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Tracking a 19th-Century Serial Killer


Douglas Starr, a professor of journalism, wrote a book about the innovative techniques detectives used during the 19th-century investigation of serial killer Joseph Vacher. The techniques these investigators pioneered became the foundation of 21st century forensics, he writes in The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science, a part-history, part-detective story that netted Starr an Edgar Allen Poe award nomination from the Mystery Writers of America.

Writes BU Today:

While the case was certainly sensational, it wasn’t the courtroom theatrics or the gory slayings that captured Starr’s attention. Rather, it was the work of Lacassagne, head of the department of legal medicine at the University of Lyon, and his 19th-century colleagues, who were creating sophisticated techniques to solve crimes like Vacher’s. They developed ways of making molds of footprints in soil, learned to look at patterns of bone and tooth growth to discern the age of a victim, and devised a system of measuring body parts that would allow the identification of repeat offenders (later, the system included photographs of the face and profile—what we now know in the United States as mug shots, Starr writes). They began scrutinizing blood spatter evidence. “For the first time,” Starr says, “they started looking at the underside of tables and other places. They analyzed the shape of blood drops and used ink to re-create the angle they must have flown at.

“There was a whole cadre of brilliant scientists and legal scholars throughout Europe who were really developing the modern version of forensic science as we know it today,” he says.

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Douglas Starr

Douglas Starr is a veteran science, environmental and medical writer. His most recent book, The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science, (Knopf, 2010) tells the story of the 19th century pioneers of forensic science and a notorious serial killer who was apprehended and convicted with their techniques. His previous book, BLOOD: An Epic History of Medicine and Commerce, tells the four-century saga of how human blood became a commodity. It was published in seven languages, won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize (science and technology category) and was named to the "Best Books of the Year" lists of Publishers Weekly, Booklist and Library Journal. A PBS series based on the book, Red Gold, aired in the U.S. and internationally. Starr's writings about science, medicine, public health and the environment have appeared in a variety of media outlets, including The New Republic, Science, Smithsonian, Public Television, National Public Radio, The Los Angeles Times, and the Boston Sunday Globe Magazine.