The Case of Blanche Monnier (Part Two of Two)

Continued from Part One

When Madame Monnier was arrested for her role in her daughter's 25-year-imprisonment, she was likely astonished at the angry mobs that had gathered about the prison where she was kept.  

Considering her former place in Poiters society, the sight of many of her old neighbours and acquaintances yelling and threatening her with revenge must have been a substantial blow to her already poor health.   Almost immediately, she was placed in the prison infirmary where doctors could monitor her condition.  Not that she survived for long.   On June 9, 1901, just fifteen days after her arrest, Madame Monnier died unexpectedly from heart disease.   Newspapers speculated that her condition had deteriorated after the judge's examination of the case just days before which caused her to realize the full gravity of what she had done. According to one account, doctors reported that her last words were:  "Oh, my poor Blanche!"

Madame Monnier's death basically meant that her son Marcel would stand trial alone for his role in Blanche's imprisonment.   Marcel insisted that his mother was mainly responsible and he had only gone along with her out of filial piety.   He also added that his nearsightedness had kept him from seeing how terrible her living conditions actually were.   Despite his claims, it's probably not surprising that he needed police protection to keep him safe from the crowds while his case came to trial.  

Marcel's wife and daughter were targeted as well despite their insistance that they had no idea what was happening.  After the story erupted, both of them retreated to a  convent for their own protection.   Ironically, Marcel's daughter, a beautiful 17-year-old socialite, had been engaged to be married to a well-respected French officer but this was quickly canceled due to the horrendous publicity over the case.  

In the meantime, Blanche continued to improve slowly in the hospital where she was being treated.   Though doctors determined that she was no longer in danger of dying, nobody had any real expectation that she would ever recover.   As one news story noted, "When she was removed from her mother's house to the hospital, she had almost lost the use of her tongue.  She could only stammer a few words and could not frame a complete sentence.   Little by little, the power of speech has returned to her.  She recognizes flowers, birds, and articles which were once familiar to her."

As story after story came to be written about the case, the house where Blanche had been kept became a ghoulish tourist attraction.  Hundreds of visitors made the pilgrimage to the house on Rue de la Visitation and lined up to see the covered window of Blanche's prison.   It also became apparent soon enough that the imprisonment had not been all that secret.   Many of the neighbours admitted to being aware that Blanche had been locked away but they had accepted her mother's claim that it was due to her being insane and not wanting to send her to the asylum.   Others told newspaper reporters that they had often heard Blanche screaming at times.   One neighbour reported that she had heard her scream, "Oh God, when will they set me free?  Why am I imprisoned here?  I am suffering the tortures of the damned."  This was eight years after she had first been locked up but, again, nothing had been done.

Considering the stigma surrounding mental illness in 19th century France (and most other places), it was hardly uncommon for insane relatives to be locked up in a cellar or attic so they could be kept out of sight.  Though Blanche had shown no symptoms to suggest that she was going mad, hardly anyone raised awkward questions when her mother and brother shut her away.   Virtually every old family had a mad relative or two so why should the Monniers be any different? 

When Marcel Monnier finally went on trial, the audience was packed with Blanche's supporters, all of whom wanted to see him go to prison.   Testifying on his own behalf, Marcel insisted that he had no control over his mother who ruled the household with an iron fist.   She also controlled the family wealth and going against her will would have meant financial ruin for him and his family.  He also insisted that he did what he could for his sister, including going into her room and reading the newspaper to her on a regular basis.   As for the servants themselves, they testified that they were used to the appalling conditions since "it had been like that when they got there."   Many of the servants were even expected to stay in the room with Blanche in case she needed anything (except for her freedom). 

Part of the problem that the court faced in prosecuting Marcel was that he hadn't actually done anything illegal.   There was no law at the time against locking up insane relatives.   The only one who had broken any laws was Blanche's mother who was already dead.    On October 11, largely to satisfy the mob mentality of the public, the court eventually sentenced Marcel to fifteen months in prison.   Hearing of the verdict, the courtroom erupted in applause  which quickly spread to the large crowd waiting outside.  

But this public approval was short-lived.   Almost immediately, Marcel appealed the sentence (I did mention that he was a lawyer, right?).  During his appeal hearing, Marcel's attorney insisted that Blanche had been free to leave anytime she wanted and that no violence had been used against her.  Once again, the fact that Marcel hadn''t broken any laws came into play.  Finally, on November 30, the appeal court overturned the previous sentence and Marcel Monnier was a free man.   Though the people in the courtroom were horrified, there was no attempt at overturning this decision.   Marcel eventually inherited his mother's estate (except for the house where Blanche had been kept) and retired to a country house far from Poitiers where he died in 1913.  

As for Blanche herself, she recovered to some extent and even gained a little weight but she was never able to rejoin society.    Eventually placed in a sanitarium in Bois, she passed away in 1913, twelve years after being rescued from her family home.   Aside from a book written about the case by Andre Gide in 1930, her story remains little known outside of France.  The house where she had been kept is still standing though it has been extensively remodeled inside and out.  Nothing remains of the room where Blanche spend so many years locked away from the world.

           

Related Stories

  • The Case of Blanche Monnier (Part One of Two)
  • "Angel of Mercy" Faces Life in Prison Following Poisoning Death
  • Police Warn Against Clown Hysteria
 

 
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