February 20th, 2015
(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)
On this date in 1942,* a middle-aged man was hanged in the Lodz Ghetto in front of an audience of twenty thousand. His name was Max Hertz, son of Salli Hertz and Helena Hertz née Abraham. He was from Germany.
His death was recorded in heartbreaking detail by Oskar Rosenfeld, a resident of the ghetto. Rosenfeld was an Austrian-Jewish writer and translator who’d published six novels before the war. After the Anschulss in 1938, he and his wife emigrated to Prague in Czechoslovkia to escape Nazi aggression. Nazi aggression followed them, however, and the couple made plans to move to England.
Mrs. Rosenfeld left in 1939 and her husband was supposed to come later, but the war started and Rosenfeld found himself trapped in Prague.
Deported to the Lodz Ghetto in 1941, within a few months he secured a relatively cushy position as an archivist with the ghetto administration. He helped write the official Lodz Ghetto Chronicle, a diary of the day-to-day events of the ghetto.
Behind closed doors, Oskar Rosenfeld was keeping his own, personal diary, accumulating twenty-one notebooks in all. Sixty years later, the director of the Yad Vashem libraries described his style as “riveting. At times he is philosophical and literary, at others he is spare and raw. Often instead of full sentences, Rosenfeld writes strings of words words so packed with meaning that normal sentence structure is superfluous.”
The diary was mostly in German, with occasional parts in Hebrew, Yiddish and English.
Rosenfeld employed a simple, fairly transparent code to avoid trouble if his notebooks should come into the wrong hands. He refered to the Nazis, for example, as “Ashkenes.” When he wrote “Germans,” he meant only German Jews. The Ghetto Chairman, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, designated Eldest of the Jews, was often called “Praeses.” The words “Gestapo” and “Kripo” were written using the Greek alphabet.
His entries described in painstaking detail the grotesque land in which he was imprisoned: the religious and cultural life of the ghetto, the residents’ attitude toward the administration, the rumors flying around about the war front, the deportations, and above all everyone’s struggle to survive from day to day.
Starvation, overwork, disease and despair wore away at the Lodz Jews, like sand castles crumbling. The Nazis’ Jewish problem, Rosenfeld noted wryly, was being solved “in installments.”
During the frigid Polish winters—unusually harsh in those years—the coal ration was pitiful, and people chopped up their own furniture for firewood. When that was gone, they turned to the streets and stole whatever they could get their hands on: fences, even sheds and outhouses were dismantled for burning. In spite of this hundreds of people froze to death.
A bigger problem was food. Or rather, lack of food.
“According to German scientific findings,” Rosenfeld wrote,
the consumption of calories in normal times was 3,640 calories with 93 grams of albumen per person. The allocated ration in the fall of 1941 was 1,300 calories and 36 grams of albumen. Since the fall of 1941, the ghetto — with the minor exception of the workers in the factories — received a mere 900 calories and 25 grams of albumen per person. Not taking into account the lack of vitamins. This was no longer nutrition, this was a prescription for a slow death.
People traded everything they had, literally the clothes off their backs, for a few turnips or some sausage. During times when food was particularly scarce, a diamond necklace or a good pair of shoes might fetch a single loaf of bread. And sometimes one loaf was all a person could expect to get for an entire week.
When someone died — and there were deaths in nearly every family — their surviving relatives would often wait several days to report it, so they could claim the dead person’s rations. There were even reports of cannibalism, which Rosenfeld dutifully recorded.
The Lodz Ghetto was a work camp, not a death camp, and was designed to squeeze all the labor it could out of the inhabitants. People who were just too sick or weak to keep up were likely to find themselves on the next list for deportation to mysterious “labor camps in the East.”
Nobody knew for sure where the deportees were going, but the ghetto residents had reason to be suspicious and fearful and most of them did everything they could to stay out of the transports. No one who was deported ever returned to the ghetto. These were supposed to be long journeys and deportees were advised to pack several days’ worth of food, but like as not, the trains would come back empty the very next day.
In fact, the deportation transports usually traveled no more than forty miles outside of Lodz.
Their destination was Chelmno, the Germans’ first death camp. There they used gas vans to asphyxiate their victims. These were relatively primitive and inefficient; it wasn’t until later that they came up with the idea of gas chambers instead of vehicles.
The Lodz Ghetto had its own police force staffed by Jewish volunteers (who were universally despised as collaborators by the others) and a court that presided over criminal trials.
Violent crime, and for that matter most crimes against other persons, was rare: most of the court cases involved crime against the ghetto community as a whole. (Demolishing public fences and buildings for fuel, for example. See above.)
