I wasn’t scheduled to post today, but I volunteered to do so on one condition: that I could call my post “France in My Pants.” Fortunately, our gracious editor accepted my terms, so here we are.
I must confess that this post isn’t really about pants, it’s about France in the late 1800s and the early days of forensics and murdering and stuff – so if you want to stop reading now, I won’t be offended. For those of you who’d like to carry on, away we go!
Eiffel’s Tower, by Jill Jonnes – Did you know that Gustav Eiffel had a swanky little apartment at the top of the Eiffel tower? He did! It was fully furnished with artwork, velvet fringed divans, and even a piano. (p. 152 and 237). And did you know that the tower had its own newspaper? It did! During the 1889 Paris Exposition, Le Figaro printed a daily special edition of their newspaper (Le Figaro de la Tour) in a tiny office on the tower’s second floor (p. 46).
This book is both a friendly romp through the history and construction of the tower and a nice general introduction to some of the Exposition’s famous visitors. Where else can you learn about the difficulties of constructing elevators that travel up and sideways at the same time? Where else can you learn about Annie Oakley’s living quarters and how Thomas Edison became an Italian count? Where else can you discover how the good people of Paris reacted to that most American of constructions, the Corn Palace? Spoiler: thumbs down (p. 125).
The tower itself was a parade of famous people – visitors included the Prince and Princess of Wales (who came even though Queen Victoria had called for a boycott of the fair), Isabella II of Spain, King George of Greece, not-yet Czar of Russia Nicholas II, and (almost) the Shah of Persia – his courage failed him on his first attempt to climb the tower, and he didn’t get far on his second visit before descending “as fast as his legs could carry him, and unassisted by any native dignity or borrowed decorum” (p. 187). Well, at least he tried.
Photographs scattered throughout the book show the early phases of the tower’s construction, which really puts the whole scale of the operation (and the Shah’s fears) into perspective. Of course, there are the requisite images of the designers and engineers of the tower and the Exposition, but you’ll also come across a few spiffy interior shots of the exhibition halls and a charming picture of Buffalo Bill and some of his Native American employees enjoying a gondola ride in Venice (p. 278).
Note: If you’re only here for happy books, this would be a good place to stop reading.
The Killer of Little Shepherds, by Douglas Starr – Catching serial killers is hard work, especially in the French countryside, especially in the late 1800s, especially when the local police departments don’t talk to each other, and especially when there are no standards for collecting and analyzing evidence. But you’ll see how science (yay, science!) overcomes all of these obstacles in this book, which tells the parallel stories of Joseph Vacher (our killer) and Dr. Alexandre Lacassagne (a pioneer in the field of forensic medicine).
Vacher was a soldier who didn’t take rejection well – he started his violent career by proposing to a young housemaid on their first date and shooting her in the face when she rejected him (p. 5). She survived; he went on to commit at least eleven murders – well, he confessed to eleven, though he was suspected of more than twenty-five (p. 148).
Lacassange, a professor at the University of Lyon, worked with his students to compile a pocket-sized guide to pretty much every crime everywhere. His book became an indispensable tool for doctors and investigators – with its assistance, they could be sure of collecting evidence that would stand up in court (p. 45). He was also apparently the first person to use the rifling marks on a bullet to link it to a particular gun, way back in 1888 (p.46)!
This book also contains many sensational newspaper illustrations of crime scene reenactments, scattered body parts, dramatic autopsies, handwriting samples, and a very discreet photograph of Vacher’s severed head. Something for everyone, really.
Little Demon in the City of Light, by Steven Livingston – Can a person be held accountable for a crime that they committed while hypnotized? That’s the underlying question in our final book, the story of the murder of Toussaint-Augustin Gouffe, a wealthy and swanky fellow done in by his intended mistress, Gabrielle Bompard.
At the time of the murder, Gabrielle was supposedly acting under the influence of her lover – con man, hypnotist, and all around creepy fellow Michel Eyraud (seriously – he was like, twenty years older than her. And while they were on the lam, he made her pose first as his son and then as his daughter).
The crime took place in Paris in 1889 (the year the Eiffel Tower opened), and Gouffe’s body was discovered in Lyon, where it was identified by Dr. Alexandre Lacassagne (the previously noted forensic medicine chap). See how nicely everything comes together? But alas, I’m still reading this one, so I’m afraid I don’t have many more details for you. So far, it’s fascinating stuff.
Like The Killer of Little Shepherds, this book also features a fun variety of illustrations and photographs. There are quite a few fancy mustaches, the bloody trunk that once contained Gouffe’s corpse, and a very tasteful picture of his remains (so don’t read this one on your lunch break).
- Amy, friend of pants, science, and history