Today in 1440, Gilles de Rais, one of the earliest known serial killers, was taken into custody upon an accusation brought against him by the Bishop of Nantes. He had kidnapped a cleric during a dispute and the investigation that followed uncovered evidence of multiple murders. When the Bishop released his findings he obtained the prosecutorial cooperation of Rais' former protector, John VI, Duke of Brittany.
Gilles de Rais was a knight and lord from Brittany, a leader in the French army, and a companion-in-arms of Joan of Arc (see pod of Apr 29) He had earned the favour of the Duke of Brittany and was admitted to the French court. he was appointed Marshal of France for his role fighting alongside Joan of Arc against the English and their Burgundian allies during the Hundred Years' War. After he retired from military life, he depleted his wealth by staging an extravagant theatrical spectacle of his own composition, and was accused of dabbling in the occult. After 1432, Rais was accused of engaging in a series of child murders, with victims possibly numbering in the hundreds. However evidence came to light after the ecclesiastical investigation At his trial the parents of missing children in the surrounding area and Rais's own confederates in crime testified against him. He was condemned to death and hanged at Nantes on 26 October 1440.
The number of Rais' victims is not known, as most of the bodies were burned or buried. The number of murders is generally placed between 100 and 200; a few have conjectured that there were more than 600. The victims ranged in age from 6 to 18 and were predominantly boys and his prosecution was conducted by both secular and ecclesiastical courts, on charges that included murder, sodomy and heresy. The extensive witness testimony convinced the judges that there were adequate grounds to establish the guilt of the accused. After Rais admitted to the charges on 21 October, the court cancelled a plan to torture him into confessing. Peasants of neighbouring villages had earlier begun to make accusations that their children had entered Rais' castle begging for food and were never seen again. The transcript, which included testimony by the parents of many of these children as well as graphic descriptions of the murders provided by Rais' accomplices, was said to be so lurid that the judges ordered the worst parts to be struck from the record.
He was arrested with his bodyguards Poitou and Henriet were arrested who also confessed and were condemned to death. Rais was allowed to make his confession, and his request to be buried in the church of the monastery of Notre-Dame des Carmes in Nantes was granted. Execution by hanging and burning was set for Wednesday 26 October. At nine o‘clock, the men proceeded to the place of execution on the Ile de Biesse. Rais is said to have addressed the crowd with contrite piety and exhorted Henriet and Poitou to die bravely and think only of salvation. His request to be the first to die had been granted the day before. At eleven o'clock, the brush at the platform was set afire and Rais was hanged. His body was cut down before being consumed by the flames and claimed by "four ladies of high rank" for burial. Henriet and Poitou were executed in similar fashion but their bodies were reduced to ashes in the flames and then scattered. After such controversy, the family changed the spelling variation to De Rée and then to Durée after a further falling-out with the Catholic Church leading to the family becoming Huguenots and leaving France.
There are some doubts about Rais' guilt because the Duke of Brittany, who was given the authority to prosecute, received all the titles to Rais' former lands after his conviction. The Duke then divided the land among his own nobles. In 1992, Rais was retried during a media event in France, without any official involvement of the public authorities and the judicial body. The source material and evidence available at the medieval trial was re-examined, and a team consisting of lawyers, writers, former French ministers, a biologist and a medical doctor presided over by Judge Henri Juramy found Gilles de Rais not guilty, although None of them sought professional advice from qualified medievalists. A novel was produced in light of this although the whole event was described as both facetious and provocative