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Marie-Fortunée LAFARGE





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Parricide - Poisoner
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: January 3, 1840
Date of arrest: January 26, 1840
Date of birth: January 15, 1816
Victim profile: Charles Pouch-Lafarge (her husband)
Method of murder: Poisoning (arsenic)
Location: Beyssac, Corrèze, Limousin, France
Status: Sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labor on September 19, 1840. King Louis-Philippe, however, commuted her sentence to life without hard labor. On June 1852, stricken with tuberculosis, she was released by Napoleon III. Died on November 7 of the same year

photo gallery

Mémoires de Madame Lafarge ecrits par elle-meme (18,6 Mb) (French)
"Heures de Prison" par  Madame Lafarge (3,4 Mb) (French)

Marie-Fortunée Lafarge, née Capelle (January 15, 1816 - November 7, 1852) was a Frenchwoman who was convicted of murdering her husband by arsenic poisoning in 1840.

Her case became notable because it was one of the first trials to be followed by the public through daily newspaper reports, and because she was the first person convicted largely on direct forensic toxicological evidence. However, questions about her guilt had divided French society to the extent that it is often compared to the better-known Dreyfus affair.

Early life

Marie Lafarge was born in Paris in 1816, the daughter of an artillery officer, said to be a descendant of Louis XIII, Henri IV and Charlemagne through her grandmother. Her father died suddenly of a hunting accident when she was twelve, and while her mother remarried shortly thereafter, also died seven years later.

She was adopted when she was eighteen by her maternal aunt, who was married to the secretary-general of the Bank of France. It was not a good arrangement because Marie and her aunt did not like each other. Despite the fact that her foster parents treated her well and sent her to the best schools, she was kept aware of her status as a cousine pauvre. As a matter of fact, by her aunt's social standing, her marriage dowry of 90,000 francs, while considerable, was not that impressive, and Marie was left with feelings of inadequacy.

Which fueled her pride and ambition. Despite her relationship with her aunt, Marie was given an education worthy of her social status. In her school she met daughters of the moneyed aristocracy. She used every means to persuade them that she too came from a wealthy family, and she became envious when she saw her friends married rich noblemen, and she wanted to have the same for herself. But that decision was not for her to make.

As Marie remained unmarried when she turned 23, one of her uncles took over the responsibility for finding a husband for her. However, Marie did not know that he engaged the services of a marriage broker. And only one candidate who fit the advice of her father that "no marriage contract should be made with a man whose only income is his salary as a subperfect" was produced.

Charles Lafarge

Charles Pouch-Lafarge was a big, coarse man of twenty-eight, a son of Jean-Baptiste Lafarge, justice of the peace in Vigeois. In 1817 his father bought a maison chartreuse ("charterhouse") previously ran by Carthusian monks since the 13th century in the town of Le Glandier in Corrèze, which had fallen into disrepair due to the depredations bought about the French Revolution.

In an effort to make it profitable, Charles turned it into a foundry, a venture that unfortunately plunged him into debt. In 1839, bankrupt, he saw a good marriage as the only way to pay his creditors. He engaged the same marriage broker who was hired to find a husband for Marie. Charles advertised himself as a wealthy iron master with property worth more than 200,000 francs with an annual income of 30,000 from the foundry alone. He also carried letters of recommendation from his priest and local deputy.

To hide the fact that a marriage broker was involved in this, Marie's uncle passed off Charles as a "friend" and arranged a "fortuituous" meeting with Marie at the opera. Marie found Charles common and repulsive, but since he advertised himself as the owner of a palatial estate she agreed to marry him. Thus four days after the meeting her aunt announced their engagement, and they were married on August 10, 1839. The couple then left Paris for Le Glandier to live at the foundry.


As it could be expected when they arrived on August 13, Marie's disillusionment was boundless. The house, a former monastery, was in disrepair, damp and rat-infested. Her in-laws were vulgar peasants who disgusted her and who regarded her with deep distrust. Instead of the wealth she expected, she was faced with a mountain of debt. In her despondency she locked herself in her room the first night and wrote a letter to her husband, imploring him to release her from their marriage, while threatening to take her life with arsenic.

Lafarge, whose affairs were desperate, agreed to make concessions except to release her from the marriage. He promised not to assert his marital privileges until he restored the estate to its original condition. She appeared to calm down, and their relationship appeared to have improved in the ensuing weeks.

