Little Demon in the City of Light: A True Story of Murder and Mesmerism in Belle Epoque Paris

Little Demon in the City of Light: A True Story of Murder and Mesmerism in Belle Epoque Paris

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by Steven Levingston

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A delicious account of a murder most gallic—think CSI Paris meets Georges Simenon—whose lurid combination of sex, brutality, forensics, and hypnotism riveted first a nation and then the world.

Little Demon in the City of Light is the thrilling—and so wonderfully French—story of a gruesome 1889 murder of a lascivious


A delicious account of a murder most gallic—think CSI Paris meets Georges Simenon—whose lurid combination of sex, brutality, forensics, and hypnotism riveted first a nation and then the world.

Little Demon in the City of Light is the thrilling—and so wonderfully French—story of a gruesome 1889 murder of a lascivious court official at the hands of a ruthless con man and his pliant mistress and the international manhunt, sensational trial, and an inquiry into the limits of hypnotic power that ensued.

In France at the end of the nineteenth century a great debate raged over the question of whether someone could be hypnotically compelled to commit a crime in violation of his or her moral convictions. When Toussaint-Augustin Gouffé entered 3, rue Tronson du Coudray, he expected nothing but a delightful assignation with the comely young Gabrielle Bompard. Instead, he was murdered—hanged!—by her and her companion Michel Eyraud. The body was then stuffed in a trunk and dumped on a riverbank near Lyon.

As the inquiry into the guilt or innocence of the woman the French tabloids dubbed the "Little Demon" escalated, the most respected minds in France debated whether Gabrielle Bompard was the pawn of her mesmerizing lover or simply a coldly calculating murderess. And, at the burning center of it all: Could hypnosis force people to commit crimes against their will?

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Charles Graeber
Levingston has unearthed a whopper of a story, and lovingly crafted a dense, lyrical yarn that hits the true-crime trifecta of setting, story and so-what. Such books remind us that times may change, but the human animal does not.
Library Journal
Journalist Levingston's (The Kennedy Baby; Historic Ships of San Francisco) latest title is a fascinating and easy-to-read true crime story about a sensational murder connected with hypnotism in late 19th-century Paris.He weaves historical details of the grisly murder of a court official by a con man and his mistress, the discovery of the body, the worldwide search for the suspects, and the subsequent trial with background information about the rise of hypnotism in the scientific world. In the style of books such as Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, Levingston's writing is entertaining yet informative, and clearly produced from years of research into Gabrielle Bompard, the woman called "The Little Demon" by the French press, and her lover/hypnotist, Michel Eyraud. This title also explores the sensational reaction by the public and the press to not only the missing victim, but to the unique defense claimed in court by Bompard. VERDICT Recommended for historic true crime fans, readers interested in 19th-century history, media historians, and general readers.—Amelia Osterud, Carroll Univ. Lib., Waukesha, WI
Publishers Weekly
The titular figure in this lively popular history is Gabrielle Bompard, a young woman who became infamous as the accomplice in a garish and notorious murder in 1889 Paris. Mistress of the con man Michel Eyraud, Bompard and her tragic story became a historical footnote; her case at trial rested on a precedent-setting hypnotism defense. In seeking to absolve her of responsibility, the reference to hypnotic suggestion (then an intensely researched subject in the medical community) brought into the spotlight opposing scientific camps, represented by Jules Liégeois—a law professor from Nancy who argued that the hypnotized criminal was not morally culpable—and the eminent Parisian neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, onetime mentor of Freud, who insisted the hypnotist could not override an individual’s moral makeup. Before reaching the spectacular trial, however, journalist Levingston (coauthor of The Whiz Kid of Wall Street’s Investment Guide) spends the first two-thirds of the book meticulously recounting the crime, principal characters, and relevant cultural context. Though limited as a cultural history, the book is lovingly constructed from available sources, including newspapers, memoirs, and secondary histories, and immerses the reader in a period whose newfound obsessions—science and pseudo-science of the mind, criminal forensics, mass media, the macabre, and fame—have a seminal connection to our own time. Agent: Daniel Lazar, Writer’s House. (Feb.)
From the Publisher
Praise for Little Demon in the City of Light:

