Louis Voisin was a French butcher who worked in London. It was his poor English spelling which provided damming evidence against him at his trial for the murder of a former mistress.
In the early morning of 2 November 1917, a roadman known as Jack the Sweeper found a bundle in Regent Square, in Bloomsbury. The bundle had been done up in sacking had been dropped over the railings of the central garden; the garden that was tended to by Jack the Sweeper. Once he untied the bundle he found that it contained the trunk and arms of a women, but the head, legs and hands were all missing. Jack the Sweeper then ran and found a police constable.
A further search of the garden in Regent Square found a paper parcel, which contained both missing legs. There was no sign of the head and both hands. The sacking which had contained the torso was a meat sack, stencilled with the words “Argentina La Plata Cold Storage”. On a sheet was a laundry mark, sewn in red cotton, which read “II H.” With the remains were some pieces of course muslin, silk and lace underwear, and a scrap of brown paper on which the words “Blodie Belgiam” were roughly scrawled.
The Metropolitan Police quickly traced the laundry mark to 50 Munster Square, located in the neighbourhood east of Regent’s Park. The occupant of two rooms in the house was a 32 year old French lady, Emilienne Gerard, whose husband was away fighting in the French Army. She had been missing since 31 October 1917, when there had been an air raid by German Zeppelins. Examination of Gerard’s rooms located a number of small bloodstains in both the kitchen and bedroom. On a table was a IOU for £50 signed by Louis Voisin, whose portrait also hang over the mantelpiece. With the knowledge that the dismemberment had been performed by someone with an understanding of anatomy, the meat sack, the muslin was a type used by butchers to wrap meat and that Voisin was a butcher, the police decided to question Voisin.
Louis Voisin lived in the basement of 101 Charlotte Street, which was less than half a mile from Munster Square and a mile from Regent Square. When the police arrived to question Voisin, he was seated in the kitchen with a woman called Berthe Roche. Both were then taken for further questioning at Bow Street Police Station. Voisin, who spoke broken English, was a powerfully-built man: short and thick-set, with a heavy jaw and dark upturned moustaches. Berthe Roche understood little English and so a police officer who spoke French was used during the questioning. Chief Inspector Wensley, who led the investigation, asked Voisin if he would write the phrase “Bloody Belgium”. After some hesitation, Voisin wrote the phrase five times and each time he made the identical spelling mistake. The handwriting in each example also closely matched the example found on the brown paper.
More incriminating evidence was soon discovered. The rent of Mme. Gerard’s room in Munster Square was paid by Voisin who also had a key to the room. He stated that he called there on 2 November to feed the cat. While there, Voisin explained to the landlord that Mme Gerard would be away for a week or two and that he was expecting delivery of a sack of potatoes. Voisin’s own kitchen was stained and an earring, later identified as Mme Gerard’s, was found in a blood-stained towel. Among the keys taken from Voisin was that of a coal cellar underneath the pavement of Charlotte Street. In this cellar was found a cask containing the missing head and both hands.
From the remains and having visited both Munster Square and Charlotte Street rooms, the pathologist Bernard Spilsbury reconstructed how Mme Gerard has died. She had been struck by at least 8 blows on the head and face. These blows had not killed her, though her head was a mess. They were followed by an attempt at strangulation, for which the towel served to muffle her cries; which is when an earring became caught in the towel. Spilsbury confirmed that the dismemberment had been performed by a butcher with a butcher’s knife. After examining the rooms at Munster Square and Charlotte Street, it was obviously a the later place that the attack had occurred. In the back room, mingled with traces of animal blood, there was human blood everywhere. Chiefly it lay in lines and splashes on the floor and wall round a door leading into a back-yard. There was also human blood found on the door and the ceiling above the door. There were yet more stains of human blood found on the sink and draining board.
It appears that the following is what happened to Mme Gerard. On the night of 31 October 1917, during the air raid, she had gone to shelter with Voisin in his basement in Charlotte Street. Once she had arrived, she found Berthe Roche with her lover. Of the two women, Gerard had known Voisin for far longer. There was a heated argument during which Gerard probably threatened Voisin with exposure, upon which Roche struck Gerard several blows with a poker. It was felt that Voisin had not struck the blows, as with both his expertise and strength there would have been one powerful blow instead of the several blows to Gerard’s head. When Gerard cried out, Voisin grabbed her from behind and smothered her cries with the towel while Roche continued the attack with the poker. After killing her they dismembered the body and conveyed some of the remains to Mme Gerard’s rooms at Munster Square; hence Voisin’s telling the landlord that he was expecting a sack of potatoes. He then smeared some blood around Gerard’s kitchen and took away a sheet from the bed. Intending to confuse any subsequent investigations, Voisin wrote the note (including the spelling mistake) and left the sack, sheet and note in Regent Square; where they were later discovered by the cleaner Jack the Sweeper. As the head and hands were still recognisable, they were kept by Voisin in his cellar.
Although Roche had struck the blows with the poker, the judge at their Old Bailey trial ruled that Roche should she held on remand. Voisin was found guilty of the murder of Mme Gerard and sentenced to death by hanging.
On 2 March 1918, Louis Voisin (aged 42) was executed at London’s Pentonville Prison. The Chief Executioner was John Ellis.
Berthe Roches was later tried and found guilty of being an accessory after the fact. She was sentenced to 7 years’ imprisonment. However, she went mad in prison and was committed to a hospital for the insane where she died on 22 March 1919.