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

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

by Steven Levingston


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307950307
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/17/2015
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 576,847
Product dimensions: 7.90(w) x 5.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About 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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Excerpted from the Hardcover edition

Chapter 1

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.


A Conversation with Steven Levingston, Author of Little Demon in the City of Light

Why was hypnotism all the rage in Paris of the 1880s?

Hypnotism was an ornament of the daily life in Paris. Indeed, all of Europe - and parts of America - were spellbound by its mysteries. It was used by doctors to treat a range of ailments from back pain to menstrual cramps. It was a feature of popular entertainment. Traveling hypnotists wowed audiences with astonishing stage shows. Society ladies, demonstrating that they were au courant, hosted hypnotism salons, and amateurs learned the techniques and threw their friends into trances. The study of hypnotism was reaching its peak in the late 19th century, and the nature of this strange practice fit perfectly into the overwrought world of Belle Epoque Paris where sensation and spectacle ruled the day.

And why did crime under hypnosis cause a serious debate in the French scientific community at the time?

No one really knew how powerful hypnosis was and whether it could be put to the most nefarious uses. People were worried about individuals acting at the behest of an evil hypnotist seeking to do harm or even murder another person. Whether this was possible became a question of great academic debate. In Paris, a school led by some of the greatest scientist of the era believed that murder under hypnosis was not possible; a hypnotized person simply would not commit an act he or she believed was immoral or repugnant, no matter how deep their trance. An upstart group of academics in Nancy believed the opposite: a person loses control over his or her will while under hypnosis and was capable of anything, even murder.

The Belle Epoque is remembered for its beauty, pleasures and eccentricities. Yet it was also a time of grandiose ambition, spectacle, and dread. Can you describe the dark side of Paris during this romantic period?

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; in some neighborhoods, people went to bed worrying that teenage thugs would slash their throats while they slept. Parisians looked upon the present with uncertainty and gazed toward the new century with unease, alarmed that their glorious nation was sliding into degeneracy.

Who was Gabrielle Bompard and how did she earn the nickname of "Little Demon"? Why did the disappearance of a lascivious French court official capture the attention of the world?

Gabrielle Bompard was a troubled young woman from a wealthy family in Lille who ran away to Paris in 1888. With her saucy manner and natural suggestiveness, she was called a little demon first by Alexandre Toussaint Gouffé, the man whom she would help murder. Later, the name would stick—both with the police and the media. Gouffé was a prosperous man, but one whose profession of being a bailiff tied him to the seamier side of French life as well. That this widower with three daughters seemed to have disappeared so suddenly caught the attention of the public—and as the lurid details of his murder and murderers became known—the public hungered for more information, a hunger that even extended to what the murderess Bompard ate for lunch in her prison cell.

The outlandish murder case of Alexandre-Toussaint Gouffe became a world-wide sensation, but only after forensic science - then in its infancy -proved Gouffe's identity. Can you describe the state of 19th Century forensic science?

During the second half of nineteenth century, the directors of the Sûreté were devoted to the latest scientific methods, smarter forensics, and a new system created by Louis Adolphe Bertillon for identifying and cataloguing criminals that was the envy of the world. The Bertillon anthropomorphic method of measuring criminals' body parts even brought a high-ranking committee of admirers from London to study it and encourage its adoption back home. The man who really made the case possible was France's premier forensic scientist, Dr. Alexandre Lacassagne, who was able to identify the body from badly decomposed remains. Lacassagne was charismatic, intellectually nimble and widely versed in medicine, biology and philosophy. But as charming as Lacassagne was, there was no escaping the fact that his work was repulsive. He spent so much time up to his elbows in corpses in an era before refrigeration and rubber gloves that he sometimes carried about him a faint odor of rotting flesh. But even the most foul remains did not faze him. His contribution to forensic medicine was vast. He researched how blood flowed in the bodies of the deceased, leading to a method for estimating the time of death. He had the scientist's inquiring mind and was often heard to say: "One must know how to doubt."

The Paris Sûreté was the most successful detective agency in the world. Why were their police methods at that time the envy of the world?

The Sûreté was older and more sophisticated than its British counterpart and dated back to 1811 when Napoleon's prefect of police ordered the convict-turned-superlative sleuth Eugène François Vidocq to form a band of four ex-cons like himself to sniff out and pursue criminals. But by the time of Chief Marie-Francois Goron's arrival, the detective force had moved away from employing ex-cons and was now populated with men who were considered above reproach. The public—recognizing the Sûreté's achievements but mistaking the literary world of crime for reality—regularly expected a swift, happy triumph over evil. Paris detectives were shaped in the popular imagination by the widely read novels of Émile Gaboriau, whose sleuths carefully analyzed clues and used reason and modern science to solve their mysteries.

How did police chief Marie-Francois Goron use the Paris newspapers - then in their "golden age" - along with a very unusual public display to draw the attention to the case?

In Paris, cheap newspapers blanketed the city. In 1881, twenty-three newspapers could be had for a sou, equivalent to about an American penny; by 1899, there were sixty. Le Petit Journal, with a circulation of one million in 1886, and other mass publications defined Parisian culture and the reality of everyday life for their readers. The newspapers were in frantic competition to outdo one another in scandal, murder, and pathos. Acutely aware that the newspapers could be friend or foe, Goron played to reporters with a savvy unknown among his contemporaries. He used all of his considerable showmanship to win them to his side. What reporters wanted most was exclusive information—descriptions of blood-soaked murder weapons, wild behavior of suspects in custody, ghoulish details from autopsies—anything to titillate their readers. Goron, the keeper of criminal secrets, handed out scraps and reaped the rewards. At the same time, he appreciated that journalists could help his investigations. They were amateur sleuths digging up clues Goron's own agents might have overlooked.

