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The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science Hardcover – October 5, 2010

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (October 5, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307266192
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307266194
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.4 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (106 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #734,796 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starr (Blood) eloquently juxtaposes the crimes of French serial killer Joseph Vacher and the achievements of famed criminologist Dr. Alexandre Lacassagne during France's belle époque. From 1894 to 1897, Vacher is thought to have raped, killed, and mutilated at least 25 people, though he would confess to only 11 murders. Lacassagne, who headed the department of legal medicine at the university in Lyon, was a pioneer in crime scene analysis, body decomposition, and early profiling, and investigated suspicious deaths, all in an era when rural autopsies were often performed on the victim's dinner table. Lacassagne's contributions to the burgeoning field of forensic science, as well as the persistence of investigating magistrate Émile Fourquet, who connected crimes while crisscrossing the French countryside, eventually brought Vacher to justice. Vacher claimed insanity, which then (as now) was a vexed legal issue. Lacassagne proved the "systematic nature" of the crimes. Starr, codirector of Boston University's Center for Science and Medical Journalism, creates tension worthy of a thriller; in Lacassagne, he portrays a man determined to understand the "how" behind some of humanity's most depraved and perhaps take us one step closer to the "why." 16 pages of photos.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Bookmarks Magazine

Douglas Starr is an old pro at reporting and writing science history, which puts The Killer of Little Shepherds squarely in his wheelhouse. The author ably tells two stories—of the serial killer Vacher’s lust for murder and of the developing science that finally caught up with him—and there are enough fascinating details here to keep even the most jaded forensics fans entertained. More popular journalism than a failed “quest to understand evil” (New York Times), Starr’s compelling history can be added to the growing library of books (Devil in the White City, The Lost City of Z, The Ghost Map) that brings to life forgotten or neglected events by playing on a reader’s sense of adventure and the unknown, as well as the satisfaction of witnessing a confounding puzzle well solved.

More About the Author

Douglas Starr is the codirector of the Center for Science and Medical Journalism and a professor of journalism at Boston University. His book, Blood: An Epic History of Medicine and Commerce won the 1998 Los Angeles Times Book Prize and became a PBS-TV documentary special. A veteran science, medical and environmental reporter, he has contributed to many national publications, including Smithsonian, Audubon, National Wildlife, Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and Time, and he has served as a science editor for PBS-TV. He lives near Boston.

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Customer Reviews

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See all 106 customer reviews
This is a very lively, well written book and is hard to put down.
I definitly recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of true crime or forensic investigation.
Valerie L. Blaine
The book jumps chapter-to-chapter from Vacher to forensic scientist Alexandre Lacassagne.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

53 of 56 people found the following review helpful By Tracy Hodson VINE VOICE on September 10, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
From 1894 until 1897, the quiet French countryside became the hunting ground of Joseph Vacher, a murderous psychopath known as "The Killer of Little Shepherds" who, like Ted Bundy a century later, would begin his life's work after being rejected by the woman with whom he was obsessed. Author Douglas Starr has written a riveting book of enormous scope, masterfully detailing both Vacher's case and the concurrent first "golden age of forensic discovery." He focuses primarily on Dr. Alexandre Lacassagne, France's leading expert in the field of legal medicine and professor at the University of Lyon, who played a crucial role in bringing Vacher to justice, and who mentored and inspired countless other scientists and students to pursue a wide variety of disciplines in the burgeoning field of forensics. Many important investigative techniques emerged during this time--the use of body measurements to identify and track captured criminals and suspects, the identification of bullets through the unique rifling marks made by individual firearms, the microscopic examination of hairs, fibers, and blood types, the analysis of wound and blood-spatter patterns--all of which form the basis of modern forensics. In addition to such purely scientific advances, the nature, cause, and appropriate treatment of insane persons in general and insane criminals in particular was being passionately debated all over Europe and in the United States. What to do about, and with, a violent offender who was deemed insane was at the forefront of jurisprudence, as was the question of what determines legal insanity--the court's answer to which would ultimately decide Vacher's fate. In alternating chapters, Mr.Read more ›
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25 of 28 people found the following review helpful By Burgmicester VINE VOICE on September 19, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
The Killer of Little Shepherds is a very engaging blend of early forensics methodology and the story of one of the worst serial killers in history. Although admitting to eleven gruesome and grisly murders, nearly twenty-five murders were attributed to Joseph Vacher of France. The governmental establishment, due to idiosyncrasies and communication breakdowns, allowed Vacher to be released from an asylum and even from a jail cell because they had no idea who (or maybe what) they had captured. Vacher thanked God (as he believed that God was watching over him) and went out and killed again and again.

Douglas Starr nicely mixes in the advances in the field of forensics (called Criminal Anthropology at the time) as it pertained to the investigation of Joseph Vacher and other murderers at that time. Doctor Alexandre Lacassangne was Vacher's arch enemy and continued to advance forensics from a police department of bullies beating and torturing their captives into a confession to a more scientific based discovery. There are explanations and examples of how the police would accuse a suspect of a crime with absolutely no evidence at all. Dr. Lacassagne's efforts were to find the scientific methods that would allow a non-emotional examination of the facts leading to a suspect. The case of Joseph Vacher was Dr. Lacassagne's showcase.

I was impressed with the author's ability to carry the story of Vacher as he interwove the science and psychological breakthroughs in that era. It was amazing to learn about the French leaders in forensic science. This book brings a look at just how many stellar performers in that era were French.

The last sections of the book concentrate on the discussion of when a person is actually responsible for his/her actions - criminally insane.
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24 of 28 people found the following review helpful By Nancy O VINE VOICE on September 10, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Set in 1890s France, The Killer of Little Shepherds contains two simultaneously-told stories. First, there's the account of Joseph Vacher, who roamed the countryside of France and left only gruesome death in his wake. The second story is that of Alexandre Lacassagne, head of the department of legal medicine at the University of Lyon, who pioneered many forensic techniques in the areas of crime-scene and post-mortem analysis, and was what we would now call a criminal profiler.

Starr begins his story with army Sergeant Joseph Vacher's full-on obsession with a young woman named Louise Barant, a housemaid. After only one dinner, Vacher proposed marriage, and then later told her that if she ever betrayed him, he would kill her. She tried to avoid him and put up every reasonable excuse for not seeing him, but it didn't help. On a four-month leave from the army, Vacher came after her, she refused him, and he shot both Louise and himself. Both survived, and Vacher was put into two different asylums for a total of ten months, then released. With really nowhere to go, Vacher became a vagabond. As he wandered the countryside, he committed the most heinous crimes, with young shepherd boys and young women favorite targets. Because he would wander from department to department, by the time the crimes were discovered, he would have been long gone, thus avoiding detection.

Starr then interweaves his account of Vacher with the story of Alexandre Lacassagne, who was a pioneer in the study of forensic methodologies, including criminal profiling. He also discusses others in the field of criminology including Alphonse Bertillon and Cesare Lombroso, and explains developments in science and psychology that aided in the advancements of legal medicine and crime detection.
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