Murder In 19th Century France And The Birth Of Forensic Science

This week's excerpt is not for the the faint of heart! We recount the savage murder and grisly disposal of Toussaint-Augustin Gouffé as well as the groundbreaking forensic techniques used by Dr Alexandre Lacassagne to bring his killers to justice.

In mid-November 1889, Dr Alexandre Lacassagne, head of the department of legal medicine at the University of Lyon, got a request from the city prosecutor to help with a particularly nasty case. Four months earlier, a body had been found in a sack by the Rhône River, about 20km south of the city. The corpse had been autopsied by another doctor, who could not arrive at an identification. Now, because of new developments in the case, the body was being exhumed. Granted there would not be much left of the cadaver, but could Dr Lacassagne perform a new autopsy? Perhaps he could find something the previous doctor had missed.

It was not unusual for Lacassagne (Lackasanya) to be called in where others had stumbled, for he had established a reputation as a skilled criminologist. As the author of textbooks, the developer of many new forensic techniques, and the investigator of several celebrated cases, he was first among equals in an international cadre of experts in the new field of legal medicine.

The subject of this autopsy was presumed to be a missing Parisian named Toussaint-Augustin Gouffé. A bailiff by profession, and a widower with two daughters, Gouffé was a prosperous man and had a reputation for being a sexual adventurer. On July 27, Gouffé's brother-in-law, whose name was Landry, reported to police that Gouffé had gone missing. Police paid little notice at first - this was, after all, the summer of the Paris World Exposition, with many unscheduled comings and goings. But when three days passed without Gouffé's reappearance, they took the case seriously and referred it to Marie-François Goron, renowned chief of the Paris Sûreté, the city's investigative unit. Three weeks later, a body turned up about 480km southeast of Paris, near the village of Millery, south of Lyon. A few days after that, some snail gatherers in the woods found a broken wooden trunk, which reeked of death and bore a shipping label from Paris.

Could the body and the trunk be connected to the missing man? Goron telegraphed a description of Gouffé to the medical examiner's office in Lyon. At the time of the discovery, Lacassagne was away, so a colleague and former student, Dr Paul Bernard, conducted the autopsy. He found little that matched the corpse to the missing person. True, the cadaver, like Gouffé, had large and strong teeth and was missing the first right upper molar, but that was about all. The corpse measured about five feet seven inches (170cm), while the missing man stood about five eight (173cm). The corpse had black hair; Gouffé's hair was chestnut-coloured. The cadaver was between 35 and 45 years old, according to Bernard's estimate; Gouffé had been 49. Just to be sure, Goron sent Landry to Lyon, along with a deputy. Landry took a brief, gasping look at the bloated, greenish body and saw not the slightest trace of his relative. Case closed. The men returned to Paris and the body went into an anonymous pauper's grave.

That might have been the end of the affair, but in autumn, Goron received an anonymous tip. Just before Gouffé disappeared from Paris, he had been seen at the Brasserie Gutenberg in the company of a con man named Michel Eyraud and his consort, Gabrielle Bompard. The couple left Paris the day after Gouffé went missing. Meanwhile, Goron had taken the shipping label from the trunk and showed it to the clerk at the Gare de Lyon in Paris. Records showed that the trunk had been shipped to Lyon the day after Gouffé's disappearance. Its weight was registered at 105kg - just about the combined weight of a fully grown man and a stout wooden trunk.

Everything tied the victim to Gouffé - except for the autopsy. Goron felt there must have been a mistake. He contacted the authorities in Lyon and asked them to exhume the body and re-examine it. They resisted: By now the victim had been dead for four months; no one could possibly identify the remains. But Goron, legendary for his persistence, remained adamant. And so the hideous job of conducting an autopsy on a body that had previously been dissected and had lain rotting underground fell to the one man in Lyon - perhaps in all Europe - who stood the slightest chance of solving the mystery.

*** No crowd of students surrounded Lacassagne as he prepared for an autopsy on the morning of November 13, 1889 - only a small number of medical assistants and police officials were in attendance. On the table lay the remains of someone who had died almost four months before. Was it Gouffé? Following the autopsy in August, after the body had been buried in an anonymous pauper's grave, a clever lab assistant named Julien Calmail had a hunch that the body would be needed again, so he scratched his initials on the outside of the coffin and put an old hat on the cadaver's head, creating a means of identification.

