If you have ever seen the film Seven, you will know that it includes a very disturbing scene, indeed. The two protagonists approach a skeletal form lying sprawled out on a filthy mattress in a darkened, dirty room only faintly illuminated by light seeping through the blinds. They approach the still figure thinking he must surely be dead, but then BAM, the “corpse” awakens and we all collectively soil our shorts. It is an ingenious scene and seems perfect for a horror movie, but what many people might not realize is that this is a scene that played out for real back in the 20th century. Here we will look at the gruesome and tragic story of a woman who was believed dead and left to rot in her room, but who would mysteriously be saved and leave the whole world in shock.
The woman known as Blanche Monnier was in her time about as high profile as they came. In the 1870s she was a prominent socialite and aristocrat in Paris from a wealthy, well-respected bourgeoisie family, and she was quite often the talk of the town. Rich and well-known for her reputed stunning beauty, she had no shortage of suitors, but her heart would fall for an older man who at the time was a struggling lawyer. The two were often seen out on the town and generated plenty of rumors, much to her mother’s chagrin, as she did not approve of the relationship at all. Nevertheless, Monnier kept dating her suitor, and even made plans to marry him. Yet, as her future seemed bright and her heart filled with love, the wedding would never happen, because one day Blanche Monnier just sort of disappeared off the face of the earth.
The previously high profile social butterfly who had been at all of the parties and mingled relentlessly with high society was suddenly nowhere to be seen, and after some time of this, Monnier’s mother, Louise, and younger brother Marcel came forth to admit that she had in fact died. They mourned her and often wore clothes to signify this, and the shocked social elite who had known Monnier were at a loss at how suddenly she was just gone, not the least of which was Blanche’s would-be husband. He also mourned, and would go on to die in 1885 without ever seeing her face again. As far as everyone was concerned, Blanche Monnier was dead, and as the years went on she was sort of forgotten, but then there would be a strange series of sinister events that would play out, and it would turn out that all was not as it seemed.
In 1901, the Paris Attorney General received an anonymous handwritten letter that changed everything. There was no return address, no signature, no clue as to who it was from, and the writing was barely legible, little more than scribbles, but the words that it contained were shocking and revelatory. The mysterious letter 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.
It was unknown if this was some hoax or sick joke, but the police took it seriously enough to go check out the Monnier house at 21 Rue de la Visitation. When they arrived no one answered the door, although they did hear someone walking about within and there was even movement at one of the curtains. Police calls to whoever was inside went unanswered, and so the decision was made to break in forcefully and raid the place. As soon as they were in, they found Louise Monnier sitting calmly in her living room, but she refused to speak with the policemen. They went about searching every room in the house, finding each without any sign of Blanche, until the only place left to check was the attic, which had to be pried open to reveal utter and complete darkness, the one window within covered by a casement and thick curtains. One officer on the scene would later say:
We immediately gave the order to open the casement window. This was done with great difficulty. The old, dark curtains fell a heavy shower of dust. To open the shutters, it was necessary to remove them from their hinges.
Once they gained entry and could see a little, a horror show awaited them. The first thing that hit them was the stench, a putrid concoction of rotted meat and human feces and urine, which was enough to cause some of the officers to wretch. The room itself was in shambles, the floor strewn with pieces of decomposed food, human waste, trash, and unidentifiable effluence that was patrolled by countless scurrying roaches. Their eyes stinging from the rancid olfactory onslaught, the officers peered into the gloom past this filth and saw lying there on a rotting straw mattress the skeletal, emaciated form of a woman, so thin and wraith-like that they did not at first even recognize her as the once beautiful Blanche Monnier. They at first took her to be dead, but then she shuddered, gasped, and turned to them like a ghoul out of a nightmare, and she soon recoiled from the light to hide beneath a filthy blanket. They had found Blanche Monnier, or at least a shadow of what she once was. One of the policemen would say of the horrific scene:
The unfortunate woman was lying completely naked on a rotten straw mattress. All around her was formed a sort of crust made from excrement, fragments of meat, vegetables, fish, and rotten bread… We also saw oyster shells, and bugs running across Mademoiselle Monnier’s bed. The air was so unbreathable, the odor given off by the room was so rank, that it was impossible for us to stay any longer to proceed with our investigation.
After being taken to a hospital, it was found that Monnier, who was now 50 years old, weighed a meager 55 pounds, the bones poking through her pale skin, and she was completely incomprehensible and stark raving mad. In the meantime, the gruesome story of what happened to her began to come into the light. It would seem that when Monnier had refused to break things off with her lover and fiancé, her mother had done everything in her power to sabotage the relationship, and when that hadn’t worked she had taken the rather extreme measure of locking her own daughter in the attic, where she would remain for the next 25 years. During her imprisonment, she had been fed only scraps of food and had not seen the sunlight or taken a single step out of that dank, cramped space, and there she had languished, her previously affluent, happy life stolen from her.
Louise Monnier and Marcel were immediately arrested and put on trial, and at first they claimed that Blanche had chosen to remain in the attic out of her lovesick depression born of being denied the man she loved, but the court wasn’t buying this. They both received prison sentences, with the mother dying just 15 days later in captivity. Marcel, who just happened to be a lawyer, fought the charges and managed to weasel his way out of them, in the end walking away a free man. As all of this was going on, Blanche Monnier was being nursed back to health, and although she gained weight and got healthier physically, mentally the ordeal had broken her. Besides having developed several mental disorders during her confinement, such as schizophrenia, coprophilia, and anorexia nervosa, she also exhibited stunted cognitive abilities and was deemed to be insane. She would remain in an institution for the rest of her days until her death in 1913 in a sanitarium in Bois. The case never did find a sense of justice served, and neither did investigators ever really figure out who had sent that anonymous letter to save her. Besides who saved her, we are left with other questions. What would compel someone to do this to another human being, let alone their own daughter? How did she even manage to survive at all in that personal hell lasting over two decades? It is a very strange case and certainly a historical oddity like something from a horror movie that will likely keep people scratching their heads for some time to come.