Despite her situation, Marie wrote letters to her school friends pretending that she was having a happy domestic life. She also tried to help her husband by writing letters of recommendation for Charles to Paris, where he hoped to raise money. Before he left on a business trip, in December 1839, she made a will bequeathing to her husband her entire inheritance, with the proviso that he would do he same for her. This he did, but without her knowledge made another will soon after leaving the Le Glandier property to his mother instead.

"Parisian illness"

While Charles was in Paris, Marie wrote to him passionate love letters, sent him her picture, as well as a Christmas cake in the spirit of the season. He ate a piece of it and suddenly became violently ill soon after. As "choleralike" symptoms were common in those days, he did not think about consulting with a physician, but threw the cake away, thinking that became spoiled in transit. When he returned to Le Glandier, having raised some money, he still felt ill. Marie put him to bed and fed him venison and truffles. Almost immediately Charles was again afflicted with la maladie parisienne.

The family physician, Dr. Bardon, agreed with its choleralike symptoms; nor was he suspicious when Marie asked him for a prescription for arsenic, in order to kill the rats that disturbed her husband during the evening.

The next day Charles experienced leg cramps, dehydration and nausea. He was so ill that this relatives kept watch on him at all times, including a young cousin named Emma Pontier and a young woman who stayed with them by the name of Anna Brun. Marie treated him with various medicaments, especially gum arabic, which according to her, always did her good, and which she always kept a ready supply in her small malachite box. But to no avail. Charles deteriorated so rapidly that another physician, Dr. Massénat, was called in for consultation. He also diagnosed cholera, and prescribed eggnog to strengthen him.

Anna Brun noticed Marie take white powder from her malachite box and stirred it into the eggnog. When asked, Marie said it was "orange-blossom sugar". But Anna's suspicions were aroused when she noticed a few white flakes floating on the surface of the eggnog after the patient took a few sips. She showed the glass to Dr. Massénat; he tasted the eggnog and experienced a burning sensation, but attributed the flakes to some ceiling plaster that may have fallen on the glass.

Anna was not convinced; she kept the rest of the eggnog in a cupboard and kept a closed eye on Marie. Again she saw Marie stir more white powder into some soup for Charles. Again Charles felt violently ill after a few sips. Anna took the cup of soup away and mustered enough courage to tell Charles' relatives of her suspicions.

Suspicions of murder

On January 12, while the family gathered in the sickroom fearing the worst, Emma Pontier, who had such high regard for Marie, told her of Anna Brun's suspicions. Charles' mother implored him not to take another morsel of food from his wife. Further panic ensued when Lafarge's servant and gardener had bought arsenic for Marie "for the rats".

Marie admitted this, but she made the gardener admit that she gave him the arsenic to make rat-poison paste out of it. Their fears were momentarily allayed, but the next day white residue was found at the bottom of a glass of sugar water that Marie had administered to Charles. A third doctor, René de Lespinasse, was called on January 13. He suspected poison, but by then it too late: Charles died a few hours afterwards.

Already suspicions ran high that Marie had indeed poisoned her husband but Marie seemed unfazed. While word went about regarding this, Marie went to her notary with the will, not knowing that it was invalid. Only Emma Pontier would go near her, and already torn by doubts, told Marie that Lafarge's brother-in-law was going to the police at Brive. Then, with more devotion than sense, the young girl took possession of Marie's malachite box.

The justice of the peace from Brive, Moran, arrived at Le Glandier on January 15. Impressed by Marie, he listened with uncertainty to the family's accusations but took possession of the soup, the sugar water and the eggnog that Anna Brun had put aside. Then the gardener revealed that Marie had given him arsenic with which to make rat-poison paste in December as well as January. Strangely, the paste could be found all over the house, untouched by the rats.

Moran had the paste collected, his suspicions aroused. He questioned the apothecary who sold the arsenic to Marie. She had bought arsenic "for the rats" just before she sent the cake to Paris and again the day after Lafarge's return.

Moran asked Lafarge's doctors to perform a post mortem examination on Lafarge. He had also learned of a new test for the presence of arsenic that pathologists in Paris were using. Perhaps Lafarge's doctors could apply the same test in this case? Dr. Lespinasse hastily replied that they could, embarassingly hiding their ignorance of the test and the intricacies of its procedure.

The Marsh test

The test that Moran was referring to was actually invented in 1836 by a Scottish chemist named James Marsh, who worked at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich. Called upon to help solve a murder nearby he tried to detect arsenic using the old methods. While he was successful, the sample had decomposed and did not convince the jury of the defendant's guilt. Frustrated at this turn of events Marsh developed a glass apparatus not only to detect minute traces of arsenic but also measure its quantity.

