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…  See more details below


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.

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Editorial Reviews

There was no question that alluring young prostitute Gabrielle Bompard had indeed enticed Toussaint-Augustin Gouffé back to his room with promises of pleasure and then assisted in his brutal killing. What remained in question about the 1889 Parisian murder was whether she had been literally hypnotized into homicide. Little Demon in the City of Light illuminates a Belle Epoque case that garnered front-page headlines on both sides of the Atlantic. A Discover Great New Writers selection; now in trade paperback and NOOK Book.

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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.

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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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