54 of 57 people found the following review helpful
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. Starr reveals the life histories of his two main protagonists, illuminating the horrific crimes of the one and the crime-solving genius of the other, until Vacher is caught and the two men's careers intersect, impacting the lives of both.
This comprehensive, elegantly written book covers not just Vacher's crimes, but other interesting cases which challenged the expertise, talent, and instincts of Laccasagne. It sets the scene with plenty of background, from the explosion of crime rates in France (and elsewhere in Europe) as Industrial Revolution technologies displaced laborers, creating a wave of vagabonds who migrated from one area to another in search of work and charity, to the difficulties created by the lack of an organized rural police force to meet the challenges of this onslaught of "undesirables." As rural France tried to cope with these huge numbers of "wild men," those who tended to criminality often evaded capture or prosecution--Vacher was able to evade detection for three years, despite often daily interaction with the citizenry. During those years he walked nearly from one end of France to the other, killing as he went. Rural doctors, too, were fighting an uphill battle--often inadequately educated and working in conditions that made even a high degree of competence moot, the probability of getting reliable information about the state of a body from either the crime scene or the postmortem was regularly compromised. In an attempt to combat this problem Lacassagne prepared and distributed a step-by-step protocol for forensic autopsy, but the ability to follow these steps was often destroyed by those very conditions his protocol was meant to counteract (one important autopsy done on one of Vacher's victims was performed at night, by lamplight, in the middle of a misty field).
Mr. Starr traveled to the remote areas where Vacher's crimes were committed, saw many of the exhibits he describes, spoke with descendants of Dr. Lacassagne, and observed many, rather grim, forensic autopsies. His prose is so rich with detail that the reader is immersed in the experiences of the protagonists--this is not a book researched from the author's computer or armchair. There are many interesting sidebars, including an amusing debate about a skull allegedly belonging to guillotined assassin Charlotte Corday and the significance of its physical characteristics, as well as a lively discussion by the scientists of the day about the methods of the fictional, and wildly popular detective, Sherlock Holmes. A detailed description of of Lacassagne's Criminal Museum is illuminated by several pages of photos and drawings of its exhibits, and pages from the newly emerging penny press (the start of the "yellow journalism" that continues to wreak havoc with investigations and trials today) are reproduced. All of this attention to the mise-en-scène in which Laccasagne and his colleagues worked brings events, as well as time and place, vividly to life. Throughout, Mr. Starr evinces real feeling for his subjects, even the violent and self-aggrandizing Vacher. This is a book filled with strongly drawn characters--criminals and investigators alike--whom Mr. Starr never forgets were real people, especially those whom Vacher killed. In many such accounts the victims of such violent deaths remain mere ciphers, but in "The Killer of Little Shepherds," those little shepherds are clothed in real flesh, and their dignity remains intact.
26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
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. Joseph Vacher insisted that he was insane and that he was not responsible for his crimes. Again, the Vacher case was perfect for this discussion and Starr presents the case without any agenda.
I would definitely recommend this book to anyone that is interested in history of forensic science and how it related to one of the greatest trials of one of the worst serial killers of all time. Starr is extremely well researched and writes with absolutely no preconceived conclusions or any agenda. The concepts in this book are controversial (death penalty, criminally insane, preconditioned criminal dispositions, etc.) and were handled with expert skill.
25 of 29 people found the following review helpful
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. He also examines the phenomenon of "vagabondage," noting the correlation between unemployment, the increase of people on the move, and the correlating upswing in crime.
Both strands of this book come together when Vacher is caught, imprisoned, and sent to trial, leading to some pretty major questions. For example, was Vacher insane at the time he killed, or was he perfectly rational? And what exactly legally constituted insanity? Is there any way to know if insanity is based on physical causes? What type of punishment is suitable if a murderer is found to be insane? Many of these questions sparked international debates, but they also led to further developments in the field of psychology, which was growing rapidly, as was the gap between medical science and legal codes. And when a person is known to be a "monster," even if he is insane, how can the legal system justify putting him in an asylum where, if he's crafty enough, he'd fake being well and be let out to kill all over again?