The rules were harsh. Kitchen workers caught sneaking even a spoonful of soup or some half-rotted beets were subject to prosecution. A carpenter could be brought up on charges of sabotage if he took some scrap wood home to burn. Jozef Zelkowicz, another employee in the Ghetto Archives, wrote about one case where a tailor forgot he’d draped a length of of thread over his shoulder for easy access during his work. After leaving at the end of his shift, he was arrested for “stealing” the thread.
Offenders usually got a short jail term of a few weeks or months. That was the least of the punishment, however: when they got out, they were often banned from working again and their families were banned from receiving welfare, essentially a death sentence. Convicted criminals and their families also had priority for deportation, however, and tended to get shipped out before they starved to death.
Not this time, however. For whatever reason, the Nazis decided to make a public example of Max Hertz.
It was the very first public execution in the ghetto. In fact, Rosenfeld said, they’d constructed the gallows just for this occasion:
At 5 p.m. on Friday, the building department had received the order for a gallows to be erected on Fischplatz by 7 a.m. the next morning. Precise specifications were given: wooden beams, heavy iron hooks, bent to a shape just this long and that wide. A man from Germany was entrusted with the job. He worked hard and long, and got it done on time. This worker was, it turned out, an intimate friend of the condemned man.
The Nazis were so pleased with the craftsmanship that they placed another for a set of gallows designed to hang twelve people at once.
Rosenfeld’s description of the execution is worth of being quoted almost in full:
Friday, collective, six o’clock in the evening, impersonal declaration to all members of the collective… Meet at nine o’clock at the Fish Market. Rumors: military parade, directives from the German military, the Eldest to speak. –Afterward some reported that they knew… The sick had express dispensation from attending the meeting. Shabbat from nine o’clock on a queue of men and women being led by room commandant through the almost empty streets across the “little bridge” at the Old Market Place between the ghetto and the city, past Hamburgerstrasse to the Fish Market. Along the way local passersby asked what was going on… Nobody had the answer. Frost. Clear. Biting wind. Terribly uncomfortable in the open air. The closerto the square, the clearer that something terrible was about to happen. The streets usually teeming with people on Shabbat — empty…
The rumor of the true drama seems to have gained credence in the ghetto, none of the local inhabitants want to risk being forced to participate and therefore remained at home.
Goaded by the sharp commands of the Jewish police, took their places, men in the front, women in the back, similar queues were streaming toward the square from other directions. It didn’t take long. Shortly before nine o’clock, Fish Square was filled with a human wall, was encircled, a horrifying silence, a few locals out of curiosity.
Finally the masses begin to understand. Sense of foreboding during the march that they were to attend an execution scene (or a witch burning); in the square, many for the first time, gallows. It had been erected early in the morning by the Jewish police. Several women fainted at the sight, others fell into convulsive sobbing; several of the men managed to send some of the women back home or took them (secretly!) to nearby apartments. Those who wanted to go back later found the street blocked off; then order to seal off the surrounding area of Fish Square.
Quite low on three steps, small podium, to the left across from the post office for newly settled rectangular trapdoor; above the trapdoor a vertical balcony, at the upper end a horizontal beam with a hemp cord.
A cold shudder went through the onlookers… No more ilusions, no dream, raw reality, for everybody knew who was Ashkenes.
Several well-fed, field-gray SS officers. At the corner of the square, soldiers with mounted machine guns to keep the crowd in check. Nobody had the courage to flee. The transport leader warned of the most severe consequence for anybody who tried to leave. A few managed to get to the collective. An Ashkenes car was parked not far from the square.
Word making the round: cause and candidate. Cause: Jewish star; another variant: a Communist wanted for a long time, flight only a pretext. Left wife and child to take better care of them from Germany (name: Herz [sic], Cologne). The wife is said to be among the onlookers, unaware of what’s happening.
Men quite numb. Some of the women somewhat worried. The Ashkenes men are in a good mood, well fed, smoking, looking cheerfully at the crowd.
Almost an hour and a half. Cold is intensifying…rubbing to generate warmth, with hands on the knees. About ten-thirty suddenly complete silences. From the direction of Zgierz, probably from the Baluter Ring (Gestapo Headquarters, office of the Praeses — government square), appears a man without a hat, flanked right and left by field-gray soldiers, his gray hair in the wind, no collar, open neck, moving closer slowly, in a short winter jacket…directly to the gallows. Most onlookers, especially the women, avert their eyes, others turn their backs to the square; many look nevertheless sideways to the spot where the scene is to unfold. (Tragic irony…joke, perhaps to be released again!!!) Most of them after all witnessing for the first time such business and desire for sensationalism. Since none had ever attended a witch burning or torture or pillory, they didn’t know how to behave, didn’t find the right style; tugged embarrassed on their clothing, clenched the fists, and waited for a sign that was to tell them what it was they should do. Suddenly the silence was so horrifying that the healthy voices of the field-gray Ashkenes could clearly be heard in the square. A man of more than eighty suddenly remembered hearing from his room a strong voice by the wire around midnight, a song that began with la-la and ended with “and if the world were full of devils,” and began to make, quite unexpectedly, his own observations about this. Yes, this old man even rolled up the torn gloves for a moment to make sure that his fingernails were clean. A women her lipstick —
Not a word was heard. Silence. The candidate shivered in the cold. The field-grays in furs. His overcoat was taken from him. He folded his hands. Saw the entire scene, the crowd. Implacable. Mounted the steps to the podium. There was met by two Jewish policemen and a third man who busied himself callously with the cord.
