A Kansas man, Thomas McDonald, was acquitted by a jury for the murder of Thomas Patton, a man he admitted to shooting and killing; at trial, McDonald successfully claimed he was not at fault because he was under the “suggestion” of a hypnotist at the time he pulled the trigger. The hypnotist, Anderson Gray, however, was then charged with murder and convicted. It seemed that Gray had entered into a dubious land contract that he did not want to be enforced, and Patton was the only witness – he needed him dead and convinced McDonald that Patton was making moves on his wife- subjected him to hypnotism- trained him in the art of shooting a rifle- and then waited. The conviction of Gray was brought under a section of the Kansas Code which provided that a person could be convicted of a crime if he aided or abetted, directed, counseled, commanded, induced or procured another to do the act which constituted a crime. But this was in 1895-things have changed.
Hypnotism gained fame mainly through the work of Franz Anton Mesmer, an Austrian physician who coined “animal magnetism” based on his theory that people resorted to an inner-conscious sleep-like trance when, under certain conditions, magnets were passed over their bodies. His work was widely discredited, but the topic continues to garner public attention and curiosity (Freud was a fan of hypnosis). Courts today mainly discount and prohibit the introduction of evidence induced through hypnotism; it is an issue of credibility and reliability. Many believe that no expert can determine whether memory retrieved by hypnosis, or any particular part of that memory, is the truth or confabulation- a filling of gaps with fantasy. There is not a consensus in the scientific community that the procedure is acceptable. That is not to say that hypnosis is not a valid tool to be used in other matters including investigations, and some courts may let the jury weigh the credibility of certain aspects of the practice.
In “Little Demon in the City of Light,” by Steven Levingston (2014), the author highlights hypnotism and an 1889 murder case set in Paris, France. The two main players are Gabrielle Bompard and Michel Eyraud; they both become defendants in a worldwide publicized case that brought hypnotism to the forefront in a Paris courtroom. At issue was whether Bompard was under the “influence” of Eyraud or other hypnotists at the time of the murder. Eyraud presented as a low-life psychopath and Bompard as a desperate and young woman in search of immediate financial security. The two met and started a tumultuous tryst (Bompard was married) Eyraud was much older. The two end up murdering Toussaint-Augustin Gouff’e, a bailiff (and millionaire) for the courts providing a wide variety of services including the collection of debts; he was also a “lady’s man.” The author explains some of the unique facets of the Paris judicial system which are fascinating when compared to the U.S. system of justice. For example, the judges investigate the criminal cases, examine witnesses and the evidence, and then present an outline of the facts and charges to the jury (in an incriminatory manner), before the prosecution and defense start their cases. The murder is particularly brutal and seemingly premeditated; Bompard lures Gouffe into a rented room under the pretense of a sexual rendezvous, where he is then hung and possibly strangled under a well-planned scheme (including dumping the body in a large trunk) cooked up by the pair. Following the murder, the two flee, taking the chest with them. The search for the fugitives and the use of state-of-the-art forensic tools by preeminent Paris detectives fills about one-half of the book pages.
Bompard claimed she was under Eyraud’s control. Her lawyer argued that she was a woman with a “fragile mental state.” There was substantial testimony concerning hypnotism and how this may have impacted Bompard’s mental capacity and ability to commit such a crime. But this theory was abandoned by her lawyer during his closing argument, and he only argued that she was too fragile to be fully culpable and that the jury should have mercy on her. The book contains several unique facets of French culture and the party-like atmosphere at the time, and the author does an excellent job of describing the justice system, the mood of the French people- especially as it pertained to death penalty cases, and the press. I recommend this book.
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