February 3rd, 2015
(Thanks to Harry Brodribb Irving for the guest post, originally published in his Book of Remarkable Criminals. Some formatting has been adjusted for readability. -ed.)
On July 27, in the year 1889, the Parisian police were informed of the disappearance of one Gouffe, a bailiff. He had been last seen by two friends on the Boulevard Montmartre at about ten minutes past seven on the evening of the 26th, a Friday. Since then nothing had been heard of him, either at his office in the Rue Montmartre, or at his private house in the Rue Rougemont. This was surprising in the case of a man of regular habits even in his irregularities, robust health, and cheerful spirits.
Gouffe was a widower, forty-two years of age. He had three daughters who lived happily with him in the Rue Rougemont. He did a good trade as bailiff and process-server, and at times had considerable sums of money in his possession. These he would never leave behind him at his office, but carry home at the end of the day’s work, except on Fridays. Friday nights Gouffe always spent away from home. As the society he sought on these nights was of a promiscuous character, he was in the habit of leaving at his office any large sum of money that had come into his hands during the day.
About nine o’clock on this particular Friday night, July 26, the hall-porter at Gouffe’s office in the Rue Montmartre heard someone, whom he had taken at first to be the bailiff himself, enter the hall and go upstairs to the office, where he remained a few minutes. As he descended the stairs the porter came out of his lodge and, seeing it was a stranger, accosted him. But the man hurried away without giving the porter time to see his face.
When the office was examined the next day everything was found in perfect order, and a sum of 14,000 francs, hidden away behind some papers, untouched. The safe had not been tampered with; there was, in short, nothing unusual about the room except ten long matches that were lying half burnt on the floor.
On hearing of the bailiff’s disappearance and the mysterious visitor to his office, the police, who were convinced that Gouffe had been the victim of some criminal design, inquired closely into his habits, his friends, his associates, men and women. But the one man who could have breathed the name that would have set the police on the track of the real culprits was, for reasons of his own, silent. The police examined many persons, but without arriving at any useful result.
However, on August 15, in a thicket at the foot of a slope running down from the road that passes through the district of Millery, about ten miles from Lyons, a roadmender, attracted by a peculiar smell, discovered the remains of what appeared to be a human body. They were wrapped in a cloth, but so decomposed as to make identification almost impossible. M. Goron, at that time head of the Parisian detective police, believed them to be the remains of Gouffe, but a relative of the missing man, whom he sent to Lyons, failed to identify them. Two days after the discovery of the corpse, there were found near Millery the broken fragments of a trunk, the lock of which fitted a key that had been picked up near the body. A label on the trunk showed that it had been dispatched from Paris to Lyons on July 27, 188-, but the final figure of the date was obliterated. Reference to the books of the railway company showed that on July 27, 1889, the day following the disappearance of Gouffe, a trunk similar in size and weight to that found near Millery had been sent from Paris to Lyons.
The judicial authorities at Lyons scouted the idea that either the corpse or the trunk found at Millery had any connection with the disappearance of Gouffe. When M. Goron, bent on following up what he believed to be important clues, went himself to Lyons he found that the remains, after being photographed, had been interred in the common burying-ground. The young doctor who had made the autopsy produced triumphantly some hair taken from the head of the corpse and showed M. Goron that whilst Gouffe’s hair was admittedly auburn and cut short, this was black, and had evidently been worn long. M. Goron, after looking carefully at the hair, asked for some distilled water. He put the lock of hair into it and, after a few minutes’ immersion, cleansed of the blood, grease and dust that had caked them together, the hairs appeared clearly to be short and auburn. The doctor admitted his error.
Fortified by this success, Goron was able to procure the exhumation of the body. A fresh autopsy was performed by Dr. Lacassagne, the eminent medical jurist of the Lyons School of Medicine. He was able to pronounce with certainty that the remains were those of the bailiff, Gouffe. An injury to the right ankle, a weakness of the right leg, the absence of a particular tooth and other admitted peculiarities in Gouffe’s physical conformation, were present in the corpse, placing its identity beyond question. This second post-mortem revealed furthermore an injury to the thyroid cartilage of the larynx that had been inflicted beyond any doubt whatever, declared Dr. Lacassagne, before death.
There was little reason to doubt that Gouffe had been the victim of murder by strangulation.
But by whom had the crime been committed? It was now the end of November. Four months had passed since the bailiff’s murder, and the police had no clue to its perpetrators. At one time a friend of Gouffe’s had been suspected and placed under arrest, but he was released for want of evidence.
One day toward the close of November, in the course of a conversation with M. Goron, a witness who had known Gouffe surprised him by saying abruptly, “There’s another man who disappeared about the same time as Gouffe.” M. Goron pricked up his ears. The witness explained that he had not mentioned the fact before, as he had not connected it with his friend’s disappearance; the man’s name, he said, was Eyraud, Michel Eyraud, M. Goron made some inquires as to this Michel Eyraud. He learnt that he was a married man, forty-six years of age, once a distiller at Sevres, recently commission-agent to a bankrupt firm, that he had left France suddenly, about the time of the disappearance of Gouffe, and that he had a mistress, one Gabrielle Bompard, who had disappeared with him. Instinctively M. Goron connected this fugitive couple with the fate of the murdered bailiff.
Confirmation of his suspicions was to come from London. The remains of the trunk found at Millery had been skilfully put together and exposed at the Morgue in Paris, whilst the Gouffe family had offered a reward of 500 francs to anybody who could in any way identify the trunk. Beyond producing a large crop of anonymous letters, in one of which the crime was attributed to General Boulanger, then in Jersey, these measures seemed likely to prove fruitless. But one day in December, from the keeper of a boarding-house in Gower Street, M. Goron received a letter informing him that the writer believed that Eyraud and Gabrielle Bompard had stayed recently at his house, and that on July 14 the woman, whom he knew only as “Gabrielle,” had left for France, crossing by Newhaven and Dieppe, and taking with her a large and almost empty trunk, which she had purchased in London. Inquires made by the French detectives established the correctness of this correspondent’s information. An assistant at a trunk shop in the Euston Road was able to identify the trunk — brought over from Paris for the purpose — as one purchased in his shop on July 12 by a Frenchman answering to the description of Michel Eyraud. The wife of the boarding-house keeper recollected having expressed to Gabrielle her surprise that she should buy such an enormous piece of luggage when she had only one dress to put into it. “Oh that’s all right,” answered Gabrielle smilingly, “we shall have plenty to fill it with in Paris!” Gabrielle had gone to Paris with the trunk on July 14, come back to London on the 17th, and on the 20th she and Eyraud returned together to Paris. From these facts it seemed more than probable that these two were the assassins so eagerly sought for by the police, and it seemed clear also that the murder had been done in Paris. But what had become of this couple, in what street, in what house in Paris had the crime been committed? These were questions the police were powerless to answer.
