Researching for a new book can throw up some surprising stories. As an author, I’m constantly looking for unusual ideas and finding treasure like this is a joy. Here’s a well documented true police case that my Dad found which really surprised me.
Chief Inspector Robert Ledru of the Surete was a brilliant detective. In fact, his superiors in Paris rated him as possibly the most brilliant in France. He was also vain and arrogant. But, in addition, he had a bigger flaw – an obsessive determination to continue being seen as the country’s top crime-buster. To satisfy this determination he worked excessively long hours –often 20 out of 24 – and this arduous routine damaged his health. Eventually it swept him to centre stage in the most bizarre investigation in the annals of sleepwalk killings.
During the pleasantly warm summer of 1887 Ledru, then 35, was at the pinnacle of his success. His impressive list of triumphs included breaking up black magic cults and arresting scores of anarchists as well as notorious murderers. And he had just been applauded for his two greatest victories.
The first was the foiling of a gang of political rebels which had been aiming to overthrow the government. The second was even more notable the rounding up of the French members of The Brotherhood of Social Order. This was an underground political organisation spawned in Germany. It was seeking world domination and had spread its evil tentacles, as Ledru called them, throughout mainland Europe and Great Britain.
‘Its members were not restricted to one class’ he wrote. ‘I was arresting bankers as well as dustmen, lawyers as well as pickpockets, doctors as well as the dregs of the underworld.’
Now the talent and intuition for which he was so renowned was needed at Le Havre. Police there were under fire for failing to track down those responsible for the brutal killing of six sailors and Ledru’s bosses in Paris had agreed to let him help.
He seemed so exhausted when he arrived at the Channel port that he was advised to rest for a day or two before starting work. He refused. Too much time had already been wasted, he said, and it was vital to push ahead before the trail went still colder.
However, by the end of his first long day at Le Havre he could hardly stand, let alone think straight, because of overwhelming tiredness. Even he was forced to recognise the folly of pushing himself any further. Maybe a bit of a nap. A couple of hours or so and he’d be fine.
In fact he had more than a nap. He collapsed into a deep sleep lasting about twelve hours and when he awoke he was annoyed with himself for having wasted time. All he had achieved since arriving at Le Havre, he reflected, was give more lee-way to the murderers of those sailors. He had increased their chances of never being found and that was unforgivable.
He was also puzzled by two facts. The socks which in his weary state he had not taken off before going to bed were slightly damp. It also seemed that some of his belongings had been disturbed while he slept. All very odd, he thought, but that would have to wait. He couldn’t be bothering with it right now. There was too much to catch up on.
Indeed, it was a tough assignment but after three days he felt he was making progress. He’d discovered the sailors in a drunken rampage had molested a couple of women in their early 20s – one of whom had a male friend, no stranger to the police, with a reputation for violence. Ah yes, that was a good start but, unfortunately, that friend had apparently left town and no-one admitted knowing where he might be. Ledru was not perturbed. He was confident it was now just a matter of time, probably very little time, before this case was satisfactorily wrapped up.
But suddenly his investigation was interrupted by the local police chief who wanted him to drop it for a few days and advise instead on a strange case at Sainte Adresse — the city’s most popular and up-market seaside suburb where one of the landmarks was an elegant villa owned by actress Sarah Bernhardt.
Ledru was livid. Damnit! You don’t just stop in the middle of an operation. You keep going and nail the murdering bastards. What the hell was it with these provincial clowns? He had no intention of being side-tracked by whatever had happened at Sainte Adresse. Let the local bloody peasants do their own thinking. His superiors in Paris ignored his protests and supported the request from Le Havre. Ledru was ordered to take charge of an investigation into the killing of fellow Parisian Andre Monet.
Monet was a middle-aged businessman whose wife –the real mainstay of their moderately-successful dress shop – was later to tell police she had sent him away for a few days break because he had a summer cold. His snuffling and constant coughing had been as irritating for her as well as for customers.
Monet had no close friends and no known enemies. He was a mild and pleasant-natured man and his wife could think of no possible reason for anyone wanting to kill him.
Yet his naked body was found on the deserted beach at night with a single bullet hole through his head. No bullet or cartridge case had been found and initially the police had a problem establishing anything about the victim. There was no identification on or near the body and no trace of his clothing. However, that part of the puzzle had been solved by the time Ledru reached the beach. The dead man had hidden his clothes under a bush some distance from where he was found, presumably to prevent it being stolen. In his jacket pockets were bits of jewellery and his watch as well as his wallet containing money and identifying papers. Nothing seemed to have been taken and so robbery was ruled out as a motive.
The theory was that Monet had taken a moonlight walk and was a long way from his hotel when — with no-one else in sight, the weather being humidly warm and the sea so inviting — he had stripped in the bushes to enjoy a peaceful swim.
The police had failed to find a gun but, as there were no powder marks on Monet’s skin, they concluded that the shot had been fired from quite a distance away.
Their only clue was a second set of footprints in the sand not far from the dead man. Ledru shook his head when he first saw them. ‘This killer, if he did make these marks, was in his stockinged feet and that makes it hard for us.’ he said. ‘Otherwise we might have identified his shoes and that would at least have been a start.’
He knelt down to look closer and the expression on his face showed he was suddenly perturbed. ‘These look familiar,’ he said. ‘I have a feeling I’ve seen them somewhere before.’