"Levingston has unearthed a whopper of a story, and lovingly crafted a dense, lyrical yarn that hits the true-crime trifecta of setting, story and so-what. Such books remind us that times may change, but the human animal does not. "
The New York Times

"Levingston, who is nonfiction book editor of the Washington Post and knows a good story when he sees one, has given it a richly enjoyable telling. Its lurid and improbable plot twists are expertly transposed into a breathless true-crime thriller set against a sumptuous evocation of the boulevards, nightclubs and boudoirs of Belle Époque Paris."
Wall Street Journal

"...An engaging—and finally chilling—portrait of an uneasy era and a city of more shadow than light."
The Washington Post

"...Fascinating... A rich portrait of the period, as well as the intriguing story of a notorious murder case, with its strange (and often amusing) cast of characters."
—The Boston Globe

"Equal parts period piece, forensic manual, and legal thriller, the book is a strong entry in the 'fascinating case in a fascinating time' genre."
—The Daily Beast

“A terrific story well told.”
The Seattle Times

"...Readers are well-served by his reimagining of this amazing true story."
Minneapolis Star-Tribune

"Levingston's smartly chipper prose and fine attention to detail...add an entertaining and authentic sensibility to this re-creation of a culture, a crime, and "the first time an accused murderer had put forward a hypnotism defense."

“…The book is lovingly constructed from available sources, including newspapers, memoirs, and secondary histories, and immerses the reader in a period whose newfound obsessions—science and pseudo-science of the mind, criminal forensics, mass media, the macabre, and fame—have a seminal connection to our own time.”
Publishers Weekly
“…A well-constructed, informative work by a talented author.”
Kirkus Reviews

“This is an amazing tale of sex and hypnosis and murder in Paris, and it’s all true. Levingston has produced both a ‘mesmerizing’ crime story and also a fascinating look at science and society in the late 19th century.”
—Walter Isaacson, CEO of the Aspen Institute and author of biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs

“Vividly conjuring a sweeping cast of characters who reflect the lusty excess and dark anxieties of the times, Little Demon in the City of Light paints a lavish portrait of Belle Époque Paris while unfurling one of the most compelling murder trials in the city’s history. With penetrating insight and radiant style, Steven Levingston has crafted a mesmerizing true story.”
—Karen Abbott, author of Sin in the Second City and American Rose

“Like The Devil in the White City, this Little Demon in the City of Light tracks murder and sexual crime in the days of silk top hats and horse-drawn carriages. The reader will enter Paris, witness a grisly crime, then follow a trans-Atlantic escape and the relentless pursuit by the authorities. The tale plays out not as a whodunit, but rather as a will-she-get-away-it and… should she? In effect, the beautiful young Parisienne didn't plead insanity but rather hypnotism. Was she a calculating predator? Or was she herself a victim, mesmerized by her Svengali-like lover to commit crimes? You decide whether the lawyers, doctors and judges of 19th century Paris got the verdict right.”
—Richard Zacks, author of Island of Vice and The Pirate Hunter

“Steven Levingston has given us a deeply-researched and engagingly-told story of murder and science in turn-of-the-century Paris. We think of the Belle Époque as all light and gaiety, but the era had a macabre side as well, which Levingston vividly brings to life.”
—Douglas Starr, author of The Killer of Little Shepherds and Blood

"If a book can hover right at the edge of almost-magic and real murder, then Little Demon in the City of Light is that book. Author Steven Levingston casts a spell that weaves together a horrific late-19th century murder in Paris, a pair of the most devious killers possible, and a mystery that hinges on a question that still haunts us today—how much power does one person have over another when it comes to evil?"
—Deborah Blum, author of The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