The year 1889 came to an end, the murderers were still at large. But on January 21, 1890, M. Goron found lying on his table a large letter bearing the New York postmark. He opened it, and to his astonishment read at the end the signature “Michel Eyraud.” It was a curious letter, but undoubtedly genuine. In it Eyraud protested against the suspicions directed against himself; they were, he wrote, merely unfortunate coincidences. Gouffe had been his friend; he had had no share whatever in his death; his only misfortune had been his association with “that serpent, Gabrielle Bompard.” He had certainly bought a large trunk for her, but she told him that she had sold it. They had gone to America together, he to avoid financial difficulties in which he had been involved by the dishonesty of the Jews. There Gabrielle had deserted him for another man. He concluded a very long letter by declaring his belief in Gabrielle’s innocence — “the great trouble with her is that she is such a liar and also has a dozen lovers after her.” He promised that, as soon as he learnt that Gabrielle had returned to Paris, he would, of his own free will, place himself in the hands of M. Goron.
He was to have an early opportunity of redeeming his pledge, for on the day following the receipt of his letter a short, well-made woman, dressed neatly in black, with dyed hair, greyish-blue eyes, good teeth, a disproportionately large head and a lively and intelligent expression of face, presented herself at the Prefecture of Police and asked for an interview with the Prefect.
Requested to give her name, she replied, with a smile, “Gabrielle Bompard.” She was accompanied by a middle-aged gentleman, who appeared to be devoted to her. Gabrielle Bompard and her friend were taken to the private room of M. Loze, the Prefect of Police. There, in a half-amused way, without the least concern, sitting at times on the edge of the Prefect’s writing-table, Gabrielle Bompard told how she had been the unwilling accomplice of her lover, Eyraud, in the murder of the bailiff, Gouffe. The crime, she stated, had been committed in No. 3 in the Rue Tronson-Ducoudray, but she had not been present; she knew nothing of it but what had been told her by Eyraud. After the murder she had accompanied him to America; there they had met the middle-aged gentleman, her companion. Eyraud had proposed that they should murder and rob him, but she had divulged the plot to the gentleman and asked him to take her away. It was acting on his advice that she had returned to France, determined to give her evidence to the judicial authorities in Paris. The middle-aged gentleman declared himself ready to vouch for the truth of a great part of this interesting narrative. There they both imagined apparently that the affair would be ended. They were extremely surprised when the Prefect, after listening to their statements, sent for a detective-inspector who showed Gabrielle Bompard a warrant for her arrest. After an affecting parting, at least on the part of the middle-aged gentleman, Gabrielle Bompard was taken to prison. There she soon recovered her spirits, which had at no time been very gravely depressed by her critical situation.
According to Eyraud’s letters, if anyone knew anything about Gouffe’s murder, it was Gabrielle Bompard; according to the woman’s statement, it was Eyraud, and Eyraud alone, who had committed it. As they were both liars — the woman perhaps the greater liar of the two — their statements are not to be taken as other than forlorn attempts to shift the blame on to each other’s shoulders.
Before extracting from their various avowals, which grew more complete as time went on, the story of the crime, let us follow Eyraud in his flight from justice, which terminated in the May of 1890 by his arrest in Havana.
Immediately after the arrest of Gabrielle, two French detectives set out for America to trace and run down if possible her deserted lover. For more than a month they traversed Canada and the United States in search of their prey. The track of the fugitive was marked from New York to San Francisco by acts of thieving and swindling. At the former city he had made the acquaintance of a wealthy Turk, from whom, under the pretence of wishing to be photographed in it, he had borrowed a magnificent oriental robe. The photograph was taken, but Eyraud forgot to return the costly robe.
At another time he was lodging in the same house as a young American actor, called in the French accounts of the incident “Sir Stout.” To “Sir Stout” Eyraud would appear to have given a most convincing performance of the betrayed husband; his wife, he said, had deserted him for another man; he raved and stormed audibly in his bedroom, deploring his fate and vowing vengeance. These noisy representations so impressed “Sir Stout” that, on the outraged husband declaring himself to be a Mexican for the moment without funds, the benevolent comedian lent him eighty dollars, which, it is almost needless to add, he never saw again. In narrating this incident to the French detectives, “Sir Stout” describes Eyraud’s performance as great, surpassing even those of Coquelin.
Similar stories of theft and debauchery met the detectives at every turn, but, helped in a great measure by the publicity the American newspapers gave to the movements of his pursuers, Eyraud was able to elude them, and in March they returned to France to concert further plans for his capture.
Eyraud had gone to Mexico. From there he had written a letter to M. Rochefort’s newspaper, L’Intransigeant, in which he declared Gouffe to have been murdered by Gabrielle and an unknown. But, when official inquiries were made in Mexico as to his whereabouts, the bird had flown.