Lacassagne liked to use aphorisms in teaching. A favourite was: "A bungled autopsy cannot be redone", emphasising the need for care and precision. Bernard must have dozed through that lesson, judging by the state of the cadaver. He had examined the brain, as recommended, but in order to reach it, he'd smashed off the top of the head with a hammer - not with a saw, as his mentor had taught - eliminating any chance of detecting head trauma. He'd opened the chest with a chisel, as prescribed, but completely destroyed the sternum, making it impossible to see if there had been a traumatic chest injury. The organs had been removed and placed in a basket. Many bones were out of place.

No matter - the master would work with whatever materials he had. First he needed to determine the victim's age. There were several places he would normally have looked to make an estimate. The junctions of the skull bones would have been one, if they had not been rendered useless by the hammer blows. Instead, he directed his attention to the pelvis. He examined the junctions between the sacrum - the triangular structure that contains the base of the spine - and the hipbones on either side of it. Those junctions are obvious in a child and progressively become fused as a person reaches adulthood. He also examined the fibrous junctions among the last few vertebrae in the coccyx, which also become fused over the years. Lacassagne examined the victim's jaws and teeth. The teeth were in good shape, but years of gingivitis had caused a loss of bone around the tooth sockets. The bone of the tooth sockets, normally well defined and sharp at the edges, had reabsorbed into itself and presented a ratty appearance. The state of all those age-related changes characterised a person between 45 and 50 years old - not 35 to 45, as Bernard had stated.

The next step was to determine the victim's height. Standard practice at the time was to stretch out the cadaver and add four centimetres to roughly account for the loss of connective tissue. But that was too inaccurate for Lacassagne. Instead, he made use of the newly developing field of anthropometrics - the statistical study of body dimensions. Researchers had been experimenting with methods of deducing the size of a body from individual bones, but no one had done the kind of comprehensive studies that would make their correlations precise and authoritative. Lacassagne knew about this shortcoming, so he assigned Étienne Rollet to write a thesis on the relationship between certain bones of the skeleton and the length of the body. Over the years, Rollet obtained the cadavers of 50 men and 50 women and measured more than 1500 bones, down to the millimetre. He focused on the six largest bones, including the three bones of the upper and lower leg (the femur, tibia and fibula) and the three of the upper and lower arm (the humerus, radial and ulna). He carefully charted the bone lengths of men and women - right-handed and left-handed people of various ages.

As he recorded and charted hundreds of measurements, Rollet began to see certain regularities. Within a given gender and race and general age cohort, the length of individual long bones of the skeleton bore a constant correlation to the overall body length.

*** Lacassagne consulted his student's chart as he cleaned away the flesh that remained on the cadaver's arm and leg bones. Because he had an entire cadaver with all six major bones available, not just a few, as often was the case, Lacassagne could double-check and triple-check his results. He averaged the numbers to estimate a body height of five feet eight inches (173cm). Bernard's estimate had been about an inch and a half (3.8cm) shorter.

Gouffé's family was unsure about his exact height, so Inspector Goron telephoned the victim's tailor and the military authorities in Paris, who had measured him at his time of conscription. Both agreed: He was five feet eight (172cm). Further measurements and other calculations told Lacassagne that the victim had weighed about 80kg - again a match to Gouffé.

Now for the hair. One of the key reasons that Bernard and Gouffé's brother-in-law had failed to identify the cadaver was that Gouffé's hair was chestnut brown and the cadaver's was black. Lacassagne asked Goron to order his men to go to Gouffé's apartment in Paris, find his hairbrush and send it by courier to Lyon. Lacassagne could see that the hair from the brush was chestnut in colour, just as Gouffé's relatives had described. Then Lacassagne took the bits of black hair that remained on the cadaver and washed them repeatedly. After several vigorous rinsings, the grimy black coating that had built up from putrefaction dissolved, revealing the same chestnut colour as the hair from the brush. To make sure the hair colour was natural, Lacassagne gave samples to a colleague, Professor Hugounenq, a chemist, who tested them for every known hair dye. He found none. Next, Lacassagne microscopically compared the hair samples from the brush with those from the cadaver's head. The samples all measured about 0.13mm in diameter.