The sample is mixed with arsenic-free zinc and sulphuric acid, any arsenic present causing the production of arsine gas and hydrogen. The gas is then led through a tube where it is heated strongly, decomposing into hydrogen and arsenic vapor. When the arsenic vapor impinges on a cold surface, a mirror-like deposit of arsenic forms.

Arrest and trial

Despite this discovery, word on the Marsh test had not reached Brive. The doctors doing the autopsy on Lafarge only took the stomach before burial, and this they subjected using the old methods, which unknown to them, proved to be unreliable. But they finally asserted that arsenic was found in quantity in the body of Charles Lafarge.

More surprising was the analysis of the rat-poison paste; it turned out to nothing more than a mixture of flour, water and soda. This led to the possibility that Marie used the real arsenic to murder her husband. Any remaining doubts that may have lingered vanished when Emma Pontiers turned over the small malachite box and Dr. Lespinasse found it to contain arsenic. Marie was arrested and held in jail in Brive.

A young French avocat, Charles Lachaud, was appointed to her defence and assisted by three others, Maîtres Théodore Bac (who later became mayor of Limoges during the 1848 Revolution), Paillet, and Desmont. Before they began their work, there was another surprise in store. The newspaper stories regarding Marie Lafarge turned up something from her past.

An incident of theft

Before she met Charles Lafarge, Marie had gone to one of her schoolmates, the Vicomtesse de Léautaud, at her château. While she was there, her friend's jewels disappeared, and the Sûreté was called upon to investigate the matter. When it was suspected that Marie was the culprit, the vicomte thought it too improbable that the matter was not pursued any further.

However, in the wake of the newspaper stories regarding the murder, the vicomte was reminded of the theft and demanded a search for the jewels in Marie's room in Le Glandier. When the jewels turned up during the police search, Marie admitted to their possession, but alleged that her friend gave her the jewels to sell since she was being blackmailed by a secret lover.

Her allegation proved to be so convincing that some newspapers believed her and put all the blame on the vicomtesse. However, when she was put on trial for theft, the court was not so persuaded. Marie was found guilty and sentenced to two years' imprisonment in the nearby town of Tulle.

The trial

By this time l'affaire Lafarge had generated so much interest that the curious arrived from all over Europe to watch her murder trial, elevating it to a cause célèbre. Thus when Marie entered the assize court of Tulle for the first time on September 3, 1840, dressed in mourning and carrying a bottle of smelling salts in her hand, projecting the image of a woman unjustly accused, the spectators were immediately divided into pro- and anti-Marie factions.

Coincidentially, one of Marie's lawyers, Maître Paillet, was also the avocat of the renowned toxicologist Mathieu Orfila, who was the acknowledged expert of the Marsh test in France. He realized that as the case hinged largely on the tests made by the Brive doctors, Paillet wrote to Orfila and showed to him the test results.

Orfila then submitted an affidavit stating that the tests were conducted so ignorantly that they meant nothing. As soon as the Brive doctors testified that arsenic was present in Lafarge's body, Paillet read the affidavit aloud, told the court about the Marsh test, and demanded that Orfila be called.

The prosecutor replied that he would consent to the test since he was confident of Marie's guilt, but he felt there was no need to call on Orfila to do it. The président of the court ruled in favor of the prosecutor's suggestion. Therefore, in lieu of Orfila, two well-known apothecaries from Tulle, M. Dubois and his son, and a chemist from Limoges named Dupuytren were assigned to conduct the tests. While they were performed the trial proceeded at a snail's pace.

When they finally entered the courtroom, everyone waited to see what they would say. The elder Dubois testified that despite using the Marsh test carefully, they failed to find any arsenic. Almost immediately the courtroom was in an uproar as Marie felt vindicated.

But by then the prosecutor had read Orfila's book and knew that in some cases the arsenic left the stomach but had spread to other parts of the body. He arranged for the body of Lafarge to be exhumed. Again the three chemists performed the test on the samples taken — and again no arsenic was found.

But the prosecutor had one card left to play. He had not forgotten the food items that Marie gave to Charles and were set aside. He requested that the test be performed on those as well. The defence, by then in a magnanimous mood, agreed.

This time, when the chemists arrived, they declared that they tested positive for arsenic, with the eggnog conatining enough "to poison ten persons". The prosecutor took this as a chance to recoup his earlier setbacks. He declared that in view of the contradictory results, it was apparent that the court should call upon Orfila to settle the issue once and for all. Since it was the defence who originally asked for Orfila, they could not object to this request. The defence agreed, already confident of Marie's acquittal.

