by Karen Plourde and Len Lear
Chestnut Hill author and actress Valerie Ogden spent two years getting into the head of one of history’s most notorious serial killers, Baron Gilles de Rais, better known as “Bluebeard.” de Rais (1405-1440) has been called by historians, among other things, “perhaps the most infamous sexual criminal in history.” However, as often happens with this type of investigation, Ogden ended up with a different view of de Rais than when she began her research.
“I thought, until I started getting into it, that he was a horrible serial killer,” she said. “Then I started reading more and more. I kept on asking myself, ‘Why did this happen? How did this happen?’ And it became more a story of that. How did someone like that lose it?”
Ogden’s book, “Bluebeard: Brave Warrior, Brutal Psychopath” (History Publishing, 295 pages, $18.95), just came out in paperback Oct. 1; she made an appearance at the Chestnut Hill Library to promote it on Monday evening, Oct. 6. The inspiration for her topic presented itself at the wedding of her nephew, Max, in Brussels, Belgium, in 2009.
“I honestly thought my French had gotten rusty,” she recalled. “Everyone was fancily dressed. This uncle was in a beautiful Italian suit, and he turned to me [and said], ‘How do you like your nephew coming into the family of a murderer?’”
Their conversation was cut short by the procession of the bride and her father up the aisle of the church. At the reception, Ogden sought out the uncle, who added that Bluebeard was a 15th century baron who lived in France but offered little other information. He suggested she speak to his mother, who pretended she knew nothing and changed the subject.
Nevertheless, Ogden was determined to track down the story. There wasn’t a lot of information available on de Rais in English, and much of it was dry or prejudicial. So she and her husband, Walter Phillips, an attorney, traveled to Nantes, France. The librarians at the bibliotheque (library) there provided her with a wealth of research, some of it written in Old French. “They [the staff] were like French shopkeepers if you go in and order cheese,” she said.
Ogden discovered that Baron de Rais fought for France alongside Joan of Arc in the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) and was honored by King Charles VII for his service. Following the war, he spent his inherited wealth on art and books, commissioned music and staged elaborate theatrical productions. But his privilege mixed with barely hidden psychosis to create a monster who murdered perhaps a thousand children, many of them from Nantes.
Ogden, former treasurer of the 9th Ward Democrats, former New York security analyst and former editor of the “Best Bets” column for House & Garden magazine, theorizes that de Rais’ time spent as a killing machine in the war caused him to develop post-traumatic stress disorder and brought out his ultra-violent tendencies.
“The main thing that he loved was beautiful shepherd boys, and the families there were all very worried because it seemed to be a pattern,” she said. “At night, after there was heavy drinking and eating at the chateau, they would then go out for sport, and this is what serial killers do, and the more they [the children] struggled, the more excited they were.”
The villagers of Nantes eventually went to their bishop; they’d suspected de Rais played a role in the disappearance of their children. The bishop doubted them at first, but when he discovered that the baron had imprisoned a clerk, he made a more thorough inquiry, and de Rais was arrested. He confessed at trial and was hanged in 1440.
“It was unheard of that a baron would be taken down by little people,” said Ogden, “because they were considered probably just a little bit better than chattel, but de Rais had such remorse, and the parents of the victims forgave him, and when he was hung, they prayed for his soul and fasted for days.”
Ogden discovered that de Rais, who was one of the richest men in France and who helped Joan of Arc achieve several stunning victories over superior English forces in the 1420s, had routinely beaten and raped his servants. This was not even against the law since members of the aristocracy essentially “owned” their servants. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in May of 1431 by English soldiers but with the collaboration of some clerics from the French region of Burgundy.
After Joan’s death, de Rais apparently became so enraged that he went on an eight-year reign of terror but against innocent children. The psychopathic serial killer is believed to be the inspiration for the 1697 fairy tale “Bluebeard” (“Barbebleu”) by Charles Perrault. His life has also been the subject of several modern novels and is referenced in a number of rock bands’ albums and songs.
Once Ogden completed the book, she began the frustrating task of finding a publisher for it. She had self-published a cookbook in 2005 that featured recipes from a bed-and-breakfast she had run in New Hope, but this was new territory. In all, it took another year-and-a-half with many rejections to get “Bluebeard” published.
Ogden believes de Rais’ story shows that PTSD has damaged soldiers going far back into human history. And she hopes readers will get some understanding of the futility of war from the book, which she dedicated to “the end of cannonballs.”
“War is senseless; it’s brutal. Where has it gotten us all these centuries?” she asked rhetorically. “When I talk about the devastation, you can substitute the Germans for what went on in the Second World War. So what have we accomplished?”
Ogden, who gives her age as “between 50 and death,” has lived in Chestnut Hill for more than 35 years. Also an animal welfare activist, PA SPCA board member and professional actress, she has been in movies, on television (soap operas, commercials and “America’s Most Wanted”) and a good deal of theater, mostly in New York. Her husband, Wally Phillips, has been active in Philadelphia politics and the legal community for over 20 years.
“Bluebeard: Brave Warrior, Brutal Psychopath” is available online through historypublishingco.com, Amazon.com, indiebound.com and powells.com and online and in-store at Barnes & Noble.