That would have been enough for most medical examiners: the victim's age, height, approximate weight, hair colour and tooth pattern. But it was not enough detail for Lacassagne, who taught that "one must know how to doubt". He had seen too many errors by medical experts who had fit most pieces into place but not all of them. And so he pushed on.

In the days before DNA testing, nothing could rival a fresh cadaver for an accurate identification. A fresh body would reveal facial features and identifying marks, such as scars and tattoos. Relatives could be called to identify the cadaver, which is why morgues at the time included exhibit halls. And yet skin, the great revealer of identity, concealed certain aspects of identity, as well. Skin could erase history. An old injury, such as a bone break or deformity, would exhibit no trace in the healed-over skin. Bones, on the other hand, were "a witness more certain and durable" than skin, wrote Lacassagne. Long after the soft tissues had decayed, the bones would remain just as they had been in the moment of death. So with little more than bones and gristle to work with, he searched for whatever history those bones might portray. He spent hours scraping bits of flesh off the skeleton, examining the points where ligaments connected, measuring bone size, and opening the joints. Something drew his eye to the right heel and anklebones. They were a darker brown than the bones around them. He cut away the tendons that held the two bones together and examined the inner surfaces of the joint. Unlike the clean and polished surfaces of a healthy joint, these bone ends were "grainy, coarse and dented" - signs of an old injury that had improperly healed. The ankle could not have articulated very well. The victim probably had limped.

Moving forward on the foot, he examined the joint between the bone of the big toe and the metatarsal bone. The end of the metatarsal bone had accrued a bony ridge, which extended clear across the joint and butted into the toe bone. The victim would not have been able to bend his right big toe. Lacassagne suspected that the victim had gout, a disease in which the body loses the ability to break down uric acid. Over time, the chemical accumulates as crystals in the joints, particularly the big toe. In advanced cases, the bone ends build up a chalky deposit, sometimes enough to painfully immobilise a joint.

Lacassagne worked his way up the right lower leg. The fibula, the narrow bone running alongside the calf bone, appeared slimmer than that of the left leg. This meant that the muscle must have been weakened, for without the pull and pressure exerted by muscles, the bones beneath would lose mass. The right kneecap was smaller than the left and more rounded. The interior surface of the kneecap showed several small bony protuberances. None of these features previously had been noticed because the first examination took place three weeks after death. At that stage, both legs could have been bloated with gas. It was only now, with the skin and muscles removed, that this aspect of the victim's medical history was revealed.

To confirm his observations, Lacassagne called Dr Gabriel Mondan, chief of surgery at the world famous Ollier clinic in Lyon. Mondan carefully studied the leg and foot bones, sketching their irregularities, treating them with chemicals to remove the bits of flesh, and drying and weighing them. He found that the bones of the right foot and leg weighed slightly less than those of the left, individually and collectively. He confirmed Lacassagne's observation of the kneecap, and of the subtle withering of the lower part of the right leg. He noted that the right heel and anklebones were "slightly stunted". He placed both sets of bones on a table. The bones of the left foot sat normally, with the anklebone, or talus, balanced on the heel. The anklebone of the right foot kept falling off.

Meanwhile, in Paris, Goron's men had been gathering information about Gouffé. They interviewed Gouffé's father, who recalled that when his son was a toddler he fell off a pile of rocks and fractured his ankle. It never healed correctly. Ever since then he'd dragged his right leg a bit when he walked, although many people did not notice. Gouffé's cobbler testified that whenever he made shoes for him, he made the right shoe with an extra-wide heel and used extremely soft leather to accommodate his tender ankle and gouty toes. "His big toe stuck up when he walked," the cobbler said. Gouffé's physician, a Dr Hervieux of Paris, attested to a variety of leg problems that had plagued his patient for years. In 1885, Hervieux treated him for a swelling of the right knee. The condition had been chronic, Hervieux reported: Another doctor had considered amputating the leg. Hervieux instead prescribed two months of bed rest, after which Gouffé returned to work. In 1887, Hervieux saw his patient for a severe case of gout in the big toe of his right foot. This, too, was a chronic condition, he said, and caused so much painful swelling that Gouffé could not bend the toe joint. Hervieux sent his patient to a spa at Aix-les-Bains for six weeks. A document from the spa stated that Gouffé had suffered a relapse in 1888.