“Steven Levingston casts a hypnotic spell in this remarkable tale of sex, murder and mesmerism in 19th century Paris. Magnifique!”  
—Daniel Stashower, author of The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War

“A first-rate detective story, a sensational trial, and Paris when the Eiffel Tower was new—a wonderfully entertaining piece of social history.”
—Joseph Kanon, author of The Good German and Istanbul Passage
“What a hypnotic read! Steven Levingston has used an extraordinary French murder case to conjure up an unforgettable picture of Belle Époque Paris and its sexual, cultural and supernatural obsessions. Like Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, Levingston uses his “Little Demon” to illuminate a historical period and the strange issues that animated it. Meticulously researched and well written, this is truly a book that will take you to another time and place—contemplating bizarre characters and issues you never imagined.”
—David Ignatius, Washington Post columnist and author of the forthcoming novel, The Director

Kirkus Reviews
International journalist and Washington Post nonfiction book editor Levingston (Historic Ships of San Francisco, 1984) uses the story of a murder by a foolish girl and her lover to illustrate another side of belle epoque Paris. The author foregoes the tabloid excesses and exploitation of lurid details from that time and focuses on the debate as to whether a person is capable of committing a crime under hypnosis or even post-hypnotic suggestion. The supposedly duped 20-year-old girl, Gabrielle Bompard, and her lover, Michel Eyraud, lured a wealthy Parisian to her room, where Eyraud strangled him. They then stuffed him in a trunk and took it to Lyon, where Eyraud dumped the body over an embankment toward a river. Unfortunately for the lovers, the body landed against a bush, where the odor of decomposition soon revealed its location. The talent of Marie-François Goron, chief detective of the national police, "a stout bundle of energy…with a thick mustache that he waxed at the tips," is the most interesting part of the story. His doggedness in exploring every clue and hunch led to the discovery of not only the victim's body, but also the identities of the perpetrators. Finding and arresting Bompard and Eyraud proved to be a more daunting challenge. Ultimately, it's unclear whether Goron would ever have found them, since Bompard deserted Eyraud in California and returned to Paris with a new lover who convinced her to go to the police. With worldwide press, her lover was soon taken, and the two were tried together. Bompard believed that no one could ever blame her and relished her fame as the newspapers of the time reveled in sensationalistic reporting. What could have been a silly exposé of Paris, hypnotism and detection is instead a well-constructed, informative work by a talented author.

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Read an Excerpt


The experiments were chilling—dark, elaborate tests of human behavior. In the late nineteenth century, researchers across Europe conducted hundreds of them in response to one of the most extraordinary fears of the era: criminal behavior under hypnosis. Doctors, scientists and law professors were racing to figure out whether a person in a hypnotized state would lose her moral judgment and carry out a barbaric crime. The experiments had the highest social importance. Should hypnotic crime become an everyday reality the very foundation of law and order would be at risk. Not only were thievery, assault, arson and murder all nightmarish possibilities, but what if a mad hypnotist created an army of puppets and unleashed them on a presidential palace? Revolution was not out of the question.

The experiments sought to measure the degree of the danger. In one, a woman was hypnotized and then instructed to shoot a local government official. When handed a gun she walked directly up to him and pulled the trigger, firing a blank she imagined was a real bullet. After the official—playing along—fell to the floor she stood calmly over him hallucinating that he was dying in a pool of blood. Interrogated, she admitted to the crime with utter indifference, parroting what the hypnotist-researcher had planted in her head: that she simply she didn't like the man.

In another case, a hypnotized woman was told to dissolve a white powder she believed was arsenic in a glass of water and hand it to a thirsty man who was on his way to her. If anyone were to ask her, she was to say the glass contained only water and sugar. When the thirsty man showed up, she did exactly as she was told, and the man quaffed the tainted drink. After she was brought out of her trance she dutifully followed one final command placed in her mind earlier by the hypnotist: she told her interrogator that she didn't remember a thing; she didn't give a drink to anyone. What's more, she couldn't name anyone who had directed her to do anything.

