Blanche Monnier

The content below is from Episode 140 of the Who’d a Thunk It? Podcast


  • This week I recommend you rewatch an old childhood classic.
    • I recently started re-watching Naruto (a pretty famous Anime series) and it is bringing me such joy!


  • Back in the 1870’s, in the French city of Poitiers, there lived a wealthy and respected family, the Monniers. They were part of the French Aristocracy, the wealthy, educated, powerful… the elite of society.
    • The head of the family Emile Monnier was the director of a Poitiers arts faculty. His wife Madame Louise Monnier was awarded by the Committee of Good Works for her gracious contributions to the city. Their son, Marcel Monnier was a successful lawyer who had a family of his own (a wife and daughter).
    • Then there was the youngest, Blanche Monnier. Mademoiselle Blanche Monnier was known throughout the city for her beauty… but you know what they say about beauty… it doesn’t last forever.
  • Fast forward to 1901, the Paris Attorney General gets a strange anonymous letter. It was handwritten and even though it had no signature, the accusation amongst its words motivated the attorney general to investigate.

Monsieur Attorney General: I have the honour to inform you of an exceptionally serious occurrence. I speak of a spinster who is locked up in Madame Monnier’s house, half-starved and living on a putrid litter for the past twenty-five years – in a word, in her own filth.

  • At first, the police were hesitant to pursue the accusation.
    • Before his death in 1879, Monsieur Monnier had a reputation in the art world. Madame Monnier gave so much to the city, and Marcel was a big-shot lawyer.
    • But it was also well known that the Monnier’s had a daughter who hadn’t been seen in a quarter of a century…
      • Blanche was described by friends as “very gentle and good-natured.” She had vanished in the prime of her youth, just as high-society suitors had begun to come calling. Tragic, but not unheard of. No one gave much thought to it, and after being upset for what seemed a reasonable amount of time, the family went about their lives as though it had never happened.
  • The Police went ahead with the search against Madame Monnier’s wishes. Their standard search didn’t turn up much until one officer caught the stench of something fowl coming from the attic.
    • They followed the smell to a door that was padlocked from the outside. They smashed the lock and went inside where misery lay…
  • The room where the stench was coming from was pitch black. There was one window, but the shudders had been nailed shut and large curtains blocked out all light. The stench was so horrid that the head officer ordered the window opened by force to allow air inside.
    • With the window open, sunlight now drenched the room and revealed the source of the smell: discarded scraps of food and pieces of feces laid all over the floor, most concentrated in a ring around a decrepit bed that had a starved woman laying on top.
  • Monnier was rescued by police from appalling conditions, covered in old food and feces, with bugs all around the bed and floor, weighing barely 25 kilograms (55 lb).
    • One policeman described the state of Monnier and her bed thus:[4]

We immediately gave the order to open the casement window. This was done with great difficulty, for the old dark-colored curtains fell down in a heavy shower of dust. To open the shutters, it was necessary to remove them from their right hinges. As soon as light entered the room, we noticed, in the back, lying on a bed, her head and body covered by a repulsively filthy blanket, a woman identified as Mademoiselle Blanche Monnier. The unfortunate woman was lying completely naked on a rotten straw mattress. All around her was formed a sort of crust made from excrement, fragments of meat, vegetables, fish and rotten bread… We also saw oyster shells, and bugs running across Mademoiselle Monnier’s bed. The air was so unbreathable, the odor given off by the room was so rank, that it was impossible for us to stay any longer to proceed with our investigation.