Enter Mathieu Orfila

When Orfila arrived, he insisted that the local chemists witness his experiments that night. He used the same test materials and chemical reagents that they used in the earliest tests and performed the Marsh test in an anteroom of the courthouse, behind locked and guarded doors. At last, on the afternoon of the next day, Orfila entered tha courtroom, followed by the three chemists with bowed heads. He declared that he had indeed found arsenic on the samples taken from the body of Lafarge, to the exclusion of all other extraneous sources, such as arsenic naturally occurring in the body, or from the reagents, or from the arsenic from the earth surrounding the coffin.

The courtroom was stunned, especially Maître Paillet, as he listened to Orfila, his client and defence witness, explain the misleading results obtained by the local experts with the Marsh test. It was not the test that gave the erroneous results, but rather the test was performed incorrectly.

Knowing that Orfila's testimony had tipped the balance against them, the defence team sought to call a known opponent of Orfila, François Vincent Raspail, to refute his testimony. While Raspail had agreed as he had done in previous courtroom clashes with Orfila, he arrived four hours too late: the jury had decided on Marie's case.

Conviction and controversy

In the end, despite the passionate pleadings of Charles Lachaud, Marie, no longer as composed as she was previously throughout the trial, heard herself sentenced by the président to life imprisonment with hard labor on September 19, and brought to Montpellier to serve out her sentence. King Louis-Philippe, however, commuted her sentence to life without hard labor.

By then l'affaire Lafarge had polarized French society. George Sand wrote to her friend Eugène Delacroix criticizing the perceived railroading of the case (it was worth noting that Marie, in turn, was an admirer of Sand and was said to read her works "greedily"). Raspail, as if to make up for his failure to make a difference in the trial, wrote and published incendiary leaflets against Orfila while demanding for Marie's release. In effect, many have felt that Marie was a victim of injustice, convicted by scientific evidence of uncertain validity.

As if to defend himself from these criticisms, in the following months after the trial, Orfila had conducted well-attended public lectures, often in the presence of members of the Academy of Medicine of Paris, to explain his views on the Marsh test. Soon public awareness of the test was such that it was duplicated in salons and even in some plays recreating the Lafarge case.


While imprisoned Marie wrote her Mémoires, which was published in 1841.

At last, on June 1852, stricken with tuberculosis, she was released by Napoleon III. She settled in Ussat in the département of Ariège and died on November 7 of the same year, protesting her innocence to the last. She was buried in the cemetery of Ornolac.

For Charles Lachaud, the Lafarge case was his baptism of fire. He later achieved greater fame defending François Achille Bazaine against charges of treason, and was able to defend successfully another woman named Marie — last name Bière — in 1880.

As for the foundry, it was bought again by the Carthusian monks in 1860 and flourished as a monastery as before until it was sold again in 1904. It served as a shelter for children in World War I, then as a sanitorium for women and children run by the département of the Seine until January 5, 1965, when it became a shelter for semi-handicapped children. Finally on January, 2005, it was purchased by the département of Corrèze.

The story of Marie Lafarge got the cinematic treatment in 1937 with the release of the film L'Affaire Lafarge, directed by Pierre Chenal, with Marcelle Chantal as Marie and Pierre Renoir as Charles. The film itself is notable for being the first French film to use flashbacks as a narrative device. Of course, as with the real-life case, the film was not free from controversy as the grand-niece of Charles Lafarge sued the film's producers for defaming the memory of her great-uncle.


The Strange Case of Marie Lafarge

The most baffling of all French murder mysteries involved the daughter of one of Napoleon's favorite officers, Colonel Cappelle, of the Old Guard. This beautiful girl was also the grand-daughter of the famous Duke of Orleans (Philippe Egalite) and of his companion and housekeeper, Mme. de Geniis.

Marie Cappelle had a very lonely girlhood. After her father's death, when she was very young, her mother remarried, and she was adopted by her aunt. Many men sought her hand, but she failed to return their love, and continued to endure her secluded existence until the age of twenty-three, when, influenced by her uncle, she consented to a marriage of convenience with Charles Lafarge, a young ironmaster, who lived with his mother in a lonely country house, Les Glandiers.

On the day of their return from their honeymoon Marie locked herself in her room and slipped under the door to her entreating husband a note asking him to free her from her vows, as she loved another and could not endure the contemplation Strange Case of Marie Lafarge 239 of a life at Les Glandiers. But the couple became reconciled and circumstances seemed to indicate that the story of the former lover was a fiction invented by Marie. Thereafter she took her place in Lafarge's home, furthered his interests and made herself beloved by his employees and neighbors.

