Gilles de Rais: Who was the real Bluebeard?


Katie Lambert: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.

Sarah Dowdy: And I'm Sarah Dowdy.

Katie Lambert: And before we start today's episode, we'd like to say that there is a lot of grisly content in this particular podcast, and it's not appropriate for kids.

Sarah Dowdy: No. This is rated R podcast, and you should not be fooled by our fairytale title.

Katie Lambert: Which is, of course, Who Was The Real Bluebeard? And there are many versions of the Bluebeard story, but the one most of us know comes from Charles Perrault, who was the French author of many a fairytale.

Sarah Dowdy: Beauty and the Beast. That type of thing.

Katie Lambert: Right. Things you know. But the story of Bluebeard isn't a nice fairytale; it's a grim one. In the story, a blue-bearded man has had many wives, but they all disappear, and no one knows what's become of them, but yet another woman is married to him against her will, and after their marriage, Bluebeard leaves her in charge of the house with an admonition to stay out of this one particular room. But she, of course, is human and can't resist, and when she opens the door, all she sees is blood and dead bodies on hooks, which are the wives before her.

Sarah Dowdy: And in Perrault's tale, of course, the wife is rescued at the last moment, but in the story we're going to tell that is possibly the inspiration for the tale, the rescues were not to be had.

Katie Lambert: So before we get to all the goriness, let's talk a little bit about who we're dealing with. Gilles de Rais was born in 1404 or thereabouts - there are some discrepancies as to the year, and he was the son of Guy de Laval and Marie de Craon. His father died when he was young. He and his brother Rene were raised by their grandfather, and he was married young, as well, at 16, to Catherine de Thouars, who was also very rich, and I can't emphasize enough just how rich de Rais was.He was probably the richest nobleman in Europe, but even then, there were some rumors about him that weren't so nice. Part of this legend was that he had been affianced a few times before Catherine, but they all died. Really, the reality is probably just that the betrothals were broken off.

Sarah Dowdy: And he's impressive as a young man, too, though, in addition to being extremely wealthy. He distinguished himself fighting with Jeanne d'Arc in the Hundred Years War, Joan of Arc, of course, and he was there for the Siege of Orleans and was recognized for being extremely brave.

Katie Lambert: Right. He was made Marshal of France at age 25 by Charles VII because of everything he'd done in the war, but then there comes a switch in his life. Gilles, tired of military life and his grandfather who may have been a check on his actions, died when he was in his young 30s, so he began spending.So remember how gigantic this fortune is? He spends pretty much all of it. Much of it was on theatrical productions. He loved putting on these very lavish plays for free. He hired hundreds of extras and would have hundreds of costumes constructed, and then just thrown away and he would begin again.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, and he spends a lot of his money on bodyguards and courtiers, and entertaining, as well, things that might be more expected than his own personal theatrical productions.

Katie Lambert: And he also built a very fancy chapel, the Chapel of the Holy Innocents, and in case you don't remember biblically, the Holy Innocents are all the innocent little boys that Herod had killed to avoid Jesus coming along and usurping his power. This will come into play a little later. Remember the Holy Innocents.

Sarah Dowdy: He eventually spends so much money on all these plays and these building projects that his family goes to the king seeking an intervention. The king agrees to make life very difficult for him in Orleans.

Katie Lambert: So he left and he went to Brittany, and around this same time, being so wealthy, but also falling into this pit of money despair, he fell pray to many conmen. And when he started to go broke, he turned to a rather bizarre way of making money, at least to my mind - alchemy. So he started spending a lot of money -

Sarah Dowdy: Very literal way.

Katie Lambert: Seriously. He will literally turn other things into gold. He started dealing with occultists and necromancers, and thought maybe he could sell his soul to Satan for wealth, depending on how that went, so more money, more problems, Sarah and I said earlier.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. But it turns out that this is not all he was doing at the time, and he had many other unsavory activities going on. His first murder was right after his grandfather died.

