When Pauline went missing in 1922, all hope was initially lost of her return, until a month later, when she showed up 200 miles away. Her parents collected her, took her home and lived with her for several weeks before a body showed up just 800 metres from their house. The body alone was shocking enough, but quickly became doubly so as it was identified as the body of the lost & found Pauline.
‘Whose Child?’ (1922, May 27), The Pall Mall Gazette, London. P.8.
‘Killed & Stripped by Foxes’ (1922, May 31), The Pall Mall Gazette, London. P.4.
‘A French Mystery’ (1922, May 27), The Sheffield Daily Telegraph, Sheffield. P.9.
‘Missing Child Mystery’ (1922, May 31), The Sheffield Daily Telegraph, Sheffield. P.3.
‘Breton Childs Mysterious Death’ (1922, June 01), The Yorkshire Post & Leeds Intelligencer, Yorkshire. P.5.
Le Matin, France (1922, May through June).
Le Petit Parisien, France (1922, May through June).
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Lost & Found? The Mystery of Pauline Picard
France in 1922, A young girl named Pauline was playing with her sisters by her families farm outside of the city of Brest, in Brittany, Western France. That evening, when her sisters returned home, their parents were shocked to find that Pauline wasn’t accompanying them and very quickly it became apparent that she had disappeared. A full scale search scoured the area for several weeks, but no trace fo the young girl was ever found, until, several weeks later, almost 200 miles away in the city of Cherbourg, police found a child, lost and confused in the cobbled alleyways. Her parents positively identified her as Pauline and though there were many questions as to how she had made her way to Cherbourg, they were quickly overshadowed by her strange behaviour. Chalking it up to shock, she returned home with her parents and all was, relatively well, at least, until a Childs body, also identified as Pauline showed up 800 metres from the families farmhouse two weeks later. This is Dark Histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.
Brittany, France, 1922
Saint-Rivoal lies in the very Western peninsula of France, nestled among the heart of the coastal region of Brittany. It is a savagely rural area, with several settlements consisting of only a single farm house, or cottage. The marshes in the west of the region give way to large, tree lined fields and beautiful rolling hills in the east, where a semblance of agriculture becomes possible. On the Western coast, lies the port city of Brest, with it’s harbour that acted as a gateway just five years prior during the first world war to thousands of US Navy men who disembarked on the shores and made their way to the trenches on the front lines.
Descriptions of the area throughout history have not been entirely kind, writing in 1984, French Poet and fiercely proud Breton, Xavier Grall wrote of the area,
“And here is Saint-Rivoal with its old bluish shale houses. Nobody. The small church with its bell tower tattooed with lichen plates similar to wind roses is planted on a hillside. The field of the dead which surrounds it descends gently towards the valley, to the south. “
In 1901, in his unfinished book of poems entitled “Song of Cider”, Frederic Le Guyader wrote,
“Saint-Rivoal and Botmeur, lost in the mountains,
are the saddest boroughs in Brittany
A few scattered slums, around a gray steeple No
trees, if not three old stunted yew trees,
Which are dying along the walls of the cemetery,
here and there, large blocks, lying in the heather,
very small black wheats, aborted rye,
stony ground, where hundreds of sheep
graze in silence, and in solitude.
A whole country, plunged in stupidity,
Frozen, dead, far from the noise, far from all rumor
For Saint-Rivoal, less sad than Botmeur […] “
Moving inland, 25 miles to the South East of Brest, the settlement of Gaos Al Ludu lies hidden and peaceful. High hedgerows surround green fields and trees stand in rings atop the hills that ebb and flow throughout the landscape. There is only one farm house in Gaos Al Ludu, though the nearby villages of Penarguer and Bodingar sit within walking distance, half way to the horizon. In 1922, the farm house was owned by the Picard Family, Francois Picard, a farmer, his wife and 9 children. Life on the farm is not particularly easy, wolves threaten the livestock, the agriculture is sparse and hard going and the landscape can be unforgiving in difficult weather. The Picards farm is modest, though they keep some livestock as well as horses and the children work alongside their parents to ensure the whole runs smoothly.
