From hero to anti-hero?
‘In Molenbeek-Saint-Jean, a guy shoots several family members’. ‘A madman unloads gunshots on family members’. ‘The antics of an unbalanced man’. ‘Drama at Molenbeek-Saint-Jean’. ‘Unbalanced man shoots in-law in Molenbeek-Saint-Jean’. So read some Belgian headlines of Thursday, August 23, 1934. Front-page news in Het Laatste Nieuws and Het Nieuwsblad.
They are about my great-great uncle Léon Dreissen. Not something to be proud of. And yet he is a hero, as I told my previous two blog posts. Together with his brother Jerome, he had established a clandestine correspondence service for front-line soldiers and their families during the war. For this, like his brother, he had received the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Leopold II. Léon Dreissen now shows the reverse side to the medal. From hero to anti-hero.
Who is Léon Dreissen?
- Born April 10, 1879 in Brussels
- Younger brother of Jerome Dreissen (my great-great-grandfather).
- Married in 1906 to Natalie Van Ransbeeck
- Official at the Ministry of ‘Bridges and Roads’
- In 1914 soldier (8 line 1/III) in the Belgian army
- Organized a clandestine correspondence service for Belgian soldiers and their relatives in Belgium and abroad during World War I with brother Jérome
- Received in 1920 – like his brother Jerome – the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Leopold II with ribbon with gold stripe
Léon Dreissen shoots at in-laws
On Tuesday evening, August 21, 1934, 55-year-old Léon Dreissen, then living in Sint-Martens-Bodegem (Dilbeek), went to visit his brother-in-law and sister-in-law in Sint-Jans-Molenbeek. His brother-in-law, François Van Ransbeeck, was a watchmaker and jeweler and worked in the business he had taken over from his father, located at 13 Chaussée de Gand in Molenbeek-Saint-Jean. Léon planned to clear up a lingering inheritance dispute once and for all….
The day before, Monday evening, Léon Dreissen had driven to Lille (northern France, a good 100 km from his home town) to buy a revolver and 25 bullets.
Arriving in Sint-Jans-Molenbeek, Léon Dreissen stormed into the Van Ransbeeck jewelry store, revolver in hand. Startled, brother-in-law François Van Ransbeeck fled to the kitchen. Léon chased him and once in the dining room, where several family members were sitting, he shot at random. Fortunately, he didn’t hit anyone.
The police quickly arrived at the scene and were able to capture Léon Dreissen without difficulty to escort him to the police station.
Van Ransbeeck watchmaking and jewelry store
Henri Van Ransbeeck, who had learned the craft of watchmaking as a young man, had founded his business in 1880 and built it into a successful watchmaking and jewelry store.
Right: advertisement notice from Het Nieuws van den Dag, 4/10/1908
Léon Dreissen was married to Natalie Van Ransbeeck, Henri’s daughter. Although Léon worked as a civil servant at the Ministry of Bridges and Roads, he was also professionally involved in the Van Ransbeeck jewelry store. A newspaper article from 1908 mentions Mr. Dreissen as a jeweler who had hired a journeyman (now called a “representative” or “account manager”). This unfortunately turned out to be a bad decision in retrospect, as the man recruited made off with 3 200 francs worth of jewelry….
Hostility between Dreissen and brother-in-law Van Ransbeeck
Henri Van Ransbeeck had died a few years earlier, in February 1929. Various newspaper articles indicate that the inheritance has soured family relations. After the death of Léon’s father-in-law, his wife and himself were bought out of the business by François Van Ransbeeck for the sum of 200 000 Belgian francs. Converted to euros and taking inflation into account, this would now be about €163,000. For some reason, Léon Dreissen thought this was unreasonable and felt aggrieved or even cheated. He went increasingly drastic to avenge the perceived injustice.
Previous conviction and institutionalization
It is noteworthy that Léon Dreissen had been convicted a few years earlier for the same reason. He had been institutionalized for three years for this purpose.