At Havana, in Cuba, there lived a French dressmaker and clothes-merchant named Puchen. In the month of February a stranger, ragged and unkempt, but evidently a fellow-countryman, visited her shop and offered to sell her a superb Turkish costume. The contrast between the wretchedness of the vendor and the magnificence of his wares struck Madame Puchen at the time. But her surprise was converted into suspicion when she read in the American newspapers a description of the Turkish garment stolen by Michel Eyraud, the reputed assassin of the bailiff Gouffe. It was one morning in the middle of May that Mme. Puchen read the description of the robe that had been offered her in February by her strange visitor. To her astonishment, about two o’clock the same afternoon, she saw the stranger standing before her door. She beckoned to him, and asked him if he still had his Turkish robe with him; he seemed confused, and said that he had sold it. The conversation drifted on to ordinary topics; the stranger described some of his recent adventures in Mexico. “Oh!” exclaimed the dressmaker, “they say Eyraud, the murderer, is in Mexico! Did you come across him? Were you in Paris at the time of the murder?” The stranger answered in the negative, but his face betrayed his uneasiness. “Do you know you’re rather like him?” said the woman, in a half-joking way. The stranger laughed, and shortly after went out, saying he would return. He did return on May 15, bringing with him a number of the Republique Illustree that contained an almost unrecognisable portrait of Eyraud. He said he had picked it up in a cafe. “What a blackguard he looks!” he exclaimed as he threw the paper on the table. But the dressmaker’s suspicions were not allayed by the stranger’s uncomplimentary reference to the murderer. As soon as he had gone, she went to the French Consul and told him her story.
By one of those singular coincidences that are inadmissable in fiction or drama, but occur at times in real life, there happened to be in Havana, of all places, a man who had been employed by Eyraud at the time that he had owned a distillery at Sevres. The Consul, on hearing the statement of Mme. Puchen, sent for this man and told him that a person believed to be Eyraud was in Havana. As the man left the Consulate, whom should he meet in the street but Eyraud himself! The fugitive had been watching the movements of Mme. Puchen; he had suspected, after the interview, that the woman would denounce him to the authorities. He now saw that disguise was useless. He greeted his ex-employe, took him into a cafe, there admitted his identity and begged him not to betray him. It was midnight when they left the cafe. Eyraud, repenting of his confidence, and no doubt anxious to rid himself of a dangerous witness, took his friend into an ill-lighted and deserted street; but the friend, conscious of his delicate situation, hailed a passing cab and made off as quickly as he could.
Next day, the 20th, the search for Eyraud was set about in earnest. The Spanish authorities, informed of his presence in Havana, directed the police to spare no effort to lay hands on him. The Hotel Roma, at which he had been staying, was visited; but Eyraud, scenting danger, had gone to an hotel opposite the railway station. His things were packed ready for flight on the following morning. How was he to pass the night? True to his instincts, a house of ill-fame, at which he had been entertained already, seemed the safest and most pleasant refuge; but, when, seedy and shabby, he presented himself at the door, he was sent back into the street. It was past one in the morning. The lonely murderer wandered aimlessly in the streets, restless, nervous, a prey to apprehension, not knowing where to go. Again the man from Sevres met him. “It’s all up with me!” said Eyraud, and disappeared in the darkness. At two in the morning a police officer, who had been patrolling the town in search of the criminal, saw, in the distance, a man walking to and fro, seemingly uncertain which way to turn. Hearing footsteps the man turned round and walked resolutely past the policeman, saying good-night in Spanish. “Who are you? What’s your address?” the officer asked abruptly. “Gorski, Hotel Roma!” was the answer. This was enough for the officer. Eyraud was know[n] to have passed as “Gorski,” the Hotel Roma had already been searched as one of his hiding-places. To seize and handcuff “Gorski” was the work of a moment. An examination of the luggage left by the so-called Gorski at his last hotel and a determined attempt at suicide made by their prisoner during the night proved conclusively that to the Spanish police was the credit of having laid by the heels, ten months after the commission of the crime, Michel Eyraud, one of the assassins of the bailiff Gouffe.
On June 16 Eyraud was delivered over to the French police. He reached France on the 20th, and on July 1 made his first appearance before the examining magistrate.
It will be well at this point in the narrative to describe how Eyraud and Gabrielle Bompard came to be associated together in crime. Gabrielle Bompard was twenty-two years of age at the time of her arrest, the fourth child of a merchant of Lille, a strong, hardworking, respectable man. Her mother, a delicate woman, had died of lung disease when Gabrielle was thirteen. Even as a child lying and vicious, thinking only of men and clothes, Gabrielle, after being expelled as incorrigible from four educational establishments, stayed at a fifth for some three years. There she astonished those in authority over her by her precocious propensity for vice, her treacherous and lying disposition, and a lewdness of tongue rare in one of her age and comparative inexperience. At eighteen she returned to her father’s house, only to quit it for a lover whom, she alleged, had hypnotised and then seduced her. Gabrielle was singularly susceptible to hypnotic suggestion. Her father implored the family doctor to endeavour to persuade her, while in the hypnotic state, to reform her deplorable conduct. The doctor did his best but with no success. He declared Gabrielle to be a neuropath, who had not found in her home such influences as would have tended to overcome her vicious instincts. Perhaps the doctor was inclined to sympathise rather too readily with his patient, if we are to accept the report of those distinguished medical gentlemen who, at a later date, examined carefully into the mental and physical characteristics of Gabrielle Bompard.
This girl of twenty had developed into a supreme instance of the “unmoral” woman, the conscienceless egoist, morally colour-blind, vain, lewd, the intelligence quick and alert but having no influence whatever on conduct. One instance will suffice to show the sinister levity, the utter absence of all moral sense in this strange creature.
After the murder of Gouffe, Gabrielle spent the night alone with the trunk containing the bailiff’s corpse. Asked by M. Goron what were her sensations during this ghastly vigil, she replied with a smile, “You’d never guess what a funny idea come into my head! You see it was not very pleasant for me being thus tete-a-tete with a corpse, I couldn’t sleep. So I thought what fun it would be to go into the street and pick up some respectable gentleman from the provinces. I’d bring him up to the room, and just as he was beginning to enjoy himself say, ‘Would you like to see a bailiff?’ open the trunk suddenly and, before he could recover from his horror, run out into the street and fetch the police. Just think what a fool the respectable gentleman would have looked when the officers came!”