Starr expertly catches the era surrounding the crimes of Vacher and the work of Lacassagne and others. He acknowledges work being done in other countries around the same time period, such as Italy, the United States and Great Britain so as to broaden the scope of developments in the science of criminology. He also examines other crimes as well as the limitations of the local rural police departments in the capture of criminals.
I got very caught up in Vacher's story, and I liked the book. The early efforts focused on forensics and criminal profiling are really interesting, and if you're into this kind of thing, you'll be rewarded. It's quite obvious that Starr contributed immense amounts of original research to the production of this work. The stories of Vacher's victims are also lurid enough so that if you're not interested in the field of forensic study, you'll still find something in the book that will interest you. I do think he could have done without the "postscript" chapter and gone right to the epilogue, but that's nit picky on my part. Overall, it's a good book that will keep you reading.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on January 25, 2012
At the tail end of the 19th Century, while France was still roiling with events of the Dreyfus Affair and while nearby England was in the midst of the terror of Jack the Ripper - in rural France a far more horrendous killing spree was taking place. For nearly three years a psychopathic serial killer was roaming the French countryside killing, raping, and mutilating young men and women. This "Jack the Ripper of the Northeast" killed at least eleven people, maybe as many as twenty-five. Some of the victims were shepherds, but what they all had in common were that they were young, small of stature, vulnerable and alone. They would all be killed quickly and mercilessly and then raped and/or mutilated in death. The viciousness of their deaths frightened and paralyzed much of the country.
Raising this story above the typical true crime saga is not the riveting yet repulsive tale of a psychotic killer, but the parallel story of the coming of age of forensic science that would prove crucial to the fate of Joseph Vacher, the "Killer of Little Shepherds".
Joseph Vacher was one of the most notorious serial killers of his century, slaughtering more people than Jack the Ripper. He was a clever and diabolical ex-soldier who had been released from a mental asylum where he had been placed after badly disfiguring his girlfriend and himself in a botched murder-suicide. After serving only ten months in the asylum, he convinced the doctors in charge that he was now sane. He would then begin his three-year odyssey of wandering throughout much of France committing the vilest of crimes, and then simply walking quickly to another district where news had not reached the community of the horror in his wake.
Vacher may very well have gone on undetected for many more years had he not made the mistake of committing several of his atrocities in the Lyon region of France. For unbeknownst to him, the Lyon area was the home of the investigating Magistrate Emile Fourquet - a young, intelligent and ambitious policeman, and even more importantly Dr. Alexandre Lacassagne - head of the department of legal medicine at the University of Lyon and one of the most pre-eminent experts in the world in the field of forensic science which was just coming into its own.
In fact Lacassagne and his associates were largely responsible for many of the new developments in the field of forensic medicine that would bring the field into the modern era and remain the state of the art for over half a century. Along with these technological advances in forensic medicine there were social, technological and economic factors that would lead to a media explosion with the advent of the so-called "penny press" with crime being a common sensationalistic focus of their reportage. In fact, the Vacher case received considerable coverage in both Europe and America, but unlike Jack the Ripper it quickly faded from historical celebrity due to the fact that there was a definitive discovery of the murderer.
The work of Fourquet and Lacassagne made the outcome of the trial of Vacher an obvious and expeditious one as to whom the murderer was. However it was largely due to the meticulous examination, the testimony, and the reputation of Lacassagne in the world of forensic medicine that would find Vacher sane and thus responsible for his actions. This would ultimately seal his fate in a trial that was both contentious and widely followed.
