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Scary True Stories: The girl in the dungeon

The stench was overwhelming.

The room reeked so much that the Parisian police officers had to retreat and gather their courage to try again. This time, they found what they were looking for.

On a rotting straw mattress, cowering under a dirty, tattered blanket in the middle of a thick crust of feces and food waste, was a terrified woman. Though she looked like an old crone, the horrified officers knew she was only 49 years old. Unable to stand the smell any longer, they tenderly gathered her in a blanket and left the room.

On that day in 1901, Blanche Monnier would see the sun again, after not feeling its warmth on her face for 24 years. By the time of her rescue, she was terrified of it – she would flinch from any light at all.

She had once been a lovely, vivacious woman of 25, madly in love with an older man who lived nearby. The Monnier family was well respected in France, and apparently her mother, Madame Louise Monnier Demarconnay, thought the man wasn’t good enough to associate with them. She told Blanche to break off the relationship with the “penniless lawyer.”

Blanche refused.

So what was a mother to do? Obviously the only reasonable course of action was to lock her daughter in an upstairs room until she agreed to cooperate.

And thus began an epic standoff between mother and daughter that lasted 24 years. During that time, Louise fed Blanche the scraps

Blanche after rescue.

Blanche after rescue.

from her table, when she bothered to feed her at all. At the time of her rescue, Blanche weighed only 55 pounds. Even though she was immediately rushed to a hospital, no one expected her to survive.

She did, but her mind was gone. She spent the last 12 years of her life in a mental hospital, where she died in 1913.

Police arrested Blanche’s 75-year-old mother and Blanche’s brother Marcel, who claimed his sister was insane and never tried to leave the room, even though neighbours had heard her screaming for help in the earlier days of her captivity. Louise, who suffered from heart disease, died just 15 days after her arrest, leaving her son to stand trial alone. Marcel was originally sentenced to 15 months in prison, but was later acquitted when the courts decided he hadn’t been “violent” to Blanche.

Poor Blanche. The lover she’d refused to deny had died in 1885, long before she was rescued from her mother’s dungeon.

At least she did experience joy again. Upon smelling clean air and being bathed for the first time in 24 years, Blanche was delighted, exclaiming, “How lovely it is!”

An anonymous letter was what finally led to her rescue. To this day, the identity of the letter writer is unknown.

Why do you think Louise took such drastic measures? Was she insane herself, or just cruel? Who do you think sent the letter? I wonder why Blanche didn’t agree to her mother’s terms and then run off as soon as she was set free. It seems like a power struggle gone horribly wrong…or something the Brothers Grimm would write.

* * *

To everyone who commented on my Interview with a Mountie post, thank you. Tyner has had to work a lot in the past week, so he still hasn’t been able to get to everyone’s questions, but most have been answered. Thank you for your patience – he will get to the others; it’s just going to take some time.

By random draw, the winner of Tyner’s book Dark Resolution, is Shadow! Shadow, I’ve sent you an email about your prize. Congratulations, and thanks for commenting!

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34 Comments

  1. Alex J. Cavanaugh

    That is unspeakably cruel. Her mother was an insane control freak. Who could do that to her own child?

    Reply
    • JH

      Good question, Alex. She obviously viewed her child as property, not as an individual with a mind and choices of her own.

      Reply
  2. Madeline Mora-Summonte

    When I first started reading this story, I thought the older lover was the one who was going to imprison her and then to find out it was the mother?! Yikes!

    If the mother was really doing it for Blanche’s own good, why not still feed her, take care of her, etc? And if it was all about the older lover, why not let her out when the man died? Something else going on there….

    If neighbors heard Blanche screaming for help, why didn’t anyone do anything??? Why only an anonymous letter so many years later? Ugh.

    Reply
    • JH

      The mother was cruel and sadistic. I’ve heard of other parents who torture one child while treating the others relatively well.

      By the time the lover died, I’m sure Blanche’s mind was gone and they had no idea what to with her. It was about covering their ass at that point.

      I think people were afraid to say anything against them, due to the high standing of the family.

      Reply
  3. Stephanie Faris

    Hmm…too bad the letter writer didn’t speak up sooner. Or maybe the person just found out about it? Such a sad story. Did you hear about that woman who was kidnapped and kept in a coffin-like box under a couple’s bed for several years? All I remember was her name was Colleen. I’m claustrapobic…so *shudder*!

    Reply
    • JH

      Yes, Colleen Stan. I’ve read her story, and I’ve never forgotten her. Very strong woman. I don’t think I could have survived what she went through – I’m claustrophobic as well.