Such callousness is almost unsurpassed in the annals of criminal insensibility. Nero fiddling over burning Rome, Thurtell fresh from the murder of Weare, inviting Hunt, the singer and his accomplice, to “tip them a stave” after supper, Edwards, the Camberwell murderer, reading with gusto to friends the report of a fashionable divorce case, post from the murder of a young married couple and their baby — even examples such as these pale before the levity of the “little demon,” as the French detectives christened Gabrielle.
Such was Gabrielle Bompard when, on July 26, exactly one year to a day before the murder of Gouffe, she met in Paris Michel Eyraud. These two were made for each other. If Gabrielle were unmoral, Eyraud was immoral. Forty-six at the time of Gouffe’s murder, he was sufficiently practised in vice to appreciate and enjoy the flagrantly vicious propensities of the young Gabrielle. All his life Eyraud had spent his substance in debauchery. His passions were violent and at times uncontrollable, but unlike many remarkable men of a similar temperament, this strong animalism was not in his case accompanied by a capacity for vigorous intellectual exertion or a great power of work. “Understand this,” said Eyraud to one of the detectives who brought him back to France, “I have never done any work, and I never will do any work.” To him work was derogatory; better anything than that. Unfortunately it could not be avoided altogether, but with Eyraud such work as he was compelled at different times to endure was only a means for procuring money for his degraded pleasures, and when honest work became too troublesome, dishonesty served in its stead. When he met Gabrielle he was almost at the end of his tether, bankrupt and discredited. At a pinch he might squeeze a little money out of his wife, with whom he continued to live in spite of his open infidelities.
Save for such help as he could get from her small dowry, he was without resources. A deserter from the army during the Mexican War in 1869, he had since then engaged in various commercial enterprises, all of which had failed, chiefly through his own extravagance, violence and dishonesty. Gabrielle was quick to empty his pockets of what little remained in them. The proceeds of her own immorality, which Eyraud was quite ready to share, soon proved insufficient to replenish them. Confronted with ruin, Eyraud and Gompard hit on a plan by which the woman should decoy some would-be admirer to a convenient trysting-place. There, dead or alive, the victim was to be made the means of supplying their wants.
On further reflection dead seemed more expedient than alive, extortion from a living victim too risky an enterprise. Their plans were carefully prepared. Gabrielle was to hire a ground-floor apartment, so that any noise, such as footsteps or the fall of a body, would not be heard by persons living underneath.
At the beginning of July, 1889, Eyraud and Bompard were in London. There they bought at a West End draper’s a red and white silk girdle, and at a shop in Gower Street a large travelling trunk. They bought, also in London, about thirteen feet of cording, a pulley and, on returning to Paris on July 20, some twenty feet of packing-cloth, which Gabrielle, sitting at her window on the fine summer evenings, sewed up into a large bag.
The necessary ground-floor apartment had been found at No. 3 Rue Tronson-Ducoudray. Here Gabrielle installed herself on July 24. The bedroom was convenient for the assassins’ purpose, the bed standing in an alcove separated by curtains from the rest of the room. To the beam forming the crosspiece at the entrance into the alcove Eyraud fixed a pulley. Through the pulley ran a rope, having at one end of it a swivel, so that a man, hiding behind the curtains could, by pulling the rope strongly, haul up anything that might be attached to the swivel at the other end. It was with the help of this simple piece of mechanism and a good long pull from Eyraud that the impecunious couple hoped to refill their pockets.
The victim was chosen on the 25th. Eyraud had already known of Gouffe’s existence, but on that day, Thursday, in a conversation with a common friend, Eyraud learnt that the bailiff Gouffe was rich, that he was in the habit of having considerable sums of money in his care, and that on Friday nights Gouffe made it his habit to sleep from home. There was no time to lose. The next day Gabrielle accosted Gouffe as he was going to his dejeuner and, after some little conversation agreed to meet him at eight o’clock that evening.
The afternoon was spent in preparing for the bailiff’s reception in the Rue Tronson-Ducoudray. A lounge-chair was so arranged that it stood with its back to the alcove, within which the pulley and rope had been fixed by Eyraud. Gouffe was to sit on the chair, Gabrielle on his knee. Gabrielle was then playfully to slip round his neck, in the form of a noose, the cord of her dressing gown and, unseen by him, attach one end of it to the swivel of the rope held by Eyraud. Her accomplice had only to give a strong pull and the bailiff’s course was run.*
Detail view (click for the full four-panel image) of
Le Petit Journal‘s illustration of Bompard and Eyraud murdering Gouffe. Via this collection of 1890-91 French news about the crime.
At six o’clock Eyraud and Bompard dined together, after which Eyraud returned to the apartment, whilst Bompard went to meet Gouffe near the Madeline Church. What occurred afterwards at No. 3 Rue Tronson-Ducoudray is best described in the statement made by Eyraud at his trial.
At a quarter past eight there was a ring at the bell. I hid myself behind the curtain. Gouffe came in. ‘You’ve a nice little nest here,’ he said. ‘Yes, a fancy of mine,’ replied Gabrielle, ‘Eyraud knows nothing about it.’ ‘Oh, you’re tired of him,’ asked Gouffe. ‘Yes,’ she replied, ‘that’s all over.’ Gabrielle drew Gouffe down on to the chair. She showed him the cord of her dressing-gown and said that a wealthy admirer had given it to her. ‘Very elegant,’ said Gouffe, ‘but I didn’t come here to see that.’
She then sat on his knee and, as if in play, slipped the cord round his neck; then putting her hand behind him, she fixed the end of the cord into the swivel, and said to him laughingly, ‘What a nice necktie it makes!’ That was the signal.
Eyraud pulled the cord vigorously and, in two minutes, Gouffe had ceased to live.
Eyraud took from the dead man his watch and ring, 150 francs and his keys. With these he hurried to Gouffe’s office and made a fevered search for money. It was fruitless. In his trembling haste the murderer missed a sum of 14,000 francs that was lying behind some papers, and returned, baffled and despairing, to his mistress and the corpse. The crime had been a ghastly failure. Fortified by brandy and champagne, and with the help of the woman, Eyraud stripped the body, put it into the bag that had been sewn by Gabrielle, and pushed the bag into the trunk. Leaving his mistress to spend the night with their hateful luggage, Eyraud returned home and, in his own words, “worn out by the excitement of the day, slept heavily.”