Katie Lambert: And again, this is a little hard to listen to, probably. It was hard for us to research, but his victims were usually young boys. They were tortured, raped, and killed. He'd often hang them from hooks, according to testimony, but take them down to comfort them when they cried, saying that he was only playing with them, before he'd put them back and start the torturing again.Sometimes he would rape them as they were dying. He also liked to cut them open and look at their insides, and laughed while they died, so this is pretty much the most demonic portrait of a man you can imagine. He'd also go to sleep afterwards.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, when it was all done, he'd have somebody else clean it up.

Katie Lambert: So some of the boys were kidnapped. Some were tricked into coming by saying maybe they'd get an apprenticeship at the castle. Some showed up unawares of what was going on, and were tricked into it. No one knows exactly how many children he killed. There's a huge discrepancy as far as numbers. Estimates range from the dozens to more than 6,000, so you don't even know where he stands in that series of prolific serial killers that you think of.

Sarah Dowdy: But of course, he wasn't alone. You can't do killings like this, and especially if it was more on the scale of 6,000, without accomplices. One of them was Gilles de Sille, who brought boys to one of the castles and helped clean up after the murders had taken place, and helped lie for him. Obviously, you're going to have all these concerned parents, who are wondering where their children have gone, and he would tell them that their sons had been sent to the king to train as pages, had all these great opportunities, and that's why they disappeared so suddenly.

Katie Lambert: Another one of his accomplices was Etienne Corrillaut, who was known as Poitou, and with his testimony later, we learned a little bit more about what happened in that castle.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, some of the most damning testimony against him came from this guy.

Katie Lambert: And he talked about killing the boys because sometimes Gilles de Rais didn't like to do it on his own; he'd rather have someone else do it, and he liked to play with the dead bodies. So his accomplices would kill them by decapitation or dismemberment or cutting their throats, breaking their neck, and he also said they usually were only allowed to stay alive for one night.

Sarah Dowdy: And another accomplice was Perrine Martin, who was also known as La Meffraye, or The Terror and she sounds straight out of a fairytale, some very scary, evil character. She was the procurer of many of the children. She would wander around in a long cloak looking for them.

Katie Lambert: It gives me the shivers.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, and that's according to some accounts. Some of this is based on little historical evidence and a lot of it is based on tales of the time, but that, of course, is part of the allure of his story.

Katie Lambert: But you must be wondering, like Sarah and I did, how on earth, if you've done all of these terrible things, especially if the body count is up to about 6,000, he wasn't found out? And it turns out that he sort of was. People knew what was going on, especially the peasants around there.Their kids were disappearing, and his castle at Machecoul got the reputation of being this evil place where people ate children, like the surrounding villages, that's what they said. If someone else came from Machecoul, oh, well, that's the place that would eat the kids.

Sarah Dowdy: That's the reputation that preceded them, yeah. And some of his family and friends must have known what was going on, too, some people have argued at least. At one point, he sends some of his minions to clean up his castles when he knows that family was coming over, but they couldn't get rid of all the skeletons and body parts that littered the castle. The towers of the castles were filled with blood and bodies that were later burned and tossed into the moat, and just a mess.

Katie Lambert: It sounds straight out of the Bluebeard fairytale. He was almost c aught several times according to some accounts. He was reckless about what he was doing. He wasn't even trying very hard to hide it because he was very, very rich and very powerful, and people were afraid of him.

Sarah Dowdy: Probably felt fairly invincible.

Katie Lambert: Oh, I'm sure. So he wasn't arrested until he abducted a priest from a church, which is so ridiculous. People thought he was killing and raping children, but once you took that priest out of that church, well, the line had been crossed. So the bishop started an investigation, found out all of these rumors, and then passed it on to more secular sources of power, who did their own investigation.

Sarah Dowdy: So he's ultimately charged with murder, sodomy, and heresy, and of course, kidnapping the priest from a church.

Katie Lambert: His trial was in 1440, and at first he wouldn't make a plea, and he denied the charges and even said this court didn't have jurisdiction over him. But then, here's a twist - the church excommunicated him and he was terrified that he would go to hell, so he admitted to some of his crimes and begged to be readmitted to the church, and that's the crazy thing about Gilles de Rais.All the things I was reading, he was tormented by the idea of what would happen to his eternal soul, and he was very religious. He built that Chapel of the Holy Innocents hoping it would expiate some of his sins.