Paris Police Report
  • The police took Blanche to the hospital immediately and placed her mother Madame Louise Monnier and brother Marcel under arrest.
    • At this point, Blanche was 52 years old.
    • They learned that when the police forced the window open it had been the first time Blanche had seen the sun in over 20 years. She had been chained to that rotting straw bed, unable to relieve herself anywhere other than her bed. There was no form of bathing for over 25 years.
    • The hospital staff said her physical well-being was that of severe malnourishment, but otherwise, she was stable. Although Blanche would, for obvious reasons, suffer from serious mental health problems, she said “how lovely it is to breathe fresh air again.”
    • For 25 years she only ever saw her family and the occasional servant who’d throw her table scraps. She spent most of her time with the rats and bugs.
    • Investigators noted how Blanche had covered the walls in words and phrases related to her freedom.
    • Allegedly, the neighbors knew of Blanche’s imprisonment, as they often heard her screaming in her room. If anyone ever asked Madame Monnier what was going on, she claimed Blanche had gone insane. At the time, it was standard procedure to keep mentally ill family members under lock and key, so no one pressed the issue. 
  • Her mother was arrested, became ill shortly afterwards and died 15 days later after seeing an angry mob gather in front of her house. Her brother, Marcel Monnier, appeared in court and was initially convicted, but later was acquitted on appeal; he was deemed mentally incapacitated, and, although the judges criticised his choices, they found that a “duty to rescue” did not exist in the penal code at that time with sufficient rule to convict him.
  • So why? Why did this happen?
    • the website talks about the 2 very different stories:
      • One that is selatious and short, just right to tell in a news article
  • And the Real Story:
    • “Blanche’s mother (75) and her brother Marcel (53) were arrested and charged with offences relating to Blanche’s imprisonment. Though Marcel didn’t live in the same house as his mother and sister, he lived in a house owned by his mother on the opposite side of the street and was 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 caused her health to fail further. Not that she felt any remorse for what she had done; she couldn’t understand why people were upset about her treatment of Blanche and reportedly said, “All this fuss for nothing”.
    • Blanche’s story was headline news across France, accompanied by the horrific image of Blanche on her arrival at the hospital. The public was outraged at the barbaric treatment Blanche had suffered at the hands of her own family. People wanted to know why this had happened and it wasn’t long before an explanation emerged. The story went that Blanche, a beautiful and happy young woman of 25, had fallen in love with a lawyer several years older than her. Blanche’s mother wouldn’t accept the match because he was penniless and a Protestant whereas the Monniers were of noble lineage and Catholic. To put an end the engagement, she imprisoned Blanche in her room, pretending to friends and family that she had disappeared.
    • Google Blanche’s story today and you’ll read the same version repeated in countless blogs, news sites and even the English-language Wikipedia page – a kind of Gothic fairy-tale of thwarted love in which a beautiful princess is held captive in a tower, waiting for the prince that will never arrive. These stories are usually illustrated with before and after photos comparing Blanche on her discovery with her as a young woman. The thing is that the “before” photos are not Blanche Monnier. The woman on the left is the American actress Maude Fealy, while on the right is an unknown woman dated 1914, a year after Blanche’s death aged 65.
    • So the photos are fake but what about the story, the one about the young lovers being kept apart? The lawyer may well have existed but his role in Blanche’s imprisonment was, to say the least, exaggerated. And in spite of the headlines about “a woman held captive for 25 years” there’s even a great deal of doubt about whether Blanche was held against her will. The story that emerged at the trial of Blanche’s brother, the one told by the maids and doctors who cared for Blanche during these 25 years of “captivity” is complicated. Blanche Monnier wasn’t Rapunzel, not was she Elisabeth Fritzl. The evil that was done to Blanche was more banal. The kind of wrongdoing that comes when people – many dozens of people – turn a blind eye or abnegate responsibility.”
  • The real story is that Madame Louise Monnier was 22 years old when she married Charles-Emile Monnier and she wasn’t easy to live with. People said she was anxious, high strung, miserable, and had bad hygiene.
    • She liked to boss her family around. During Marcel’s trial, one maid testified that Madame Monnier wore the same dirty dress every day and another told the story of how that she complained that her children ate too much and ordered that they be served bread intended for the dog. This had nothing to do with money as the family was very wealthy.
    • She bossed around her husband and son, but Blache didn’t take it. Blanche was a rebel who fought with her mom often and that got worse as she got older.
    • Blanche Monnier is said to have had a happy childhood, in spite of whatever difficulties arose out of the family dynamics. As she grew older, she became more interested in religion. For a time, she studied at the Christian Union and wanted to become a nun. It was during this period that Blanche began to have “mystical experiences” that caused her to crave solitude and she spent more and more time in her bedroom. She refused to eat, perhaps initially as a religious fast, but this became more serious until she developed anorexia. In 1872, at the age of 23, Blanche fell ill with a fever and took to her bed. Though the illness eventually passed, she never really returned to the world after this point.
