Robert Ledru, the policeman who was investigating a crime and discovered that he himself was the murderer

One morning in June 1887, Robert Ledru went to the Le Havre police station to continue the investigation for which his presence had been requested in that town on the French coast and which had begun the day before, the mysterious disappearance of some sailors. Ledru was chief inspector of the Sûreté Nationaleold name of the current National Police French, and had been sent to that locality for that special mission. But when he arrived at the police station, he was informed that this case was taking precedence over a new and more serious one, since it was a confirmed murder: a corpse had appeared on the beach, shot dead.

The victim turned out to be André Monet, a middle-aged man, owner of a Parisian boutique, who was in Normandy to breathe the sea breeze and improve some health ailments. The holidays had been disastrous and now he lay lifeless on the sand, Ledru mused as he glanced over. on site, at the crime scene, looking for a clue. It didn’t seem easy: a priori there was no reason for Monet’s death, since he had not been robbed and in Le Havre he was not known, so he had no enemies; something that his wife corroborated shortly after.

The inspector observed a set of footprints around the body that could be from the murderer, since some were approaching him while the others were moving away. Bending down to examine them, he noticed that those on the right foot were shallower, which could indicate the absence of the thumb. Then, said the police officers present, his face changed color. He ordered plaster casts to prevent the high tide from erasing them and sat on a rock to wait for the result, not wanting to question potential witnesses including fishermen, thieves and neighbors in the surrounding area. The agents were somewhat confused to see him there, ignoring the rays of the sun on his head and the rising tide. When he finally set the plaster and was shown the casts, he scrutinized them, scrutinizing down to the last millimeter.

Le Havre beach in 1914/Photo: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

The waves began to caress the soles of the policemen when Ledru seemed to come out of that strange reverie and informed them that they could all return to the police station because he already knew the identity of the murderer. The morgue workers collected Monet’s body and the agents returned, leaving the beach empty, with a thoughtful Ledru who, shortly after, also left the beach to go to the hotel where he was staying. He did not appear before the Le Havre commissioner until the next day, who informed him that they already had the fatal bullet before asking him about his strange behavior. For all answer, the inspector took up the projectile and carefully examined it; It was German made. Then she took out his revolver, a six-shot German Zig-Zag, opened the barrel and showed it to his boss: it used the same caliber and only had five loads. The stunned commissioner did not quite understand what he wanted to say, so Ledru clarified it expressly: he took off his right shoe and showed her his foot, which was missing the thumb. There was no need to investigate further because he was the murderer; case closed.

One can imagine the astonishment of the commissioner and all his men. Ledru, thirty-five years old, was a highly regarded policeman in Paris, where he had an impressive resume of arresting criminals of all kinds: criminals, anarchists, conspirators… In 1884 he led a particularly outstanding performance in the dismantling of a coup. state, after a long investigation into a clandestine organization called Hermandad del Orden Social. The Brotherhood, originally from Germany but with ramifications in France and Great Britain, brought together members of all walks of life, from bankers to pickpockets, including lawyers, doctors and what Ledru himself described as “the misery of the underworld”. As we will see later, this could have had a decisive influence on his state of mind.

The fact is that this unheard-of policeman not only admitted his responsibility for the crime but also did not stay in Le Havre and, with the bullet, the allegedly murderous weapon and the casts of the fingerprints, he appeared in Paris before his superior to repeat and confirm the confession. He even added more details: the morning he woke up to go to the beach to see Monet’s body, he noticed that his shoes and socks were wet and his clothes damp, despite being summer. The reconstruction of the events was hypothetical, of course, because he didn’t really remember them and that was what was really interesting about the case.

Ledru deduced that that night he woke up, dressed and went to the beach, where he found André Monet taking a night walk. They got into a conversation but for some reason they must have started arguing, they got into a fight, the policeman took out his revolver and shot him in the chest. He then returned to the hotel and went to bed. Ledru argued that there was surely no intention; in fact, not even consciousness, since he had no recollection of it and it was likely that he had committed the crime in some sort of trance. However, he himself admitted that this constituted a danger to the safety of the citizens whom he had to protect, for which reason he requested his arrest.

To sureté It was hard for him to convince himself but no better explanation was found and it was concluded that Ledru had killed Monet while he was in a state of somnambulism, perhaps motivated by the stress of his profession and the zeal he put into it. To verify this, they locked him in a cell but under observation and leaving him a pistol with blanks at hand, to see what would happen. And indeed, one night Ledru woke up sleepwalking, picked up his gun and shot one of the guards who were monitoring his nocturnal reactions before lying down again and continuing to sleep.

This is not the only recorded case of what has been called homicidal sleepwalking: between 1878, when the first was reported, and 2005, there are another sixty-eight, although not all were recognized as such by the courts and some ended with condemnation for its protagonists, in some cases capital. One of them was in Spain: Antonio Nieto, fifty-eight years old and living in Malaga, used an ax and a hammer to murder his wife and his mother-in-law in January 2001; his daughter saved herself by pretending to be dead and his son managed to disarm him at the cost of being wounded. Nieto, who claimed that he did it by sleeping and dreaming that he was defending himself from an attack by ostriches (!), was sentenced to ten years in a psychiatric hospital under treatment and lost custody of his offspring, who accused him of being aware of what he was doing

Sleep Stages/Image: End Your Sleep Deprivation

Sleepwalking or parasomnia is a disorder in which the brain tries to exit the slow-wave sleep phase, the so-called Non-REM. When sleeping, you go through several stages: a first of drowsiness followed by another of light sleep, then a transition to what is known as Delta Sleep and finally REM (acronym for Rapid Eye Movement), during sleep. which falls into a deep sleep, the brain is very active and gives rise to dreams. Non-REM and REM phases usually alternate, but sometimes there is something that prevents it, altering the normal sequence.

The intervention of external factors such as being under stress or suffering from depression is essential, something that leads to difficulties in falling asleep and, consequently, not being able to reach the REM phase. Then the brain short-circuits and tries to wake up but without fully succeeding, overlapping two different states at the same time. The analyzes made to patients, with sensors that measure their brain waves, demonstrate this. What is still unknown is the reason for the impulse to kill in some of these cases.

Returning to that of Ledru, this inspector had been sent to Le Havre precisely to give him a break from his work in Paris, which had led to physical and mental exhaustion aggravated by the syphilis that he had suffered for ten years. It seems that Ledru also suffered a strong depression motivated by his effort against that Brotherhood of the Social Order, in which, upon discovering the conspiracy and arresting apparently blameless people, that is, the very society that he believed he was defending, collapsed. The authorities were convinced that his hypothesis about Monet’s murder was true and they confined him to a farm on the outskirts of Paris, where he spent the rest of his life under medical supervision until his death in 1937.


Chief Inspector Ledru, the policeman who caught… himself (Look and Learn, History Picture Library)/In the minds of sleepwalking killers (Daniel Bennet on BBC)/sleepwalking murder (CL Evans)/The slumbering masses. Sleep, medicine, and modern American life (Matthew J. Wolf-Meyer)/Wikipedia

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