Forensic science owes much to a Frenchman whose fascination with the criminal mind led to the conviction of a notorious serial killer. Liz Hunt reports.
It was the fashionable shoes protruding from under a hedge that caught her eye. Known as Molière shoes, after the playwright whose characters sported the style, they had turned-up toes and signature stumpy heels. The shepherdess knew the area was popular with young lovers and assumed there was a couple entwined there, idling away a Sunday afternoon.
She was about to move on with her small flock of sheep, when it occurred to her that she could only see one pair of feet. She moved closer. Seconds later, her anguished screams brought workers from a nearby silk mill hurrying to her side. They fell back in horror at the bloody scene before them.
It was May 20 1894, and Joseph Vacher’s killing spree through rural France had begun. His first victim was Eugénie Delhomme, a 21-year-old worker at the mill on the outskirts of Beaurepaire. Vacher had strangled and stabbed her in the neck, and continued his frenzied assault with a knife after her death, before mutilating her right breast.
Vacher is to French social history what Jack the Ripper is to ours; a serial killer of cunning savagery and showy sexual depravity whose case would sell tens of thousands of newspapers throughout Europe to a public both appalled and entranced. Vacher enjoyed transatlantic notoriety, too. The New York Times described him as the “French Ripper” whose “crimes surpassed in number and atrocity those of the Whitechapel murderer”.
It was true: while five or six murders were attributed to “Jack”, Vacher slaughtered at least 11 people across France between 1894 and 1897, and possibly as many as 27. His crimes went unconnected, largely because of the distances he covered and non-existent communication between authorities. There were more than 400,000 vagrants roaming the countryside in search of work and food at that time. No one suspected these killings were the work of one man.
Vacher’s later victims were adolescent farm workers, which led to him being dubbed »The Killer of Little Shepherds’’ by the French penny post, and Professor Douglas Starr has selected this title for his compelling book.
There is one key difference between Jack the Ripper and Joseph Vacher – the latter was apprehended and tried for his crimes. But what intrigues the author is not what Vacher did but how his plea of insanity was overthrown and his conviction secured.
While Starr, a professor of journalism at Boston University, documents each murder in stark detail, his account juxtaposes Vacher as an anti-hero, with his hero, Dr Alexandre Lacassagne, a brilliant medico-legal practitioner with a resolute adherence to, and respect for, facts.
Dr Lacassagne is hailed as the founder of modern forensic science whose professional credo was “one must know how to doubt’’. He was a pioneer in a branch of criminology that continues to fascinate us today, from the bestselling novels of Patricia Cornwell to long-running television series such Silent Witness and the hugely successful CSI franchise.
Dr Lacassagne’s interests were wide-ranging and quixotic. On military service in Algeria, he studied the personalities of both the soldiers and miscreants he treated – and their religious or overtly sexual tattoos. He postulated that the choice of tattoo offered an insight into the criminal mind and collected around 2,000 images, categorised according to type and body location. When his findings were presented to an international conference, the journal Science described it as »one of the most entertaining and instructive anthropological papers which have appeared in a long time.’’
Lacassagne’s real preoccupation, however, was in the biological changes in the aftermath of death. He wrote an acclaimed thesis on putrefaction. In 1878, he published Précis de médecine judiciare (Synopsis of judicial medicine), which outlined the principles of the fledgling specialism. Two years later, aged 37, he took up the new chair of legal medicine at the University of Lyon.
According to Starr, the first known lego-medical text book was a 13th-century Chinese text Hsi-yuan lu (Instruction to Coroners) advising on the investigation of suspicious deaths. It advised on the appearance of wounds but presented questionable observations, such as all male victims of accidental drowning float face down and females face up, as undisputed fact.
Some 300 years later, the Vatican made its contribution by enacting a penal code that allowed the examination »and if necessary, opening of the body’’ after violent death. It would not, however, sanction full post-mortems. By the time Dr Lacassagne arrived in Lyon, social and scientific developments had progressed sufficiently to allow the roots of modern legal medicine to take hold. The French Revolution had been a factor, as the control of hospitals moved from the Church to the state, removing religious obstacles to post mortem, and Madame Guillotine had obliged with the steady provision of bodies for examination.
Lacassagne and his colleagues also lived during the Belle Époque, a period in world history of major scientific advances and radical thinking, when accepted mores and old values and diktats originating in folklore and tradition were overthrown. This passion for knowledge and commitment to rational thought runs through Starr’s book as he details how Lacassagne introduced a national systemised post-mortem procedure and helped devise techniques in crime-scene analysis from determining how long a body had been decomposing, and matching bullets to a gun, to the significance of blood-spatter and the treasure trove of information concealed in bones.
The celebrated cases that hinged on Lacassagne’s painstaking deductions from corpses and crime scenes are recounted by Starr, including the gruesome exhumation of a murdered bailiff and his identification from an ankle bone, to the murder conviction of a gang member using a lump of faecal matter.
Lacassagne continued to study criminal psychology. He interviewed prisoners, collected their writings, and dissected their brains after death. He stood in opposition to another great criminologist of that time, the Italian Cesare Lombroso, who believed that criminals were »born’’. The Frenchman held that other causes, such as poverty, family life, and the economy were motivating factors. In the library at Lyon’s Institute of Legal Medicine, he had displayed more than 300 maps showing the “criminal geography’’ of France dating back to the 1820s.
Dr Alexandre Lacassagne was, then, the formidable opponent Joseph Vacher faced, when the former soldier who sported a hat of white rabbit fur as a sign of his “purity” was put on trial in Bourg-en-Bresse. His rampage had been halted by Emile Fourquet, the prosecutor in the town of Belley who was the first to identify a clear link between the murders and who investigated it with great assiduity. His was one of the first uses of criminal profiling as he gathered eye- witness accounts from all over France.
It was Lacassagne, though, who held the courtroom in his thrall as he described the forensic detail of each murder scene and the modus operandi that implicated a single perpetrator. This man, he said, was not insane and was responsible for all his evil actions. The testimony was devastating. Joseph Vacher was executed on December 31 1898.
After the case, Lacassagne campaigned for a national agency to collect data on unsolved murders. This led to the creation in 1923 of the International Police Commission. One year later, aged 80, Lacassagne died after being hit by a car. In his will he asked for no ceremonies to mark his passing. Instead, his body was taken to his beloved institute and a post-mortem conducted by his colleagues. In that way, he wrote, “I hope to serve as both a lesson and example’’.