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.
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.
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.
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.