This book ends with a fleeting attempt to deal with the conundrum of why serial killers simultaneously intrigue and repulse us. It may be a never-ending quest to understand and label the behavior of the most deviant of our society. We try to explain their behaviors through the tragedies of their earlier lives or to find an explanation in the possible malformations of their brains, largely to give us some comfort. But what is often the situation, as in the case of Joseph Vacher, there is ultimately no simple or even logical explanation for the existence of such pure evil. We continue to strive to explain and understand it, but in the meantime all we know for sure is that it does exist. "We can only study it and try to keep it at bay."
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on March 27, 2011
The Killer of Little Shepherds is the best true crime story I have ever read. I am a student of Criminal Justice with an interest in forensics and this book kept me captivated, and found it hard to put down. Many names in this book have come up in my studies which made it even more interesting. The author really gets into the mind of a serial killer as well as appreciation for the lack of an organized police department of the time. I definitly recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of true crime or forensic investigation. The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on June 16, 2011
I bought this book to read on my Kindle, and it grabbed me from the first page. It took me on a terrifying, informative, amazing journey. So well written! The author's style of writing a chapter about Vacher ("The Killer of Little Shephards") and then about LaCassagne, the brilliant French Physician who helped usher in the age of Forensic Science; and how the Police were able to work with Physicians and more to help solve some "unsovlable" crimes.
This is before fingerprinting, before....ANYTHING! People who may have been innocent were sent to the Guillotine, especially if they were poor, or not well liked. However, in some cases, in the smaller villages in France, people who had some kind of wealth or property were accused of crimes because poorer people resented them!And when they got it into their minds that someone did something, they did NOT change their minds.
What a very scary time to live, or die in..........
Villages far from Paris or Lyon were still thinking witchcraft and the like when some horrible crimes (like Vacher's ghastly murders) were commited!
I loved the way the author made me think about whether or not Vacher was insane and was not culpable, or if he was just incredibly strange, with definite personality disorders, but knew exactly what he was doing.
Vacher's murder trial had me on the edge of my seat.
So many new things happened during this time, it was truly the beginning of a new era in solving crimes by using scientific evidence. I also enjoyed reading about other crimes that were solved using LaCassagne's techniques; what patience that man had, and he also had dedicated students and other physicians who admired him so much, and rightfully so.
I highly recommend this book. As a Criminology student, I found it almost impossible to put down. It is not gratuitous, it tells what we need to know and not more. I don't like true crime books that go into WAY more detail than they need to.
Read this book. You won't be sorry!
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
In the days before fingerprinting was a science, before blood typing was known, establishing guilt and innocence had more to do with luck than with investigation. Emphasis was placed on witness testimony--many of whom brought less than total impartiality to the job. Appearance and status also carried a lot of weight with judge and jury. Men who "looked like criminals" were just out of luck. At one point, skull shape was considered a signpost of criminal potential. This book takes us back to those days when, unless the killer was captured standing over the victim with a bloody knife, justice was delivered via the by guess and by golly method, and introduces us to the criminologists and criminals who helped lay the foundations for the science of forensic investigation.
The book opens with a chilling introduction to one Joseph Vacher, a sergeant in the French army at the end of the 19th Century. Known as a vulgar, brutal man even to his fellow soldiers, Vacher meets and becomes obsessed with a country girl. When she rejects his advances, Vacher turns his gun first on her, then on himself. The girl is hideously wounded but survives. Vacher escapes briefly, is captured and remanded to a mental hospital. Psychiatry was also a fledgling science at the time, but Vacher receives surprisingly humane and intelligent treatment at a new kind of hospital created to treat those "alienated" from society. His psychiatrist, called an alienist is convinced of Vacher's remorse and rcovery.
The patient is pronounced sane and is given his freedom...which Vacher uses to crisscross the country and slaughter an impressive number of men and women. Like the poet Dryden, but far more messy, Vacher focuses on maidens and shephards as favorite subjects. For 3 years, he carries on his slaughter, establishing himself the first serial killer to be recognized as such.
