The Gouffé Affaire

Hello, you’re listening to Paname, a podcast that takes out its magnifying glass to get a better look at Paris’ past.

Last time we heard about the bodies on display at the Paris morgue, drown muses, missing children, dismembered women and the crowds who came to see them. Yet amongst the most intriguing affaires  which the Paris morgue played a part was that which became know as the Gouffé affaire, where it was not a body that brought the crowds pouring into the morgue but a simple wooden trunk, the recognition of which would bring two murders to justice in one of the most mediatised affairs of the 19th Centaury.

Today I’ve come to the rue Montmatre in the 9th art. It was in here that Toussaint-Augustin Gouffe, the victim lived and worked. It was also were he was last reported to have been seen alive. So lets follow in his footsteps and walk from here to the scene of the crime at rue Tronson du Coudray in the 8th arrondisement. 

On the 26th of July 1889Gouffé, a bailiff in his 40s, and a respectable man and father of two, but with  a weakness for the ladies met the alluring Gabrielle Bompard.  Maybe in an attempt to impress this young woman he had boasted of keeping large sums of money in his office, information that interested Gabrielle and her no-good lover Michel Eyraud. The pair were already small time thieves and swindlers. They had a hustle:  Gabrielle would bring back a client and as things hotted up, Michel would burst in playing the enraged husband and insist on being paid off or I suppose threaten to beat up the poor man.

So on the night of the 26th Gabriel seduced Monsieur Gouffé. Maybe, like us, they walked the 20 or so minutes it would have taken to get there, it was after all summer. Where they seen? Did anyone suspect anything unusual? Sadly Gouffé did not,  little did he know that Gabrielle had already planned his murder. That in the very flat she was leading him to her, lover lay in wait to strangle him, that she herself had sewn the bag into which they would hide and later dispose of his body.

Inside the flat she seduced him.  She confessed later to police that she playfully tied a cord around his neck then her lover, emerged from his hiding place and strangled the unsuspecting victim. He then took his keys and hastened back to Gouffe’s office. But despite his best efforts, maybe because of the adrenaline from what he had just done causing him to panic he found nothing, no money. Had Gouffé lied? Had this been for nothing? Later the police searched they did find 14 thousand francs just as the bailiff had said in his office.

The couple decided to make their escape.  They force the body into a large trunk that they had acquired for that very purpose and leave by train, dumping the body in the woods near Lyon and smashing up the trunk before fleeing to America. And they very nearly got away with it. But they did not recon on the incredible detective skills in the new field of forensic science of one doctor Alexandre Lacassagne.  And the dogged police inspector Goron.

When Gouffé’s body first turned up the autopsy was carried out on the 14th of August by Dr. Paul Bernard, who concluded that that it was not the body of the missing bailiff. He found the hair to be of a different colour, the height was wrong and age different, for Dr Bernard the body was between thirty five and forty years whereas Gouffe was 49. Case closed. Inspector Goron had his doubts so sent Gouffé’s brother in law to check. He confirmed that the body was not that of his brother-in-laws as the hair was black and not brown.

However further evidence emerged linking the couple to the murder and all seemed to fit – except the autopsy so inspector Goron called upon the skills of the renowned Dr. Lacassange who had been carrying out incredible work in the field of ballistics, and forensics, and has in fact become known as the father of forensic science.

On the 13th of November 1889 Dr Lacassange carried out his own autopsy. By now however the body was nearly 4 months old, and one can only imagine the revolting job it must have been, especially without modern equipment, refrigeration or latex gloves. The body had, as we have mentioned already been autopsied by the coroner Dr Bernard but it seems it had done a rather botched and although Lacassange was famous for being prudent, advising his students, of which Beranard had been one that ‘A bungled autopsy cannot be redone’. He nonetheless set to work undeterred by the previous doctors mishandling.

The intricate and careful work carried out by Dr. Lacassange is truly remarkable, I will not go into all the details here but just to give you an overview. Lacassange was able to established the victims age, not by looking at the skull, as this had been damaged in the previous autopsy, but rather by looking at the pelvis and teeth. Dentil forensics was a new, a practically unheard of discipline at this time, so he was a real pioneer.  He concluded that the body was indeed closer to 45-50 and not 35-44. He was able to accurately work out his height, a perfect match to that of the missing baliff and, after collecting a hair sample from the victims house he was confirmed that Gouffé had indeed had chestnut hair and that although the hair from the body was black when carefully washed it, itstrue, chestnut colour was revealed.  Surely this would be enough, but the Dr Lacassange was single minded. He noted an old injury in the ankle that would have caused the victim to limp and confirmed this with the victim’s father who said that he had fallen as a child, fracturing his ankle and it never healed properly. He spoke with his cobbler about a suspected gouty toe which was confirmed and his dentist. There could no longer be any mistake this was definitely the body of Monsieur Gouffé.

Inspector Goron was himself a thorough and innovative investigator.  In his quest to solve the case. He decided to make a replica of the trunk into which the body had been stuffed and put it on display at the Paris morgue, 35,000 came to see it in the first 3 days, photos were taken and printed in newspapers and it was quickly identified by an Englishman who said a French man and his ‘daughter’ had bought one just like it from him and he was able to identify them as Gabrielle and Michel.

Although they had fled they turned on each other and the two were caught and brought back to France. The trial started on December the 16th 1890 and was a media sensation. Getting tickets to watch this courtroom drama was near impossible and the chief judge himself personally oversaw the handing out of tickets to friends and important people. The concierge of Gabrielle’s apartment, where the drama had taken place charged people to visit and see where it had all happened.  Gabrielle’s defence team heightened the drama; coming up with a thrilling argument about her being under a hypnotic like trance when with Michele and thus not responsible for her actions. Both defendants bitterly blamed each other. The papers reported all the details and the illustrated ‘petit journal’ re-created the scene in all its gory details. They were finally brought to justice on the 3rd of Feb 1891.

Michel Eyraud went to the guillotine, protesting all the way. Thousands of people came to watch keen to catch a glimpse of the notorious killer including a young Russian soldier who travelled more than one thousand miles on foot from the Russian-German border to Paris in just thirty-nine days. He was given a coveted prime spot as a reward his effort.  Street vendors circulated among the crowds who had gathered at the Roquette, selling miniature replicas of the infamous trunk. inscribed with "l’affaire Gouffé” and Inside each was a little metal corpse.

Gabrielle for her part received 20 years hard labour but was released after 13 and was able to find her way more or less back into society. She had become a sort of criminal celebrity with all the media hype surrounding this case and despite its horror people were curious about her. She died in the early 1920s completely forgotten.

Dr Lacassange for his part was a true pioneer, at a time when detective fiction and fact were becoming increasingly popular. He went on to have a long career and did much for forensics.

Thank you so much for listening today, if you want to find out more check out my website and if you are interested in finding out more about this case head to the muse de la prefecture de police to see photos of Gabrielle, Michele and Gouffé. That’s all for now.