On the 6th April, 1922, Pauline Picard, the 8th youngest child at just two years old was seen out playing with her sisters in the farm house yard and around 4:20 pm, her father watched as she went off with her older sisters to tend to the horses in the nearby hills. When the children returned later that evening, they were without Pauline and panicked, the parents sent for the local gendarmes to arrange for a search, the weather had turned as the sun had dropped and a storm was blowing in from the coast, turning the sky bruised, swollen and angry. The next day, a search party was sent out to look for Pauline, consisting of over 150 local volunteers, the local parishioner and police as well as trained hunting dogs and yet nothing was found of the young girl. Police turned their attentions to suspects, and right at the top was a 50 year old man named Monsieur Keramon. Keramon was a slight man who walked with a limp, heavily moustachioed, he had been known to the Picards for a time and had spent the day of the 5th, working on the farm. Several months previous, he had been released from prison, where he had served time for violent crime. He had, witnesses said, showed an interest in Pauline, offering her sweets and talking with her during his workday. Now, however, he was nowhere to be found in the local area, though the police maintained their search whilst simultaneously conducting the volunteers in their hunt for the young child. Fears rippled through the volunteers and they kicked back hedgerows and paced through fields, that Pauline had fallen foul of the difficult weather from the night before, or worse, to Wild Boar. Boar had been known to thrive throughout the area and with grim faces, theories began leaning towards the girl having been eaten as no trace was found. In a fantastic display of prejudice that existed in the area during the early half o the 20th Century, many thought to blame it on Gypsies, despite the fact the paper reported that “none had been observed in the neighbourhood at the time of the disappearance.”
On the 9th April, Police managed to track down Keramon. Though the result only managed to clear up the possibility of their only known suspect of having played any role on the disappearance. He told police that he had been working over 4 miles away at the time of the abduction and when police followed up his claims, they found it checked out. With no other leads and no trace of Pauline turning up from the ongoing search parties efforts. Things were fast running into a dead end for all involved.
Over a month later, in early May, hope in the Picard household was at an all time low and acceptance had begun to take hold. A visit from the gendarme, however, sparked a new enthusiasm. It was thought that Pauline had been spotted in the city of Cherbourg, almost 200 miles away by road, or 120 miles straight through the difficult to navigate fields. The child was picked up as she had been walking aimlessly through the back alleyways of the streets and taken to a local convent home for orphaned children. The gendarme presented a photo of the young girl and though she looked thinner, both parents agreed she bore a heavy resemblance to their missing daughter. The next day, the 8th May, they travelled with the police to Cherbourg to see the girl with their own eyes. Upon meeting her, neither father nor mother were convinced she was their daughter. She was much thinner, though police assured them, this could have been due to weight loss. No one was really sure what the girl had been doing fo the previous month, after all. She appeared well looked after and her clothing, though different tot the clothing she had been wearing when she left the farm, was in relatively good condition. More strange was her behaviour to the Picards. When they were introduced, the girl remained mute, as she had been since the police had found her, and showed no signs of emotion or happiness to see her parents again. In fact, as the parents spoke to her, asking her questions, it seemed to become apparent that she didn’t speak Breton at all, an isolated, Celtic language spoken by all the population of Brittany, including the Picards. This was chalked up to her Mute state, however, as the paper later reported,
“She seems to understand no language, and can only make sounds incomprehensible to any one.”
As her parents spent time with her, however, her father slowly began to warm up to the fact that this peculiar young girl, was in fact, pauline. The mother was less sure, but after speaking with the local Justice, who theorised shock may have caused amnesia, she agreed to stay for a second day to see how the child reacted to their presence. By the next day, the mother too was coming round, stating that the girl had “similar shaped ears” as pauline, whilst the father was, by now, absolutely adamant the girl was Pauline. He pointed to the colour of her eyes, saying he would recognise it anywhere. Satisfied, the justice released the girl, allowing her to return to the Picard farm and hoped that after she spent some time there, her memories should fully return. The gendarme who escorted the family home on the train that afternoon observed that the girl had begun to speak Breton, specifically, she spoke the words “dad”, “yes” and “no”.
When the Picards returned home on the 11th May, they re-introduced Pauline to her brothers and sisters and slowly, the local populace, after having searched for so long, filtered past the house, stopping in to see the child safe and sound. All, including the brothers and sisters told of how happy they were to see pauline home and recognised the child as Pauline, wishing her well in the recovery of her memories as they left. For the girls part, she quickly fell in step with her brothers and sisters, playing alongside them, happily. The doctor visited, also confirming her identification and told the parents tat though she was weak and had lost a lot of weight, she bore no signs of mistreatment and would soon return to full health. Over the next days, she settled in and the parents became convinced that Pauline had indeed returned, safe and sound. How she had gotten to Cherbourg was a question that slowly fell into the background, as the child called the housecoat by it’s pet name and appeared to recognise people and places around her. And so things carried on for the next several weeks. Pauline began to return to health and slowly, her Breton language ability began to return and so, assumed her parents, must her memories. Peace began to return to the farm, except for two rather curious incidents that occurred over the following weeks. First, came the visit of a neighbour named Yves Matin. Matin asked to see Pauline and assuming he was there to share in the happiness that the girl had returned safely, Madame Picard called for Pauline to come and greet Matin. As she strode into the kitchen, however, Matin leapt back, screaming wildly and shouting “God help me, I am guilty!” As he ran from the house, out into the winding pathways towards the neighbouring villages. Strange as this incident appeared to the Picards, it was nothing to what was to happen next.