Running counterpoiknt to Vacher's bloody rampage of rape, mutilation and murder, is the story of pioneering criminologist Dr. Alexandre Lacassagne and the development of criminal forensic science. Author Douglas Star tells quite a story, bring us from the scene of a grotesque murder to the cool investigative climes of the laboratory and back again. Other "crimes of the century" of the period are also examined, along with the role that forensics...or the lack thereof...played in their eventual prosecution.
This book is a surprising little page turner. I was surprised to learn how many of the techniques that are part of today's investigative protocols originated at this time and how many were either created or promoted by Lacassagne. This "Golden Age" of criminal science added ballistics, the microscopic matching of hair and tissue samples, even blood spatter analyses to the tools of criminologists and investigators. All in all, this is a fascinating trip back in time. The story does not flag, there's just enough drama to make the book hard to put down, and the science is fun and fascinating.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on May 3, 2013
Starr has written a fascinating portrayl of a psychopath, who also suffered from a serious mental illness, Joseph Vasher. I think this book could have rested on it's laurels if it were only about Vasher, but it is not. It is a period piece about heroes in the pursuit of Vasher, a vicious killer and it is also about the beginnings of forensic science. Starr writes about the labor that went into to this new branch of applied science and the obstacles that occur on the way-the vehicle he has chosen to tell that story-chasing a serial killer, makes the story leap from the pages. What I found really interesting was Starr's rendering of the competing theories of crime: biology and psychosocial or sociological ideas and how those were applied during the late 1800s. We still see science working out those ideas. He tells us how there needed to be these explanations, needed to be a criminal science, because the times were changing; the State, not the Church was responsible for confession, for example. There are contexts well described everywhere in this book and I found myself deeply appreciative of Starr's work in this regard. really enjoyed reading about the evolution of Alexandre Lacassagne career and his contribution as a forensic specialist-he is no lone wolf- he appreciated colleagues-even those who had different opinions than he did- and used a multi-disciplinary approach-much of Lacassagne's work is quite contempory sounding and Starr has done his homework! I simply couldn't put this book down.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on June 25, 2011
I enjoyed this well researched and totally readable account of the serial killer, Joseph Vacher, (Vacher admitted to killing 11 people during the late 1800's across the French countryside), and the Forensic scientist who helped convict him, Alexandre Lacassagne.
The book is told in alternating chapters between Vacher's history and killing spree, and Lacassagne's history, prior cases, and ultimately how he concludes whether or not Vacher is legally responsible for actions.
Not only does Starr recount the personal histories of each man, but he puts everything in historical context, for example giving background about French economics and why there were so many vagabonds roaming around the countryside during this time. He also tells us about other scientific forensic theories i.e. "natural born criminals" based on certain physical characteristics, and of the first "database" of criminals' physical features and measurements used to track down and apprehend criminals across the country.
Each man's story is fascinating, Vacher's killings and his reasoning for his innocence, and Lascassagne's use of forensic evidence, way before fingerprinting, DNA evidence, and ultraviolet light became the norm, to convict criminals.
I recommend this to anyone interested in forensics or serial killers; historical true crime at its best.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
I was very interested in reading this book because of the serial killer and forensic science history to it. The serial killer, The Killer of Little Shepherds, story weaves in and out of other historical murders and the developing science to unravel the mysteries. Reading the thoughts and accounts of these murders was both horrifying and intriguing. I loved learning tidbits of new knowledge and seeing things I've learned from attending a forensics class at school. The book covers all aspects of forensic science in regards to crime scene investigation, so for those that love that portion of CSI or Bones, this will be a treat. Don't expect the flashy drama of those shows though. This is all about the truth of the history and the grisly details of each murder that led the way to revolutionize the world of criminal science. As with many non-fiction books, it reads dry at times, and that is the only reason I didn't give the book 5 stars. Other than that, this is a great read for anyone with any interest in serial killers or the science behind capturing those who have committed crimes.
Reviewed by Jessica for Book Sake.