The conspirators emptied Gouffé’s pockets, jammed his body into a trunk, loaded it into a coach and fled Paris for the countryside. An innkeeper who moved the trunk, Levingston writes, “felt the contents shift inside; the sticky, wine-coloured substance oozing from the bottom . . . he assumed, was just paint.” In early August, Gouffé’s corpse was discovered at the foot of an embankment south of Lyon. The smell had filled the air for weeks. The body was decomposed, and the autopsy conducted by an inexperienced medical examiner ensured that it would be months before a link was made with the missing Gouffé.
Levingston describes the crime and its immediate aftermath with admirable restraint and with a keen eye for details that evoke a squalid apartment and complex characters. Marie-François Goron, chief of the Paris Sûreté, was a “stout bundle of energy” whose hair was “ ‘tawny colored,’ as his schoolmate, the novelist Émile Gautier, put it, and ‘cropped like a rat.’ ” A detective of formidable intellect, tenacity and instinct, Goron doggedly pursued the clues connecting the Paris murder scene to the decomposing corpse outside Lyon and then to the killers, who initially escaped to the United States.
On Jan. 22, 1890, Bompard turned herself in at the Paris prefecture, protesting her innocence. Prone to fainting fits and bouts of hysteria, she insisted that Eyraud had forced her to act as his accomplice by hypnotizing her and enslaving her will. This innovative defense turned her trial into a symposium on the power of hypnosis and the nature of criminal culpability.
Levingston not only explains but also animates the debate raging at the time between scientists based in Nancy, France, who argued that “nearly anyone could be placed into a hypnotic state through the power of suggestion” and those in Paris who maintained that “hypnosis was a form of neurosis and [that] hysterics were the most susceptible to hypnosis.”
In lively scenes from the 1889 Congress of Experimental and Therapeutic Hypnotism and from Bompard’s trial, at which expert witnesses from each scientific camp testified, Levingston vividly conveys both the passion and the pomposity of learned men.
On the brink of a new century, some of the arguments presented now seem darkly prescient. “If, as [one expert] contended, hypnotists can turn anyone into an automaton, then a cunning devil could put an entire society under his spell,” an opponent from the Paris school argued. “A political adventurer could stir up mass unrest.” (Levingston reminds us that just months before, a charismatic general had launched an abortive military coup in Paris.)
While Paris — along with the European and American press — was captivated by the Bompard trial, the hunt continued for Eyraud, who was arrested in May 1890 in Cuba. His presence in the Paris courtroom further inflamed the rowdy audience and dueling lawyers. “In the dock, Gabrielle watched the hullabaloo, laughing” as Eyraud “sat motionless, dark-eyed and smoldering.” The guillotine was ready for one or both, and the book moves toward the
conclusion of an engaging — and finally chilling — portrait of an uneasy era and a city of more shadow than light.
Mundow is a freelance journalist and reviewer.