Little Demon in the City of Light: A True Story of Murder and Mesmerism in Belle Epoque Parisby Steven Levingston
Little Demon in the City of Light is the thrilling—and so wonderfully French—story of a gruesome 1889 murder of a lascivious/i>/b>/i>
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.
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
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.)
"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."
"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.”
“…A well-constructed, informative work by a talented author.”
“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
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
Excerpted from the Hardcover edition
In Paris in 1889, even murder was a form of theater. And what Michel Eyraud had in mind was a brilliant bit of staging: a sexual farce full of suspense and melodrama and then a tragic denouement. Eyraud had a cockeyed sense of himself. In his invented world he fancied himself a romantic, a flaneur at his ease strolling along the boulevards, a raconteur idling at Maxim’s, a ladies’ man, a conjurer who glided like the devil between the light and the dark. And pushed to the edge, he could kill with style.
He and his mistress had acquired all the props they needed for the evening’s performance. They’d been to London and bought some rope, a pulley, a silk cordelière for use as a noose, and a trunk so big it could hold a human. They’d rented an apartment under an alias on a quiet side street near the grands boulevards, taking rooms on the ground floor so no one below could hear the thud of a body hitting the floor.
Gabrielle was a skilled seamstress, a craft she learned during her years in the convents, and for two nights she had sat by the window stitching two pieces of burlap together to form a human-size bag. He was the show’s director and set designer. On this Friday evening, July 26, he climbed onto a chair in the sitting-room alcove, with his mistress spotting him, and hammered the pulley into a crossbeam; he ran the rope up through the pulley and down again to the floor. He installed a curtain across the alcove and placed a wood chair next to the dangling rope. Here was his hiding spot, where he was to lie in wait. He pushed a chaise longue next to the alcove, then scurried about creating a romantic atmosphere for the killing. He lowered the gas jets, lit candles, and arranged cognac and biscuits on a silver tray.
And again he instructed his actress in her scene, how to speak her lines, how to slide the red silk cordelière off her dressing gown and secretly turn it into a noose. Gabrielle was the star of this show, a petite twenty-one-year-old, the sexual bait tossed before a genial man of wealth. She had been on her own in Paris for a year—about a hundred and forty miles from her home in Lille—and now she was desperate and broken, a near-hysterical runaway, a femme fatale, lethal to her lovers.
A short distance away, on boulevard Montmartre, Toussaint-Augustin Gouffé sat with three friends on the terrace of Café Véron sipping absinthe. His silk hat was impeccably shined, his beard was well-groomed, and his shirt bore his monogram. Gouffé was a bailiff, who, in France, was not the stolid uniformed officer known to sit in American courtrooms but a professional of a higher order: a business figure who handled legal matters and was somewhat comparable to an attorney. The man looked rich, satisfied, and untouchable.
But he had his vulnerabilities: A careful eye watching him on the street might detect his slight limp, and a casual ear did not miss his high-pitched voice and minor lisp. Lifting his glass to his lips, he revealed manicured fingernails and on his pinkie was a treasure that marked him as a target for murder: a gold ring with a sapphire mounted in a halo of diamonds.
Outside on the boulevard the world of Paris circulated: dandies and wits, mesdames in plumed hats, messieurs in white gloves, demimondaines in heavy face paint and feather boas. Across from Café Véron was the stone-arch entrance to the Musée Grévin, the famed wax museum. Inside stood molded kings and queens in breathtaking three-dimensional realism. Down the block, at the Théâtre des Variétés, the comic opera La Fille à Cacolet was on the boards. Earlier in the year, high society had flocked to the premier of L’Affaire Édouard, the latest work by the playwright Georges Feydeau, who was establishing himself as the master of stage farce.
On this Friday, the rain had pelted off and on, muddying the thoroughfare but not intimidating the giant Percherons thundering along, drawing the double-decker Impériale omnibuses. On the boulevard, as one historian fondly recalled, there was a “bedlam of noise . . . a cacophony of hoofbeats, whirling wheels, rattling pushcarts, cries of hawkers and the occasional neigh of an impatient horse.”
