Have you heard the story of Blanche Monnier? How does a charming and beautiful woman turn into a pitiable creature?
Monnier was born on March 1, 1849, to the respectable, conservative bourgeois family of Charles and Louise Monnier of old aristocratic descent in Poitiers, France. She has an older brother – Marcel.
Her family is the typical aristocratic family. People discuss their gala dinners, their carriages and their finery. Louise Monnier, Blanche’s mother, is a beautiful lady in her grand dresses, a true high society lady with connections that run through France’s elite. With his formal suits and wit, her brother has made a name for himself in legal circles (note: he studied law at the local university and then worked in the local parliament).
For Blanche, this means she doesn’t have to worry about money or work like her lower-class peers. All she has to do is attend social events, look beautiful and find a worthy husband. Blanche Monnier was probably not very different from any other girl her age. She played the piano well. But apart from that, there is nothing extraordinary about her childhood and adolescence.
Until he disappears from small town life. The year is about 1874-1876.
The anonymous letter
On May 23, 1901, an anonymous letter was delivered to the Attorney General of Paris. It reported that a woman was being held captive by her mother, half-starved and in filthy conditions, and that she had been there for 25 years. The Poitiers police were alerted and immediately went to the home of Madame Louise Monnier, named in the letter, demanding to see her daughter Blanche. After some resistance, Louise Monier led them upstairs to Blanche’s locked room.
The police burst into the room. The first thing they encounter is the smell – a disgusting stench of feces and rotting flesh. Through the darkness they see her lying on a straw mattress on the floor. A skeleton woman, naked except for a dirty sheet, with black hair growing to her thighs and long, curved fingernails and toenails. Around her was old food, excrement, insects and vermin. This is Blanche Monnier, 52 years old.
Blanche is taken to the hospital. Although she is dirty and painfully thin (25 kilograms), there is no direct physical danger to her life. Her mental state is another matter. It would be expected that she would suffer from psychological trauma after years of isolation and neglect, but there is more to it than that. In the words of the time, Blanche was mad.
Blanche’s mother (75) and her brother Marcel (53) have been arrested and charged with crimes related to Blanche’s imprisonment. Although Marcel does not live in the same house as his mother, he is known to visit the family home often. Just two weeks after her arrest, Louise Monnier died. She had been ill for some time and seeing the angry mob outside her home made her health even worse. He feels no remorse for what he has done. She couldn’t understand why people were upset about her treatment of Blanche and reportedly said, “All this fuss about nothing.”
Blanche’s story is leading news across France, accompanied by the horrifying image of Blanche upon her arrival at the hospital. Society is outraged by the barbaric treatment Blanche is subjected to by her own family. People want to know why this happened, and before long an explanation emerges. The story goes that Blanche, a beautiful and happy young woman of 25, has fallen in love with a lawyer several years older than her. Blanche’s mother did not accept this because he was penniless and a Protestant, while the Moniers were of noble birth and Catholic. To end the engagement, she locked Blanche in her room, pretending to friends and family that she had disappeared.
As she grew older, Blanche became more interested in religion and famously studied at the Christian Union to become a nun. During this period, Blanche begins to have “mystical experiences” that make her crave solitude, and she begins to spend more and more time in her bedroom. She refuses to eat, perhaps initially as a religious fast, but later this becomes more serious until he becomes anorexic. In 1872, at the age of 23, Blanche contracted a fever, and although the illness eventually passed, she never returned to the world after that point.
At this point, it becomes clear that Blanche is suffering from serious mental problems. She refuses to wear clothes in the house and stands naked at his bedroom window, visible from the street. Fear of this exhibitionism is why her parents close Blanche’s bedroom window, hence the dark, prison-like room in which the police find her. Blanche’s mental state, interpreted as religious visions, can be attributed to schizophrenic attacks, which is eventually officially diagnosed.
Faced with this diagnosis, the Moniers decide not to send Blanche to a hospital or an insane asylum. Perhaps they kept her at home because they feared the stigma associated with mental illness, or perhaps they believed she would be better cared for at home. Regardless of their motives, this decision, once made, could not be reversed. Marcel Monnier said at the trial that after his father’s death in 1882, and despite his repeated protests, his mother would not hear of Blanche going to hospital because it was against her deceased husband’s will.
Facts of the trial
Marcel’s trial for complicity in violence began on October 7, 1901, and lasted five days. Many people who worked at the Monier family house over the years testified at the trial. They are asked about Blanche’s condition, the cleanliness of her room, and her ability to move around the house. A picture emerges from their testimony that is at odds with the narrative in the press and the story on the streets. First, Blanche’s presence is no secret. Everyone who works for Monnier knows that Blanche is there and that she is sick. Second, she wasn’t locked in her room all that time. She was able to visit other parts of the house and continued to play the piano for a while. Third, many people testify that during the twenty years Blanche was bathed and her room cleaned by the nurse Marie Fazzi hired to care for her.
Now these testimonies must be understood in the context of Blanche being a very sick woman who soiled herself, tore her clothes and destroyed objects and furniture in her rage. The court heard a carpenter had repeatedly come to the house over the years to repair items in Blanche’s room, including the door. Blanche is not an easy patient, so when her primary caregiver, Marie Fazzi, dies five years earlier, things take a drastic turn for the worse.
Instead of replacing Marie Fazzi with another nurse, Louise used a series of maids—untrained young women who were completely incapable of attending to the needs of the sick woman. Also, they are expected to sleep in Blanche’s bedroom – not a very attractive prospect – and many of them leave after a very short time. Louise Monnier makes matters worse with her miserly behavior. A maid told how she asked for clean nightgowns and sheets from the linen cupboard for Blanche, who suffered from incontinence, only to be refused. Louise said Blanche would only tear them or stain them again. With her mother’s refusal to hire proper caretakers or attend to her daughter’s needs, it’s no wonder she ended up in this sorry state.
And it worsened in 1899, when Louise entrusted Blanche’s care to two new domestic servants – Juliette Dupuis and Eugénie Tabeau. Again, they are young, inexperienced and have a hard time getting Blanche to cooperate. Blanche’s mother is not actively involved in her care. It is unclear if she was visiting her daughter at this time. Her brother Marcel continued to read to Blanche in her room. When asked if her room is clean, his answer is contradictory. He claimed to be in fair condition while continuing to say that he had asked his mother to take her to hospital. Marcel did not have the willpower or the legal legitimacy to get Blanche out of the house. He actually waited for his mother to die before acting.
Louise’s failing health is the catalyst for Blanche’s discovery. Six weeks before the police intervene, Louise becomes so ill that she can’t give orders to her subordinates – and Marcel is too scared to take charge himself. Blanche is left lying on a dirty straw mattress, covered in her own waste, rotting food and vermin. Seeing her in this horrifying state finally forces someone to act. Although it is still not certain who was.
Marcel was found guilty and sentenced to 15 months in prison, but immediately appealed the sentence. His lawyers argued that as the legal guardian and owner of the house, it was Louise who was responsible for Blanche’s condition, not Marcel, and that he had no legal duty to intervene. The appeal was successful and Marcel was released in November 1901.
Marcel sells the properties inherited from his mother and moves. Blanche remained in a mental hospital in Blois for the rest of her life. Although well cared for, she continued to suffer from the mental illnesses that plagued her throughout her life. Both Blanche and Marcel died in 1913.