In the 1880s, hypnosis was in its heyday. Doctors had corraled its mysterious powers to ease a range of ailments from back pain to menstrual cramps. Traveling hypnotists wowed audiences with astonishing stage shows. Europeans delighted in the wonderful cures and endless amusement. But a dark cloud hung over all the excitement. No one really knew how powerful hypnosis was and whether it could be put to the most nefarious uses. Courts already had ruled on a few instances of hypnosis-assisted rape. In one notorious case, a dentist in 1879 was sentenced to ten years in prison for having sex with a twenty-year-old patient he had hypnotized in the dentist's chair. Crimes perpetrated against hypnotized subjects were serious enough. But what about monstrous acts, even murder, committed by individuals acting against their will under the control of an evil hypnotist? So far, no court had seen a case in which an accused murderer claimed she killed in an hypnotic state. That was about to change.

In Paris of the 1880s, the setting for our tale, hypnotism was an ornament of the city's outlandish daily life. Society ladies, demonstrating that they were au courant, hosted hypnotism salons. Amateurs learned the techniques and put their friends into a trance. On stage, the famous traveling hypnotist Professor Donato put his bejeweled assistant through the human plank trick in which she lay between two chairs stiff as a board, defying gravity. Afterwards he hypnotized audience volunteers and had them disrobe to their underclothing and dance in imaginary ponds and bite into potatoes that they believed were apples. In the more sedate setting of the medical clinic, doctors softly encouraged their patients: “Look at me. Think of nothing but sleep . . . sleep. Your lids are closing. Your arms feel heavy. You are going to sleep . . . sleep . . . sleep.” While concentrating on his voice, the patient stared at a bright light, or gazed into his eyes, or watched his hands pass several times before her face until she drifted off. When she left the clinic she was free of back pain, or menstrual cramps, or chronic headaches.

This era of the Belle Époque, stretching from 1871 to the start of World War I in 1914, is remembered for its pleasures and eccentricity but it was also rife with exalted ambitions, spectacle and fear. The iconoclastic Eiffel Tower rose on the Champ de Mars in 1889, at its time the tallest manmade structure in the world, and served as the centerpiece of the Paris International Exposition, then the largest world's fair in history. Paris was a stage and its inhabitants were actors, dressed for show and behaving outrageously. There was the theatrical star Sarah Bernhardt, who kept a pet tiger and slept with a coffin at the foot of her bed. There were the entertainment-seekers who formed long lines every day at the Paris Morgue to file past the recently dead as if they were strolling through a museum exhibit. The French had a weakness for the macabre, which Sigmund Freud, a young, cocaine-dependent medical student noted as he explored the city. At night, bizarre indulgences awaited in the music and dance halls. There was a boxing match between a man and a kangaroo at the Folies-Bergère, and a side-splitting act by a vaudevillian in a red silk coat and white butterfly tie at the Moulin Rouge who sang “Au clair de la lune” through his anus.

While the decades before World War I was an era of champagne bubbles, men in tophats and monocles, and carefree strolls along the boulevards, they were not entirely the golden age that has come down to us through history. As the historian Barbara Tuchman put it, “It was not a time exclusively of confidence, innocence, comfort, stability, security and peace. Our misconception lies in assuming that doubt and fear, ferment, protest, violence and hate were not equally present.”

