The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science
by Douglas Starr
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2010.
Review by Robert A. Waters
On December 31, 1898, when Joseph Vacher’s head tumbled from the guillotine into a waiting bucket, scientists were fighting to claim it. One of France’s most hated killers had plied his trade at exactly the same time that forensic science, a new field of criminology, was being developed and there seemed to be a need to study this sadistic killer. Were there abnormalities of his skull that would cause the violent attacks that took the lives of at least eleven victims? Did his skull fit the then well-known pattern of the “born criminal”? Was his brain diseased? Were there lesions that sent Vacher into uncontrollable rages? Or was he merely an evil sexual psychopath?
The Killer of Little Shepherds juxtaposes the murders committed by Vacher against the fast-growing field of forensics. On one side was Vacher, 23, a former soldier who shot the girl he’d unsuccessfully pursued, then himself. He survived, but the bullet left a permanent facial scar and an odorous puss that drained from his ear. After the attempted murder, he was committed to a mental institution. He later was transferred to a more “modern” institution where he resided until he was “cured.”
Almost immediately after leaving the institution, Vacher spotted twenty-one-year-old Eugenie Delhomme, a millworker, as she took a break. He quickly murdered her. Starr writes: “Eugenie’s body, only two hundred yards from the factory door, looked like it had been attacked by a wild beast.” She’d been strangled, stomped, and stabbed numerous times. Although there was no sign of sexual assault, her right nipple had been cut off and carried away.
Vacher quickly fled into the countryside. For the next three years, he would wander through France, begging and stealing for a living while raping and murdering young girls and boys. He was finally caught when he assaulted a housewife, Marie-Eugenie Heraud—her husband heard her screams and attacked Vacher, pinning him down until the police arrived.
At that point, Investigative Magistrate Emile Fourquet interviewed Vacher and determined that he had committed multiple crimes, including several unsolved rape/murders of shepherd boys who lived alone in remote forests with their flocks.
While Vacher was committing his crimes, a scientist named Dr. Alexandre Lacassagne was helping to develop modern forensics in areas such as criminal profiling, blood-spatter analysis, and modernizing the autopsy. Lacassagne’s methods helped solve several sensational cases, and publicized the need for new scientifically-based forensics.
As the trial of Vacher neared, Fourquet contacted Lacassagne in an effort to determine whether Vacher was legally insane. After numerous interviews, the scientist concluded that Vacher was a cold-blooded killer, manipulative and sociopathic, but not insane. While other scientists disagreed, Lacassagne’s view was accepted by the court. Vacher was found guilty of the one murder for which he was being tried, and sentenced to die.
After his death, several scientists received portions of his brain.
No abnormalities were found.
This is the kind of book I love to read. It is full of historical information that I didn’t know, and it was written in a terse, dramatic, true crime format.
I highly recommend The Killer of Little Shepherds.