Lafarge, Marie (1816–1852)

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Lafarge, Marie (1816–1852)

French murderer. Born Marie Fortunée Cappelle in Paris, France, in 1816; died in Ussat, France, in 1852; eldest of two daughters of Colonel Cappelle (an artillery officer in Napoleon's army); attended the convent school of Saint-Denis; married Charles Lafarge (an iron manufacturer), in 1839 (died, January 1840); no children.

The central figure in one of France's most notorious murder cases, 24-year-old Marie Lafarge was convicted of slowly poisoning her husband to death with arsenic. A beautiful, cultured woman who played the piano and wrote poetry, Madame Lafarge seemed more a romantic heroine than a cold-blooded murderer, and her trial, which took place during the summer of 1840, was one of the most sensational of the century.

Born Marie Fortunée Cappelle in Paris in 1816, Lafarge was the daughter of an artillery officer who had served in Napoleon's army. On her mother's side, her lineage could be traced to the reigning royal family, her grandmother being the daughter of the king's father Philippe-Egalité and his mistress Comtesse Stéphanie-Félicité de Genlis . In her memoirs, published after her trial, Marie maintained that her childhood was unhappy, although she may have exaggerating the facts. She claimed that her father wanted a boy and was disappointed with her and that her younger sister, born when Marie was five, was thought to be prettier and more endearing. Marie's father died when she was 12, and her mother, who remarried, died in 1835.

Following her mother's death, Marie was sent to live with her mother's sister, the wife of the secretary-general of the Bank of France. Although she was treated well, she was reduced in status to that of a "poor cousin" and was considered a marriage liability. Hoping to boost her prospects for finding a husband, one of her uncles engaged the services of a matrimonial agency. Within a short time, they found a seemingly suitable candidate in Charles Lafarge, a wealthy iron manufacturer with an impeccable pedigree and a sizable estate in the south of France, in Le Glandier. Unknown at the time, however, was the fact that Charles was a widower who had married his former wife for her dowry; he had hoped to finance a new smelting process he had developed. Marie did not much like him, although her feelings mattered little. Following the arranged "chance" meeting with Charles at the opera, she declared him boorish and ugly, but within days her aunt had published the marriage banns, and a few weeks later, in the late summer of 1839, the hapless Marie found herself married and on her way to Le Glandier.

Marie was both terrified by the prospect of intimacy with Charles, whom she still considered a stranger, and disillusioned by what she found at her new home. The estate was in complete disrepair, and she felt that her new in-laws, Charles' mother and sister, were less than welcoming. In addition, the ironworks was bankrupt. On her first night at Le Glandier, Marie, in desperation, locked herself in her bedroom and composed a letter to Charles in which she professed love for another man whom she claimed had followed them from Paris. She threatened to either poison herself with arsenic or to leave immediately for Bordeaux to catch a ship for Smyrna. "Spare me, be the guardian angel of a poor orphan girl, or, if you choose, slay me, and say I have killed myself," she wrote. Later that night, however, Marie was cajoled by her mother-in-law into admitting the ruse and reluctantly decided to give the marriage a chance. Charles agreed to defer his "marital privileges" until he had refurbished the house and reclaimed his business.

Reportedly, things improved between the couple over the next few weeks. Charles kept his word, arranging to begin renovations on the Lafarge mansion and applying for a loan to shore up the ironworks. To further placate his young bride, he provided her with subscriptions to magazines and newspapers, and membership in the local lending library, so that she could pursue her intellectual interests. At great expense, he also had Marie's piano shipped from Paris and procured an Arabian horse for her to ride. Marie, for her part, assumed her position as mistress of the house and began to formulate plans to transform the rustic interiors of Le Glandier into something more elegant. One of her first orders of business, however, was to request a supply of arsenic from the local druggist, to rid the place of rats.