Hypnotism reflected the era's giddiness but also its dark foreboding. France's Republican government was fragile, anarchist rage was brewing, syphilis mercilessly attacked the well-born and the underclass without bias. Newspapers sensationalized the bloodiest crimes; the drowsy turned in at night worrying whether teenage thugs would slash their throat while they slept. Parisians looked upon the present with uncertainty and gazed toward the new century with unease, fearful that their glorious nation was sliding into degeneracy. Crime under hypnosis added to French anxieties over the fragility of modern life. But just how serious a danger it posed was a matter of intense debate. A battle raged between two opposing camps, one based in Paris, the other some two hundred and forty miles east in the city of Nancy. Public assurances resided with the world's foremost neurologist, Doctor Jean-Marin Charcot, and his disciples at the Salpêtrière hospital in the thirteenth arrondissement in Paris. The forbidding Charcot, described as “half-Dante, half-Napoleon,” had a smooth, beardless face, dark, deep-set eyes and long hair combed back over his head. His work convinced him that the outcries over hypnotic crime were exaggerated: an individual in a trance could not be coerced into abandoning her moral resolve and led into deviant behavior. Charcot's research revealed that there were limits to what a hypnotized person would do—dancing like a silly drunk was one thing, murder was quite another.

To oppose Charcot was to defy Paris and reject the majesty of French science. Charcot had not only created the field of neurology, pioneering signal breakthroughs that stand to this day, but rescued hypnotism from the scientific hinterlands and bestowed upon it a new respectability. The scientific community had rejected hypnotism as a legitimate discipline for a hundred years after its early practioner Doctor Franz Anton Mesmer destroyed its credibility with his wild claims of medical success. Before he fell from favor, Mesmer had developed a passionate following; his influence was so profound in the eighteenth century that even to this day hypnosis is still sometimes called mesmerism. This Austrian doctor was a brilliant eccentric who dressed in a lilac silk coat and believed that a universal magnetic fluid flowed through everything, pulling on the tides, on human blood, on the nerves, and that he could heal suffering by controlling the magnetic currents in his patients. His sessions were heavily influenced by the power of suggestion and the dominance of his personality. His claims of curing epilepsy, paralysis and even blindness were ultimately insupportable and he died alone in disrepute with his pet canary which, legend had it, had been trained to drop lumps of sugar into his coffee.

Only the prestige of a luminary like Charcot could have undone the damage Mesmer did to hypnotism. His doctrines were dogma on the science of hypnosis and were accepted across Europe. But on the matter of hypnotic crime the upstarts at the University of Nancy were undaunted by his authority or by the sovereignty of Paris. Among their ranks was the leading expert on hypnotic crime, a professor of law who had conducted more experiments into the question than any other researcher. Jules Liégeois had poured his findings into a seminal book on the subject published in 1884 and his conclusions left no doubt about where he stood. A hypnotized individual, in Liégeois's view, lost her faculties of reason, judgment, morality and will and became “a plaything of a fixed idea,” in essence, an automaton acting at the whim of the hypnotist. In such a state, an individual will carry out a criminal suggestion unhesitatingly and will then forget who placed the notion in her head. The hypnotic subject in Liégeois's scenario is no more culpable than a pistol or knife; the responsible party is the hypnotist who used this human weapon to carry out his evil deed. “All conscience has disappeared in an hypnotized subject who has been forced to commit a criminal act,” Liégeois asserted. “Only he who has given the suggestion is guilty, and only he should be pursued and punished.”

The battle between the two camps might have remained just an academic debate if it weren't for a petite, twenty-one year-old with grey-blue eyes and an adventurous spirit. Gabrielle Bompard was a troubled young woman from a wealthy family in Lille who ran away to Paris in 1888. She was neglected at home: her mother had died when Gabrielle was a five and soon afterward her father sent her away to boarding school and then shunted her from one convent to another until by the time she returned home at age eighteen she was a volatile, independent-minded teenager in love with fashion and eager for the spotlight. She was similar to her emotionally fickle mother whom she barely knew and who was described as “subject to brusque and incomprehensible changes in character.”

Gabrielle also was an astounding hypnotic subject. When Professor Donato brought his show to Lille Gabrielle sneaked off and volunteered to come on stage. She also had a secret lover who had learned the hypnotist's techniques and kept Gabrielle in a near-perpetual trance. The more she was hypnotized the easier she fell under the powers. The Bompard family doctor had discovered Gabrielle's special skill one day in the winter of 1887 when he came to look after an ailing housekeeper. When conversation around the dinner table turned to the popularity of hypnosis Gabrielle's father, Pierre Bompard, challenged Dr. Sacreste to try it out on his children. His first try was a failure. Gabrielle's younger brother just laughed at the doctor's hocus pocus, refusing to succumb to the powers.

