A man who worked as a gravedigger at the St. Aubin cemetery in Toulouse, France, unlocked the gate on an early April morning in 1847. The cemetery was wind-swept and wet, since it had rained the prior evening, and the place smelled of damp earth and flowers... geraniums. As he went about his chores that morning, he noticed a strange sight: a woman was in the cemetery. She was in a corner of the graveyard where two high walls met. On the opposite side of one wall was a religious institution; on the opposite side of the other wall was a public street.
The woman seemed to be kneeling in prayer, though in an awkward position. It looked as though she had been praying in the Islamic style, knees drawn beneath her, but her hands were supporting her head, and her elbows were pointed out at the sides, as though she had grown weary and rested her head. The gravedigger grew nearer, and the woman did not stir. He touched her--and saw that she was dead.
The gravedigger's discovery solved a mystery that had arisen the day before when a girl of about fifteen disappeared. She was last seen alive on the grounds next to the cemetery, which were owned by the Institute of Christian Bretheren, which housed 500 men of holy orders.
Cecile Combettes was an apprentice in the employ of a bookbinder named Bertrand Conte. Conte and Cecile, along with an older woman, had visited the Institute the morning before to deliver some baskets of books. Conte had dismissed the older woman, gave Ceclie orders to wait for him in the entrance hall, and had gone about his business with the Bretheren for forty or fifty minutes. When he returned to the hall, Cecile was nowhere to be found. Conte did not particularly concern himself and later said he assumed the girl had gone to visit her sick mother. He went about his business, and the only persons who seem to have taken notice of the girl's disappearance were members of her family.
The discovery of Cecile's body quickly became the focus of intense police scrutiny, and they made minute examination of the scene in the cemetery. It would later be said that there were no footprints in the soft earth around her body, and the ivy covering the wall between the cemetery and the street was undisturbed, so the only logical explanation for the position of the body was that she was thrown over the wall from the garden of the Bretheren. But this, too, proved a puzzle, for how could the body of a ninety-pound girl be thrown from a height of ten feet and land so? Had her body been gripped by rigor mortis before it was so thrown? Or had the police overlooked the footprints of the beast who may have posed her?
A police surgeon determined that poor Cecile had been violated and then killed with a heavy blow to her skull and died shortly after eating her breakfast. Trace evidence formed the bulk of the scientific proof [for trace evidence was well known at the time, contrary to the expectations and assertions of many shallow modern-day students of criminal law who assume that criminology was in the Dark Ages as late as the 19th century]. A thorough examination was made of the dirt and organic material found on the girl's body and clothing and in her hair, which included a single petal of a geranium (which grew in the Bretheren's garden); a few shreds of what appeared to be the fibers of a rope (identical with a rope found in the Bretheren's garden); some grains of fig (which were also found on a shirt numbered 562 in the Institute's laundry); and other shreds of purported proof that she had been in the Bretheren's garden.
At first, suspicion fell on the bookbinder, Conte. He was generally regarded as a man of ignoble character, having been overly involved with his sister-in-law a few years before. A witness came forward to say that Cecile complained of advances from Conte. His careless attitude toward her disappearance was also counted strongly against him. He was arrested. At first, he suggested that Cecile must have left the Institute of her own volition and encountered evil; on further reflection, he remembered that he left Cecile in the hallway of the Institute with two of the brothers, though no other witness saw anyone else there. Conte added that he knew a thing or two about one of the brothers' character, or lack thereof, though no other witness corroborated Conte's suspicions.
But it was enough to clear Conte and redirect the attention of the police, for anti-Church sentiment was very strong in France at the time, and the authorities seized on a man named Louis Bonafous, known in religion as Frere Leotade. The priest denied that he was the owner of shirt 562. He denied that he had been in the vestibule on the morning of Cecile's visit. He denied ever knowing of her existence until he was accused of her murder.
Since Conte was the sole witness against the holy father, the case was extraordinarily weak, but alas, the overzealous swept in to "help" Father Leotade. They perjured themselves in weak and obvious ways in what would ultimately prove a futile attempt to rescue him, for in the end, Father Leotade was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. He declared his innocence until the day he died, which perhaps rather fortunately came only two years later.
It was a few decades later that the sentiment of the age was forgotten and common sense applied to the case, and the Combettes-Leotade affair would come to be regarded as a double tragedy. Modern forensics and understanding of criminal behavior have shed no more light on the case, though the mysterious murder still engenders in France exercises in speculation, as fruitless now as they should have been in 1847.
"The Mysterious Murder of Cecile Combettes," in Instigation of the Devil, by Edmund Lester Pearson, Scribner's, 1930.
There are a few very old and very rare books in French about the case, the best and most expensive being Le Forcat de Dieu: L'Affaire Cecile Combettes written by Jean-Pierre Fabre, an original of which can run you up to 300 Euros, but which was recently reissued in Paris. Pearson is the only person to my knowledge who has written in English about the case.