      Reply
  4. Susan Scott

    O my word – so so cruel. But why didn’t the neighbours respond if they heard her screaming? And the brother obviously colluded. Poor dear Louise .. how terrified and disbelieving she must have been. O the smell of sweet air must have been heaven scent for her …

    Reply
    • JH

      I think the family was so prominent in Paris at that time, no one wanted to say anything against them. From my research, though, it was obvious that the police did know Blanche had disappeared. Too bad no one looked into it more closely.

      Reply
  5. Frank

    I think insanity is a convenient label we give to things we, as a civilized culture, refuse to believe we are capable of. She was a cruel woman but she knew what she was doing. She acted with malice, not out of psychosis.

    We like to believe we are an enlightened society, that empathy separates us from the animals. A story of a mother allowing her daughter to suffer so horribly makes us reach for the insane but what about Chinese who would murder their own daughters because the law only allows one child and males were preferred?

    We are, at our core, merely animals. I don’t say that in a derogatory way, it’s just a matter of fact. All the rules we’ve made up for order in our society are unnatural. We suppress our instincts to abide by them. When we encounter someone who doesn’t suppress their instincts we are all too quick to dismiss them as insane.

    Cruelty is not insane, it’s a pretty common part of our past, present, and most likely future. I’m not suggesting civilization is a bad thing. Rather, I think it is important to distinguish between people who are honestly insane, as Blanche was after 20 plus years of confinement and cruelty, and people who give in to their animal instincts, like her mother who merely used her position of power over the girl to act with intentional cruelty.

    Reply
  6. Dianne Salerni

    Frank has a very eloquent reply, and I see his point. We wish that we could label such cruelty “insane,” but life proves otherwise. I recently read a book about the torture of Sylvia Likens in 1965. It is an unbelievable story of manipulation and cruelty, and the perpetrators were undeniably sane.

    Reply
  7. Chrys Fey

    That is horrifying and heartbreaking. How could any mother do that to her daughter? Or even a son. Such cruelty is unthinkable. My heart goes out to this woman who suffered so greatly for her love.

    Reply
  8. Crystal Collier

    That’s insane. I can imagine how messed up she’d be after being shut away like that. Clearly the mother was messed up. Makes me wonder where her mental illness came from.

    Reply
    • JH

      I think the mother was sadistic more than anything.

      Reply
  9. Birgit

    If they were a prominent family, the mother was totally absorbed in how the family “looks” and image and status was all. The brother was raised feeling that women were 2nd class citizens anyway given the times. he knew better than to disobey mom and agreed with her obviously. Where was her father? He must have been part of this and died before she was found or died before this even occurred. She was not working with a full deck but I would label her as sane as well as the brother. They were cruel beyond belief and glad the mother died. The neighbours would not say anything for fear of retaliation if this family was prominent. We have to consider the times in which this took place. I am thinking, this family probably had servants and one of the servants may have caught on to what was happening or finally their guilt made them write the letter. They knew never to come forward because that would destroy any chances of them finding another job in their line since discretion is key with their type of job.

    Reply
    • JH

      Great insights, Birgit! I think you’re absolutely right. You obviously know your history.

      Reply
  10. Patricia Lynne

    I’ve heard of this story before. I can’t wrap my head around how a mother could do that? Also, if neighbor’s heard screams for help, why didn’t they call the cops or something earlier?

    Reply
    • JH

      Fear, I’m guessing. The Monniers were a prominent family. People were afraid to mess with powerful families back then.

      Reply
  11. Shadow

    the romantic in me says the lawyer wrote the letter, but it got lost in the mailing system, and travelled many years before reaching its destination. but that is another book *grin*

    a power struggle gone wrong? no. this was by design. a passionate 24-year old woman couldn’t? wouldn’t? allow this to happen? there are ways of escaping, and being stubborn isn’t one of them…

    Reply
    • JH

      It is bizarre. Why do you think she stayed in the room, then? There had to be a way of escaping, but I suspect her brother and/or servants overpowered her, keeping her inside.

      I like your idea about the letter. It would make an interesting book.

      Reply
  12. Madilyn Quinn

    Oh, wow.. that’s crazy! Poor lady.. And what kind of mother would do something like that? Perhaps mental illness was in the family. :/

    Reply
    • JH

      The kind of mother who thinks her daughter is a possession that should be under her control. So sad.

      Thanks for commenting! Welcome back.

      Reply
  13. Lexa Cain

    I imagine it wad a servant or perhaps a relative who sent the letter. No excuse for waiting so long though. Amazing to think she had no friends or other relatives willing to help her. Still, horrible things like this maltreatment go on today, in little places all across the world, including the US. At least once a year or so there’s a terrible story of a “feral child” who’s been kept in a basement or closet. Awful. 🙁

    Reply
    • JH

      It is really awful, Lexa. Perhaps it was a servant who had recently retired or had gotten fired. That would make sense. Took a lot of courage to come forward, I imagine.

