Reexamination of a 19th century crime in Paris features froth, substance

The title of Steven Levingston’s new book has a quaintly sensational ring to it; this could be a Pathe Newsreel headline, intoned over a jolly accordion soundtrack. Levingston’s writing, at its most exuberant, echoes that style. It has an old-fashioned gusto that verges on gee-whizzery. Paris in the 1880s was “an urban carnival … that floated on a champagne bubble”; Marseille was “full of mystery and surprise, populated by tough and tanned natives”; while San Francisco was the “outlaw kingdom on the bay.” We anticipate rumbling carriages and ruined women and are not disappointed. But Levingston, the nonfiction book editor of The Washington Post, provides substance beneath the froth in his investigation of a crime that became a philosophical and scientific cause celebre.

On the evening of July 26, 1889, Augustin Gouffe, a prosperous businessman and gadabout, bumped into Michel Eyraud, an unsavory acquaintance. Gouffe was delighted to hear that Eyraud’s young girlfriend, Gabrielle Bompard, had left Eyraud and that she would welcome Gouffe at her apartment later that evening. Gouffe had barely settled into the assignation, however, when he was strangled by Eyraud.

The conspirators emptied Gouffe’s pockets, jammed his body into a trunk, loaded it into a coach and fled to the countryside. An innkeeper who moved the trunk, Levingston writes, “felt the contents shift inside; the sticky, wine-coloured substance oozing from the bottom … he assumed, was just paint.” In early August, Gouffe’s corpse was discovered at the foot of an embankment south of Lyon.

Levingston describes the crime and its immediate aftermath with admirable restraint and with a keen eye for details that evoke a squalid apartment and complex characters. Marie-Francois Goron, chief of the Paris Surete, was a “stout bundle of energy.” A detective of formidable intellect, tenacity and instinct, Goron doggedly pursued the clues connecting the Paris murder scene to the decomposing corpse and then to the killers, who initially escaped to the United States.

On Jan. 22, 1890, Bompard turned herself in at the Paris prefecture. Prone to fainting fits and hysteria, she insisted that Eyraud had forced her to act as his accomplice by hypnotizing her. This innovative defense turned her trial into a symposium on the power of hypnosis and the nature of criminal culpability. Levingston animates the debate raging at the time between scientists in Nancy, who argued that “nearly anyone could be placed into a hypnotic state through the power of suggestion” and those in Paris who maintained that “hypnosis was a form of neurosis and that hysterics were the most susceptible to hypnosis.”

While Paris, along with the European and American press, was captivated by the Bompard trial, the hunt continued for Eyraud, who was arrested in May 1890 in Cuba. His presence in the Paris courtroom further inflamed the rowdy audience and dueling lawyers. “In the dock, Gabrielle watched the hullabaloo, laughing” as Eyraud “sat motionless, dark-eyed and smoldering.” The guillotine was ready for one or both, and the book moves toward the conclusion of an engaging — and finally chilling — portrait of an uneasy era and a city of more shadow than light.

Anne Mundow reviewed this book for the Washington Post.