By Walton Golightly
Pauline Picard was two years old in April 1922 when she went missing from the family farm in Goas Al Ludu, Brittany, France. A thorough search was conducted, but no trace of her was found. Then, a few weeks later, word came that a young girl matching Pauline’s description had been found wandering alone in Cherbourg, more than 450km away.
A photo was couriered to Pauline’s mother. Yes, she said, the girl found in Cherbourg was her daughter. The mystery of how a toddler could find herself so far from home was brushed aside and Pauline’s parents went to fetch her. Even the New York Times reported on the miraculous return of the missing child.
But what should have been a blissful reunion was marred by the fact that the girl seemed ‘uncomfortable’, almost frightened with her parents. She also did not respond when spoken to in her native Breton dialect. Her parents ascribed her strange behaviour to shock and tried to get on with their lives.
One day, they were approached by local farmer Yves Martin. He asked them if they really thought the girl was their daughter. Before they could answer, he ran off, saying, “God help me, I am guilty.” The police were summoned and Martin ended up in an asylum.
A few days later, a neighbouring farmer was walking across the Picard farm when he came upon the body of a very young girl. She was naked and decapitated, and a skull lay nearby. The man went to the police. The body was too badly decomposed to be identified, but Pauline’s mother said the clothes found nearby matched the outfit Pauline had been wearing the day she vanished.
Strangely, the location where the remains had been found had been searched shortly after Pauline’s disappearance. Investigators therefore decided the body had been buried there only recently. Things became even more bizarre when the medical examiner found the skull was too large to have belonged to the young girl. In fact, it was the skull of an adult male!
Had crazed Yves Martin killed the toddler? If so, who did the skull belong to? Was it an accomplice he had murdered too? If so, where was the rest of the body? Although considered the chief suspect in the double murder, Martin’s fate after entering the asylum remains unknown.
It’s perhaps easier to understand why Pauline’s mother convinced herself the girl found in Cherbourg was her daughter. But if she was wrong who was the girl from Cherbourg? Why had no one reported her missing?
But was Pauline’s mother wrong? Strictly speaking, the fact that Pauline’s clothes had been found near the body was not proof the body was Pauline’s.
Whatever the case, the young girl from Cherbourg was put in an orphanage – and lost to the pages of history – and the Picards spent the rest of their days haunted by the mystery of their daughter’s fate.