The next day Eyraud, after saying good-bye to his wife and daughter, left with Gabrielle for Lyons. On the 28th they got rid at Millery of the body of Gouffe and the trunk in which it had travelled; his boots and clothes they threw into the sea at Marseilles. There Eyraud borrowed 500 francs from his brother. Gabrielle raised 2,000 francs in Paris, where they spent August 18 and 19, after which they left for England, and from England sailed for America. During their short stay in Paris Eyraud had the audacity to call at the apartment in the Rue Tronson-Ducoudray for his hat, which he had left behind; in the hurry of the crime he had taken away Gouffe’s by mistake.
Eyraud had been brought back to Paris from Cuba at the end of June, 1890. Soon after his return, in the room in which Gouffe had been done to death and in the presence of the examining magistrate, M. Goron, and some fifteen other persons, Eyraud was confronted with his accomplice. Each denied vehemently, with hatred and passion, the other’s story. Neither denied the murder, but each tried to represent the other as the more guilty of the two. Eyraud said that the suggestion and plan of the crime had come from Gabrielle; that she had placed around Gouffe’s neck the cord that throttled him. Gabrielle attributed the inception of the murder to Eyraud, and said that he had strangled the bailiff with his own hands.
Eyraud, since his return, had seemed indifferent to his own fate; whatever it might be, he wished that his mistress should share it. He had no objection to going to the guillotine as long as he was sure that Gabrielle would accompany him. She sought to escape such a consummation by representing herself as a mere instrument in Eyraud’s hands. It was even urged in her defence that, in committing the crime, she had acted under the influence of hypnotic suggestion on the part of her accomplice. Three doctors appointed by the examining magistrate to report on her mental state came unanimously to the conclusion that, though undoubtedly susceptible to hypnotic suggestion, there was no ground for thinking that she had been acting under such influence when she participated in the murder of Gouffe. Intellectually the medical gentlemen found her alert and sane enough, but morally blind.
The trial of Eyraud and Bompard took place before the Paris Assize Court on December 16, 1890. It had been delayed owing to the proceedings of an enterprising journalist. The names of the jurymen who were to be called on to serve at the assize had been published. The journalist conceived the brilliant idea of interviewing some of these gentlemen.
He succeeded in seeing four of them, but in his article which appeared in the Matin newspaper said that he had seen twenty-one. Nine of them, he stated, had declared themselves in favour of Gabrielle Bompard, but in some of these he had discerned a certain “eroticism of the pupil of the eye” to which he attributed their leniency. A month’s imprisonment was the reward of these flights of journalistic imagination.
A further scandal in connection with the trial was caused by the lavish distribution of tickets of admission to all sorts and kinds of persons by the presiding judge, M. Robert, whose occasional levities in the course of the proceedings are melancholy reading. As a result of his indulgence a circular was issued shortly after the trial by M. Fallieres, then Minister of Justice,* limiting the powers of presidents of assize in admitting visitors into the reserved part of the court.
The proceedings at the trial added little to the known facts of the case. Both Eyraud and Bompard continued to endeavour to shift the blame on to each other’s shoulders. A curious feature of the trial was the appearance for the defence of a M. Liegeois, a professor of law at Nancy. To the dismay of the Court, he took advantage of a clause in the Code of Criminal Instruction which permits a witness to give his evidence without interruption, to deliver an address lasting four hours on hypnotic suggestion. He undertook to prove that, not only Gabrielle Bompard, but Troppmann, Madame Weiss, and Gabrielle Fenayrou also, had committed murder under the influence of suggestion.† In replying to this rather fantastic defence, the Procureur-General, M. Quesnay de Beaurepaire, quoted a statement of Dr. Brouardel, the eminent medical jurist who had been called for the prosecution, that “there exists no instance of a crime, or attempted crime committed under the influence of hypnotic suggestion.” As to the influence of Eyraud over Bompard, M. de Beaurepaire said: “The one outstanding fact that has been eternally true for six thousand years is that the stronger will can possess the weaker: that is no peculiar part of the history of hypnotism; it belongs to the history of the world. Dr. Liegeois himself, in coming to this court to-day, has fallen a victim to the suggestion of the young advocate who has persuaded him to come here to air his theories.” The Court wisely declined to allow an attempt to be made to hypnotise the woman Bompard in the presence of her judges, and M. Henri Robert, her advocate, in his appeal to the jury, threw over altogether any idea of hypnotic suggestion, resting his plea on the moral weakness and irresponsibility of his client.
In sheer wickedness there seems little enough to choose between Eyraud and Bompard. But, in asking a verdict without extenuating circumstances against the woman, the Procureur-General was by no means insistent. He could not, he said, ask for less, his duty would not permit it: “But I am ready to confess that my feelings as a man suffer by the duty imposed on me as a magistrate. On one occasion, at the outset of my career, it fell to my lot to ask from a jury the head of a woman. I felt then the same kind of distress of mind I feel to-day. The jury rejected my demand; they accorded extenuating circumstances; though defeated, I left the court a happier man. What are you going to do to-day, gentlemen? It rests with you. What I cannot ask of you, you have the right to accord. But when the supreme moment comes to return your verdict, remember that you have sworn to judge firmly and fearlessly.” The jury accorded extenuating circumstances to the woman, but refused them to the man. After a trial lasting four days Eyraud was sentenced to death, Bompard to twenty years penal servitude.
At first Eyraud appeared to accept his fate with resignation. He wrote to his daughter that he was tired of life, and that his death was the best thing that could happen for her mother and herself. But, as time went on and the efforts of his advocate to obtain a commutation of his sentence held out some hope of reprieve, Eyraud became more reluctant to quit the world.
“There are grounds for a successful appeal,” he wrote, “I am pretty certain that my sentence will be commuted … You ask me what I do? Nothing much. I can’t write; the pens are so bad. I read part of the time, smoke pipes, and sleep a great deal. Sometimes I play cards, and talk a little. I have a room as large as yours at Sevres. I walk up and down it, thinking of you all.”
