‘Little Demon in the City of Light’: a hypnotic murder
Steven Levingston’s “Little Demon in the City of Light” chronicles a 19th-century murder in Paris and the sensational trial of the accused killers, which pitted the leading experts on hypnotism against one another.
Special to The Seattle Times
‘Little Demon in the City of Light’
by Steven Levingston
Doubleday, 352 pp., $26.95
On July 26, 1889, a well-to-do Parisian gentleman, Toussaint-Augustin Gouffé, quietly slipped into an apartment for a liaison with his mistress, Gabrielle Bompard. He was barely able to say hello when his paramour deftly tied her silk waistband into a noose, clipped it to a rope, and signaled her accomplice, Michel Eyraud. Eyraud hoisted Gouffé into the air, strangled him, and stuffed his body into an oversized trunk.
The next morning, Bompard and Eyraud loaded the trunk onto a train to Lyon, where they selected a remote location, threw the body over a bank, smashed the trunk to pieces and fled.
The unraveling of the crime, apprehension of the killers, and the dramatic trial is retold in Steven Levingston’s “Little Demon in the City of Light.” Levinston, the nonfiction book editor of The Washington Post, put several years into researching this fascinating book.
Eyraud, an abusive 39-year old con man, caught the attention of Bompard, a misguided young woman drifting on the Parisian streets without means of support. It was not an auspicious combination.
After the crime, the pair fled to San Francisco, where they stumbled upon Georges Garanger, a wealthy French businessman who became their next mark. But Garanger fell hard for Gabrielle, and she for him, and the pair slipped away together instead of waiting for Eyraud as they had promised.
Gouffé’s rotting corpse, in the meantime, was discovered and, using then ground breaking forensic techniques, identified as Gouffé. The trunk was reassembled and slowly the crime was reconstructed. Gabrielle returned to Paris and confessed to the police, but claimed that she had been hypnotized by Eyraud.
Eyraud was ultimately arrested in Mexico City and hauled back to Paris, setting the stage for the sensational trial, pitting the leading experts on hypnotism against one another.
The description of the trial itself is priceless. Thirty six jurors were selected, but then all were disqualified when it was learned that reporters had interviewed the lot on whether they favored conviction (or execution) before any of them even heard any evidence. (An efficient, if perhaps misguided, approach to justice, one has to admit). As the San Francisco Chronicle commented at the time, “one defendant is allowed to contradict the other in court, and even to terrify her into hysterics, and it is considered as proper and tending to further the ends of justice. It may be that the system is more effectual, but it is revolting to our ideas.”
It’s a terrific story and one well told. Gabrielle Bompard enjoyed every minute of her fame, reveling in the crowds that awaited her in the streets. As Levingston notes, she “set the stage for further criminal stars and gave the world a taste of what was to come — the tabloid excess, the public fascination with famous murderers and the exploitation of brutal crimes as popular entertainment.”
Kevin J. Hamilton is a Seattle lawyer.