February 26, 1852*
Hélène Jégado is executed for murder
* Note: the exact date of Jégado’s execution seems to be up for debate, with sources claiming either February 26 or 27, 1852, March 1852, or December 1851. For this entry, I chose to use the date listed in Fatal Violence: Case Studies and Analysis of Emerging Forms.
Jégado had been a cook by trade, offering her services to convents and family homes over several years. As she went from employer to employer, however, she seemed to leave behind a growing number of dead or ill employers and fellow servants. In 18 years, 60 or more had been poisoned, with some reports estimating as many as 97, 36 of whom died.
Jégado was not unaware of the trail of death she led, stating either, “I am a wretched creature; wherever I go people die,” or “How unhappy I am; wherever I go, death follows me,” depending on the translation. For a time, public opinion toward Jégado was on her side, owing mostly to the pious manner in which she carried herself. But, the relentless deaths surrounding her eventually became too much for even her supporters and Jégado was arrested after the death of another servant working at the inn which employed Jégado.
It was claimed in court Jégado had poisoned her victims — who ranged from infants to the elderly — with arsenic sprinkled into their food. It was suggested Jégado had stolen the arsenic from an employer years before her capture (the employer had noted a large volume of arsenic had disappeared with no explanation) and Jégado kept the poison with her as she traveled. No motive was offered aside from Jégado getting a “thrill” from inflicting suffering and death on those close to her.
Jégado’s defense rested predominantly on phrenology, the study of measuring the size and shape of a person’s skull (with the different areas referred to as organs) to glean insight into their personality. Phrenologists noted Jégado’s hypocrisy and destructiveness organs “were developed to a degree which overpowered the moral faculties,” as The Morning Post reported, and it was recommended she be sentenced to life rather than capital punishment. The jury was unimpressed by the phrenologists and, after 30 minutes of deliberation, sentenced Jégado to death. According to the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, “the verdict was received with a tempest of applause that shattered the panes in the windows.”
Jégado professed her innocence until she reached the scaffold, whereupon she confessed to around 40 murders before she was beheaded by the guillotine.
“L’Empoisonneuse Hélène JéGADO, Accusée d’avoir attenté à la vie de 37 personnes, dont 25 ont succombé.” Execution Ballads. Accessed: February 26, 2020. https://omeka.cloud.unimelb.edu.au/execution-ballads/items/show/1024
Ancery, Pierre. “Hélène Jégado, la serial killer à l’arsenic.” Retro News. February 17, 2019. Accessed: February 26, 2020. https://www.retronews.fr/faits-divers/echo-de-presse/2016/12/12/helene-jegado-la-serial-killer-larsenic (image source; French)
Holmes, Ronald M. and Holmes, Stephen T. Fatal Violence: Case Studies and Analysis of Emerging Forms. Boca Raton: CRC Press, 2012
“Some Great Poisoning Mysteries.” Oakland Tribune. April 9, 1911
Sherard, R. H. “Strange Stories from the French Courts.” The Indianapolis Journal. December 14, 1902
“The Death Breath.” St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat. November 22, 1880
“Execution of Wholesale Poisoner.” Reynold’s Newspaper [London, England]. March 7, 1852
“France.” The Morning Post [London, England]. December 20, 1851