home     authors     titles     dates     links     about

the killer of little shepherds

14 january 2011

The subtitle of Douglas Starr's excellent Killer of Little Shepherds promises a treatment of "the birth of forensic science," but the book delivers much more than that. In any case, it's more "an episode from the early years of forensic science" than the actual birth thereof. The case of Joseph Vacher has wider implications, keenly analyzed in Starr's work: for capital punishment, the insanity defense, and the sociology of crime.

Joseph Vacher spent the mid-1890s wandering around southeastern France killing people. Little shepherds were indeed his specialty: he liked his victims young, rural, isolated, and terrified. He killed young men and young women and then raped them, often pausing to disembowel or otherwise mutilate them, sometimes also stealing their effects. He wore a white rabbitskin cap, carried large clubs, and generally struck anyone who met him as seriously freaking insane.

But that's the paradox of insanity, in the legal system. Unless you know what you're doing, you shouldn't be punished, right? Madmen by definition don't know what they're doing. But who goes on extended rape/torture/murder sprees without being mad?

Opinions among the French jurists who eventually consigned Vacher to the guillotine were very sharply divided. First of all, on whether Vacher was truly nuts or pretending to be to avoid execution; and then, over whether his crimes were so motiveless and extreme as to constitute madness, whether he planned them with foresight or not.

Criminalist Alexandre Lacassagne, who plays counterpoint to Vacher in Starr's narrative, lived in a time when the lack of specialization in criminology allowed investigators to fill all the different roles that CSI characters do only in the fantasies of TV writers. Lacassagne was a forensic physician who developed many techniques for crime-scene and autopsy analysis. But his role in the Vacher case consisted of interviewing the suspect to gain information about his criminal personality. He then testified as an expert witness at the trial. Roles that our system would separate, in the interests of fair play, were hardly distinguishable in 19th-century France, giving Lacassagne a uniquely broad perspective on Vacher's horrors.

But Lacassagne didn't catch Vacher. That honor goes largely to the now-obscure Émile Fourquet, a local official who connected tales of gruesome murders from a wider area. Mobile serial killers are still difficult to track today, because their crimes occur in many jurisdictions. They were all the harder to track before e-mail, searchable databases, and computerized fingerprint files.

In fact, Vacher tended to avoid suspicion even when he was notorious in a village where he'd just murdered someone. You'd think a repulsive stranger, behaving oddly and carrying a bag of weapons, would qualify as a usual suspect. But in at least three different cases, locals blamed the murder of a little shepherd on a local rich man. French countryfolk of the 1890s assumed that anybody with a few francs in the bank got them by figuratively choking the life out of paysans anyway, so when someone was found literally choked to death, they quickly blamed the local toff. Many of the victims' family members continued to blame the rich folk even after Vacher had been convicted and guillotined.

For guillotined he was. He'd most likely escape that fate today. For one thing, France doesn't execute criminals any more. But even in Texas, Vacher would probably get life in an institution instead of death; by our standards he qualifies as stark raving mad. Should egregious madmen be spared lethal injection? Or should they be killed just to protect a community? (Few people now think, as some of Vacher's caregivers did, that such psychopaths can be rehabilitated; and they tend to pose extreme escape risks, just as Vacher did.)

These questions are still intractable, but Starr raises them in the course of vivid examples and provocative analyses. Any student of true crime should read The Killer of Little Shepherds.

Starr, Douglas. The Killer of Little Shepherds: A true crime story and the birth of forensic science. New York: Random House, 2010.