The 2-year-old girl was playing on her family farm in Goas al Ludu, just outside of Brest, in Brittany, France. It was a quiet and safe area, and Pauline Picard’s mother never worried about letting her children play in the picturesque farmland. But when she called her daughter to supper one evening in April 1922, she was horrified by the lack of response. Shocked by the little girl’s disappearance, police and townspeople banded together to comb the landscape for the lost girl, but they came up empty-handed. “La Petite Pauline Picard,” as the media dubbed her, had vanished without a trace.
Statistics show that the first 48 hours after a child’s disappearance are the most critical for finding them alive. So at the three-week mark, the Picards had begun to abandon hope of ever seeing their little girl again. Little Pauline was widely assumed to have been eaten by a boar or taken by gypsies.
These doubts were explained away as amnesia brought on by post-traumatic stress.
So news from Cherbourg of a little girl matching Pauline’s description having been found by police seemed miraculous. When an officer showed a photo of the child to Pauline’s mother, Le Matin reported that she burst into tears, crying, “That’s my daughter! My poor little Pauline!” Overcome with joy, the couple drove 250 miles to Cherbourg to take their daughter home.
But the story of little Pauline was far from over; questions quickly grew into a heartbreaking paranoia for the Picards. How had their toddler wandered 250 miles without succumbing to the elements? Why did she not seem to recognize her parents or her brothers and sisters? And, most troublesome, they couldn’t understand how she had forgotten the Breton dialect. These doubts were explained away as amnesia brought on by post-traumatic stress. The working theory? That Pauline had been abducted and abused by her kidnapper. While the girl didn’t seem to recognize her family, they, including her brothers, sisters and even their neighbors, all recognized her. A mysterious woman dressed in rags was seen with the little girl before she was taken by Cherbourg police, and the media maintained that this woman was the key to unraveling the mystery of Pauline’s disappearance.
Though newspapers from Paris to New York rejoiced over the miraculous return of little Pauline, the Picards harbored nagging suspicions that the child living in their house was not theirs. These worries grew when a local farmer, Yves Martin, seemingly confessed to killing their daughter. He shakily asked the Picards whether they thought the little girl in the house was their daughter before screaming, “God help me, I’m guilty!” and running off (he was later admitted to an asylum). And soon after, a discovery was made that would terrify a nation.
On May 26, one month after Pauline was discovered in Cherbourg, a cyclist found the naked body of a small girl not far from the Picard farm. The head, feet and hands had been removed, preventing positive identification, but next to it was a neatly folded pile of children’s clothes, among which were the black-and-white checkered dress, navy blue jacket and black tights little Pauline had been wearing the day she disappeared.
Stranger still? The skull of a fully grown man was found next to the grisly scene, introducing the prospect of a second victim. Also, the police and volunteer rescue searchers maintained that they had been over the area where the body was found many times. “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,” The New York Times reported. All of which suggested that the body had been moved there recently because the killer wanted it to be found.
So who was the little girl living with the Picards? Sadly, after the body was found, the Picards determined that the girl found in Cherbourg could not be their Pauline, and she was sent to live in an orphanage. But questions have lingered over the last century as to how the Picards could have been so sure initially that the little girl found 250 miles away was theirs. Experts point out that parents often suffer from a very confusing psychological state after a child’s death. “When your child dies, the pain and devastation of the loss can feel overwhelming,” says Carolyn Brice, CEO of The Compassionate Friends, a British support group for bereaved parents.
The Picards are not the only family to have, in extreme grief, mistaken another child as their own. But lacking DNA evidence to confirm whether the body found in the woods was indeed little Pauline, this tragic mystery remains unsolved.