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Tracking a 19th-Century Serial Killer

COM prof’s new book sheds light on birth of forensics


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Douglas Starr spent four years researching his new book, about the pioneers of forensic science. Starr photo below by Kalman Zabarsky

Almost as soon as it started, the 1898 trial of serial killer Joseph Vacher, who had confessed to nearly a dozen murders across the French countryside, devolved into a circus.

Outside the courthouse, a mob shouted, “Death to Vacher.” Inside, newspaper reporters gossiped among themselves and a noisy pack of spectators shoved, chatted, and laughed during the proceedings. The defendant, with a ragged beard and clawlike fingernails and wearing a white rabbit-fur hat, disrupted the trial with his outbursts—raking a finger across his throat as the charges were read and yelping during part of the testimony. Vacher admitted in court that he had murdered four boys, six girls, and an adult woman, but insisted that he was insane.

We know all of this because Douglas Starr, a College of Communication professor of journalism, spent four years devouring every document he could on the Vacher case, the subject of his new book, The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science (Knopf, 2010). The book has been nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe award by the Mystery Writers of America.

“Vacher wanted to turn the trial into a circus,” says Starr, codirector of the COM science journalism program. “After confessing, he pulled out all the stops to appear mentally ill. At the time, insane asylums were not particularly secure. They were humane, but it was easy to break out of them.”
“What Lacassagne did that was really remarkable,” says Starr, “was to use the evidence to tell the story of the crime, to understand the state of mind of the criminal.”Things settled down a bit on the third day of the trial, when several medical experts testified against Vacher. One of them, the renowned criminologist Alexandre Lacassagne (right), described in detail how Vacher had chosen and murdered his victims. He laid out evidence from the crime scenes, including blood patterns and wound sites, and concluded that the crimes were those of a “sadistic, antisocial” man who was indeed responsible for his actions.

Vacher, who was on trial for only one of the murders, was found guilty and sent to the guillotine.

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.

Starr (right) stumbled on the Vacher case while poring over some medical journals several years ago. The more he learned about Lacassagne and his colleagues, the more engrossed he became. “I really wanted to write about the scientists,” he says, “but here was a string of crimes that kind of tied it together.” He bought a plane ticket to France, the first of a few trips, before he even signed the book contract.
Investigating the investigators

Starr notes that France in the late 19th century was just as fascinating as the cast of characters he’d discovered. “It was the beginning of the modern era,” he says. “In France, it was the Belle Époque—this whole notion of prosperity and intellectual achievement and science. Darwin was alive, Pasteur, and Freud. It was an amazingly vibrant time.

“At the same time,” he says, “the entire Western world had this rumbling underclass. Industrialization had thrown hundreds of thousands of people out of work in the rural areas. There was this problem of vagabonds. You saw the rise of street gangs. There was an international terrorist movement—they called it anarchism—that had everyone on edge. You saw the birth of the tabloid press. There was this new thing called the newsstand, and they were all competing. So the bloody stuff always went on page one.”

Starr read Lacassagne’s original case files and downloaded every issue of the monthly scientific journal Archives of Criminal Anthropology—more than 20 years’ worth—which Lacassagne edited. He found the courthouse where Vacher’s trial took place and photographed every page of the original records, including investigator and police reports, court testimony, and affadavits. He collected all of Vacher’s letters and went to the village where he was born.

Accompanied by a local amateur historian, he visited the villages where the murders took place. “I would spend hours with these elderly farmers,” Starr says, “and they’d give me village lore.”

He studied up on the science of the times, reading medical books and learning how autopsies were conducted, but decided he needed to know more: he watched two autopsies at the Institute of Legal Medicine in Lyon, which was founded by Lacassagne. One of the dead bodies had been decomposing for weeks in an abandoned building. The experience gave Starr a whiff of what someone like Lacassagne may have experienced, in an era before refrigeration was common. The stench, he writes in his book, “is a mixture of every repulsive odor in the world—excrement, rotted meat, swamp water, urine—and invades the sinuses by full frontal assault.”

Starr also tracked down the scientist’s descendants. He interviewed Lacassagne’s great-grandson, a physician, and his great-granddaughter, now a judge in Lyon, who allowed him to go through cartons of her great-grandfather’s belongings. He learned that Lacassagne was a renaissance man who loved art, literature, and science, and who had an offbeat sense of humor. “He studied tattoos, which was an indicator of criminal culture,” Starr says, “and in addition to writing papers about it, he had them transcribed onto the family’s dinnerware. So a guest would be eating dinner and come to the bottom of his meal and see, in French, ‘Death to the authorities,’ or, ‘No hope for the future.’”

But Lacassagne’s life mission, Starr says, was to create standardized methods that would help solve crimes and that ordinary doctors could use. He designed autopsy procedures and compiled them in his Handbook for the Medical Expert. “The typical autopsy in the countryside might take place in a meadow at night, in the mist, or on some poor sucker’s kitchen table,” Starr says. “Horrible. He designed standard procedures where, if you follow his workbook, you will do more or less the right thing.”
At the same time, some of their research methods were decidedly rudimentary. Starr recounts how Lacassagne, in investigating the case of an old man who had been shot, found that bullets have distinctive grooves that could be traced to a particular gun. “He takes the body and the gun back to Lyon and calls a neighboring hospital,” Starr says. “‘I need a body this age, this weight—anybody die recently?’ They send it over, and he starts shooting it. And he starts seeing a pattern. Soon he put out a paper with about 26 typical bullets and their striations, and this is ballistics.”The advances that Lacassagne and his colleagues made would not have been possible without progress in chemistry, bacteriology, microscopy, and other fields. Criminologists “realized you could use evidence to tell the truth,” Starr says, “and that if you were clever enough and methodical enough and had clear procedures, you could go to a crime scene and reconstruct what happened.”

So what is Lacassagne’s legacy? Starr says it’s difficult to separate him from his colleagues near the turn of the century. “It’s the blossoming of modern forensics,” he says, “the real understanding that evidence can tell a story. Lacassagne had procedures to keep the evidence clean, chains of custody, just like today. It really got the field started in a meaningful way.”

Cynthia K. Buccini can be reached at cbuccini@bu.edu. Joseph Chan can be reached at joechan.bu.edu.


4 Comments on Tracking a 19th-Century Serial Killer

  • Charles Merzbacher on 01.27.2011 at 5:15 pm

    Well Done

    I’m a colleague of Prof. Starr at BU, so perhaps I’m predisposed to think favorably of this story, but I must say I was very impressed with both the text and the video. Very informative and visually appealing. Keep up the good work.

  • Anonymous on 02.15.2011 at 12:16 pm


    This sounds like an amazing read that crosses a lot of academic genres–history, journalism, and a cadre of sciences that contribute to forensic study as we know it. I’ll definitely have to check out this book!

  • Brostradamus on 02.21.2011 at 1:09 am


  • Leila Ramanculova on 11.17.2011 at 12:18 pm

    Indead so many things happened in that era! And this is an extrodinary example! Wonderfully said and portrayed! The story that thrills the mind and awes the audinece! How smart can people get?! Thank you for making me awe as wider as I could! :D absolutely outstanding! Thank you!

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