It was on the 1st November 1897, the day following All Saints Day, when news of the grisly murder shook the small village of Coustaussa situated just across the valley from Rennes-le-Château.
It was Gélis’s nephew Ernest Pages, who lived in the village, who first discovered the murder. On reaching the door to his uncle’s house, Ernest was surprised to find the door unlocked. Gélis had become a bit of a recluse lately and had for the past few months kept his door securely locked whether he was at home or not.
Ernest entered the presbytery, and called out his uncle’s name but hearing no reply he entered the kitchen. It was difficult to see anything clearly as the room was dimly lit. Calling out again, Ernest noticed a dark mass on the floor and saw that it was the lifeless body of his uncle lying in a pool of blood that had formed around the corpse. Shocked by the gruesome sight Ernest rushed out onto the street and nearly fainted.
As soon as the mayor heard the news, he took immediate steps to preserve the crime scene. He had the presbytery door closed and forbade anyone to enter, he then notified the police in Couiza of the crime.
Abbé Antoine Gélis
Police report extract:
Ernest Pages told the Brigadier Jena Vial and the gendarme Emile Blanqué at 11 o’clock, according to their report — “A moment after I came down, I took the post which was on the table, and walked towards the presbytery which is about 100m from my house. Halfway there I met Mr Talhan (the father), who was going to fetch water. I asked him if he had knocked on the priest’s door, and he answered,”
“I didn’t dare, I might have disturbed him.”
“When I got to the presbytery, I opened the door, which was only on the catch. I called, and as I got no answer I stayed on the threshold of the kitchen, whose door was open, but as I was standing in the dark I called out again, thinking he was in the cellar and when I got no answer again I was going to leave, when I saw something black lying on the floor. I examined it and recognised my uncle. I ran out, I saw the old mother Françoise Pages in the street, and I shouted for help, she came and immediately the whole village was there. I felt ill right away, because of this discovery, I went home and I didn’t come out again.”
Later he added a few extra details on Nov 2nd when the judge Jean came to visit him.
“…hardly had I entered, (the kitchen) when I noticed that on the floor there was a blackish mass, I bent down, I looked at it carefully and I recognised my uncle’s head. The blood, which was on the floor and the expression on my uncle’s face, made such an impression on me that I left immediately. I felt ill, a few people who were in the street made me drink something to help me recover and then took me home.”
The gendarmes proceeded to take the first observations and interrogations:
“We had noticed that the Abbé Gélis was lying at the foot of the table, face upwards, with an enormous wound on the left side of the skull, which seemed to have been done with a sharp instrument. The victim was only wearing slippers, the shoes were placed next to each other under the right shoulder, the victim was bathed in his blood, his hands and clothes were completely stained, and large bloodstains could be seen in various parts of the room.”
Plan of the Murder scene taken from the police autopsy report with my red blood highlights
Key to the above kitchen murder scene plan
- Door to house (main entrance – the bell would have been fixed to ring when this door was opened)
- Door to kitchen
- Door to sitting-room
- Casement window
- Pedestal table
- Pool of blood
- Square table
- Pool of blood
- Armchair (blood-spattered arms)
- Pool of blood
- Cigarette waste (ash and cigarette butts)
- Hole in which was found the paper which had been used to wipe the fire-tongs
- Wrapper for Tzar cigarette papers
- Cigarette papers
- Liqueur bottle and glass
- Woodshed door and lavatory
- Droplet of blood on the first stair of the staircase
Report was carried out for the magistrate in Limoux' Jean Raymond, by the Doctor Benoit, also of Limoux.
I, the undersigned, doctor of medicine, commissioned by Mr Jean Raymond, the examining magistrate of the county court of Limoux by virtue of a rogatory (Rogatory — Requesting information. Used especially of a request by one court of another) commission dated November 1st 1879 set out as follows:
Jean Raymond, examining magistrate of the district of Limoux;
According to articles 43 and 44 of the Code of Criminal Directives (Code d’Instruction Criminelle);
According to the documents for the procedure conducted against an unknown person charged with murder;
Request that the doctor Mr Benoit, doctor residing in Limoux to go immediately to the village of Coustaussa in order to, after having sworn an oath, visit the body of Antoine Gélis, priest of Coustaussa and to conduct an autopsy: — to produce a report in accordance with his conscience and honour on the condition of the body and the causes of death, and in particular to answer the following questions:
- What was the cause of death?
