On a summer evening in 1889, Toussaint-Augustin Gouffé, a wealthy, handsome widower, had dinner with friends in Paris. Afterward, he went alone to an apartment building on a quiet side street, where he was to meet an acquaintance’s former mistress for a rendezvous. He was never seen alive again.
The story behind Gouffé’s disappearance — later revealed as a grisly murder, theatrically staged and involving hypnosis and hanging — is the subject of Steven Levingston’s fascinating new book. “Little Demon in the City of Light” chronicles an infamous case, shedding light on glamorous belle époque Paris, the advancing field of forensic science, and the era’s obsession with hypnosis.
The book opens with the murder plot. Gouffé heads off on that fateful night for an assignation with a troubled 21-year-old woman, Gabrielle Bompard, the titular “Little Demon.’’
The elaborately planned robbery and murder is set in motion by Michel Eyraud, a reckless, middle-age con man who has persuaded Gouffé that Bompard is attracted to him. (In fact, the married Eyraud and Bompard were lovers.)
Bompard would later tell police that Eyraud was physically abusive and “stole [her] free will.” She also claimed that Eyraud had placed her under hypnosis, that she was not responsible for her actions, and was nothing more than a mere puppet in the crime.
Regardless, she stood in silence as Eyraud dumped the victim into the Rhône River, just outside of Lyon, where it was discovered. For their trouble, the couple netted a sapphire-and-diamond ring and 150 francs from their victim’s pocket.
It took months for police to identify the body. In recounting the investigation, Levingston, an editor at The Washington Post, explores the painstaking work of Dr. Alexandre Lacassagne, France’s premier forensic scientist, in identifying the badly decomposed body and the dogged determination of Marie-François Goron, the charismatic chief detective of the national police, in sorting out the suspects.
Catching and arresting the pair, however, would prove challenging. After the crime, Bompard and her lover fled, making their way to the United States and landing in San Francisco, where they adopted aliases and Eyraud posed as a “sophisticated French vintner.”
Bompard abandoned her lover in favor of a new one who persuaded her to turn herself in. Afterward she seemed to bask in the glow of her criminal fame and was judged as both cunning and innocent by observers.
This sensationalistic case drew attention not just across France but all over the world. The resulting publicity eventually helped lead to the arrest of Eyraud in Havana.
In the final third of the book, Levingston retraces Bompard and Eyraud’s dramatic, entertaining trial and the hotly debated issue of whether a claim of hypnosis could eliminate culpability. (The prosecutor urged the jury to send Bompard and Eyraud to the guillotine.)
As Levingston explains, belle époque Paris brought about the heyday of hypnosis. Doctors used it to treat everything from chronic headaches to menstrual cramps. The Gouffé murder would mark the first time that hypnosis was used as a defense maneuver at trial.
“Little Demon in the City of Light” offers a rich portrait of the period, as well as the intriguing story of a notorious murder case, with its strange (and often amusing) cast of characters. As for the outcome? You’ll have to read this lively, well-researched book to find out.
Carmela Ciuraru, editor of several anthologies and author of “Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms,” can be reached at email@example.com.