Paris 1894

Dark forces

Hypnotism has now been accepted by medical science. ‘Mind over matter’ is real – but what are its limits and its dangers? Can it be exploited for evil ends?

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Svengali

In his bestselling book Trilby, George du Maurier drew on contemporary fears and anti-semitic stereotypes to create the ultimate evil hypnotist: Svengali.

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Paris, the Latin Quarter, 1850s Trilby O’Ferrall is living the bohemian life as an artist’s model

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All the men are in love with her

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She meets Svengali, a Jewish musical impresario

He wants to make her a star

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Trilby protests that she’s tone deaf

But he transforms her into a sensational singer…

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…by using hypnosis

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She falls under the spell of Svengali

“…a sticky, haunting, long, lean, uncanny, black spider-cat, if there is such an animal outside a bad dream”

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Under his tutelage Trilby becomes an international sensation

…but once Svengali releases her from hypnosis, she has no memory of her performance
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She travels to London for her biggest concert yet

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But as she takes to the stage, Svengali collapses…

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…and dies of a heart attack

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Trilby finds herself on stage, frozen in front of a heckling crowd, with no recollection that she had ever been a singer

“There were two Trilbys…with one look of his eye – with a word – Svengali could turn her into the other Trilby, and make her do whatever he liked…”

Murder under hypnosis

Du Maurier’s novel reflected sensational true-life stories, such as the case of Gabrielle Bompard in Paris in 1889. On trial for murder, Gabrielle claimed she had been hypnotised by her male accomplice and had no memory of the crime.

At her trial, expert witnesses disputed the power of hypnosis. Could it be used to make someone commit murder against their will, or without their knowledge?

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In 1889 Paris was gripped by a sensational murder. A wealthy businessman was lured by a young woman named Gabrielle Bompard to a rented apartment where her partner, a vicious con-man named Michel Eyraud, was lying in wait.

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The victim was strangled by a silk dressing gown cord, his body packed into a trunk and dumped off a remote mountainside.

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Gabrielle eventually confessed to being at the scene of the crime, but insisted that Eyraud had put her under hypnosis. She had no memory of the fateful moment.

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It was the first time that hypnosis had been used as a defence in a court of law.

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If Eyraud was controlling Gabrielle’s mind, how could she be guilty? But could hypnosis really compel an innocent woman to murder?

The case split the psychiatric profession.

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For the prosecution: Jules Quesnay de Beaurepaire “If hypnotism explains the crime, if it is a way to deny free will…no criminal will be accountable for the blood he spills.”

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For the defence: Jules Liégeois “All conscience has disappeared in a hypnotized subject who has been forced to commit a criminal act. Only he who has given the suggestion is guilty.”

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Both defendants were found guilty. Eyraud was sentenced to death by guillotine. Bompard received a prison sentence of 21 years.

After winning early release in 1903, she toured with a hypnotic stage show, in which she re-enacted her crime.

  • George Du Maurier’s illustrations for Trilby in the 1894 Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham View on external website
  • Illustrations from Le Petit Parisien and Supplément Illustré du Petit Journal, 1890
  • Poster for the song “Gabrielle Bompétard” inspired by the affair called malle à Gouffé in France. View on external website
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