Murder on the Metro: In the Years Leading Up to the Second World War, France Was Riven by Political Division as Extremes of Left and Right Vied for Power. Annette Finley-Croswhite and Gayle K. Brunelle Tell the Tragic and Mysterious Story of Laetitia Toureaux, a Young Woman Swept Up in the Violent Passions of the Time

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At around 6pm on a Sunday afternoon in May 1937 an attractive young woman with newly coiffed blond hair, wearing a finely tailored green suit, white hat and gloves, left a bal musette, or dancehall, in a working-class suburb of Paris near the Charente River and the Bois de Vincennes. She told a friend, Pierrette Marnef, that she was late for an appointment and headed off briskly towards a bus stop. Approximately 24 minutes later she stepped off the bus and entered a metro station, the Porte de Charenton, where she boarded a first-class carriage bound for central Paris. Although the platform and the second-class carriages were full of holidaymakers, who had spent Pentecost Sunday at the Parc de Vincennes, Laetitia Nourrissat Toureaux sat alone; in Depression-era France few travellers could afford the cost of a first-class ticket. The train departed at 18:27 and about a minute later arrived at the Porte Doree station where six passengers entered in two groups of three from doors at opposite ends of the first-class carriage. Inside they spied Toureaux sitting alone near a window. One of the passengers, a young French woman travelling with two English friends, approached Laetitia to ask whether she could open a window to let some air into the stuffy carriage. Rather than answering, Toureaux slumped forward and slid motionless to the floor, an eight-inch dagger in her neck.

A conductor immediately summoned the Paris police. The first officer on the scene yanked the knife out of Toureaux's neck. As a result, she bled to death without uttering a word. The autopsy revealed that her assailant had struck her from behind. Given the force of the blow- the tip of the knife had penetrated her spine- and the expertise required to deliver it, the police concluded that the murderer was most likely a hired killer. There were no fingerprints and little other forensic evidence. The only other clue was the presence of the knife itself, which suggested that, like Toureaux herself, her attacker was an Italian; a knife in the neck was a 'calling card' of Italian professional assassins. The French public was shocked to read about the crime in their newspapers the next day for this was the first murder ever committed on the Paris Metro. The judicial section of the police force known as the Surete Nationale launched a murder inquiry. Over the next 12 months they interviewed hundreds of people and followed up on scores of leads yet never found a single witness to the crime and eventually shelved the investigation. To this day, the murder of Laetitia Toureaux remains officially unsolved, a seemingly 'perfect crime'.

Who was Laetitia Toureaux?

In the weeks that followed, the Parisian press sensationalised the murder and its investigation, uncovering little by little the details of Toureaux's unconventional life and offering hypotheses regarding her untimely death. Initially, journalists and the public viewed her as a perfectly respectable, recently widowed Italian immigrant who had become the victim of a cruel assassin. Five days after the murder, however, public opinion turned against Toureaux. Exposed as an ambitious social climber with a taste for money, men and adventure, her nearly six-year marriage to the late Jules Toureaux, the son of an industrialist, was revealed to have been a clandestine relationship of which her father did not approve. Jules's bourgeois family had only learnt of the union when he was on his deathbed in 1935 and, as a consequence, severed all ties with his working-class wife. Faithfial to her husband during their secret marriage and seemingly devoted to him, she took a series of lovers after his death and indulged in occasional trysts in hotel rooms and public parks. Like many Italians living in France, she frequented nightclubs, often located in sordid neighbourhoods of Paris, where pimps and prostitutes solicited customers and where she was known to acquaintances as 'Yolande'. …