Paris was an urban carnival, bold in its amusements: music halls, café concerts, rickety roller coasters. A guidebook promised, “Paris is the only corner of the world where pleasure is a social necessity, a normal state.” Tourists expected a bacchanal, flooding in to escape rigid Germany, stuffy Britain, puritan America. To the outside world Paris floated on a champagne bubble. “It is we,” declared a French journalist, “who have infected the world with gaiety, this brightness.”
But the dark also beckoned: Paris swayed between delight and doom. Since the Prussians humiliated France on the battlefield in 1870, capturing Louis-Napoléon, annexing Alsace-Lorraine, and precipitating a bloody civil rebellion, the country had slept fitfully, tossing and turning over a grim question: Was French glory a thing of the past? The indignity of defeat lingered. The scars were written on the drunks in the alleyways, the blank-eyed syphilitics in the insanity wards, and the anxious faces of the politicians. The Third Republic teetered perennially on the edge of collapse.
The gaiety of Paris, this brightness, could suddenly go dark, as could the electric lights just beginning to glimmer across the city. And no one was immune—not presidents, generals, famous authors, or the rich. Though he looked untouchable, Gouffé was as exposed to the dangerous uncertainties as the next man. He too was dancing on a volcano. And like his countrymen, all he could do before stumbling into the abyss was to raise a glass and laugh with friends, in the spirit of the Montparnasse poet who cried: “People must make merry before dying.”
As Gouffé dug into his meal—pasta with carrots and green beans—one of his companions, a newspaperman, enlivened the table with a tale of his experiences among the anarchists. Although the anarchists were feared for their bold ultimatums—vowing to deliver “the bomb that cleanses” and “the knife that purifies”—so far they were waging mostly a war of words. Their ranks were growing, but the waves of deadly bombings were still on the horizon. The early warnings came in published manifestos and in promises to slit the throats of government ministers. Gouffé and his dinner companions might nod somberly at the threat but were confident they themselves stood at a safe remove.
After dinner, Gouffé’s friends invited him for a stroll around the International Exposition, the massive world’s fair sprawling along the Champ de Mars, the quai d’Orsay, and the Trocadéro gardens, more than two hundred acres of food, fun, and eye-popping mechanical inventions. The French were throwing a months-long party to mark the hundredth anniversary of the 1789 revolution but purposely played down the historic meaning—the overthrow and execution of royalty—to keep from offending the many kings and queens still sitting atop their thrones throughout Europe. Entertainment overwhelmed the politics: The very symbol of royal tyranny, the Bastille, was re-created not as the feared political prison it once was but as an amusement park with rides and colored fountains and shops tended by merchants in eighteenth-century costumes.
Apparently still touchy about the march of history, no monarch in Europe except the King of Belgium sent a representative to the exposition’s opening ceremonies on May 6, 1889, prompting the president of France, Sadi Carnot, to declare pointedly in his dedication speech: “Our dear France . . . has the right to be proud of herself and to celebrate the economic and political centenary of 1789 with her head held high.”
While his speech chided absent royalty, it also was meant to buck up his own beleaguered nation, which only the previous evening had barely escaped calamity. Setting off from the Élysée palace for an exposition ceremony at Versailles, President Carnot had ridden in an open landau through streets packed with revelers. As he moved along the rue du Faubourg-Sainte-Honoré, a deranged shopkeeper from the French colony of Martinque, believing he had been mistreated by the government, fired a single shot at Carnot’s carriage, missing the president but delivering the message of national insecurity.
The opening went on as scheduled, and the exposition supplied spectacle on a grand scale. Fairgoers were awed by the largest enclosed building in the world, the iron-framed Gallery of Machines, which was possibly the noisiest too, with sixteen thousand machines clacking and clattering at once. In modern American terms, it was more than four football fields long and one football field wide. Among the many marvels inside was Thomas Edison’s phonograph. The device so fascinated the men of the French Academy that they recorded the voices of their most gloried members so that years in the future, as a reporter put it, one would be able to hear “the dead speak.”