By now, enough evidence had accumulated for Lacassagne to satisfy even his doubts. The victim had been five feet eight inches (173cm) tall, weighed 80kg and was about 50 years old. He had chestnut-coloured hair and a complete set of teeth, except for the first upper molar on the right.

The man had been a smoker - Lacassagne surmised that from the blackened front surfaces of the incisors and canine teeth. Sometime in childhood, the victim had broken his right ankle, an injury that had never properly healed. Later in life, he had suffered several attacks of gout. He had also had a history of arthritic inflammations of the right knee. All these injuries had contributed to a general weakening of the victim's lower right leg, reflected in the reduction of bone mass. He must have frequently suffered pain in that leg and perhaps walked with a slight limp. "Now we can conclude a positive identity," Lacassagne reported. "The body found in Millery indeed is the corpse of Monsieur Gouffé."

Once the body had been identified, the pieces of the case quickly fell together. Goron had a replica of the trunk made and displayed it in the Paris morgue. It caused a sensation: Within three days, 25,000 people had filed past it, one of whom identified it as having come from a particular trunk maker on Euston Road in London. Goron travelled to London and obtained the receipt, which showed that the trunk had been purchased a few weeks before the crime by a man named Michel Eyraud. Goron quickly sent bulletins with descriptions of both Eyraud and Bompard to French government offices on both sides of the Atlantic. He dispatched agents to North America, who followed the couple to New York, Quebec, Vancouver and San Francisco - always just a few days behind them.

Finally, in May 1890, a Frenchman living in Havana recognised Eyraud and alerted Cuban police. His girlfriend, meanwhile, had stayed in Vancouver, where she met and fell in love with an American adventurer. Eventually, he persuaded her to turn herself in.

With both suspects in custody, the bizarre story of the crime emerged. Bompard and Eyraud had known of Gouffé's wealth and reputation for sexual adventure, and they'd heard that he spent most Friday nights at the Brasserie Gutenberg after emptying his office safe. So they had set a trap.

Eyraud went to Bompard's apartment, where he attached an iron ring to the ceiling in an alcove behind her divan. He passed a sturdy rope through the ring, then hid the apparatus and himself behind a curtain. Bompard, meanwhile, went to the café, found Gouffé and started flirting with him.

She persuaded him to go back to her apartment, where she took off her clothes and slipped into a robe. Seductively drawing Gouffé close to her, she playfully slipped the sash around his throat. She passed the ends to Eyraud, who affixed them to the rope and, pulling with all his might, hanged Gouffé before he could react. To their horror, however, when they rifled his pockets, they found that he had left all his money behind somewhere.

They needed to get rid of the body, and fast. They trussed it up in a canvas sack, packed it in a trunk, and bought tickets on the next morning's train to Lyon. Once in Lyon, they spent a night in a rooming house with the body, then rented a horse-drawn carriage to travel into the countryside.

They rode about 20km south of the city, then dumped the body on a steep hill leading down to the Rhône River. On the return trip, Eyraud purchased a hammer, smashed up the trunk and threw the pieces in the woods. They had expected the body to roll into the river and float downstream, never to be seen again. Unfortunately for them, it got hung up in a bush and became the key piece of evidence that led to their convictions. The world saw it as a miraculous turn of events, and Lacassagne as the wizard who had made it happen. The feat was unprecedented. To think that the corpse had been autopsied and buried for months! Not even Gouffé's relatives could identify it. But Lacassagne, using the tools of a new science, enabled the victim to exact justice from beyond the grave. "It was no miracle," his former student Locard protested, "because modern science is contrary to miracles." Yet as a work of deduction, it was truly "a masterpiece-the most astonishing, I think, that ever had been made in criminology".

After a massively attended and publicised trial, Eyraud received the death penalty and Bompard was sentenced to 20 years in prison. On Feburary 4, 1891, Eyraud went to the guillotine. Thousands of people mobbed the event, straining to glimpse the notorious killer. Street vendors circulated among them, selling miniature replicas of the infamous trunk. Inside each was a toy metal corpse bearing the inscription "the Gouffé Affair".

Top Image courtesy of the author

Douglas Starr is co-director for the centre for Science and Medical Journalism, a professor of Journalism at Boston University, has won the LA Times book prize and has served as science editor for PBS-TV.

The Killer of Little Shepherds is available on Amazon.

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