Most of the histories of serial killers I’ve seen began with Jack the Ripper. A few go back further to talk about Gilles de Rais and Elizabeth Báthory. As the histories of serial murder go back in time, the explanations for the killers seem to move from rational psychology to more primitive discussions of evil, perhaps because the historical record is so scanty no other explanation is possible. Hélène Jégado is a new name to me. And, as Jean Teulé presents her story in The Poisoning Angel, the reason for her three dozen murders hovers somewhere in between psychological understanding and human evil. We know a bit more about her than we do about the earliest serial killers, but we don’t know enough to know why she poisoned so many people with so little motivation.
Hélène Jégado was born in a remote Brittany village sometime in 1803. Jean Teulé tells us that she was steeped in Celtic myth and legend as she grew up. In fact, her first language wasn’t French; she spoke Breton until she went looking for work after she (allegedly) poisoned her mother and her father sold the family farm. Hélène never married. She lived an itinerant life, working as a cook in any house that would hire her. Every where she went—as far as we know—she would sprinkle arsenic powder in her employers’ food. The first murders attributed to Hélène occurred in 1833 and she carried on killing people until she was arrested in 1851 (with an unexplained 10 year gap in the 1840s). After a brief trial, Hélène was executed by guillotine.
The reason Teulé gives for Hélène capricious killings is that she may have believed she was the Ankou, the Breton personification of Death, or that she was working for the Ankou. Throughout The Poisoning Angel, Hélène mentions her mission: to dispatch as many people as possible on the Ankou’s behalf. At the very end of the book, this explanation is further elucidated as Hélène’s way of dealing with the fear and uncertainty in life by giving herself control over her victims’ lives.
As Teulé presents it, Brittany is still stubbornly Celtic. Many of the Catholic saints in the churches around the province are openly worshipped according to Celtic beliefs. Old rituals and superstitions and stories govern how people live, to the disgust of their “French” neighbors. Two Norman wigmakers follow Hélène throughout her life, loosing their modern French ways over the years to become more savage and primitive. Their descent is a sinister metaphor for the way Breton ideas of death and the supernatural refuse to loose their grip on the people in the extreme northwest of France.
Eat Him if You Like, the first book I read by Teulé, was told in a deceptively simple manner. It was like reading someone’s bad dream, made worst by knowing it was based on a real event. The Poisoning Angel has a few more details in it to help us understand the strangeness of Brittany in the first half of the nineteenth century. Yet it still retains that odd, almost folkloric, simplicity of style. I wonder if I knew more about Breton myths I would pick up on the story that The Poisoning Angel is mapped against, if any. I felt like I was missing some deeper significance because the language of the book is so lacking in a sense of reality. This isn’t a complaint. What I mean to say is that The Poisoning Angel has the same sense of timelessness that folklore does. The book has a strong sense of place, but its plot seems to come from the deep past while still carrying a strong sense of warning about the darker side of humanity, the parts we still don’t understand after 100 years of modern psychology.
Gallic Press has been re-releasing Jean Teulé’s books via NetGalley for review and, I have to say, I’m hooked on his retellings of forgotten French crimes.
I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.