, the less the reporters, all men, actually knew about Toureaux, the freer they felt to speculate, reflecting their fears of modern female sexuality, their own erotic fantasies, and their fixation on the Paris underworld and the dance halls (known as bals musettes) that Toureaux loved.

Laetitia Toureaux’s murder was a godsend for them, because much of the Parisian reading public shared the obsession with the gangsters and prostitutes who haunted the bals musette.

The press at first portrayed Toureaux as a “douce brébis” (gentle lamb), a little naive, maybe even a flirt, but essentially an innocent victim. Yet within days after her murder, the popular press began to turn against her as deeper investigation exposed hints of a darker side to her identity.

First, it turned out that her in-laws knew next to nothing about the attractive but poor Italian immigrant who had married their now deceased son, a wealthy, handsome but socially awkward young man. Then, troubling hints of a double life began to surface -- of nights spent at bals musette and engaged in even more nefarious activity.

"LAETITIA TOUREAUX SPENT MORE THAN SHE EARNED: DID SHE HAVE A LOVER?" ran the sensational headlines in Paris-Soir on the 21st of May. Her apartment, it seemed, was decorated with a taste and elegance too rich for a mere Italian factory worker. The papers trumpeted the fact that on the night of her murder, Toureaux’s purse contained a book of first-class metro tickets. Since most Parisians knew that high-class prostitutes frequently traveled in first-class cars, the journalists speculated about just what Toureaux had been up to in the days, or nights, before her death.

Worse, it seemed that police found hundreds of letters in her apartment, tied in neat bundles, from many different men. Journalists frequently exaggerated or just got the facts wrong. Still, it was becoming clear that this woman named Laetitia, who called herself “Yolande,” had more than one career and more than one identity. After all, bals musette were where "young girls go for misadventures!" cried the papers.

The idea of Laetitia Toureaux as a female private detective or "cachottière," as her brothers Riton and Virgile called her, fascinated the press and the French reading public. Toureaux, journalists suggested, would have been fair game for any of the Paris underworld criminals because she inhabited their dark milieu of indigence and crime. She may even have been informing on them for the police. Lacking hard facts about the murder, at least any police permitted published, the press made Toureaux a lightning rod for much of the cultural angst of inter-war French society. Parisian journalists molded Toureaux’s mysterious demise into a story which made sense to its readers, re-enforced a law-and-order mentality in precarious times, and supported the established social order of the late 1930s.

To this day, Laetitia Toureaux’s murder remains officially unsolved and one of the most significant “locked-room mysteries” in the annals of historical true crime. Murder in the Metro: Laetitia Toureaux and the Cagoule in 1930s France (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010) is the first English language book devoted to this crime or to the Cagoule. Authors Gayle K. Brunelle and Annette Finley-Croswhite (photo above left) contend that Toureaux infiltrated the Cagoule while working for the French police, and the information she uncovered ultimately cost her life.

Toureaux's tale reflects the turbulence of the 1930s, when France faced the coming of a war most people dreaded but which seemed inevitable. It was a period of great anxiety.But it also offered new opportunities, and risks, to women like Toureaux who embraced the identity of a “modern” woman. In reporting on the murder, the Parisian press was determined to fit Toureaux into their model of a “loose” woman and to enlist her in their exposé of espionage, corruption and crime in 1930s Paris.


Anonymous said...

This is fascinating. I'm going to get the book. Is it on Amazon? Thanks -- Kim D.

Kathryn Casey said...

Loved the post, Gayle. Thanks for joining us for the day with this incredible tale of intrigue.

cheryl said...

Wow. I'll definitely be looking for the book. What a story.