Some murders hold a rare fascination not so much for the question of ‘who did it?’, but ‘how did they do it?’. This has never been truer than the case of a glamorous 29 year old Italian woman, murdered on the Paris Metro in 1937. The exact circumstances of her killing remain so unfathomable that the crime ranks high of those labelled ‘impossible’.
On the evening of Sunday, the 16th of May 1937, Laetitita Toureaux was anything but inconspicuous. Having left a dance hall in one of the city’s suburbs, she entered the Métro station at Porte de Charenton at 6.23 pm, dressed in green with a white hat and gloves, furs and a distinctive parasol. Just four minutes later, at 6.27 pm, she was seen by witnesses stepping into a first-class carriage on train number 365. The carriage was in-between two second-class carriages that were packed with passengers, as the majority of the citizens of Paris could not afford to purchase a first-class ticket.
According to those present, this explains why Laetitia was the only traveler who could be seen in her carriage as the train left the station to go through a tunnel to the next stop. It took just sixty seconds for the train to pass through the tunnel and arrive at the platform of the next stop Porte Dorée at 6.28 pm.
As new passengers boarded the first-class carriage, from doors at either end, they were horrified to see a woman’s body slumped forward from her seat. A 9-inch stiletto-style blade was protruding from her neck. Laetitia tried to whisper something to the first police officer that arrived at the scene, but with blood pouring out of her wound, she didn’t live long enough to name or describe her attacker. No one was seen leaving the carriage at Porte Dorée station, but witnesses who had been travelling in the second-class carriages swore they heard a scream just as the train pulled into the station.
An autopsy suggested that the blow to Laetitia’s jugular vein had been delivered with such swiftness, force and accuracy that it must have been the work of a professional, while the knife being left in the would also indicated the signature of a certain type of hitman. While there were some discrepancies in the statements of the witnesses who got on the train at Porte Dorée, it was still puzzling that no one had seen the killer exit from the carriage. Adding to the puzzle was the fact that the doors between the first-class and adjacent second-class carriages were locked – the killer could not simply have switched cars.
Laetitia was identified from documents that she was carrying, and it was soon evident to detectives investigating her murder that she had been leading a complicated life. She was a widow who worked in a glue factory by day, but she spent much of her time in dance halls and had been dating an arms smuggler. The arms smuggler belonged to La Cagoule (The Hood). Officially called the Secret Committee of Revolutionary Action, La Cagoule was a fascist-leaning and anti-communist terrorist group that used violence to promote its activities from 1935 to 1941. La Cagoule wanted to overthrow the Third Republic, and performed assassinations, bombings, sabotage of armaments, and other violent activities to achieve this aim.
In fact, Laetitia had been leading a double life as an undercover informant working for the authorities. It is commonly accepted that her murder was carried out by a La Cagoule operative after her cover was blown. Her murder was carried out so expertly that police had little to go on, and despite hundreds of people being interviewed, no one was ever identified as the killer. Just how her murder was executed without anyone observing the killer, in such a public location, remains perplexing to this day.
My theory is that the murderer needed an accomplice, to unlock the door to either second-class carriage either side of the first-class carriage. This could be a railway worker who was sympathetic to La Cagoule and who unlocked the door before the train arrived at Porte de Charenton, or someone who could pick the lock from the adjacent carriage. This would allow the killer to murder Toureaux under the cover of darkness caused by the train going through the tunnel, and then returning to the second-class carriage before the passengers on the platform at Porte Dorée saw the first-class carriage. Toureaux must have been followed from the dance hall to Porte de Charenton, as the assassin(s) knew that she would catch the Metro to get home. When they saw that she was the only passenger in the carriage, the murder plan was put into action.
The puzzle of Toureaux’s murder echoes the so-called ‘locked room’ genre of fictional murder mystery stories, featuring crimes so cleverly devised they seem to have been impossible to commit. The murder on the Metro shows that truth can sometimes be stranger than fiction.
“Murder by Numbers –Fascinating Figures Behind the World’s Worst Crimes” by James Moore (Stroud, England, 2018 p. 78-79) was the source for this blog post.