The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science
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Winner of the Gold Dagger Award
A fascinating true crime story that details the rise of modern forensics and the development of modern criminal investigation.
At the end of the nineteenth century, serial murderer Joseph Vacher terrorized the French countryside, eluding authorities for years, and murdering twice as many victims as Jack The Ripper. Here, Douglas Starr revisits Vacher's infamous crime wave, interweaving the story of the two men who eventually stopped him—prosecutor Emile Fourquet and Dr. Alexandre Lacassagne, the era's most renowned criminologist. In dramatic detail, Starr shows how Lacassagne and his colleagues were developing forensic science as we know it. Building to a gripping courtroom denouement, The Killer of Little Shepherds is a riveting contribution to the history of criminal justice.
three years earlier. He had been charged with several crimes, including digging up and robbing a corpse and murdering an old man and his servant with a hatchet, but released for lack of evidence. On the eve of his bombing trial, anarchists exploded the restaurant where Ravachol was captured, in an effort to intimidate the prosecutor. It worked: The prosecutor treated Ravachol with deference and settled for life imprisonment rather than the mandated death penalty. But two months later, Ravachol
suffered the most. Fittingly, this was the crime that would prove Vacher’s undoing. The community reacted in terror. These were villages without a police force, where the only security measures were dogs and flimsy locks. Formerly hospitable villagers now closed their doors to strangers and thought they saw assassins everywhere. The citizens of Onglas, unlike those in the larger towns where Vacher had struck, could not comfort themselves by arresting the usual suspects, for there weren’t any.
approach to crime. Like the other great logicians of the era, they viewed the problem not as sin or the workings of the devil, but as a scientific challenge. (This, after all, was a scientific age.) Trained in medicine, law, psychology, and anthropology, they established new institutes for criminal research, published their work in scholarly journals, and debated their theories at international conferences. Theirs was the first generation of modern criminologists, and they developed the
Louise. He spent most of his time alone, reading. Saint-Robert’s status reports portray a very different man from the one who behaved so wildly at Dole. He responded to treatment, or at least appeared to. Within two weeks of his arrival at Saint-Robert, doctors could report that he no longer heard voices, that he was becoming “docile and polite.”28 He wrote fawning letters to and about Dr. Dufour. (“He should be governing all of France rather than administering this establishment full of
Lacassagne.” De Coston asked if Vacher bore any signs of degeneracy. “Absolutely not. He carries no sign of hereditary damage. He is responsible.” The judge asked about the dog bite and the remedy. Lacassagne responded that it would not be possible for a dog bite, even a rabid one, to produce the kind of transformation Vacher alleged. “In any case, he was not bitten, but licked.” He knew of no cases in which a folk remedy produced the alleged effect. Vacher stood up with a big piece of paper,