In January 1840, less than a year into the marriage, Charles returned home from a lengthy business trip with an intestinal illness that he claimed had begun in mid-December, soon after he had received a cake sent to him by his wife. He immediately took to his bed but continued to endure attacks of cramps, nausea, and vomiting. Marie devoted herself to her husband's care, providing him with food and drink, and attempting to make him comfortable. His condition deteriorated, however, and friends and relatives began to suspect Marie. One visitor claimed to have seen her stirring a white powder into a drink intended for her husband, although Marie insisted that it was merely gum arabic, which was commonly used at the time for stomach complaints. As Charles' condition worsened, Marie's mother-in-law went so far as to have the remains of a glass of eggnog analyzed by a local druggist, who, indeed, found traces of arsenic. Marie was denied further access to Charles, but it was too late; he died on January 14, 1840, the day following the arsenic test. The family immediately demanded an investigation and, within a short time, Marie was charged with murder and taken off to the Brive jail, where she continued to proclaim her innocence.

In the meantime, Marie's aunt secured the services of the best lawyer in Paris, Alphonse Paillet, who with his associates, Charles Lachaud and Théodore Bac, set out to prepare Lafarge's defense. Almost immediately, the case was complicated by a charge of theft brought against Lafarge by her friend Marie de Nicolai (Mme de Léautaud), who had discovered her diamond necklace missing after Marie's visit the previous summer. When a search of Le Glandier produced the necklace, Marie adamantly denied taking it, claiming that de Nicolai was being blackmailed by a former lover and had given her the necklace to pawn for payoff money. When further questioned as to why she still had the necklace, Lafarge claimed that after discovering that the blackmailer was no longer a threat, de Nicolai, in appreciation, had made a gift of the necklace. The case of theft was tried by the correctional tribunal at Brive in July 1840, at which time Lafarge was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison.

As she awaited her murder trial, Marie Lafarge became a cause célèbre, capturing the attention of the French citizenry, which was divided into pro- and anti-Marie camps. The prisoner received some 6,000 letters, most of which expressed support. Many came from wealthy gentlemen, offering marriage or, at the very least, financial assistance with her defense. She also received sympathetic notes from young women, who often sent along gifts of books and flowers. Marie perpetuated her romantic image, answering as many letters as possible, and referring to herself as "the poor slandered one." She also embarked on a romantic correspondence with her lawyer Charles Lachaud, then only 22 years old but destined to become one of France's most highly respected lawyers. Lachaud, according to his biographer, was convinced of his client's innocence and never recovered from her conviction.

Despite the best efforts of her attorneys to defend Lafarge, the prosecution presented the more compelling case, though most of their evidence was circumstantial. They first cited her disastrous marriage, presenting into evidence the letter she wrote to Charles during her first night in the Le Glandier estate, in which she mentioned another lover and her plans to leave Charles or kill herself. They put forth her request to the druggist for arsenic to kill the rats in the house, and the subsequent substitution of bicarbonate of soda for arsenic in the paste prepared for the rats. They introduced the switch of a large arsenic-laced cake for small ones in a Christmas package sent to her husband while he was away on business, and the continued dosing of his food and drink with arsenic powder (kept in a pillbox in her apron pocket), after his return home. They ended their presentation with the conclusive report of the famous chemist Mateo Orfila stating unequivocally that arsenic was present in Charles' body. With this last crushing blow, Marie Lafarge, who had kept her composure during the two-week ordeal, collapsed in tears, knowing that there was no hope for her acquittal.

As a "respectable" female criminal, Lafarge was spared the public pillory and hard labor. She was imprisoned in Montpellier, where, while waiting for her appeal, she wrote two volumes of memoirs. When her appeal failed, she wrote a series of articles that were published after her death under the title Prison Hours. The cult that had risen around Marie Lafarge gradually dropped away, and she was left a forgotten woman. In 1851, she was removed to the prison hospital suffering with tuberculosis. Following a plea to Napoleon III from her doctors, she was freed early in 1852 and transported to a spa in Ussat by a loyal great-uncle and his daughter. She died there a few months later, swearing her innocence to the end.


Hartman, Mary S. Victorian Murderesses. NY: Schocken, 1977.

Nash, Jay Robert. Look for the Woman. NY: M. Evans, 1981.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts