It was hard to believe that the skeletal woman chained to the excrement sodden bed and surrounded by rotting food and screeching rats was one of the most beautiful women in France.
And had it not been for an anonymous tip-off, the chances are that Blanche Monnier would have died in that windowless room – just as her own mother had planned.
Blanche’s story is one of the most horrifying cases of enforced imprisonment in human history, and still has the power to appall and disgust, more than a century after it happened.
In 1876, when Blanche was 25, she met a man who she wanted to marry, but he didn’t meet Madame Monnier’s high expectations.
Her mother was a widow, so she was relying on her beautiful daughter to marry into wealth so that she could keep the family living to the high standard they were used to – an older man, and definitely not one who was broke – was not part of her plan.
Blanche made it clear to her mother that she would not marry any of the suitors she had selected for her and she would always choose love over money… but then she simply vanished into thin air.
In reality, Madame Monnier and her son Marcel had locked Blanche in an upstairs room, nailing shut the windows and chaining her to a bed. They told neighbours who heard her screams that she had gone insane which was enough for her protests and sobbing not to raise suspicions.
After pretending she had died and that they had gone through a public grieving process, they simply got on with their lives as if she had never existed. But she did exist, and she was just feet away from them, slowly rotting to death in a padlocked room upstairs.
Blanche remained chained to a bed in that room until she was fifty years old. She was forced to defecate where she slept, fed only scraps thrown at her filthy bed by a servant, and totally ignored. Her weight plummeted to just 55lbs, under four stone.
Left in the dark for all that time, malnourished and alone apart from the rats and insects that came to feast on the festering detritus and Blanche herself, she slowly did go insane and lost the ability to speak in full sentences.
But on 23 May 1901, the office of the attorney general of Paris received a mysterious letter, reading: “Monsieur Attorney General, I have the honour 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 25 years – in a word, in her own filth.”
The police were dubious, the Monniers were a respected aristocratic family, but went along to investigate anyway – and thank goodness they did.
Noticing a padlocked door they opened it and were immediately hit by the stench from the unventilated locked room.
One witness said: “We immediately gave the order to open the casement window. This was done with great difficulty, for the old dark-coloured curtains fell down in a heavy shower of dust. To open the shutters, it was necessary to remove them from their right hinges.
“As soon as light entered the room, we noticed, in the back, lying on a bed, her head and body covered by a repulsively filthy blanket, a woman identified as Mademoiselle Blanche Monnier.
“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 odour given off by the room was so rank, that it was impossible for us to stay any longer to proceed with our investigation.”
Madame Monnier and Marcel were arrested, and Blanche, who was close to death and terrified of sunlight after 25 years in darkness, was rushed to hospital.
Amazingly, she lived for another 16 years, and Blanche, known as La Séquestrée de Poitiers in France died in 1913 in a psychiatric hospital in Blois.
Her mum died in prison 15 days after she was arrested, and her brother – a lawyer – appealed his 15-month prison sentence and used a legal loophole to avoid punishment.