On the run from the Gestapo — as a Jew or a Gypsy, a common criminal or a Resistance fighter whose cover is blown — you get wind of a man who can help.
“Dr. Eugène” will (for a fee) spirit you over the Pyrenees and thence to South America. In his house at rue le Sueur, you make the arrangements. One small matter: the tropics requires an inoculation, which le bon docteur will readily provide. One small prick of the needle and then …
His opportunistic exploitation of the dangerous Vichy years is what he’s famous for, but Petiot had decades of crime behind him by the time he got his phony “underground railroad” up and running.
From youthful compulsive thieving, Petiot graduated into a shady medical practice in Villeneuve-sur-Yonne where he was the resident black market abortionist.
He’s thought to have killed a mistress there, and maybe a couple of others, but was able to segue into a political career by winning the mayoralty of Villaneuve when he sabotaged his opponent’s campaign appearances. The sticky-fingered Petiot naturally plundered the town treasury and was forced out of office in 1931.
By the time the war years had rolled around, Petiot had judiciously relocated to Paris where he retained his capacity for professional advancement in the face of profoundly disturbed behavior: he was institutionalized for kleptomania the same year he was appointed an official médecin d’état-civil.
So he had the requisite two-faced background for his whackadoodle wartime “escape route”, which he creepily code-named “Fly-Tox.”
Twists and turns elided — trutv.com and crimemagazine.com both have detailed biographies/case histories — Petiot’s enterprise was quasi-exposed early in 1944 when the stink of incinerating bodies prompted neighbors to summon the police and uncover his charnel house.
Amazingly, Petiot was able to beg off with the claim that he was a Resistance activist — these were French police — and that the victims were Nazis or collaborators who had been eliminated by his network on orders. The Gestapo had sniffed him out too late in the war to do anything about him, but its judgment that Petiot was a “dangerous lunatic” actually turned out to bolster the deranged doctor’s case that he was an anti-fascist.
The alibis fell apart as the war wrapped up, and Petiot was finally recognized in a Paris manhunt and brought to trial for 27 homicides. Police thought 60-plus was more like it — maybe even into the hundreds — but secured 26 of the 27 counts. That’s more than enough to do a man to death, especially since they were the for-fun-and-profit murders of desperate people already on the run from the late and hated occupying army. Bit of a touchy subject in France in ’46.
But there was good news.
This London Times (May 27, 1946) observed that Petiot’s beheading marked
the first time that the guillotine has been used since the war. Until now executions have been by firing squads. Although gruesome, it is one more indication of the return of this country to normal civil ways of life.