It was said that a Jewish policeman, a well-known Communist, had been ordered to assist in this execution — as a deterrent. Completely dull expression of the crowd, who didn’t like to see Ben Israel [son of Israel] under the gallows. Sensationalism won out over disgust, women there with handkerchiefs over their faces but peering nevertheless, men completely dispassionate. The symbolism — a people pilloried — did not enter their conciousness. The bareheaded man shivered, folded his hands. Something was wrong with the cord. The Jewish policeman handled it very clumsily. The field gray standing next to him straightened it out, busied himself; the Jewish policemen in their excitement had made a wrong move, not well familiar with the executioner’s tool, more used to tefellin [phylacteries] (observation of an onlooker). The moment came when the crowd thought something was going to happen, a declaration or reading of the sentence or some other matter. But nothing. Continued silence. When the man saw that there was no escape, he again folded his hands and suddenly, with a lamenting voice: “Why don’t you let me live…”
A hanging (not necessarily this one) in Lodz Ghetto.
Many expected instead of this plea some kind of demonstration as a legacy from the crowd, some inspiring motto. But nothing of the sort. He was no hero in our sense. Now eyes averted from the gallows, dull thumping was heard of heavy material and wood, a few seconds for the convulsing body, dangling. The crowd was even able to look at it for some time—seconds (counting to thirteen). The corpse softly in the wind. Rigid features, rigid limbs.
The field grays gave a sign, Jewish police gave a sign, and the crowd quickly began to disperse, going home, the wife of the delinquent was present…
The body remained hanging the entire Shabbat. The Jews avoided the place.
The Lodz Ghetto Chronicle includes an entry on this execution, noting it took place in a large square at Bazarna and Lutomierska Streets. According to the chronicle, Max Hertz had escaped the ghetto and spent several days in Lodz proper. He was arrested at the train station when he tried to buy a ticket to Cologne. This was about three weeks before his execution.
The Polish writer and child Holocaust survivor Henryk Grynberg later honored him in a fragment of poetry:
Max Hertz brought from Cologne
on October 23, 1941
went back to the station
but when paying for his ticket
a star fell out of his pocket
right into the ticket clerk’s eye
and he hung over the bazaar
showing the shortest way back
The spectacle of Max Hertz’s death had indeed left an unforgettable impression on its audience, just as the Nazis intended.
As for Oskar Rosenfeld: he continued working in the Ghetto Archives up until August 1944. His final diary entry was on July 28 of that year. He was well aware that the fate of the ghetto hung in the balance:
We are facing either apocalypse or redemption… There are plenty of skeptics, nigglers, who don’t want to believe it and still have doubts about that which they have been long and waiting for years… After so much suffering and terror, after so many disappointments, it is hardly surprising that they are not willing to give themselves over to anticipatory rejoicing. The heart is marred with scars, the brain encrusted with dashed hopes.
It turned out to be apocalypse: in August, before the Red Army liberated Lodz, the ghetto was liquidated and almost all of its inhabitants sent to Auschwitz. Like most of the others, Rosenfeld was gassed on arrival. He was sixty years old. But his notebooks survived him, and ultimately ended up in the custody of Yad Vashem. His diary was published in English for the first time in 2003, under the title In the Beginning was the Ghetto: Notebooks From Lodz.
* Rosenfeld places the date of the execution on Friday, February 20. All other sources, including the Lodz Ghetto Chronicle and Max Hertz’s Yad Vashem page of testimony, place it as Saturday, February 21, but I’m sure Rosenfeld is right. The execution seems to have taken place at the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath. The Sabbath is on Saturday, but to religious Jews it actually starts after sunset on Friday; Rosenfeld writes that the body “remained hanging the entire Sabbath” which implies it hung for some time. If it hung “for the entire Sabbath” starting Saturday night, that would have been for less than two hours.
Also on this date
Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Concentration Camps,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Jews,Poland,Public Executions,Theft
Tags: 1940s, 1942, february 20, lodz, lodz ghetto, max hertz
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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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guest Writers,Guillotine,History,Murder,Other Voices,Pelf,Public Executions,Theft
Tags: 1890s, 1891, february 3, gabrielle bompard, michel eyraud