Sarah Dowdy: Well, and someone who fights alongside Joan of Arc, too.

Katie Lambert: You would have seen miracles in person.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, the fervor of your religion if you were fighting with her.

Katie Lambert: So you have to somehow reconcile this idea of him as a giggling child rapist, who killed and killed again, with the idea of someone who wasn't even a sociopath, someone who had remorse for everything he'd done and yet wouldn't stop, and that's the scary part because you can't say that he was just mentally ill. He knew what he was doing. He was sorry for what he was doing, and he kept doing it.

Sarah Dowdy: But he couldn't stop doing it. He's also accused of summoning demons and dabbling in the occult, and all of this with a guy named Francesco Prelati, and using children's innards as sacrifices to call up the Devil, but going back to that religious fervor, these are charges that he would not admit to initially.

Katie Lambert: Right. None of the satanic stuff, none of the summoning up of the demons, those were things he would say that he did until he was threatened with torture, and then he admitted everything.

Sarah Dowdy: For someone who has tortured knows full well -

Katie Lambert: Just what that's like. So all of the gory, gory details came out during the trial! For example, some of his associates said he bathed in blood, which reminded us of Elizabeth Bathory, which I think Candace and Josh did a podcast about a while back.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, and there's an article on it. So at the end of all this and after his confessions, he's sentenced to be hanged and burned, which interestingly, kind of a luckier fate than Joan of Arc.

Katie Lambert: A lot luckier.

Sarah Dowdy: But his body is taken out of the flames and buried. Before he died, he sermonized to the crowd and proclaimed himself a devout and good man, so he was brought back into the church's fold at the very end because of this confession and repenting.

Katie Lambert: But that was the end of Bluebeard, and again the question, how can a man be a hero of war, with Saint Joan no less, and also a ruthless child murderer? Some historians have argued that Gilles de Rais didn't do it, that he was framed for what had happened that it was someone else committing the murders and because there were other people who had an interest in him being gone for financial reasons, he was set up.And others also say that the trial was a farce, and how much can you trust a confession made under threat of torture? It was a coerced confession, so is that even something that you can say is real and honest?

Sarah Dowdy: Well, and presumably his collaborators are under similar pressure.

Katie Lambert: Oh, yes. Two of them were killed, as well, and they did not get to be taken out of the flames. They were burned to ash.

Sarah Dowdy: But to sort of bring this story full circle, we're going to end it how we began with the story of Bluebeard, and this contradiction we were talking about earlier, somebody who is clearly not just a sociopath, who has no sense of right and wrong. He's somebody who repents what he's doing. He just can't stop doing it.

Katie Lambert: Or won't.

Sarah Dowdy: Or won't stop, is hard for people to make sense of and to handle, and so consequently since then, there have been all these myths that have sprung up around him and comparisons to demonic creatures.

Katie Lambert: Right, like vampires or werewolves because, I guess, it's easier to believe that someone was driven by something evil, something other than their own wills and desires to commit such terrible crimes.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, because a vampire has a motive, a werewolf has a motive, you know?

Katie Lambert: When it's something they can't help, according to the myth.

Sarah Dowdy: We can explain it.

Katie Lambert: And these ideas, that of the vampire, the werewolf, or Bluebeard, were all made after the fact, after his life.

Sarah Dowdy: Trying to explain it.

Katie Lambert: Right. There are people who say that he was just trying to emulate another monster of history, Caligula, who keeps popping up lately, so we think we're going to have to do a podcast on him.

Sarah Dowdy: Maybe after we rest a little bit here.

Katie Lambert: Yeah, we might need a little break from the gore here.

Sarah Dowdy: This took its toll.

Katie Lambert: But to end on a lighter note, if you're interested in supernatural creatures like vampires and werewolves, we have some pretty fantastic articles on them on our webpage at www.HowStuffWorks.com.