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Crime Writer tells of ghostly inspiration for book “Die in Paris”

marcel petiot

By Marilyn Z. Tomlins, author of “Die in Paris”

Marilyn Tomlins tells a ghostly story on the inspiration behind her crime thriller book “Die in Paris”, the story of Dr Marcel Petiot, France’s most notorious serial killer…

Before I started working on Die in Paris in 2004 I had written articles about quite a few killers. Writing true crime surprised those who knew me – it surprised me too – because I was always someone who scares easily and here I was writing about murder myself: I began to do so in 2002.

Now I believe I was steered towards writing about murder. What is more: I was steered towards Dr Petiot.

Thirty years ago, living in Paris, I began experiencing a flashback. I saw myself, naked, lying on the floor of a dark and empty basement room. I saw my own dead body, lying on my stomach, my face turned to one side, my long hair caked with blood, was spread out around my head. There was blood on the floor and blood on the walls.

I thought I must have fallen asleep and had a dream, or rather a nightmare. My husband was at the office and when I told him about it when he got back home he said I had fallen asleep and I had a nightmare.  Without any other explanation I decided that he was right.

A while later it happened again. That time my husband was in our flat too but in another room. I went to tell him and he just looked at me. As for me I knew that I had not fallen asleep and that I had not had a nightmare. I knew I had had a flash.

From then on I had that flash repeatedly. I told my family about it.  All believed me. All warned me to be careful. My father was sure that I was going to be murdered and wanted my husband and me to leave France immediately.

One evening my husband and I were watching a documentary on TV about France during the German occupation. I saw a man in a hat and handcuffed surrounded by men in hats, walking down a corridor. I asked my husband who the handcuffed man was. He said: “Dr Petiot”. I’d never heard of him and asked what he had done. My husband told me that Marcel Petiot, a Paris doctor, had murdered very many people during the Second World War. “About two-hundred,” said my husband. I wanted to know what had happened to him and I was told, “They guillotined him, I am happy to say.”

I did not give Dr Petiot a second thought until 2004 when, reading a book about the German occupation of France his name caught my eye. There was just one short paragraph about him, but I was mesmerized. I had to know more about him and I began to research him. As I always say, he had dragged me down into him, and it was very dark down there. Dark but fascinating.

A few weeks into my research I came to a description of the place where Dr Petiot had slaughtered his victims, disembowelled and dismembered them, and where he eventually tried to destroy the human remains with fire and quicklime.

I was sitting in my living room, books and files laid out around me, and I thought I was going to faint.

My flash of the past thirty years – the basement room of my flash – was Dr Petiot’s dark and dank basement room where he had done his murdering.

Next, I learnt that Dr Petiot was buried in a mass grave in a cemetery my building overlooks. I moved into this flat 21 years ago when the cemetery was not visible from my windows but it had become so in 2004 when buildings across the avenue were demolished to make place for a shopping mall. It was at that time that I had come across Dr Petiot again and began researching him.

In my years in Paris, each time I had moved I had moved closer to the cemetery. In the first place, of course, I had to come all the thousands of kilometres from South Africa to France and to Paris. I went to the cemetery and the supervisor took me to the mass grave where those who were guillotined, Dr Petiot one of them, lie buried.

Oddly, on the opposite side to the cemetery is the place where the guillotine was first tested on human beings on April 17, 1792. It was tested in the autopsy room (in French it was called the salle de dissection) of a hospital on the bodies of two men and a woman, the three having died of syphilis.

I decided to write a book about Dr Petiot. I went to Auxerre, the town where he was born and grew up and to Villeneuve-sur-Yonne where he first practised as a doctor and where he murdered his first three victims. In March 2005, deep into the writing of Die in Paris, I did something I’d never done before. I consulted the top French medium, Henry Vignault. I had made an appointment with his secretary and all they asked of me was my first name. When I got to Henry’s place and he opened the door he addressed me as Mariline as the French pronounce my name and I saw on the note on his desk I was down as Mariline too. There was therefore no way in which Henry could have researched me.

I was told to bring a photo of the one I wanted to contact or photos of those I wanted to contact. I took the photo of the young Petiot and some other photos of other people too. Some of them still in the land of the living. This photo of the young Dr Petiot is unknown; the photos of him which appear in the media are always of the murderer with the bulging, staring eyes.