He ordered that plaster casts be made of the prints. For the next hour or so the local policemen watched in bemusement as he sat silently on the beach, apparently deep in thought, staring at the incoming tide. They had imagined he would want to question nearby fishermen and beachcombers who, after all, might have something helpful to say. But Ledru was not interested in talking to anyone.
Eventually he stood up and, with no explanation, announced that he was going back to his hotel. ‘Nothing more for me to do here and I need to think this out,’ he told them. ‘I believe I know the identity of the killer – but I do not know the motive.’
Le Havre’s police chief was outraged when this was reported to him. ‘Impossible! Crimes are never solved as easily as that,’ he shouted. ‘Does he think we are children?’
Ledru locked himself in his room for the rest of that day and next morning he went to face the irate officer. The cartridge case, he was told, had been found and he nodded his approval. ‘Good. That may be the final piece of evidence I need. I’d better keep that case and the plaster cast. There’s something I have to check.’
‘What exactly are you checking on?’
‘As I said earlier, I believe I know the identity of this killer,’ replied Ledru. ‘The man is sick, very sick, and could easily kill again. It is imperative that he is arrested very quickly.’
‘But who do you think he is?’
Ledru did not answer immediately. He looked at the officer behind the desk. ‘I’ll tell you as soon as I’m sure,’ he replied evasively. ‘I don’t think that’ll take long.’
Back at the hotel, he secured his door before taking the pistol from the locked box he’d hidden beneath underwear in a dressing-table drawer. For some years, ever since the accident, he had not carried his gun unless he considered it might be essential – like when, for instance, he was aiming to arrest a violent criminal. In such a situation it would be stupid, quite unforgivable, to be defenceless but otherwise, no, he did not carry a gun.
Now a quick glance showed one cartridge was missing and that the one from the beach matched those in the gun. Now there was no room for doubt. He had no recollection of leaving his room that night, no recollection of any nightmare or anything unusual, but clearly he was the killer. He must have done it in his sleep. That was the only possible explanation. He must have sleepwalked to the beach and across the sand past the rock pools. Then – oh, no, please no! – in his zombie-like trance he could have been startled by that naked man and shot him out of fear. Maybe, as people had said, he had been pushing himself too hard. Maybe the murder of the sailors had affected him more deeply than he had thought possible. Maybe he’d imagined the stranger was the one who he had been hunting and who was now about to kill him. Maybe, maybe, maybe….
Nothing but maybes – except for the undeniable evidence that, whatever the reason or motive, he had killed Monet. He had to share that appalling truth with people he knew and trusted – not those amateur policemen at Le Havre and that meant leaving immediately for Paris.
His chief there was astounded next morning when Ledru said he intended to arrest himself and added: ‘I don’t want to be locked away – of course I don’t — but I’m too dangerous to be free.’
‘Sorry Robert, the way you describe it … well, I know it looks bad … but I’m not entirely convinced.’
‘Then perhaps this will convince you,’ replied Ledru taking off his right sock. ‘You remember that accident when I shot myself in the foot? That’s when I lost my big toe. He held up his foot. Now see there! No big toe! And if you again look carefully at that plaster cast, although the sock disguises it a bit, you can make out that big toe is missing. What you are looking at there is my foot. Absolutely no question about it. And, in case you need still more evidence, here are the socks I was wearing that night.’ He produced the socks which he had carefully wrapped. ‘They haven’t been washed and you’ll see that they have grains of sand on them. Get some-one to check and I think you’ll find they match the sand on the beach at Sainte Adresse.’
He folded his arms. ‘Now you understand, I hope, why I must arrest myself.’
‘But listen man, you must understand that’s just not possible …’
‘Then you arrest me or get one of the men to do it. But for God’s sake let’s get it over with.’
The chief was in a dilemma. He respected Ledru, admired his exceptional skills, and, although they rarely socialised together, he regarded Ledru as a friend. He could not put such a man behind bars like a common criminal but, on the other hand, he could now see it was not safe to let him stay free. He decided on a compromise. He would say nothing about this session to anyone except those who needed to be advised. Ledru would be given special leave for unspecified health reasons and would not be allowed out of his own apartment. There he would be monitored day and night by trusted men.
The watchers included a couple of police doctors working on a roster who stayed in his room at night. As part of a test a pistol loaded with blanks was left on his dressing table. For three nights Ledru hardly stirred as he slept through until morning but on the fourth night the doctor watched him, apparently still asleep, get out of bed, pull on his day clothes and pick up the gun.
The doctor stood up from his armchair and stood between him and the closed door Ledru gave a little gasp, as if suddenly startled, pointed the gun as his head and squeezed the trigger. The doctor was shaken but physically unhurt. Ledru put down the gun, returned to bed, and almost immediately was again apparently peacefully asleep. When he eventually awoke he had no recollection of his night-time behaviour.
That clinched the diagnosis. He was given permanent sick leave and for the next 50 years he lived in seclusion on a farm outside Paris, watched over by police-paid observers, until he died in 1937.
The killers of those six sailors were never arrested. Ledru’s track record made it highly likely that they would have been caught and punished if he had not joined the ranks of sleepwalk slayers.
An Extract from The Sleepwalk Killers – The Nightmare Truth About Violence During Sleep.
Available now for pre-order from Amazon for delivery to your device on the 21st May.