Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Mesmerism and Murder: Review of Steven Levingston's Little Demon in the City of Light

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

In the late 18th century, a German physician named Franz Mesmer used what he initially called "animal magnetism" to hypnotize subjects in order, presumably, to cure their physical and emotional ills.Throughout the following century, hypnotism spread like wildfire through the clinics and drawing rooms of fashionable Europe and North America; part parlor game, part pure charlatanism, and part science. According to the literature of the period, quite ordinary people could easily learn the technique and practice it on their friends, to the amazement and occasional embarrassment of their subjects.

By the 1880s, there were two major reputable schools of thought on the topic. In Paris, the famous neurologist Jenan-Martin Charcot, whose students included the young Sigmund Freud, associated the ability to be hypnotized with hysteria, a mental instability he observed and treated particularly in women. He did not believe, however, that anyone could be coerced to extreme or immoral behavior under hypnotism. Jules Liégeois of the Nancy school had experimented extensively with hypnotism and firmly believed that the personal will of the subject could be completely submerged and directed by the hypnotist. While this view offered startling unpleasant perspectives to religions and the legal system, it had been tested in court only once. In 1879, a dentist had been convicted of rape upon a hypnotized patient, whose helplessness and lack of free will was accepted by the court.

The Belle Epoque period in France paralleled the Gilded Age in the United States, and was every bit as garish. Painters, playwrights, and scientists were producing new sensations every day, even as the seedy, sexy Victorian period grudgingly yielded to the more refined Edwardian Age. In 1889, Paris hosted the largest exhibition ever produced. Mr. Eiffel's marvelous tower (the tallest structure in the world) loomed over the Exhibition and the vast glass Hall of Machines was over four football fields in length.

Into this Parisian stew of lavish sensationalism arrived young Gabrielle Bompard, fleeing from an unhappy home. Her mother had died when she was only five, and her governess was installed in her father's bed even before her mother was buried. Gabrielle had been sent away; first to live with an uncle, then to a succession of convent schools, from all of which she was sent home in disgrace. Neglected, undisciplined, attractive and sexually mature, she was ripe for trouble.

In Paris, she soon ran out of money and became the mistress of businessman and con man Michael Eyraud. Despite his wife and children at home, Eyraud proudly escorted his new young mistress about town. Being very easily hypnotized, Gabrielle provided a reliable bit of amusement in the salons of the jaded city. When Eyraud lost his job for embezzling funds, the pair needed cash, and quickly. Whose idea it was to entrap and rob their wealthy acquaintance Toussaint-Augustin Gouffé is not clear, but on the evening of July 26, 1889, Gabrielle invited Gouffé to visit her rooms. She and Eyraud had laid their plans carefully; installing a pulley to hang their victim and purchasing a large trunk in London to hold the body. But the pulley came loose, and Eyraud was forced to strangle their victim, who the couple had assumed to be carrying a large sum of money. Afterwards, the couple loaded Gouffé's body into a large trunk that they had shipped with them when they fled the city. They dumped the body in a river, and broke up and discarded the trunk farther downstream before hiding out temporarily with Eyraud's brother in Marseille.

It took months and a second autopsy before the stinking corpse pulled from the river was positively identified as Gouffé's. Newly appointed Sûreté chief Marie-François Goron and his staff pursued the criminals for many months over three continents, always barely missing them, before Gabrielle turned up at the Sûreté with her new wealthy lover––another of Eyraud's intended victims. Gabrielle claimed that she had been hypnotized by Eyraud and forced to aid him in the crime. Eyraud was finally captured in Cuba, and brought home to face trial.

The trial was an international sensation, and the French system of justice quite an eye-opener to me. The judge was unabashedly biased in his opening to the jury (this is permitted.) The co-conspirators were tried together, and were permitted to shout out to the court or each other directly during testimony. Gabrielle had been examined by a number of hypnotism experts appointed by the court, but a specialist proposed by the defense was not even permitted to talk to her. There appeared to be no public doubt about Eyraud's guilt, but much about Gabrielle's, who had courted public favor for months before his capture. By US legal standards, it was a circus, not a trial, and newspapers around the world loved it.

If you enjoyed Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, you will very likely enjoy this book, which is also the story of a true crime set in a major city during glamorous and hectic times. It is told in a factual rather than a sensational style, but is by no means dry. Little Demon in the City of Light has no need of added drama; the incredible facts of the case, the extended manhunt, and the dramatic courtroom scenes need no embellishment. Was Gabrielle in fact hypnotized by her lover, as she claimed, during the commission of the murder? If so, to what extent did that erode her free will and affect her complicity? What effect did––or should––her dismal upbringing and circumstances have on determining her responsibility? The author carefully refrains from sharing his opinions, leaving it to the reader to decide. There are easily half a dozen points in this book stimulating enough to engage a book discussion group. Highly recommended!

Note: I received a free advanced readers' copy of Little Demon in the City of Light, which will be released in the US on February 25, 2014 by Doubleday. Similar reviews may appear on various sites under my user names there.

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