Monday, April 28, 2014

The limits of hypnotism & perversity explored in the Belle Epoch crime story, LITTLE DEMON IN THE CITY OF LIGHT


LITTLE DEMON IN THE CITY OF LIGHT: A True Story of Murder and Mesmerism in Belle Epoch Paris (1880-1914) recreates an era of giddy entertainment and eccentricity. Paris was a place of incessant spectacle. Clubs featured Jane Avril's bawdy dancing, a boxing kangaroo and even a bizarre vaudevillian, who sang Clair du Lune from his anus. Sarah Bernhardt’s pet tiger and the coffin in her bedroom made eccentricity glamorous. 

There were also dazzling achievements in the Paris Exposition of the Future, the Eiffel Tower, the tallest building in the world, a vast Hall of Machines and Edison's phonograph. But while optimism for the new century was high, so also was fear of what was to come. The fragile Republic was in danger of collapse and syphilis made madmen of nobles and low-born alike. People became fascinated with the macabre and lined up, as though for a picture show, at the morgue for viewings of the newly dead. They also bought new wide circulation newspapers that sensationalized the bloodiest of crimes.

In LITTLE DEMON IN THE CITY OF LIGHT, Steve Levingston shows how this mix of optimism and fear set the stage for a strangely theatrical crime. It also accounts for an mass unease about hypnotism, in its heyday--a common cure for headaches and cramps. Amateurs put their friends in trances, society ladies held hypnosis salons, traveling shows featured entranced people, who would strip down, bark like a dog or bite a potato and call it an apple. While the public appetite remained, there were fears. Could a person commit a crime unknowingly? Could a hypnotized group overthrow a government? 

Charcot, a Parisian medical authority on Hysteria (the mental illness catch-all of the era), was convinced an entranced person could not be coerced to abandon their “moral reserve” and commit a crime. In Nancy, outside Paris,  Liegois, a lawyer, was able to demonstrate hypnotized subjects that shot guns and administered poisons. All powers of reason and judgment were lost in chilling experiments, where subjects became automatons, acting at the will of the hypnotist.

The debate might have remained academic, but for Gabrielle Bumpard. This lovely, if troubled, young woman fled her wealthy family to travel to Paris. Though adventurous and headstrong, Gabrielle was a remarkably receptive hypnotic subject. After a few months, her money gone, she went to a trading company to ask for a job. In the Director's chair, she met Michel Eyraud. Over dinner, she stared into his intense eyes and became “putty in his hands.”

A year after Gabrielle came to Paris, they faced the guillotine, accused of a horrific crime. How they got there is the fantastic story of the Inspector Goron, head of the Paris detective bureau. Deftly, he dealt with a press hot on his heels, criticizing his lack of progress. The case hinged on persistence and chance. At first, Goron had just a routine disappearance of  a wealthy man, who wore an expensive ring. Then there was a corpse in a smashed trunk smelling up the countryside. How he connected the corpse with the missing man, was a triumph of  instinct and skill at the new science of criminology.  

There is also the saga of criminals on the run with multiple identities. From San Francisco, to London, back to Paris, where, unexpectedly, Gabrielle, who managed to escape Eyraud, turns herself in. Finally, the heroine of tabloids, the "Little Demon" finds the spotlight she’s always craved. But she must answer her interrogators and her memory is strangely arbitrary. Hypnosis becomes her defense, the first in any legal system. When Eyraud is finally run to the ground, the trial begins. What’s at stake is no less than the viability of the French judicial system. If Gabrielle is found not responsible for her actions, then criminals will have an easy defense. The French also fear their nation is sliding into degeneracy, personified by a murder staged as though it were a bedroom farce.

Yet while Eyraud is revealed as a delusional brute, Gabrielle is an enigma. Is she an amoral demon or the passive instrument of a con man, who asserted his control by hypnosis, guile and terror? That she was beaten was unsurprising; women were commonly compared to cutlets, "the more you beat them the tenderer they are." But Gabrielle was said to live in terror of her lover, truth or hysteria? Red marks were observed on her neck. 

For the school of Nancy, Gabrielle was not guilty, unable to resist hypnotic suggestion. For Paris, she was a degenerate, responsible for her actions and worthy of the guillotine. In the end, a kind of justice was served. And Inspector Goron was celebrated until another day, when politics took his job. Levingston credits Goron’s memoir of the case, as a source for this enthralling book.

In our day, modern defenses of under the influence usually mean drugs or alcohol. Only occasionally do you hear of  the animal mesmerism of one person bending another completely to their will. Charcot cited the age-old idea of human dominance, strong over the weak, not  hypnotic suggestion, as the source of control over Gabriel. Yet she fits hypnotism's fugue-like consciousness. We have come some distance in accepting that state as an excuse for a crime. There was a recent case where a driver of a car in an accident was declared not guilty, because they were under the influence of a hypnotic sleeping medication.

This is the best true story I have read in recent memory. It's in the tradition of some great literature, like Poe's Murders in the Rue Morgue, a fiction no stranger than the reality of LITTLE DEMON IN THE CITY OF LIGHT. In Livingston’s hands, fact is as potent as fiction.

S.W.