by Steven Levingston
In 1889, Michel Eyraud and Gabrielle Bompard murdered a man in Paris, stuffed his body in a trunk, and dumped it in a remote part of Lyon. When the badly decayed body was discovered soon after, police struggled to identify the victim. Forensic science was still in its infancy, but the man’s identity was recovered: Alexandre-Toussaint Gouffé. His murderers were soon identified, and a massive manhunt ensued. Bompard was convinced to turn herself in, offering a most curious rationale for her sensational deeds: Michel Eyraud had mesmerized her so that she could not resist his will and forced her to assist in the murder through hypnotism. At the height of the Belle Epoque, hypnotism was all the rage, and issues of control and free will were hotly debated in academic circles. Yes, individuals under the influence of a mesmerist were highly suggestible, but could they really be forced to kill against their will?
Levingston’s account of the murder and the flight of Bompard and Eyraud moves at a quick and snappy pace. The tale of forensic investigation and a manhunt that crossed the Atlantic Ocean is quite exciting, reading more like a thrilling novel than a recitation of facts. I thought that the most interesting passages were the description of Alexandre Lacassagne’s examination of the murder victim’s corpse. The chief of forensic medicine at the University of Lyon, Lacassagne’s observation skills and knowledge proved critical to identifying Gouffé and bringing his murderers to justice.
Whenever the narrative veers into the scholarly debate over hypnotism, it screeches to a halt. The energy of the police investigation gets bogged down as different doctors and university professors lecture tirelessly on their pet theories. The trial was quite sluggish (as trials often are) and
From our twenty-first century perspective, it seems clear that Gabrielle Bompard was suffering from some sort of mental illness. Bompard’s easily suggestible nature, habitual lying, and detachment when describing her crime indicate a highly fragile state of mind. It was obvious to many that something was amiss; at one point a contemporary described her as “perverse and naïve”. Her pursuit of celebrity both immediately after the murder came to light and in the years after her release from prison is disturbing, both as an aspect of her personality and the fascination humanity has with murderers and their dark deeds.
3.5 out of 5 stars
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Peeking into the archives...today in:
2013: Evyione: Ocean Fantasy Vol. 1 by Kim Young-Hee
2012: The Left Hand of God: A Biography of the Holy Spirit by Adolf Holl
2011: Madame Tussaud by Michelle Moran
2010: Dawn of the Dreadfuls by Steve Hockensmith
2009: When the Soul Mends by Cindy Woodsmall