The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science

The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science

by Douglas Starr


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Tuesday, February 26

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307279088
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/01/2011
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 315,876
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Douglas Starr is 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, Starr has contributed to many national publications, including Smithsonian, Audubon, National Wildlife, Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and Time, and has served as a science editor for PBS-TV. He lives near Boston.

Read an Excerpt


The Beast

On a drizzly spring evening in 1893, in the French provincial city of Besançon, nineteen-year-old Louise Barant was walking along the riverside promenade when she crossed paths with a man wearing the dress uniform of the French army. His name was Joseph Vacher (pronounced Vashay). “Ugly weather, isn’t it?” he said, and automatically she responded, “For sure.” Normally Barant, tall and wholesome-looking, with curly blond hair, would not have spoken to a stranger, especially one as brutish-looking as he; but Vacher projected a kind of disarming innocence, and the sergeant’s chevrons on his sleeve reassured her.

So they chatted and walked and shared dinner in a café. They learned that they both came from small towns: she from Baume-les-Dames, a pretty village near the Swiss border, and he from Beaufort, a nondescript hilltown southeast of Lyon. As they lingered over shared stories about their pasts, he told her he had never felt this comfortable with anyone, and she, too, sensed she could speak freely and easily. Yet she felt a shiver of doubt when she looked up from her meal and saw his eyes burning into her. Later that evening, he ardently proposed marriage. When he vowed that he would kill her if she ever betrayed him, she realized she had made a terrible mistake.

In the weeks that followed, he pursued her relentlessly. Like other men who live easily with violence, Vacher knew how to interweave threat, regret, self-pity, and charm in an attempt to prolong the relationship. Louise, who was a stranger to the town and worked as a housemaid, tried desperately to avoid him, inventing endless excuses for not being available. Once, taking pity as victims sometimes do, she agreed to meet him at a dance. They were standing awkwardly among the merrymakers when a soldier approached to talk to Louise. Vacher lunged at the man with such fury that the soldier and Louise ran from the dance hall.

Now she knew that she would never be safe in the same town as Vacher. Too afraid to reject him directly, she made up a story that her mother had forbidden their marriage and had ordered her home. The distance did nothing to quell his obsession. He kept mailing her love letters. Finally, she responded in the clearest possible way: “It would be best if you stopped writing to me . . . Everything is finished between us; I do not want to go against the wishes of my mother. Furthermore, I do not love you. Adieu, Louise.”

She hoped that would finally end things between them. Besides, she knew that if he left his unit to find her, he would face charges of desertion. But her departure and final letter had sent him into such a series of rages that the regimental doctor diagnosed him as having “nervous exhaustion” and gave him a four-month medical leave. He immediately headed to Baume-les-Dames, stopping to buy a revolver along the way.

Any of the soldiers in Vacher’s barracks would have told Louise not to get involved with the twenty-three-year-old sergeant in the first place, for something wild and violent dwelled within him. They had witnessed his manias and explosive temper: How once, when a soldier lagged in formation, Vacher swiftly and without warning kicked him in the groin; or how, during alcohol-induced tantrums, he would hurl heavy wooden bureaus across the room, roar like an animal, and rip handfuls of hair out of his forearms. Once, when he was passed over for promotion, he drank himself senseless, tore apart the barracks, and slashed with a razor at anyone who came near. He ended the episode by taking the blade to his own throat. After that incident, he was hospitalized and transferred to another company.

Yet at times, Vacher could appear deferential, and, when necessary, even charming. Undoubtedly, he behaved that way when he first met Louise, although under the stress of rejection the beast had reemerged.

Arriving in her village, he spent days trying to persuade her mother and family to accept him, only to succeed in frightening them as well. On the morning of June 25, 1893, he went to the house of Louise’s employer for a final confrontation before taking the train back to Besançon. Louise opened the door, recoiling when she saw him.

“Why are you afraid, Louise?”

“I’m not afraid,” she said unconvincingly.

“Look, I don’t want to harm you. I’ve come here peacefully to demand the things that you owe me.”

He had become obsessed with reclaiming the letters and trinkets he had given her, and money he had spent taking her to dinner. She gave him all that he demanded, but still he kept talking about needing more. As he rattled on about his various resentments, she furtively backed her way up the marble stairway. The more he spoke, the more agitated he became.

“When I think that you don’t want me, Louise . . . We would have been so happy! Listen, you don’t know what I am capable of doing. I have already told you and I repeat: I’m crazy about you! Come away with me.”

She told him that if he did not leave immediately, she would wake her boss, who would eject him. Vacher slipped his right hand into his pocket.

“So you do not want to come with me, then?”


He pulled out the revolver and began firing. The first bullet entered her mouth, shattered two teeth, ripped through her tongue, and exited her cheek. She screamed and collapsed. Two more shots grazed the top of her head as she fell and another smashed into the wall. Then Vacher turned the gun on himself, firing two bullets into his face.

