It was one of the most notorious murder cases in French history.
In July of 1889, Parisian court bailiff Toussaint-Augustin Gouffé went missing. Normally, such a disappearance would cause quite a stir. This was at the height of the Paris World Exposition, however, and with so many people moving through the City of Lights, little was initially made of Gouffé’s vanishment. It wasn’t until a body turned up three weeks later, and almost 300 miles away, near Lyon, that authorities became concerned.
The corpse was found by a roadworker, who followed a foul smell to an oilskin bag hidden beneath a bush off the roadway. Inside was a naked body, bound in seven meters of rope, and with a black cloth bag over its head. Examiners concluded the body belonged to a man who had died by strangulation, anywhere from three to five weeks before the body was found. Two days after the discovery of the body, an abandoned trunk was found nearby. The luggage reeked of decay, and bore a shipping label from Paris. All this seemed to indicate a possible connection to Gouffé’s disappearance.
However, the coroner initially found no particular indication that the body belonged to Gouffé.
He estimated the cadaver’s age at between 35 and 45 years, while Gouffé had been 49. The corpse had black hair, where Gouffé’s had been chestnut. Gouffé’s brother-in-law was even brought in to take a look at the body, and couldn’t identify it as belonging to his relative. Ultimately, the corpse was placed in an anonymous pauper’s grave.
It wouldn’t stay there for long.
A few months later, a determined Marie-François Goron, chief of the Paris Investigative Unit, asked the authorities in Lyon to have the body exhumed for reexamination. They resisted at first, claiming that after almost four months, there was no way that any further analysis could be fruitful. But Goron had an ace up his sleeve, in the form of Dr. Alexandre Lacassagne.
Dr. Lacassagne was a famed criminologist and a leader in the emerging field of forensics. On November 13, 1889, he began a weeklong autopsy on the exhumed remains. Based on a sample of hair taken from Gouffé’s comb, as well as the description of a back injury in his missing person’s report, Lacassagne was able to positively identity the body.
Once the body had been positively identified as Gouffé’s, the rest of the case began to fall into place. Authorities looked into Gouffé’s activities right before he disappeared, and saw that he had been interacting with two swindlers: a man named Michel Eyraud and his mistress, Gabrielle Bompard. The pair had fled Paris on July 27: two days before Gouffé was reported missing. Furthermore, a carpenter in London, to whom the trunk was traced back, confirmed that he has sold it to Eyraud and Bompard.
As it turned out, the couple had hatched a plot to lure a wealthy man into Bompard’s apartment in order to rob and murder him. Gouffé was a relatively well-to-do widower, as well as a renowned womanizer, making him a perfect target. After murdering Gouffé, the couple bagged up his body and placed it in a trunk. The trunk was then transported via rail to a train station in Lyon, where Eyraud and Bompard recovered the container and moved it into the woods for disposal.
They never meant to abandon the trunk that ultimately led authorities back to their door. But after its weight and awful smell grew unbearable, they felt they had no choice.
The criminals were eventually apprehended, and tried in December 1890. Bompard’s was sentenced to death, and guillotined in February 1891. Bompard insisted that Eyraud had forced her into the crime through hypnosis. She was given 20 years of hard labor, and got off early for good behavior. She died in the early 1920s.
As for Dr. Lacassagne, his successful identification of the victim’s body was a major breakthrough in forensic science. The subsequent investigation lived on as a case study for budding criminologists. Many of the methods utilized by Lacassagne during his weeklong autopsy, are now standard practices in forensic examinations.
Feature illustration: Wikimedia Commons