On the morning of the 26th May, Monsieur Le Meur, a neighbouring farmer was cycling through the fields on his way to collect his herd of cows when, from the corner of his eye, he noticed clothing strewn about in a field, just 800 metres from the Picard farm. As he approached the mess, he saw that not only clothing, lying int he fields was a badly inured body of a young child. Its head was missing and several limbs, and whilst some of the clothing lay scattered across the area, there was a small bundle in a neat, folded, stack next to the body. He rushed to alert the Picards and as the local population awaited the gendarme, who was not able to arrive until the next day, they organised shifts to watch over the site to ensure wild animals were kept at bay. When the authorities arrived the following morning and a formal inspection of the area was carried out, they discovered a skull, clean of flesh, lying two metres from the headless body, along with remnants of clothing and hair in a nearby bush. The clothing folded up next to the almost naked body was badly damaged and covered in blood, but neatly folded. During a post mortem, several cuts were found on the body, which were suspect to be knife wounds, including an incision below the ribcage and in the groin. An inquiry was immediately held, and questions as to the identification of the body were immediately raised. The Picard family had already visited the site and seen the body of the girl and through the clothing and the hair in the bushes, had identified the body to be that of Pauline, their young daughter who had gone missing over 6 weeks prior. This of course, raised several new questions, foremost being that if the body was indeed Pauline, then who was the girl now living with them in their care, who they had found in Cherbourg? The English speaking press picked up the story and were happy to chime in on what they were calling “The Breton Mystery”.
“Although it would seem almost incredible that the parents should make a mistake, the Picards are now uncertain whether the child they have been nursing for more than month is really their own, and the police are faced by a three-fold task; To discover the murderer, identify the murdered child and if she is proved to be Pauline Picard, to discover the identity of the little girl from Cherbourg.”
At least one of the three questions could be easily answered, At the inquiry, it was concluded that the body of the young girl was satisfactorily identified as Pauline, which, despite the problems that turned up was the least perplexing of their findings to many people. They also strangely concluded that the cause of death had been accidental, theorising that the little girl had gone out with her sisters on the day of her disappearance, got lost, alone and in a panic, wound up stuck outside in the storm that tore through the vicinity that night, eventually leading to the girl being stranded and starving to death. The wounds on the body were attributed to animals scavenging on the body. Naturally, this conclusion was almost universally discarded by the locals and those that had been involved in the search parties in the days following Paulines disappearance. For starters, how would the young girl have been lost, so close to her home, in an area that was not difficult to walk freely through? If she had died in the field of natural causes, an even stronger argument put forward by the locals was the small matter of how they would have overlooked the site during their searches, which were conducted by over 100 people and included trained tracing hounds. During the inquiry, the coroner brushed the voices of the locals aside, stating that they must have been mistaken and just thought they had searched the area when they had not. This was without even questioning how the body could have been in the field for several weeks unnoticed, even by passers by. The local parishioner who had helped to organise the searches stated that the searches were so thorough that, “We would have found a wallet if it was lost, we found no body.” There were questions to as to the quality of the post mortem, which had been carried out in a local barn by torchlight and without sufficient tools available. The French papers, pointed to the fact that if scavengers had decimated the body, then why were the soft patches, such as the girl stomach and soft tissue areas left in tact, areas which, by normal standards would have seen the first signs of scavenging. The stomach of the girl along with several other organs were eventually sent off to a university hospital for investigation, but they returned no conclusive information. As if the picture needed any more muddling, the skull found next to the body was found to be that of a full grown male and was far too big to be that of a two year old child. If this was the case, where was the head? And what of the clothes, which had been reported on by several witnesses as having been folded and placed next to the body?
As for the identity of the young girl from Cherbourg, several backtracking statements were made almost immediately. The father, Francois Picard, was now stating that the girl in their care was perhaps, younger than Pauline, whilst the papers began pointing out that the girl appeared like a “city girl” rather than the “Strong” children of the Picards, who all had “Strong Noses” whilst she did not. One paper also printed rumours that the Picard parents had had little to do with Paulines upbringing and that the other children had raised her almost exclusively, perhaps, they thought, the parents made mistakes on the identification simply because they were not altogether sure what Pauline really looked like. Other still commented on her lack of Breton Language understanding and now called what they were reporting only days prior as speech as “Babbling”. One of the largest swings came from the printing of information in the press that the young Cherbourg girl was 60cm tall, whilst Pauline had been 77cm tall.