What I can say is that Dr Petiot was with us instantly. Henry, who did not know who the visitor from the beyond was, put his hand on Dr Petiot’s photo and said: “This gentleman here tells me he is a scientist and inventor. He is wearing a white coat.” I said not a word.

Dr Petiot boasted about his inventions. He said that he should not have died, that he had not done anything wrong. He showed Henry a stack of newspapers and said that the newspapers had written about him: he was famous. He also showed Henry sheets of papers on which were drawings of what he said were his inventions.

Henry spoke of the death of a small boy of about seven. He wanted to know if I had lost a son, or brother aged seven or if I had a sister who had lost a son. I told him no and he asked if I could find out if someone in my family had lost a child of seven.

Next, Henry said that the man in the white coat was showing him a large house and led Henry down steps into the house’s basement. Henry described to me what he was seeing. He shivered. He said the man had taken him into a dark and empty basement room and there were naked bodies everywhere. The stench was terrible. He grimaced and told me that he was not feeling well. Neither was I!

Next Henry said: “But I’ve been here before …? It is the house of Dr Petiot!”

He looked up and opened his eyes. Until then he had sat with his head down, one hand over an ear. “What is your connection with Dr Petiot?” he asked. “Are you his grand-daughter or great-granddaughter?”

I then told Henry that I knew all along who was with us and that I was writing a book about Dr Petiot.

Henry next told me things about my life that he could not have read anywhere because nowhere was it written publicly then. He described in detail a photograph I have on the wall in my house portraying family members. Henry and I chatted for a long time after Dr Petiot had fallen silent. He told me that he had participated in a documentary about the supernatural for the French television network M6. They had blindfolded him and had then driven him to Dr Petiot’s house at Number 21 Rue le Sueur in the 16th arrondissement and led him down to the basement where he had not felt well. He spoke of the bodies he had seen and the blood and the terrible stench. He had asked the M6 people to fetch him and back in the car they had told him that he had been in Dr Petiot’s house. He was furious that they had done that to him.

I apologised for having led him into the house too, but he said that it was an interesting experience.

I spoke to my sister and asked her if she could remember our parents speaking of someone in the family whose small son had been murdered but she knew of nothing like that. A couple of evenings later it came to me what and who Henry was talking about. He talked about the murder of Dr Petiot’s youngest victim, a seven-year-old Jewish boy, little René Kneller. The Knellers – Kurt, Greta and René – were German Jews. Dr Petiot had killed Kurt the day before he had killed Greta and little René. It is possible that Greta had witnessed the killing of her son: she might even have seen the dead body of her husband.

After I had finished the writing of the book in 2010, I consulted Henry Vignault again. We sat down in his office and he wanted to know what had brought me back to him. “Dr Petiot,” I replied. Dr Petiot immediately returned that day in 2005. He asked Henry to tell me that I have done very well and he is proud of me and he thanked me for not having judged him. I did not judge Dr Petiot in my book. I thought that he was put on trial and competent legal minds judged him, and I would only tell his story. Henry also told me that Dr Petiot was asking him to tell me that he loves (note: present tense as used by Dr Petiot) his wife and son very much. That what he had done he had done for them so that they would never have to suffer, never having to go without anything.

That was all. However, that was a lot because Dr Petiot who had claimed his innocence throughout his trial and had never admitted to the killings, had confessed to me when he told Henry to tell me that what he had done he had done for his wife and son. So he did kill the 26 people for which he was guillotined, as well as the many more the police thought he had killed. (They thought, judging by the amount of human remains found at his house, that he had killed at least 200.)

Was Henry Vignault having me on?  I will let you decide. But how in heavens name could he have known about the family photo on the wall here in my study?

My family and friends whom I have told about the flash and my visits to Henry Vignault believed me. Not one called me crazy. I have feared that people who did not know me would think that so I did not speak of any of what I’ve written here until now. Perhaps you would wish to ask me whether I am religious. I believe that the soul never dies, that the soul continues, and now after my experience with Henry Vignault, I believe that souls can and do communicate with the living.

Review of Die in Paris

Interview with Marilyn Z. Tomlins

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