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On May 23, 1901, France's Attorney General received an anonymous letter which said, in part:
"Monsieur Attorney General: I have the honor to inform you of an exceptionally serious occurrence. I speak of a spinster who is locked up in Madame Monnier’s house, half starved, and living on a putrid litter for the past twenty-five years – in a word, in her own filth.”
The house referred to in the letter was located in an upscale neighbourhood in the French city of Poitiers. The Attorney General notified local police and asked them to investigate but nobody expected anything to come of it. According to police who knew the area well, the only two people living at the address mentioned in the letter were Madame Louise Monnier and her middle-aged son Marcel. Both Monniers had lived exemplary lives, Marcel was a law school graduate and a former sub-prefect. Madame Monnier's husband, Emile, had been the head of the local arts faculty prior to his death in 1879 while Madame Monnier herself belonged to the illustrious Poitier family (the city was named for them). She had even received an award from the Committee of Good Works for her philanthropic deeds.
Some of the older police officers were able to recall one other strange detail however. Madame Monnier had a beautiful daughter named Blanche who had apparently vanished without a trace twenty-five years earlier. Amazingly enough, the disappearance of a young socialite had somehow taken place without any police investigation or alarm being raised by her own family. Despite the odd nature of the disappearance, nobody had any idea of what would follow or the heartbreaking story that had remained hidden for decades.
When the police arrived, they proceeded to search the house and quickly found an upstairs room which had been padlocked shut. Breaking the door open, they were horrified to find Blanche Monnier, naked, emaciated, and with her head buried under the covers. According to an account by one of the officers:
We immediately gave the order to open the casement window. This was done with great difficulty, for the old dark-colored curtains fell down in a heavy shower of dust. To open the shutters, it was necessary to remove them from their right hinges. As soon as light entered the room, we noticed, in the back, lying on a bed, her head and body covered by a repulsively filthy blanket, a woman identified as Mademoiselle Blanche Monnier. The unfortunate woman was lying completely naked on a rotten straw mattress. All around her was formed a sort of crust made from excrement, fragments of meat, vegetables, fish, and rotten bread. We also saw oyster shells and bugs running across Mademoiselle Monnier’s bed. The air was so unbreathable, the odor given off by the room was so rank, that it was impossible for us to stay any longer to proceed with our investigation.
Terrified at the sight of strangers, Blanche continued to hide her head under a blanket. She was quickly wrapped in a blanket and taken to a hospital in Paris for observation. Weighing a mere 55 pounds at the time of her discovery, Blanche seemed incapable of any kind of coherent speech and was visibly frightened at being exposed to sunlight. As they would later discover, she hadn't seen the sun in nearly 25 years. Police examining the miserable cell where she had been kept found the word "Liberte" (Liberty) scrawled across the walls. They also determined that Blanche hadn't worn clothing for the previous twenty years and her only friends were the rats that scrambled to eat the crumbs scattered on the floor of her room. Even as police were sending her off to hospital, Blanche's elderly mother simply sat in the living room, apparently stunned at what was happening.
After police finished searching the house, they then proceeded to question Madame Monnier and her son. While Marcel continued to bluster and insisted that his sister was "foul, angry, overly excited, and full of rage", the doctors examining her at the hospital simply saw a frail and almost mute middle-aged woman who seemed excited at being given a bath and given new clothes. It was only after both Monniers were arrested that police interrogators managed to unravel the entire horrific story.
Twenty-five years earlier, Blanche had been a vivacious and attractive 25-year-old socialite facing pressure from her mother to find a suitable husband. Among her many suitors happened to be an older attorney who lived nearby with whom Blanche fell in love. After becoming intimate (and more than intimate according to some accounts), it was her announcement to her family that she wanted to marry this attorney that the trouble began. Her mother was adamantly opposed to the match. Not only was the attorney much older than Blanche was but he had little money of his own. For this reason, Madame Monnier insisted that Blanche find someone more suitable.
When Blanche threatened to elope, her family took extreme action. They locked Blanche up in an upstairs bedroom and insisted that she would only be released if she agreed to never see her intended again. Though Madame Monnier and the rest of her family likely thought Blanche would give in, she remained adamant. As the years passed, Blanche stayed in her prison with no sunlight and only being fed scraps from her mother's meals. Even after her lover died in 1885, the imprisonment continued while her family told everyone that she had disappeared.
But it wasn't just the Monniers who were part of the conspiracy to keep Blanche imprisoned. Various servants would later testify that they had often heard Blanche's pleas to be released but didn't say anything, whether due to loyalty to their employers, belief that Blanche was insane, or fear of being arrested as accessories to her imprisonment. To this day, nobody knows who wrote the note that eventually secured Blanche's release. Whether it was a servant or someone who had heard about her secondhand is anybody's guess.
When Blanche was finally released, the story quickly became international news. Newspapers christened Blanche "la Sequetree de Poitiers" and public outrage against the Monniers reached a fever pitch. This outrage grew as more details about her imprisonment became available. Neighbours even threatened to destroy the house belonging to two of the Monniers' servants since they had apparently been complicit in her imprisonment.
All that remained was to determine what could be done for Blanche and punish the ones responsible.
To be continued
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