Lafarge was a man of hot temper, and it soon developed that he was not altogether honest in his business transactions. But Marie continued to transform the ugly country house into a cheerful home and to bring sunshine even into the soul of her grim mother-in-law, who had disliked her from the first.

After some time the young bride fell ill. Calling her husband to her bedside, she told him that as evidence of her love and devotion she wished to make a will leaving him the sole enjoyment of her fortune, and Lafarge, touched by her act, made a will of his own, leaving her everything that he possessed.

Finally, to raise money for the development of a new enterprise, the ironmaster went to Paris, taking with him one Denis, a foreman. This sinister individual seemed to exert an evil influence over Lafarge and to share some knowledge that gave him power over his employer.

Lafarge remained away more than a month, during which time he and his wife ex-changed affectionate letters. In one of these missives she told her husband that she had sent to him a box containing a miniature of herself and a few little cakes which she had made, requesting that he eat one at midnight, at which hour she, according to an ancient custom, would eat a similar one herself as a pledge of their love.

The box arrived at Lafarge's hotel and was opened not by himself, but by a servant. After-ward, according to his own testimony, the box, when presented to him, contained not the several small cakes described by his wife, but one large one. Eating a piece of it, he was taken violently ill.

With Denis, he then returned home, having negotiated a loan of $2,000, which transaction was carefully concealed from Marie. His illness continuing, Marie was in constant attendance at his bedside. As his sleep was continually interrupted by rats infesting the old home, she, as on previous occasions, ordered arsenic for their extermination, and Denis procured it from the chemist.

Lafarge suffered a painful illness, supposed to be due to attacks of colic, to which he had been subjected since childhood. Finally there arrived upon the scene one Mme. Brun, an intimate of Marie's mother-in-law. The ironmaster now grew worse and Marie begged that a famous specialist be called in for consultation, but his mother insisted upon engaging a young, inexperienced physician.

Lafarge died, and after Marie had retired to her room to give way to her grief she was amazed to find herself locked in. It then developed that as a result of insinuations made by Mme. Brun she had been suspected of poisoning her husband. Mme. Brun and Mme. Lafarge, the elder, claimed to have suspected Marie's guilt for some days before her husband's death, yet they had meanwhile continued to allow her to prepare his food.

Medical experts, who made a post-mortem upon Lafarge, reported that they had found no trace of poison in his body, whereupon his mother apologized for having suspected Marie, but the authorities did not seem to be satisfied, and the widow, now only twenty-four years old, was subjected to a rigid examination, during which her enemies, Mme. Brun and Denis, pointed the finger of suspicion against her.

As a result Marie, a bride of less than one year, was taken to prison. While awaiting trial the unhappy woman was subjected to another shock. The public prosecutor received a letter signed "Marquis de Liautaud" and begging that the Lafarge chateau be searched for valuable diamonds belonging to his wife. Now it happened that the young Marquise de Liautaud had been Marie's girlhood chum and confidante and that she had visited the Lafarges 16 soon after their marriage.

French society was shocked when the diamonds described were found in Marie's dressing case. Considering the wealth of the families concerned, this incident became a mystery that deepened with the fair suspect's repeated statements to her attorney that she could not explain the apparent theft even to him.

The young widow was, however, tried for the theft while still awaiting trial for the murder. At length she confessed to her attorney that the Marquise had selected her as a go-between to sell her diamonds and with the money meet the demands of a former lover, who had threatened to blackmail her.

But this story was not believed by the jurors and Mme. Lafarge was convicted of stealing her friend's gems. All France now divided into two camps-the Lafargists and anti-Lafargists. But the diamond case proved to be the young widow's undoing.

Her subsequent murder trial lasted seventeen days and resulted in her conviction. She was sentenced to the pillory and the guillotine. Protests poured into the government from all over the country, and finally, on account of public opinion, her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

While she languished in prison it developed that just at the time when, according to her testimony, the Marquise de Liautaud was being blackmailed, a French official bearing the same name as the blackmailer had received from Paris a mysterious box expressed by some one named Liautaud, to whom it was returned unopened.

With this new testimony, the prisoner's counsel attempted to reopen the case, but she had languished in prison for twelve years before being finally pardoned. She then retired to a secluded watering place, where, five months after regaining her freedom, she died.

Two famous German authorities on criminal jurisprudence wrote an exhaustive treatise setting forth the conclusion that the real murderer of Lafarge had been the evil Denis. The black-mailer in the case died in a madhouse about the time of Marie's death.



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