But Gabrielle was another story entirely. She fell directly into a trance, deeply and fully, with a submissiveness that was startling to behold. She was, Dr. Sacreste later recalled, the most extraordinary hypnotic subject he had ever encountered. To test the depth of her spell, the doctor handed her a glass of water and told her it was champagne. No sooner had she taken a few sips than she showed “all the symptoms of drunkenness,” he said. On a subsequent visit, he hypnotized her again before removing a wart. “I put her to sleep and suggested to her that she wouldn't feel a thing,” he said. During the procedure she displayed no hint of pain. The doctor was convinced that her trance was sincere. “It was impossible,” he concluded, “to believe she was simulating.”

Pierre Bompard was won over to the miracle of hypnosis and asked Dr. Sacreste if he couldn't tame Gabrielle's obstreperous personality in a few sessions. Sacreste tried but his efforts were fruitless. Conditions deteriorated at home for Gabrielle until she ran off to Paris with her lover's warning fresh in mind. “You have a temperament,” he told her, “that finds pleasure in a labyrinth of intrigue. Be careful—because you will be a victim again and again.”

Within a year of her arrival she became the heroine of a grand Parisian diversion, the darling of the cheap, mass-circulation newspapers. Hers was an outlandish tale, perfectly plotted and cast for the real-life stage of the Belle Époque: a grisly killing, an amusing and clever gumshoe, a worldwide hunt for the murderers, despair of a resolution and then a remarkable turn of events, aided by phenomenal new forensic science, and capped by a courtroom drama that riveted the nation—and the world. None of it would have taken place had this young bourgeois woman from Lille not been so remarkably susceptible to the influence of hypnosis, or, had she not been, as they say of people easily induced, like “clay in the hands of a potter.”

Her participation provided a real-world test, once and for all, for the competing theories of murder under hypnosis. Her case brought the top academics into the courtroom for a showdown over their own jealously guarded beliefs. The law professor Jules Liégeois argued on behalf of the defense: that Gabrielle was a hypnotic automaton who acted against her will and therefore without responsibility. The state brought in experts aligned with the great neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot to argue that hypnotism was not to blame; the fault, they contended, lay with the young woman herself: she was an amoral killer, and they tried to impress upon the jury that she had to answer for her crime with an early morning march to the guillotine.Hers was the first hypnotism defense by a murderer in a court of law. The outcome would set a legal precedent and could influence crime and justice for years to come.

It was a long journey to the courtroom. When Le Figaro first reported in July 1889 that a wealthy gentleman, a widower with a slight limp and an unquenchable libido, had disappeared in Paris, his absence was just another curious incident in the messy life of Paris. There was no inkling then that a year and a half later this small mystery would attract the world's attention as the most sensational hypnotism story of all time and turn Gabrielle Bompard into the prototype of the celebrity murderer. The literary giant Émile Zola was fascinated by the killing and opined on Gabrielle's infamy.

Her case burst from its French borders, crossing the entire expanse of America to San Francisco where she and her accomplice fled. She filled the headlines in newspapers from New York to Chicago to Salt Lake City to Sacramento as Americans avidly followed the detectives' chase and later the trial, amused by the spectacle but also concerned over a possible precedent. If the French courts ruled in favor of hypnotic crime, then murderers across the globe had a new way to escape justice.

Meet the Author

A veteran international journalist who has worked in Beijing, Hong Kong, and Paris, along with assignments in New York, Chicago, and Washington, STEVEN LEVINGSTON is the nonfiction book editor of The Washington Post. He lives in Bethesda, Maryland, with his wife and two children.

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Little Demon in the City of Light: A True Story of Murder and Mesmerism in Belle Epoque Paris 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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