true crime

The enduring mystery of Pauline Picard, the girl who went missing once and was found twice.

As a two-year-old, Pauline Picard would play with her sisters on her family farm.

The farm house – a quiet, usually safe area in the small, rural settlement of Goas al Ludu, east of Brest in Brittany, France, – was owned by Francois Picard, a farmer, his wife and their nine children.

The children playing alone outside never worried their mother, but when she called her daughters inside for dinner on a Spring evening in April 1922, her other children returned while Pauline was no where to be found.

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The family, police and townspeople came together to search for Pauline – ‘La Petite Pauline Picard’, as the media called her – but she was gone, vanished without a trace.

Weeks later, with hope of finding Pauline alive gone, police in the city of Cherbourg in Normandy found a child matching Pauline’s description lost and confused wandering through alleyways.

When an officer showed a photo of the child to Pauline’s mother, she cried with joy. Her daughter had been found, and on May 8, the family drove the 400 kilometres north to take their daughter home.

But then the doubt set in.

Was this really Pauline?

The child the Picards met in Cherbourg was thinner than Pauline had been, but she had been missing for a number of weeks so police put this down to weight loss.

She appeared well looked after and her clothing, though different to that she had been wearing when she left the farm, was in good condition.

Strangely, the child remained mute when reintroduced to her family, and showed no sign of happiness to see her parents again. As her parents spoke to her, it became clear she did not understand the language – Breton, a language spoken throughout Brittany – at all.

There were so many questions: How had Pauline travelled 400kms? What had happened to her? Why did she seem to have no memory of her family, and why did she not understand her mother tongue?

The last two questions were put down to amnesia, brought on by post-traumatic stress. And despite not recognising her family, the family and the entire neighbourhood recognised her.

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She’d begun to speak some Breton words and seemed to recognise her surroundings, so her parents assumed her memories had come back.

Then one day a neighbour named Yves Matin came to visit. They assumed he was there to celebrate Pauline’s return, like so many others had come to do.

When he saw her, however, Matin screamed “God help me, I am guilty”.

He ran off (and was later admitted to an asylum).

A body.

On the morning of May 26, a cyclist was cycling near the Picard farm when he noticed clothing strewn around a field.

Getting closer, he realised it was a body of a young child in a bad state – the head and several limbs were missing, but next to the body was a carefully folded pile of clothes.

The Picards identified the clothing as Pauline’s.

On May 27, The New York Times published:

“So careful was the search made at the time of Pauline’s disappearance that the body would have been discovered had it been lying where it was found. Everything now points to the theory that it was placed there, together with the neatly folded clothes, quite recently.

“The most startling discovery of all, however, is that the unrecognisable head found close to the child’s body is not the skull of a small child but of a grown man, thus introducing a second victim of an unknown murderer.”

An inquiry into the body determined it was Pauline, and concluded she had died accidentally after getting lost and finding herself stranded in a storm that passed through that night, with the gruesome injuries put down to scavengers.

Locals who were involved in the search party dismissed this, saying their search was so thorough they never would’ve missed her body out in the open.

The inquiry did not determine who the adult skull belonged to.

Pauline’s body was buried under a headstone engraved with her name and her parents held a funeral for their daughter.

The other child.

The Picard’s determined the child from Cherbourg could not be Pauline, so they sent her to an orphanage.

No one was ever able to find out her true identity and sadly, she died several months later of measles.

Without DNA evidence, the mystery of what happened to Pauline Picard and the other child remains unsolved 98 years later.

Feature image: The New York Times.

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