- Indicate the nature of the blows and injuries caused to the aforementioned Gélis; determine, if possible, the weapons or instruments, which were used to commit these.
- Which were the blows which may have caused the death and which essential organs were damaged?
- Was death instantaneous?
- If he survived, for how long?
- Was there an attempt at strangulation?
- Are there any visible marks? – If so, were these marks made before or after the blows were administered?
- What was Gélis’ state of health before he was struck?
- A report should be made of all these things and presented to me after it has been certified as sincere and true.
The full autopsy reports is in my Lost Tomb of the Knights Templar book and makes for gruesome reading, but here are its findings:
1. The death of the Abbé Gélis was due to murder.
2. The wounds, which caused it, are located on the skull and mainly on the rear part of this.
3. In the absence of macroscopic lesions on the brain matter, we have to accept that death occurred because of concussion to the brain rather than by contusion and compression of this organ or by haemorrhage.
4. The weapon used to produce these wounds seems to have been a blunt instrument, perhaps a sharp instrument which was extremely blunted and which acted as much by its mass as by its sharpness. Certain wounds were probably caused by the fire-tongs.
5. The death of the victim would not have been instantaneous; however, the wounds to the occiput, because of their extreme severity, must have led very rapidly to death.
6. There was no attempt at strangulation. There are no traces of this on the external skin of the neck or on the trachea or larynx.
7. Having examined the various organs it is shown that the Abbé Gélis had no pathological defect and he must have enjoyed good health before the murder.
The above report is certified as sincere and true.
Limoux, November 14th 1897.
End of report.
Evidence that seem to have been dropped by the murderer, or murderers, was a packet of cigarette papers. The two words, 'Viva Angelina' written on the cigarette paper in pencil, was in a rough scrawl, as though by an uneducated person or at the very least, someone who is not used to writing.
Le Tsar Cigarette Papers found at the scene of Gelis's Murder
To this day no one has ever been identified or charged with the murder of the Abbé Gélis.
The full police file as held at the Archives de l'Herault, Montpellier is under the following heading - Dossier Pages, 2UI-814, and titled "Procedure criminelle instruite contre Joseph Pages, inculpe d'homicide volontaire". The address, email, etc. of the Montpellier Archives are at the bottom of this page.
The full investigation, complete with police interview transcripts, is also available in "Le fabuleux Tresor de Rennes le Chateau, le Secret de l'Abbe Gelis" by Riviere, Tappa and Boumendil, editions Belisane 1996. (French) An english translation has been included in Lost Tomb of the Knights Templar
I was so intrigued by this murder, I asked Colin Taylor, a retired Detective Inspector from Scotland Yard who lives in the area, to have a look at extracts from the original police report and autopsy to see if he could shed any new light on the murder and his thoughts on the investigation. Colin's findings are also in my book.
Part of Gelis's funeral service text
REMEMBER IN YOUR PRAYERS of you the soul of Mr. ANTOINE GELIS Priest of Coustaussa of 1857 to 1897 Assassinated in this parish. Victim of the malicious hatred in the night of October 31st - 1st November, 1897. There was a man simple and upright, and one that feared
God, and eschewed evil.
This is a true martyr, who, for of Christ
name and shed his blood.
Gelis Tombstone before its refurbishment
In 2007 Gelis's tombstone had recently been cleaned and restored.
Old and refurbished Gelis tombstone
The Recently restored Gelis Tombstone Inscription
Unlike the other tombstones in the small graveyard in Coustaussa, Gélis's tombstone is orientated towards the hilltop village of Rennes-le-Château and contains in its inscription the word 'Assassin'.