But his hopes were to be disappointed. The Court of Cassation rejected his appeal. A petition was addressed to President Carnot, but, with a firmness that has not characterised some of his successors in office, he refused to commute the sentence.
On the morning of February 3, 1891, Eyraud noticed that the warders, who usually went off duty at six o’clock, remained at their posts. An hour later the Governor of the Roquette prison entered his cell, and informed him that the time had come for the execution of the sentence. Eyraud received the intelligence quietly. The only excitement he betrayed was a sudden outburst of violent animosity against M. Constans, then Minister of the Interior. Eyraud had been a Boulangist, and so may have nourished some resentment against the Minister who, by his adroitness, had helped to bring about the General’s ruin. Whatever his precise motive, he suddenly exclaimed that M. Constans was his murderer: “It’s he who is having me guillotined; he’s got what he wanted; I suppose now he’ll decorate Gabrielle!” He died with the name of the hated Minister on his lips.
* One writer on the case has suggested that the story of the murder by rope and pulley was invented by Eyraud and Bompard to mitigate the full extent of their guilt, and that the bailiff was strangled while in bed with the woman. But the purchase of the necessary materials in London would seem to imply a more practical motive for the use of rope and pulley. (Irving’s original footnote.)
** Armand Fallieres later became President of France. A staunch foe of the death penalty, he blocked all executions in France from his election in 1906 until 1909. (Executed Today‘s footnote.)
† Moll in his “Hypnotism” (London, 1909) states that, after Gabrielle Bompard’s release M. Liegeois succeeded in putting her into a hypnotic state, in which she re-acted the scene in which the crime was originally suggested to her. The value of such experiments with a woman as mischievous and untruthful as Gabrielle Bompard must be very doubtful. No trustworthy instance seems to be recorded in which a crime has been committed under, or brought about by, hypnotic or post-hypnotic suggestion, though, according to Moll, “the possibility of such a crime cannot be unconditionally denied.” (Irving’s original footnote)
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Tags: 1890s, 1891, february 3, gabrielle bompard, michel eyraud
January 4th, 2015
This date in 1568 saw the mass execution of 84 people in Valenciennes for participating in the Low Countries’ Calvinist movement against Catholicism’s longstanding use of images and icons to project its cosmology.
In his In Praise of Folly, the humanist Erasmus — a Dutchman, mark — jibed at those who
attribute strange virtues to the shrines and images of saints and martyrs, and so would make their credulous proselytes believe, that if they pay their devotion to St. Christopher in the morning, they shall be guarded and secured the day following from all dangers and misfortunes: if soldiers, when they first take arms, shall come and mumble over such a set prayer before the picture of St. Barbara, they shall return safe from all engagements: or if any pray to Erasmus on such particular holidays, with the ceremony of wax candles, and other fopperies, he shall in a short time be rewarded with a plentiful increase of wealth and riches.* The Christians have now their gigantic St. George, as well as the pagans had their Hercules; they paint the saint on horseback, and drawing the horse in splendid trappings, very gloriously accoutred, they scarce refrain in a literal sense from worshipping the very beast.
Those words were published just a few years before Martin Luther nailed his earthshaking theses to the church door in Wittenberg. Erasmus’s critique of the Catholic Church never extended so far as leaving its fold, but for observers who bent more towards revolution than reform, the adoration of these graven images could easily read as simple idolatry just this side of Golden Calf territory — and in this they harkened back to a venerable strain of iconoclasm within Christianity.
This was far from Luther’s own chief concern, but many other preachers and proselytizers thundered against the statues and paintings that stood in for the divine — and arguably, came to be venerated as if they were the divine. “[These] images are not to be endured, for all that God has forbidden, there can be no compromise,” said the Swiss theologian Huldrych Zwingli, under whose leadership icons were pulled down in Zurich churches as early as 1523.
Iconoclastic effusions followed elsewhere in Europe, tracking the spread of the various Protestant strains. John Calvin, himself driven to refuge in Switzerland, took a similar anti-icon line. It was Calvin’s theology that inspired the French Huguenots, and Huguenot iconoclastic demonstrations began occurring in the north and east of France from about 1560.
They soon spread to the neighboring Reformation-minded Habsburg possessions.
The so-called Beeldenstorm, or “Iconoclastic Fury”, broke in the town of Steenvorde near the southwestern fringe of the Low Countries. (In fact, it’s in France in the present day, as is Valenciennes, the site of our titular execution.) On St. Lawrence’s Day of 1566 — August 10 — a Calvinist mob invaded a church dedicated to that saint and stripped it of its idolatrous garnishes.
From Steenvorde, the storm raced north, gathering strength. Within days, it had deluged cities large and small throughout the Low Countries: formerly retiring heretics now bold and impious enough to assail the Catholicism’s sacred emblems. They did not only pull down icons in churches — but in rectories, hospitals, universities. “We have had this night past a marvelous stir,” the Welsh cloth-merchant Richard Clough wrote on August 21 from Antwerp, the continent’s commercial capital. “All the churches, chapels and houses of religion utterly defaced, and no kind of thing left whole within them, but broken and utterly destroyed.”
In France, Catholic enragees mobilized in response, here repulsing an iconoclast raid and there sparking a street brawl. But in the Low Countries the iconoclasts faced much scantier resistance; even the authorities practically stood down — either enervated, or sympathetic.
This storm naturally shocked faithful Catholics. Rioters “defaced the painted images, not only of Our Lady but of all others in the town. They tore the curtains, dashed in pieces the carved work of brass and stone, brake the altars, spoilt the clothes and corporesses, wrested the irons, conveyed away or brake the chalices and vestiments, pulled up the brass of the gravestones … trod [the altar] under their feet and (horrible it is to say!) shed their stinking piss upon it,” an expatriate English theologian lamented from Louvian.
According to Carlos Eire there were some 400 iconoclast incidents in Flanders alone over the summer and fall of 1566.