The exposition was a contest of extremes. E. Mercier Champagne, which claimed to have the largest cellars in the Champagne region, displayed what was billed as the single largest cask in the world, a gargantuan oak barrel dwarfing the average man and containing enough wine for two hundred thousand bottles. On July 14, the centennial of Bastille Day, two thousand musicians performed a concert gigantesque. Another day, twelve hundred musicians played for an audience of twenty thousand in the Tuileries Garden; before the performance, thirty thousand pigeons were released into the air.
The most glorious achievement was Gustave Eiffel’s iron lattice- work tower, created specially for the exposition as an emblem of French science and industry. It shot a thousand feet into the sky, higher than any other man-made structure in the world—so high it afforded a new perspective. “At a height of 350 feet,” said a visitor ascending to the top, “the earth is still a human spectacle—an ordinary scale of comparisons is still adequate. But at 1,000 feet, I felt completely beyond the normal condition of experience.”
Eiffel’s tower was a marvelous but unsettling lurch into the modern world, a symbol of progress but also an inescapable reminder that humankind was hurtling toward the unknown. A fairgoer standing high atop the tower couldn’t help but sense the loss of the Old World and shiver at what lay ahead.
Gouffé declined his companions’ invitation to the exposition. He kept silent about his planned rendezvous for the evening, a lark that had come his way only that afternoon in a flurry of fortuitous coincidence. After lunching at home on rue Rougemont, as was his custom, Gouffé was strolling along boulevard Poissonnière on his way to his office when he ran into Michel Eyraud, a recent boulevard acquaintance. Eyraud burst into a display of theatrical surprise over their chance meeting, then informed his friend of some news: He was finished with his young mistress Gabrielle Bompard. Gouffé had had his eye on Gabrielle and listened with interest as Eyraud explained that she was now a free woman. And by the way, Eyraud snickered sug- gestively, Gouffé must have realized, hadn’t he, that Gabrielle found him attractive? Then with a flourish of male bonhomie, Eyraud offered his mistress to Gouffé, giving him her address: 3, rue Tronson du Coudray.
Just the previous day, Gouffé had dined with the lovers at a boulevard brasserie, and Gabrielle had whispered in Eyraud’s absence that she was fed up with the brute, and she was leaving him. Now, to Gouffé’s delight, the breakup had come to pass.
Bidding his friend farewell, Gouffé continued on his way along boulevard Poissonnière and as he turned onto rue Montmartre, he was surprised a second time when Gabrielle herself appeared before him. He wasted no time.
“So is it true, what you confided to me?” Gouffé asked her.
“Who told you?”
“I just saw him,” Gouffé told her. “He even gave me your address.”
“Ah!” Gabrielle exclaimed. So the plot was proceeding exactly as planned. “Then come see me tonight,” she told her admirer, setting the date for eight o’clock. As Gouffé sauntered off she called after him: “Don’t forget: 3, rue Tronson du Coudray.”
On the pavement outside Café Véron, Gouffé and his dinner companions had said their adieus, and his friends had climbed into a cab to join the slow procession to the fairgrounds. “Everyone is heading for the Exposition or is coming back or returning again to it,” the writer Guy de Maupassant grumbled. “In the streets, the carriages form an unbroken line like cars of a train without end.”
While mobs converged on the Champ de Mars, Gouffé found a cab and went his own way. Along the streets France was dressed up for a celebration. The national tricolor flag decorated lampposts and building windows, and centennial bunting draped the façades of department stores and hotels.
Gouffé’s destination was a one-block-long side street not far from the grands boulevards, named after a minor figure of the French Revolution. Tronson du Coudray was one of two lawyers given the impossible task in 1793 of defending the deposed French queen, Marie Antoinette. But no legal magic could avert the queen’s fate and she—along with her husband, King Louis XVI—lost her head to the guillotine. For his efforts Tronson du Coudray was hustled off to prison.
The apartment building at number 3 was an unremarkable, three-story structure, its narrow windows overlooking the hushed street. Gouffé rolled up at eight fifteen. No one saw him climb out of the carriage, no one saw him go toward the ground-floor apartment, no one saw the young woman in a dressing gown greet him at the door, so tiny was she that her head reached only as high as his chest. No one ever saw Toussaint-Augustin Gouffé alive again.
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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