Interesting Observations and Irregularities concerning the Gelis Murder Investigation
The inquiry was led in a strange way. Judge Raymond Jean, instead of naming one of the clerks of the court attached to the court at Limoux, names a private one - Antoine Reverdy (private huissier). This is apparently a very unusual thing to have done, in particular because all the other court clerks would have been available that day since it was a public holiday (Nov 1st). It is all the more surprising because we know that the officer of the judiciary police (detective division of the French police force) JP Laurens made his observations on-site at Coustaussa at 11.45 that morning, in the company of a permanent court clerk, M.Guillaume Emile Vidal. However on that same day judge Jean decides that no sworn huissier is available, even though one was already there. He could not have been unaware of this fact since they both worked for the Parquet de Limoux.
The famous Viva Angelina paper is not mentioned at all by the first person on the scene of the crime - Jean-Pierre Pugens, Juge de Paix from Couiza and officer of the judiciary police. He was there well before judge Jean, along with the gendarmes Jean Vial and Emile Blanque. However, perhaps shocked by the brutal slaying of a priest, he failed to notice it on his first inspection.
The judge initially refuses to add the weapon used, a small axe, found a week after the murder, to the dossier. He does do this in the end though, when pressurised to do so and very reluctantly.
We know there were no signs of forced entry, and that Gelis must have opened the door to his visitors. It was early evening and he opened the door, although he was very wary of letting people in, so it is assumed he knew his visitor(s). He used to issue a password to those who had an appointment to visit him, perhaps the Viva Angelina scrawled on the cigarette papers was the password the murderer/s used to get Gelis to open the door.
A surprising fact is that judge Jean never asked the Bishopric at Carcassonne for any information about Gelis. He also never interviewed any other priest in the area around Coustaussa, or at least nothing is to be found in the large investigation file.
There are also the notebooks of his financial accounts - judge Jean had these in his possession, but he intentionally does not include them amongst the evidence in the inquiry. They do however contain interesting details about the financial practices of Gelis. These notebooks are attached to the criminal investigation file held at the departmental archives of the Herault.
Regarding Gelis' money, it is worth remembering the statement made by Abbé Jean-Pierre Gayda, priest of Trebes, to judge Jean on Nov 11th 1897. He was the only priest questioned by the judge, but only in his office, and more than 10 days after the murder. It was he who had been asked to invest money on Gelis' behalf discreetly, money whose origin is still unknown, sums which on an annual basis over the previous 3 years were as much as 1000-1200frs. After he had been asked to testify, Gayda was afraid - he was Gelis' only friend and he surely knew who was financing him, people who were aware that he could denounce them. Gayda feared for his life, considering the savagery of the murder of Gelis; after having removed all his money and certainly also that of Gelis, he disappeared, from one day to the next.
Abbe Gayda admitted to having invested quite large sums of money belonging to Gelis in his name, lending Gelis his name to increase the discretion. This meant that he was holding or managing sums of money which should rightly have been inherited by Gelis' sole heir, his nephew, the abbe Malot. In spite of this, at no time did Judge Jean demand the restitution from Gayda of this money, which is curious.
The position of the body was strongly evocative of it having been laid out in a formal fashion after death. He describes in detail the official method of giving extreme unction, which has to be done before death, (the body would have to be turned, moved), this explains why there was a wooden shoe under his shoulder - to raise the body to prevent Gelis from drowning in his own blood which was flowing from the head wounds he had received.
The "livid" marks described in the autopsy are said to be "fully compatible with the manipulations or handling which a priest would have had to do to the body in order to administer extreme unction". (taken from Jean Pierre Garcia's internet forum Dec 2006 in a contribution by Sebastien Verbeke).
He also explains the ransacking of the house and in particular the bag belonging to the priest as a desperate search by a priest present at the murder for the oil which every priest had in their possession and always in their bag, so that they could leave to minister to a dying parishioner at a moment's notice - this oil was specifically blessed for extreme unction and there were different containers of oil for different purposes - baptism, confirmation, death etc. A priest is always obliged to administer extreme unction to a dying person before they actually die, if they are present, on pain of their own eternal salvation. But if this is true, who was the priest present at the murder? Sauniere?
It would appear that the murder was not premeditated, because they came without a weapon and used what was to hand when the moment came.
The full Gelis Murder file is held at the Archives de l'Herault, Montpellier, under the following heading - Dossier Pages, 2UI-814, and titled "Procedure criminelle instruite contre Joseph Pages, inculpe d'homicide volontaire".
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