In regards to leads on who might be now considered a suspect, police had only one. The story of the manic neighbour, Monsieur Le Meure was retold to police and of how he had screamed “God help me, I am guilty!” Before running from the Picards kitchen after seeing Pauline, alive and well. Efforts were made to track down his whereabouts, only to find that he had been judged “insane” and sent off to an asylum shortly after the situation with Pauline. Whilst many thought this perhaps bolstered the suspicion against him, the press were quick to point out that he had inf act been judged to be “simple” for a long time before the event with Pauline due to an accident he had had whilst at work that had left him mentally handicapped.
With nothing left doing in regards to the identity of the body. She was buried in the cemetery under a headstone engraved with the name of Pauline Picard. The Picard family attended the funeral and then escorted the young girl they had taken in from Cherbourg, back to the convent where she was left in hoped of finding her true home. This was a task that never came to be, and one year later, she died in the convent after suffering from measles.
After the event, their were several strange rumours that began to arise from the whispers in the fields and across the farmlands of Brittany. Concerning the child in Cherbourg, many began to wonder if she had been a child abandoned by a foreigner, possibly an American, which might have led to her being mute as she would have not only not understood Breton, but French too. Furthermore, perhaps this was why the press interpreted her speech, which would have been English, as simply “Babbles.”
As for the identity of the body in the field and the murderer of Pauline, two stories arose in tandem. The first, was that the murderer had been Francois Picard, the father. In Le Journal L’ouest Eclair”, they printed apiece that, whilst giving no names, heavily insinuated the father as having been prone to violent outbursts and pointed o the parents “pretending” that Pauline had been theirs all along, especially pointing their finger, once again, at the father, who was the first to conclude the girl was Pauline when they had gone to Cherbourg.
A second rumour, perhaps more spectacular than the first, was the story that made the quiet rounds in the locals. This told of a rich family who had recently lost a daughter and needed to find a replacement in order for the Childs death to remain hidden, as they feared the story getting out to the press might jeopardise their standing in society, along with a large inheritance they were due. Proponents of the rumour stated that the Picards had sold Pauline to this wealthy family and the headless body of the girl was that of their dead daughter, planted to cover the whole thing up.
Eventually, we are left with little but speculation and wild rumour. No trace of Monsier Le Meure was ever found and the case closed with the official line that the death had been accidental, caused by starvation. One curious, final report came later in July, when the girl, now back in the convent, reportedly began to speak Breton very clearly and knew the names of the other Picard children and concludes,
“It is now suggested that the baby who seemed destined to go through the world nameless and unowned may be the real Picard child.”
Though, it appears the report fell on deaf ears as Pauline Picard remained in the convent home until her death, several months later.
Although the story of Pauline Picard sounds fantastic and almost unbelievable, especially on the part of the Picard parents, it is not a case in isolation. Ten years prior to the case of Pauline Picard in the United States, the case of Bobby Dunbar had been equally as baffling to many, when a young couple from Louisiana reported their son missing after he had walked off during a family fishing trip. He was found and returned months later after being found in Mississippi, and though the case was prolonged and went through quite a long, drawn out court case, Bobby Dunbar eventually went on to live with the Dunbars for his entire life until he passed away in 1966. In 2004, a DNA test was eventually run on his remains by relatives in order to clear up the story once and for all, only for the results to show that Bobby Dunbar was in fact, not Bobby Dunbar at all and bore no blood relation to the Dunbar family.
The Bobby Dunbar case, is an entire episode in itself, but it’s introduced here to illustrate a certain point. Was the mis-identification of Pauline Picard accidental, as the parents claim, could they really not have recognised their own daughter? Or was it intentional, as so many of the rumours spawned after the fact claimed? Or was it, perhaps, a period of grief and denial, that pushed the parents into wanting to believe the child to be their own so much so, that they simply believed it into reality? This latter theory holds a fair amount of traction, however, it does not explain how those in the surrounding community were also fooled into thinking Pauline had returned, or were they just playing along, some perhaps unsure whilst others too embarrassed or shocked to point out that the child appeared to have shrunk by 17cms in her time away from the farm.
In the end, it is all a matter for conjecture as none of the stories are able to be cleared p with so much time passing. We are left with the same questions put to the police by the English press, all unanswered in any satisfactory way. Who killed Pauline Picard? Who was the child from Cherbourg and who was the body if not Pauline? Even if the body really was Pauline, there is still one last mystery, whose skull was lying next to the body and why had it been switched with the head of the young girl in the first place?