In the first days of the investigation, Goron spoon-fed tidbits to the press in hopes of spurring the public's help and keeping press criticism at bay as the probe ran into one dead end after another. Later, Goron used one of the city's most popular attractions: the Paris Morgue to whip up excitement about the case and he hoped unleash some answers about the crime. He put the trunk in which the dead man's remains were found on display in dramatic fashion at the morgue. A daily stream of visitors strolled through the morgue's exhibit room where unidentified children pulled from the Seine, or unknown women murdered in back alleys, were laid out for viewing - sometimes with touching scenic effects. Police relied on the visitors to identify the anonymous dead. So to unleash a frenzy over the Gouffé case Goron set about to displaying the macabre trunk at the morgue.

Michel Eyraud and Gabrielle Bompard offered differing accounts of the murder at the center of "L'affaire Gouffe." How did this grisly murder turn into a landmark criminal case, a first in legal history?

Georges Garanger, Bompard's new lover, brought her back to France from America and proposed that during the crime Gabrielle had been placed under the command of a force she could not resist. Whether he had the idea himself or Gabrielle had cunningly placed it in his head is impossible to know. But he suggested a murder defense that had never been introduced in a court of law. The question he put forward for a jury to decide was this: Did Gabrielle engage in murder while under the hypnotic control of her middle-aged lover, Michel Eyraud?

After receiving guilty verdicts in the sensational trial, Eyraud was executed and Bompard imprisoned. Upon her release after serving a mere 12 years, how did she set the stage for future criminal stars and the attendant celebrity that follows?

Bompard literally had no shame. The years in prison may have calmed her manner, but not quelched her yen for attention. With her lawyer, Henri Robert, working diligently on her behalf, Gabrielle finally won her release from prison on June 8, 1903, having served just twelve years of her twenty-year sentence. She was nearly thirty-five and largely forgotten, but her craving for the spotlight was as strong as ever. She needed a sensational spectacle to mark her return to the national eye. Outside the prison, on a beautiful spring morning, she met with a reporter who noted how small and cheerful she was and that her "face, pale and round, was lit up by big eyes." She said that being free felt very natural to her. "My release," she told the reporter, "didn't make me emotional at all. I didn't cry. I didn't faint." Then she boarded a train at the Clermont-de-l'Oise station and rode the fifty miles to Paris for a publicity-generating lunch. At the fashionable Pavillon d'Armenonville restaurant in the Bois de Boulogne she joined the table of the attention-seeking aeronaut Alberto Santos-Dumont, with whom she had corresponded during her incarceration. Of her afternoon at the Pavillon d'Armenonville with Santos-Dumont and other celebrated characters, Gabrielle said, dreamily, "Oh! A good lunch, a bottle of wine, the crowd—it's nice, it's gay." One observer, however, was disgusted by the sight of "the petite strangler nibbling her dessert in this elegant milieu . . . the memory of her crime not seeming to bother her much."

How did the failure of the hypnotism defense affect both the study of hypnotism and the legal community?

Many in the legal community were relieved that the hypnotism defense had failed. A different result would have had repercussions around the world. Had the defense prevailed, the New York Times wrote, it "would have been a sad blow to the cause of justice at the hands of the French court." Had Gabrielle's lawyers "succeeded in establishing this defense, a wider door would have been opened for the escape of criminals than that thrown open by the first successful plea of insanity in a murder case. The number of 'hypnotized' murderers would have increased alarmingly, and hypnotism would have more crimes to answer for than insanity itself." Afterward, the hypnosis defense was tried rarely and to poor effect.

Can you describe how you became entranced with the story of the Little Demon along with your research? Did you travel to Paris while writing the book? Were you able to draw upon many source materials?

This book got started about eight years ago when I happened upon an academic article titled "Murder Under Hypnosis" by the scholar Ruth Harris. The article recounted Gabrielle Bompard's case, with an emphasis on its role in the courtroom of the Belle Epoque. The piece was irresistible. I read it again and again until I finally understood it—and was hooked on this mesmerizing moment in Parisian history. The research required a trip to Paris so I could walk the same streets that were once home to Eyraud and Gabrielle and Goron and Gouffé and dive into archives and libraries and other institutions. I visited the scene of the crime at 3, rue Tronson du Coudray; Gouffé's home at 13,rue Rougemont; his office at 148, rue Montmartre; the site of the defunct Café Veron on the boulevard Montmartre, where Gouffé had his final aperitif; and other locations along the grand boulevards.

Who have you discovered lately?

One irresistible book for me in the past year or so was The Lost Battles: Leonardo, Michelangelo, and the Artistic Duel That Defined the Renaissance by Jonathan Jones. I've always been fascinated by da Vinci, whose genius, in my humble view, far exceeded that of anyone who has ever walked the earth - so brilliant was he that he seems to me almost other worldly. In The Lost Battles, Jones, the art critic for the Guardian, recounts a competition between an aging da Vinci and a young Michelangelo who were commissioned to paint murals in Florence's Great Council Chamber at the same time. The conflict between these two titans is the stuff of great epics, and Jones's depiction of the art and culture of the time provides a riveting background. To further probe da Vinci's mind, I poked into the recently published Learning from Leonardo: Decoding the Notebooks of a Genius by Fritjof Capra, a remarkably lucid study of what actually exists in da Vinci's notebooks and how his notes and drawings reveal his unique understanding of the natural designs and mechanisms at work in the world.

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