Douglas Starr’s new book is a true crime story of Joseph Vacher, a serial killer that prowled the rural countryside of France in the mid 1890s. In addition to piecing the tale of a man who eventually confessed to eleven murders, five boys, five girls,and one woman, he gives a fascinating picture of the development of forensic science going on at the same time. Vacher would cut each victim’s throat and mutilate the bodies, sometimes abusing them sexually.

Forensic science was having a lot of fits and starts at the time. One man had a theory that there were born criminals and he could pick them out by the shapes of their heads, the eyes, even going so far as to propose imprisoning or killing such before they inevitably started crime careers. The idea of not guilty by insanity was a new notion and one that enabled Vacher to get off from the attempted murder of a woman he’d imagined a relationship with and, when she spurned him, shot her and then himself. Both survived and Vacher was found not guilty and committed to an asylum until deemed cured, but was left with a disfigured face from the suicide attempt.

He was released in three months and began drifting up and down the French countryside.

Two men, Emile Fourquet and Dr. Alexandre Lacassagne, were chiefly responsible for the capture and conviction of Vacher.

Rural France at the time had little communication with the various communities. Most constables had little training, local doctors performed autopsies, most of them sloppy, and there was no central gathering of reports. Things were further clouded by grabbing the most convenient suspect, usually the one who found the bodies, and holding them for up to months at a time. Rumors and innuendo got a lot of innocent people terrorized by their neighbors, even to the extent that whenever the true villain was caught, a lot didn’t believe.

Starr, from a lot of sources(a long bibliography in the back lists them), pieces together Vacher’s roving while discussing forensic advances going on in the larger cities. Emile Fourquet was the first man to notice the similarities in the murders and some of the descriptions of an intransigent seen in the area at the times of each killing. When he was finally apprehended, Dr. Alexandre Laccassagne was charged with getting Vacher to talk. While they had plenty of circumstantial evidence, no one could place him at each body.

The book goes on to recount the trial and all of Vacher’s theatrics and then the aftermath.

A fascinating book for true crime lovers. Normally I’m not big on this type of story, though Capote’s In Cold Blood is a favorite. Worth a look I think.

Vacher on the left in his trademark hat made of rabbit fur and Dr. Lacassagne on the right.