Murder and Mesmerism

A true-crime tale

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

I am a sucker for long, descriptive nonfiction book titles (think Close to Shore: The Terrifying Shark Attacks of 1916 or Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex).  So when I saw the title of Steven Levingtson’s true crime tale, Little Demon in the City of Light: a True Story of Murder and Mesmerism in Belle Epoque Paris, I was immediately intrigued. 

The fact that the book sounded remarkably similar to another true crime account, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, by Erik Larson, was actually a plus, since that book stands up as an all-time favorite for its juicy historical detail and chilling, grisly suspense. Mix in the glamorous setting (Paris) and hypnosis, and it adds up to a perfect summertime read for anyone who enjoys mysteries, forensic science or courtroom drama.

The story begins with the scandalous murder of Toussaint-Augusin Gouffé, a wealthy Parisian widower, in 1889. The crime is ripe for lurid headlines—details emerge that Gouffé had been strangled with the silk cord of his mistress’s dressing gown. The mistress, Gabrielle Bompard, nicknamed “Little Demon” by the press, is charged as an accomplice. The accused murderer: her lover, Michel Eyraud, a con man with a cloudy past. Even more shocking is Bompard’s claim that Eyraud used hypnotism to mesmerize her into participating in the fatal deed.

This was a groundbreaking case, the first time that mesmerism (hypnosis) was put forth as a defense in court. Levingston delves into the history of hypnosis and the various schools of thought regarding the culpability of people who have been hypnotized. 

The case was for some time an unsolved mystery: Gouffé disappeared, and it wasn’t until his body was found, stuffed unceremoniously into a trunk and abandoned along a country road, that police knew a crime had been committed.

Levingston follows the detective work of inspectors from the Paris Sûreté as they piece together what happened, identify the main suspects, and track their movements after they fled to Canada posing as father and daughter.

Then the story becomes a courtroom thriller, pitting the prosecution against the defense, expert witness against expert witness. Particularly interesting is the way the chief of police manipulated the media in order to keep public attention and outrage to a fever pitch. The previous year, Jack the Ripper had readers agog from England to the Continent, and the French tabloids were quick to capitalize on the grim and titillating trial.

Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System.  Perkins reviews fiction for Library Journal and loves discussing books each month with friends in two local book clubs.

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