He had only just been released from internment for being frivolous with firearms, and was already in a hurry to get his hands on a revolver again. The doctors had declared him cured, but he was not yet rid of the feelings of revenge toward his in-laws. Since he could no longer get his hands on a revolver because of the firearms’ law in Belgium, he had made a day trip to Lille in France for this purpose.
Shooting to scare?
When Léon Dreissen arrived at the jewelry store and shot around, François Van Ransbeeck was able to flee in time. Afterwards, Léon claimed that the intention was not to shoot to hit, but only to scare the jeweler. In that, at least, he had succeeded.
A lousy sub-union
Mrs. Van Ransbeeck happened to have friends visiting at the time. They were just chatting in the kitchen when Léon Dreissen stormed in with his revolver. Screaming, they stormed off to the back. According to Mrs. Van Ransbeeck, Léon had shot twice while they were still in space. Léon himself stated he only shot after they fled from the kitchen.
Whatever the case, a friend of the house who had happened to witness the earlier shooting and was also present at this moment, had a bright inspiration. Searching for a way to escape the bullets, it suddenly occurred to him to step briskly up to Léon Dreissen, grab him jovially by the hand and inquire about his health with generosity. “Léon, what a joy to meet you here! How are you?” the man said. He was surprised in retrospect by his controlled response. Léon was at first perplexed at the man’s decisive attitude, but then allowed himself to feel so much friendliness and … forgot to shoot in the meantime. “Those who are not strong must be smart,” concludes the newspaper article in Het Nieuwsblad.
“Those who are not strong must be smart.”Tibeert the Cat, in the epic animal poem ‘Of Reinaert the Fox’
Thanks to the inventive and cold-blooded response of the friend of the house, a greater tragedy was avoided.
A guy, a madman, a lunatic, an unbalanced, a gunslinger…. Not immediately flattering, nor respectful wording. However, this is the same man as the hero who, together with his brother, risked his life by delivering thousands of Belgian soldiers and their families their uncensored mail across borders. He was honoured with the Knight’s Cross in the Order of Leopold II.
The newspaper articles, of course, tell a rather sensational story. It’s not nothing, either, for someone to threaten his in-laws with gunshots. Clearly, this is a disproportionate act of revenge by a man who seems to have lost his sense of reality. Without trying to diagnose, it appears to be a psychotic reaction of a man in need of psychological counselling. But this is a reflection of now, anno 2023, and not of then.
I am not going to venture into assigning causes at all, but spontaneously I do think of war experiences that Léon Dreissen went through. He would be far from the only one who had mental problems due to the traumatic experience of the war.
It was only during and after World War I that people began to see the heavy impact that trauma from war can have. Thus, shellshock (or “den klop” as it was called in Flanders) was one of the earliest designations of a psychiatric syndrome, as a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Léon Dreissen appeared to have been previously admitted to the insane asylum, as it was then called. At the earlier sentencing, it was already understood that treatment other than mere imprisonment was needed.
From imprisonment to treatment
But what were they doing in the asylum? What was that treatment? Mental health care was virtually nowhere, or at least in its infancy, in Belgium in 1934.
It was only after World War I that the will arose to expand psychiatric medicine and invest more in the well-being of the patient. Yet the approach of an “asylum” had many similarities to that of a prison or military barracks. “Guards” were often veterans of World War I.
The asylum of Rekem
The asylum to which Léon Dreissen was taken was the State Lunatic Asylum for the Criminally Insane in Rekem. That was the official name. Popularly known simply as “the asylum” or “the asylum for the feeble-minded”.
The asylum was housed in the castle of Oud-Rekem that the noble family d’Aspremont-Lynden left in 1778, fleeing Napoleon. The castle had previously served as a beggar’s colony and re-education asylum for boys. At the end of 1920, it took on the function of a psychiatric institution, to which, at first, mainly criminals who had been declared insane were admitted. Real psychiatric patients made up only a third of the population. From 1930 it became an ordinary psychiatric institution, that is, no longer for mentally ill criminals.