Every prince in Europe was put to the test by the Reformation movements of the 16th century. Few answered with less finesse than Philip II, the fervently Catholic King of Spain who counted the Low Countries among his vast patrimony and viewed altar-pissing in Catholic churches as lese-majeste stacked upon sacrilege.
The iconoclastic disturbances led Philip to dispatch his best general, the Duke of Alba (or Alva) to suppress these rebellious subjects (and eventually, to lose his glasses). He replaced Philip’s half-sister Margaret of Parma in both position and approach: in vain did Margaret warn her successor against destroying the loyalty of these provinces with excess rigor. Alba’s mission was to handle the Low Countries roughly, and he did not fail to do it.
Setting up a drumhead tribunal known as the “Council of Troubles” — very soon popularly denoted the “Council of Blood” — the Iron Duke began wreaking havoc on enemies actual, perceived, potential, and in more than a few cases, not at all.
Through all these months the frightful cruelties of the blood-judges were continued. Every day the executions took a wider sweep. “I would have every man feel that any day his house may fall about his ears,” wrote Alva to the king. Of this benevolent wish he made a fact. Men of all creeds and of none felt equally insecure. The Romanists themselves, the most sturdy and devoted of them, shuddered and rubbed their necks, to be sure that their heads still rested upon their shoulders as they glanced towards Egmont‘s prison at Ghent. “The fury of the persecution spreads such horror throughout the nation,” said Orange at the time, “that thousands, and among them some of the principal papists, have fled the country where tyranny is direct against all.”
The blood-judges flooded the land with citations; but so certainly did conviction follow an appearance at their bar, that few responded, while such as did were not were condemned to exile and to suffer the confiscation of their estates for contumacy; or if caught, they were beheaded without trial. Those who, strong in innocence, ventured to brave an examination, were inevitably doomed.
Maybe the most outrageously illustrative case was a man named Peter De Witt** in Amsterdam. His crime was persuading a rioter not to shoot a magistrate — this being held to imply a level of esteem among the amok heretics incompatible with correct devotion to God and King.
In batches of forty, fifty, and even a hundred, men, women and children were led out to indiscriminate death. On one occasion, ninety-five miscellaneous individuals, collected from various parts of Flanders, were butchered in company. At another time forty-six of the citizens of Malines were decapitated. On the 4th of January, 1568, eighty-four persons, charged with participating in the tumults, were executed together in the public square at Valenciennes.
The (helpfully dated) bloodletting we mark with this date’s post was itself no more representative of the Council of Troubles than any other, collectively amounting to uncounted thousands whose martyrdom — to creed, country, or both — would stir the Dutch Revolt and, eventually, the independence of the Netherlands from Spain.
* A wry reference to the writer’s namesake saint: Erasmus the humanist was perpetually short of cash, and at one point forced into monastic vows by his penury. (Erasmus the saint is not actually the patron of anything related to wealth.)
** No kinship that I’m aware of with the Dutch Republic’s leader a century later, Johan de Witt.
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November 29th, 2014
I want a hero: an uncommon want,
When every year and month sends forth a new one,
Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant,
The age discovers he is not the true one
Barnave, Brissot, Condorcet, Mirabeau,
Petion, Clootz, Danton, Marat, La Fayette
Were French, and famous people, as we know;
And there were others, scarce forgotten yet,
Joubert, Hoche Marceau, Lannes, Desaix, Moreau,
With many of the military set,
Exceedingly remarkable at times,
But not at all adapted to my rhymes.
-Lord Byron, Don Juan
On this date, French Revolution orator Antoine Barnave — a founder of the short-lived Feuillants faction — became short-lived himself courtesy of the Paris Terror.
Just one of the side courses when the Revolution devoured its own children, Barnave (English Wikipedia entry | French) was a smart young avocat in the 1780s who distinguished himself at the Parlement of Grenoble.
Avant-garde ideas like political power redistributed to reflect “the new distribution of wealth” were just the sort of revolution that a wealthy lawyer could get behind.
Duly elected at the ripe old age of 27 to France’s watershed (and last) Estates-General of 1789, Barnave was a very early member of the Jacobin Club. You know, before it was cool.
Barnave’s genteel vision of the Revolution transferring the estates of the ancien regime into the mercantile hands of his friends in the bourgeoisie fell spectacularly to pieces in 1791.
That April, Mirabeau died. He was Barnave’s great debating rival in the Jacobin Club, but both men actually represented the same fundamental persuasion: constitutional monarchy. Needless to say, this Revolution was not built to halt at that particular milepost.
Within mere weeks, almost as if the players had been awaiting the literal death of Mirabeau’s moderation, events hurtled past Barnave’s sensibilities. The desperate royal family made its ill-chosen flight to Varennes in June, and the well-regarded Barnave was one of the Constituent Assembly delegates sent to escort Louis XVI back to a Paris now boiling with republican sentiment. Did not the sovereign’s literally attempting to desert from his patrimony entail an abandonment of his station?
In perhaps the pinnacle of Barnave’s rich career in political oratory, he delivered to the National Assembly on July 15 a thundering no to that proposition, challenging his fellow delegates to choose “between attachment to the Constitution and resentment against a man.”
I ask to-day of him among you who may have conceived every kind of prepossession and the deepest and most violent resentment against the executive power — I ask him to tell us whether his anger with that power is greater than his attachment to the law of his country.
Those who would thus sacrifice the Constitution to their resentment against one man seem to me far too liable to sacrifice liberty in their enthusiasm for another; and since they love a republic, now is the time to say to them: How can you wish for a republic in a nation where you hope that the action, easily pardoned after all, of an individual who has much to plead in his justification, that the action of an individual, who though certain qualities of his are now condemned, long possessed the people’s affection — when, I say, you hoped that the deed he has done might change our Government, how was it that you were not afraid that this same variableness of the people, if once they were moved by enthusiasm for a great man, by gratitude for great deeds — because the French nation, you know it, can love much better than it can hate — would overthrow your absurd republic in one day? (Source)
Barnave, to his grief, was entirely clear on what he desired in July of 1791: “all change is fatal now; all prolongation of the Revolution is disastrous now; the real question to my thinking is this, and the national interest is bound up with it; are we going to end the Revolution, or are we going to begin it again?”
