|Released to public domain by Rafabuto|
Gilles de Laval, baron de Rais and his decadent crimes are the inspiration for my fin-de-siècle murderer in Floats the Dark Shadow. Gilles de Rais is Western civilization’s most evil and prolific serial, but few people have heard of him—among mystery buffs, at least. Some devotees of horror are more sanguine, though his name is often missing from the “worst serial killers” lists, despite his having one of the most flamboyant profiles of any of these infamous murderers. Jack the Ripper remains the most vivid in our collective consciousness, but that is because he was never caught. Red Jack remains a nightmare. But Gilles de Rais is buried under the ever-growing pile cases that often demonstrate the banality of evil, such as the Honeymoon Killers. He is a forgotten superstar of depravity, with a body count at minimum in the dozens and perhaps in the hundreds. His victims were pretty young peasant boys (sometimes girls in a pinch). Their names were seldom recorded, peasants being considered little better than cattle at the time, and their children even less worthy of note. We know a number of doleful tales from their parents, who often thought they were sending their children into service at court, a life brushed by magnificence. Because Gilles was so far above his chosen victims, he was almost untouchable. His servants and accomplices carried out his orders, bringing him victims, joining him in their rape and torture, then disposing of the mutilated corpses, usually in a huge furnace. Gilles’ murders were only the icing on the cake when he was finally arrested—for heresy. In matters of Faith, the Church had more power than the aristocracy. No doubt it helped that Gilles had plummeted from the richest man in France into bankruptcy.
|Joan of Arc (Medieval Depiction)|
According to the contemporary accounts of the 15th century, Gilles de Rais was a handsome, dashing, and courageous warrior whose bravery (and contributions to the king’s coffers) earned him the title of Marshal of France. Early on, Gilles had an arranged marriage and his wife bore him a daughter, but he lived separately from them. For a time he wielded power at the Court of the Dauphin. The most astonishing thing about Gilles de Rais was that he served as lieutenant to Joan of Arc. As his exact body count is unknown, so is the date when he began his pedophiliac crimes. He may, like many serial killers, have begun early. Yet the hideous drama is enhanced if he began his killing spree after Joan’s death, in a crisis of faith, his soul incinerated on Joan’s pyre. By Gilles own confession, he did not begin murdering children until after her death.
He also experimented with alchemy and devil-worship. Perhaps feeling that God had abandoned him, Gilles summoned one fake alchemist after another to bring him face to face with the Devil. What fortune he didn’t fritter away on this always abortive blind date was spent in staging gigantic extravaganzas (he wrote a play commemorating Joan’s capture of Orleans), in decorating his castles and their chapels, enhancing his stables, bejeweling his huge library of books, and dressing the least of his performers in cloth of gold. His pretty choir boys were particularly indulged.
Gilles' power and wealth waned after Joan’s death. At some point his psyche shattered and he devolved, taking more and more foolish risks both with his murders and his attempts to bolster his crumbling fortune. When arrested, he went overnight from scornful arrogance to piteous repentance. At one point in his interrogation, Gilles suggested that his overly spiced diet might have unbalanced his mind—the earliest version of the Twinkie defense. But he took credit for his crimes, vast shame alternating with pride in his own uniqueness. Guilt (combined with fear of torture) led him to prostrate himself and beg the Church and the families of the children he slaughtered for forgiveness. Stunned by his theatrical humility, forgiveness was granted, at least formally. One suspects there were some parents who mumbled a bit.
The baron asked to be killed before his accomplices. He wanted to set a good example. Gilles de Rais was hanged and his body burned on October 26, 1440. For some reason, the stone erected by his daughter at the site of his execution became a place of pilgrimage for pregnant women who wanted to increase the flow of their breast milk. The holy site was destroyed during the French Revolution.
Life is strange.
Yves Fey’s debut mystery, Floats the Dark Shadow, is set in the decadent world of Belle Époque Paris and mingles classic detection with occult revelation.
Paris is a mystery…