In terms of therapy, medicine was searching. What to do with those people? From the prevailing philosophy of usefulness, they tried to teach the internees who were considered capable of doing so a trade or give them a job. The institution had its own farm, slaughterhouse, joinery, blacksmith and locksmith shop, etc. The goal was to kalefat the patient and thus allow them to provide a useful role in society. For example, the director of the institution, Mr. Ollivier, it also in an interview with Het Laatste Nieuws (Oct. 26, 1928).
The best means of making insane people harmless is to keep them in a healthy atmosphere and keep them occupied by suitable labour.Mr. Ollivier, director of the State Lunatic Asylum in Rekem (1928)
What would Léon Dreissen have done there? An administrative job given his experience at the Department of Bridges and Roads? Or just something completely different?
A village within a village
The asylum lived as a village in itself and was completely self-sufficient. The residents baked bread in their bakery, they grew their own vegetables on their farm, etc. There were as many workshops as in an ordinary village. The institution even had its own currency! By working there, residents earned a wage, paid out in coins they could only pay for within the asylum. It unfortunately also had its own “prison,” the seventh quarter, for when the residents got too out of hand….
There was no question of medication in those years. Lithium was not introduced until 1949. Sedatives were not administered in Rekem until 1953. There was, at the time of Léon Dreissen, in the 1920s and 1930s, the widely known straitjacket and the isolation cell when the patient became too dangerous, for himself or others.
When a patient died in the Rekem asylum, he was also usually buried in the institution’s cemetery. Often the bond with the family was diluted or even broken and the patients had little contact with the outside world. It was usually the asylum that took the funeral all the way.
For a moment I thought (or feared?) that Léon Dreissen would be buried there, but among the graves of the cemetery his name is not to be found.
Léon Dreissen traceless
The “shooting incident” in Molenbeek brought Léon Dreissen’ s trail to the Rekem State Correctional Institution, but he has since“vanished without a trace”. For now, I found no trace of what happened to him afterwards.
How long has he resided in Rekem since 1934? Has he returned to his family or not? In Sint-Martens-Bodegem or back to Molenbeek-Saint-Jean after all? Even his date nor place of death I do not know.
Where has our hero or anti-hero gone? That remains for me to discover, I hope. To be continued!
- Clerbout Geert, Publiek Geheim 2, Plkken met een verborgen Geschiedenis, Een vergeten begraplaats voor krankzinnigen in Rekem, p. 265-281, Van Haelwijck Publishers
- De Gentenaar, August 23, 1934, p. 3, Drama at Molenbeek-Saint-Jean
- De Standaard, Aug. 23, 1934, p. 4, At Saint-Jean-Molenbeek A Guy Shoots at Several Family Members
- De Volksgazet, August 23, 1934, p. 2, A Lunatic who had just left the asylum shoots at Molenbeek at the Family of his Brother-in-law
- Het Laatste Niews, October 26, 1928, p. 1, The Colony Institution at Rekheim. Visiting the Director.
- Het Laatste Nieuws, August 23, 1934, p. 1, Drama in Molenbeek
- Het Laatste Nieuws, August 23, 1934, p. 3, The Revolver schots on the Gentschen Steenweg in Molenbeek
- Het Nieuwsblad, August 23, 1934, p. 1, At Saint-Jean-Molenbeek, a Guy Shoots at Several Family Members
- Het Nieuws van den Dag, Sept. 16, 1908, p. 2, Inland News, Braband, St-Jans-Molenbeek
- Het Volk, August 23, 1934, p. 3, A Madman Solves Revolutions on Family Members
- L’Avenir du Luxembourg, August 25, 1934, p. 3, Les Frasques d’un Déséquilibré
- La Métropole, August 23, 1934, p. 3, LesFrasques d’un Déséquilibré
- La Nation Belge, August 23, 1934, p. 3, Un Déséquilibré tire sur la famille de son Beau-Frère à Molenbeek-Saint-Jean
- Public Psychiatric Care Center Rekem, From beggar colony to modern psychiatric care center, more than 100 years of history
- Interactive film in 360° about 100 years of psychiatry in Rekem
- Canvas episode in ‘Public Secret’ series on the Rekem insane cemetery
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