    • It was clear that Blanche was suffering from serious mental health issues by now. She refused to wear clothes in the house and would stand naked at the window of her bedroom, visible from the street. (It was fear of this exhibitionism that led to her parents having Blanche’s bedroom window boarded up, hence the dark, prison-like room that the police found her in.) Blanche’s tormented mental state, interpreted as religious visions, could be more properly attributed to the schizophrenia that she was eventually diagnosed with.
    • Marcel’s trial for complicity to violence began on 7 October 1901 and lasted five days. A great many people who had worked in the Monnier family home over the years testified in the trial. They were asked about Blanche’s condition, the cleanliness of her room and her ability to move around the home. From their testimonies, a picture emerged that diverged greatly from the narrative that had been told in the press and on the streets. Firstly, Blanche’s presence wasn’t a secret. Everyone who worked for the Monniers knew that Blanche was there and that she was ill. Secondly, she wasn’t locked in her room the throughout her confinement; she was able to visit other parts of the house and had continued to play piano for a time. Thirdly, a great many people swore that, for the twenty years that Marie Fazy cared for Blanche, she was washed and her room was clean.
    • Now, these testimonies should be understood in the context of Blanche being a very sick woman who would soil herself, rip her clothes off and destroy objects and furniture in her violent rages. (The court heard from a joiner who had been repeatedly to the house over the years to repair items in Blanche’s room including the door.) Blanche would not have been an easy patient to care for which is why, when her principal carer died five years earlier, things took a drastic turn for the worse.
    • The problem was that Louise Monnier, Blanche’s mother, had seemed to have washed her hands of her daughter by this point. Her husband had died over 14 years earlier and, with him, died Blanche’s last hope of having a person who was able to act on her best interests. Instead of replacing Marie Fazy with another nurse, Louise used a succession of maids – untrained young women who were entirely incapable of managing the needs of a very sick woman. In addition, they were expected to sleep in Blanche’s bedroom – not an appealing prospect – and many left after a very short time.
    • Louise Monnier made the situation still worse with her miserly behaviour. One maid told of how she requested clean nightshirts and bed sheets from the linen cupboard for Blanche, who was incontinent at times, only to be refused. Louise said that Blanche would only rip them or get them dirty again. With her mother’s refusal to hire proper carers, or provide for her daughter’s needs, it is little wonder that she ended up in a pitiable state.
    • Blanche’s condition had degraded 1899 when Louise entrusted two new housemaids, Juliette Dupuis and Eugénie Tabeau, with Blanche’s care. Once again they were young, inexperienced and had difficulty getting their patient to cooperate. Blanche’s mother didn’t actively participate in her care; it is unclear whether she even visited her daughter at this point. Her brother Marcel continued to read to Blanche in her room. When questioned as to whether her room was clean, his response was contradictory. He claimed that it was in an acceptable state while going on to say that he petitioned his mother to remove her to a hospital – something she denied each time. Marcel didn’t have the force of will or legal standing to get Blanche out of the house. He was, in effect, waiting for his mother to die before acting.
    • As it happened, Louise’s declining health was the catalyst for Blanche’s eventual discovery. Six weeks prior to the police’s intervention, Louise became ill to the point where she could not give orders to her staff – and Marcel was too fearful to take up the role himself. Whether through ignorance or laziness, Blanche was not given the care she needed. She was left lying on a filthy straw mattress covered in her own waste, rotten food and vermin. It was seeing her in this appalling condition that finally compelled someone to act. Though it is still uncertain who, it is probably that one of the new maids told a soldier boyfriend about Blanche, and he wrote the anonymous letter alerting the authorities.
    • Marcel was found guilty and sentenced to 15 months in prison but immediately appealed the verdict. His lawyers argued that, as legal guardian and owner of the house, it was Louise who was responsible for Blanche’s condition, not Marcel, and that he was not required under law to intervene. (There was no “good Samaritan” law at the time in France.) The appeal was successful and Marcel was freed in November 1901.

  • In 1930 André Gide used Blanche’s story as the basis for his novel La Séquestrée de Poitiers. In his book a young woman is held captive by her mother because of a love affair that the family did not approve of – a version reminiscent of the rumours about Blanche and the Protestant lawyer that persist today. It’s interesting that we choose to retell this “thwarted love” story. Though in this version an innocent Blanche suffers for 25 years, it is somehow easier to digest because there is an explanation and a single identifiable villain. We can imagine a world in which Blanche would be rescued and freed earlier by a passing policeman, for example.
  • The reality is much harder to accept. Blanche was failed by many people: her parents bear most responsibility certainly, but many others (her brother, her doctors, her hired carers) were aware of her situation and chose not to put an end to it. We like to think that, in their place, we would stand up and say something. Telling Blanche’s true story forces us to consider the possibility that we too would look away.
  • Eventually, after extended care, Blanche gained weight and could speak short phrases, but her imprisonment caused such deep trauma that she was unable to fully recover. She lived in a sanitarium in Blois, France, for 12 years until her death in 1913. 
    • To this day, the identity of the letter’s writer remains anonymous. Some have theorized that it was Marcel Monnier – Blanche’s brother – who wrote it, while others believe it was the partner of one of the family’s servants.