His speech carried the motion on July 15th: Louis remained king. Still, the Revolution did not exit into past tense on Barnave’s say-so, and certainly not on so insubstantial a basis as “a resolve to be peaceful, a common resolve, a drawing together.”
He had the applause of the Assembly, which printed his speech for national distribution. But tempestuous debates broke out in Jacobin clubs and other radical circles, and amid intemperate accusations of treasonable conduct by the all-change-is-fatal-now crowd there were oaths sworn never to recognize the kingship of Louis XVI.
On July 17, a huge crowd led by Georges Danton filled the Champs de Mars to petition Louis’s removal. And in response to the Jacobin Club’s announced intention to support this demonstration — which turned into a galvanizing massacre when the Marquis de Lafayette had his national guardsmen fire on the protesters — Barnave with his friends and political allies Adrien Duport and Alexandre Lameth dramatically abandoned the Jacobins and split off the rival Feuillants.
In their day, this so-called “triumvirate” had been the Jacbins’ left wing. By now, they were the the revolution’s conservatives: the monarchists against the republicans, and the guys who liked the Revolution’s existing changes just fine.
“If the Revolution takes one more step, it cannot do so without danger,” Barnave intoned in that July 15 address of his. (Source) “If it is in the direction of liberty, the first act to follow could be the destruction of royalty; if it is in the direction of equality, the first act to follow could be the violation of property … is there still to be destroyed an aristocracy other than that of property?”**
Not everyone found those one-more-steps quite so terrible to contemplate as did the the silver-tongued Grenoble barrister.
Political cartoon of the Janus-faced Barnave — the man of the people in 1789, turned the man of the royal court in 1791.
If we have the luxury from posterity to smile at the notion of the Revolution’s peacably halting itself in 1791, the Feuillants had cause in their moment to think they could pull the trick.
Their move at first dramatically weakened the Jacobins, as the ranks of moderates flocked to Barnave’s prestige and eloquence. The Paris Jacobin Club lost three-quarters of its membership almost overnight, and most of its Assembly deputies. Public sentiment, at least so well as its contemporaries could discern, veered towards Barnave as well, and he was able to finalize the long-awaited Constitution of September 1791 preserving a number of important executive powers for the king’s own person.
The period of governance under that constitution opened with an address by the king that Barnave had written for him; its first few months are the “Feuillant Ministry”. Barnave was the beleaguered royal family’s chief advisor in this period.
But the Feuillant Ministry was crumbling almost from its inception. Its supporting club was founded on abhorrence for the popular politics whose force was still being uncovered in the Revolution; Barnave wanted nothing so much as the end of such societies altogether. So while the monarchists had secretaries exchanging delegated backslaps at private confabs, the reduced Jacobins — now the most passionate rump, helpfully purged of their milquetoast liberals — redoubled themselves under the sway of men like Marat and Robespierre. Barnave’s apparent alignment with the now-constitutional monarch gave legs to the “royalist” charge that was more and more laid at his feet, and Jacobin Clubs soon began receiving as prodigals former members who had found their dalliances with the Feuillants unsatisfactory.
Barnave and his faction came under relentless siege by pamphleteers, journalists, and radical democrats. One wonders if, in the end, Barnave took some cold comfort in having seen an implacable antagonist like Brissot precede him to the guillotine when his own Girondin faction, formerly the fire-eaters, tipped over the Revolution’s starboard bulwarks.
Meanwhile, the impolitic demand emanating from Marie Antoinette’s brother, the Holy Roman Emperor that the French royal family be safeguarded put France on its way to war with Austria, an outcome entirely contrary to not taking one more revolutionary step.
The hounded Barnave retired to Grenoble in January 1792 by which time the constitution he had so diligently promulgated had already virtually ceased to function, and he himself lost influence with both the king and the Assembly. In the months to follow the war tocsin undid his fellow-constitutionalists remaining in Paris. Consigned to the sidelines, their faction was arrested as royalists after the August 10, 1792 overthrow of the Bourbons.
Barnave’s papers were inventoried for hints of treasonable correspondence with the fallen king and queen, but as the curtain had not yet raised on the Terror — and Barnave had not been deported to the prisons of the capital in time for the September Massacres — he had an uncommonly lengthy period of political imprisonment. Barnave exercised this time composing his De la Révolution et de la Constitution (later published as Introduction à la révolution française), an economic history arguing that the rise of industry and manufacturing had transferred the leading role from France’s aristocrats to her bourgeoisie.
With the onset of the Terror, he was shipped to Paris to face treason charges owing to correspondence with Marie Antoinette, where his famous oratory took its last public turn for an audience that had stopped up its ears.
Finally, citizens, I recall this to you; I might have left France in all safety. Perhaps those who still love me will have reason to lament that I did not do what was so easy for me; but, whatever happens, I shall not have to reproach myself with having challenged the judges of my country, with having cast doubts on their integrity, their justice. I shall be sacrificed perhaps, but I had rather owe my ruin to human error than have pronounced my own condemnation. I shall carry to the scaffold the same calmness which you have seen me show in the debate, and to the last moment I shall pray for the welfare of my country. (Source)
He was beheaded with four other people at the Place de la Revolution on the morning of the very next day.
French speakers might enjoy this public domain book by Jules Gabriel Janin. This post has also quoted several times from Eliza Dorothy Bradby’s 1915 English biography of the man.
* It later emerged that Mirabeau was being paid by the royalist party.
** One of the steps towards equality so troubling to Barnave had been a push among Jacobin radicals to resolve upon the emancipation of black slaves in the colonies. Fretting the loss of, e.g., the lucrative sugar revenues of Saint-Domingue (Haiti), Barnave staunchly opposed this; he was one of the leading lights of the pro-slavery Massiac Club. (French link)
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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,France,Guillotine,History,Intellectuals,Lawyers,Mass Executions,Politicians,Public Executions,Treason
Tags: 1790s, 1793, antoine barnave, French Revolution, louis xvi, marie antoinette, paris, place de la revolution, the terror