      Reply
  14. Michelle Wallace

    Such cruelty!
    I always say that the natural maternal instinct (according to my understanding, of course) to protect and nurture one’s offspring is powerful.
    How does a mother go against this instinct? It’s difficult to fathom.

    Reply
    • JH

      And yet so many mothers do. Unfortunately, we still live in a world where women are “expected” to have children, whether or not they want to.

      Reply
  15. Chris Chelser

    People are ultimately selfish creatures. Maternal instinct is not always as strong as we would like to believe, or only directed towards anyone else trying to hurt the child. When the mother in question herself has come to resent her (in this case adult) child, instinct will not kick in and thus the abuse sets in.

    And the longer it goes on, the more difficult to becomes to end it. Because ending it means acknowledging it and be held accountable for one’s actions. As long as Blanche was locked up, her mother would not have to hold herself accountable.

    This is a vicious circle that, ultimately, can only end because of outside intervention. And since people are selfish by nature and often scared of expressing their worry for fear of being ridiculed over it…

    We’re not a nice bunch, per se, us humans.

    Reply
    • JH

      Sad, but true, Chris. Thanks for the insightful comment. I agree – once you’ve gone too far with child abuse, it’s difficult to stop for fear of retribution.

      Reply
  16. Kay

    I think a lot more of this goes on than we know. I’d like to read the letter. Any chance it’s available in court records somewhere? You ask good questions. I hate it when questions can’t be answered and I love it, too.

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks for commenting, Kay. Here is the text of the letter.

      On May 23, 1901, the Paris Attorney General received the following letter, which read: “Monsieur Attorney General: I have the honor to inform you of an exceptionally serious occurrence. I speak of a spinster who is locked up in Madame Monnier’s house, half starved, and living on a putrid litter for the past twenty-five years – in a word, in her own filth.”

      Reply
  17. Kelly

    This is horrific! I agree the mother was sadistic rather than insane. As far as we know, she didn’t treat the brother or anyone else in such a manner. An insane person would make no distinction. I think it’s possible her motivations might have been some form of jealousy toward her own daughter (similar to Snow White and her Stepmother the Evil Queen) or possibly due to some inheritance the daughter would gain possession of that the mother wanted control over. Or was the mother just willful and ego-maniacal and the daughter stubborn and willful until her mother broke her will? If this was the case, then the daughter would have been insane by then and the mother kept her hidden to cover up what she’d done. It would have been more merciful if she’d killed her than to keep her living in such a hellish state. The only reason I can think of that she didn’t kill her was either the brother wouldn’t let her or she wanted her to suffer. And I, too, believe the letter came from a servant, possibly a new servant who had just discovered what was going on.

    Reply
    • JH

      Jealousy no doubt played a role. So many mothers are completely messed up when it comes to their daughters. I think Louise did want her daughter to suffer, and then–once it had gone too far–she was afraid of being punished.

      Sound theory! Thanks for commenting Kelly, and welcome to my blog! Hope to see you again.

      Reply
  18. Sydney

    This story is absolutely horrific! This has got to be one of the WORST child abuse cases I’ve ever heard of. She and the brother should have locked up in the room that poor Blanche was and starved just like they did to Blanche! I read that even before she was locked up, she tried to commit suicide after being terribly depressed (simply because she missed her boyfriend), but a maid told the monster “mom” and she was treated by a doctor and then she was locked up (which make the story even sadder). I hope those monsters are in Hell, there’s no crime worse than torturing and killing your own child/sibling (no matter what sorry excuse they have)!

    Reply
  19. Gavin

    I want to watch Blanche’s mother suffer through sessions after sessions of torment and agony for 24 long years… I would even be honored to be the hands of vengeance to afflict the pain myself… Died of a heart attack after 15 days of things just getting started… it better be some cold merciless days in hells that call that woman’s name… So help me… (This is me, writing all the words in my head. Am I insane? Or does everyone’s blood feel like it’s ablaze…? Yeah I might be a little fcked in the head who knows, don’t hesitate to tell me…)

    Reply
  20. Sydney

    No Gavin you are not crazy at all, I HATE child abusers and this monster is the type of of woman i wouldn’t mind beating! I’ve fantasized about beating the crap out of her! How do you do that to your own child, i’ll never understand?! >:( I agree with u all the way and i don’t have kids yet, it sickens me! A heart attack was way too good for Louise, if i saw that old witch on her death bed, i would have jumped on top of her and beat her to the ground like she was man! I hope she and Marcel are in Hell too, getting anally raped by Satan! her last words were “AHHH MY POOR BLANCHE”. Too late for sorry now you monster!! She sure as sugar wasn’t sorry when Blanche was screaming to be released, she was only sorry she got caught! Burn in Hell you evil vile woman!!

    Reply

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