The explosions echoed so loudly in the hallway that her employer’s family rushed down from their bedrooms and passersby ran in from the street. They found Louise crumpled on the stairs, Vacher staggering blindly, his face covered with blood. He lurched four or five steps out the door before collapsing in the street.*

And so began the public life of Joseph Vacher, one of the most notorious serial killers of his century, who slaughtered more people than the infamous Jack the Ripper. Although the incident with Louise Barant was the first of Vacher’s legal encounters, he had perplexed and discomfited the people around him for years. Neighbors in Beaufort remembered him as a child who was quick to pick an argument, and unusually violent in schoolyard scuffles. Once, when asked to guard the family’s livestock, he took the animals to a meadow and broke some of their legs. He

spent a couple of his teenage years in a monastery but was expelled for unspecified indiscretions. He was drafted and stationed with the Sixtieth

*Both survived, because the dealer who had sold Vacher the revolver loaded the cartridges only with half charges—just enough powder to stop an aggressor but not necessarily to kill him.

Regiment in Besançon. Although he thrived under the army’s strict discipline, he showed violent outbursts there, as well. All along, people found him strange, but as he himself had said to Louise, they had no idea of what he was capable.

Crimes of passion were notoriously common at the time, leniently punished, and often blamed on the victim. After he shot Louise, Vacher spent a couple of weeks in a hospital. He was then sent for observation to the public asylum in the nearby city of Dole, where doctors were to determine if he was sane enough to stand trial. The “Certificate of 24 Hours,” documenting the patient’s first day in the asylum, reported he was “calm, responds meekly to questions and regrets the act he has committed.” It described in detail how the shooting had disfigured him—a scarlet furrow ran the length of his right jaw; yellowish pus oozed from the right ear—stigmata that would mark him for life. With each breath, his right cheek fluttered like an unfettered sail, for one of the bullets had severed a facial nerve. When he spoke, he could barely open his mouth, and the voice that emerged was nasal and slurred.

He seemed a defeated man, rather than a menacing one. Yet over the weeks, as Vacher healed and became stronger, a more paranoid and violent character emerged. Quietly at first, and then more stridently, he accused the doctors at Dole of plotting against him. Day after day, he demanded to see a surgeon to remove the bullet from his ear. When medical personnel arrived for the procedure, Vacher accused them of trying to kill him and bolted from the operating room.

On July 20, according to hospital records, he experienced a “crisis of agitation.” He screamed at doctors and fought with his roommates. Sometimes he sat rocking on the side of his bed. “At certain moments he raises his head and focuses his eyes as if listening to invisible voices,” wrote Dr. Léon Guillemin, adjunct doctor at the facility. “During such times he has the facial expression of a madman.”

Inwardly, Vacher seethed. He hated the institution and everyone in it. According to him, the doctors were heartless and the patients were swine. Later, in a long, embittered letter to the authorities (Vacher would prove to be a prolific letter writer), he would write that the asylum was “everything that is dirty and abominable,” where he was forced to sleep “on a grubby flea-infested mattress.” The food was barely edible, he said, and the guards often stole it. Unsupervised patients often abused one another and took special delight in tormenting the blind. “They pushed them and spit in their faces. Some even pushed them outside naked in the snow.” At times, he thought of killing himself. “And I was not the only one . . . some people could not take this treatment, and committed suicide.”

Contrary to Vacher’s accusations, the alienists at Dole considered themselves sympathetic and attentive. (Alienist was the era’s term for a psychologist, as mental patients were seen to be “alienated” from themselves.) Printed materials from the asylum described their treatments as “gentle, tolerable, humane, and more in agreement with modern ideas.” Unlike in the past, inmates were not shackled to the walls or beaten for offenses they unwittingly committed. “All the coercive methods that tortured the sick patients have been abandoned . . . the fate of the sick [who come to the asylum] is nothing other than completely humane.”

When Vacher was admitted, the asylum’s director was preparing to move the patients to a new facility, a cluster of pavilions in a pastoral setting just outside of town, a notable improvement on the present fortresslike edifice. Scores of such facilities were being built throughout Europe.

Still, conditions at Dole were not what they should have been. A late-nineteenth-century visitor to the asylum noted that many patients still lived behind bars in dank cells and received inadequate personal care. In truth, this asylum, like many others, had far too many inmates. The population of insane people had exploded in France (and throughout Europe and in the Americas, as well) due to the epidemics of alcoholism and syphilis, and to the increasingly common diagnosis of mental disease. In time, insanity became a catchall diagnosis for all sorts of deficiencies, including dementia, homelessness, and criminal behavior. As a result, asylums became dumping grounds for the overflow from prisons, almshouses, workhouses, and the streets. By the time Vacher entered the asylum, the state-run system was housing more than twice the capacity it was designed for. Dole, built for five hundred patients, was bursting with more than nine hundred—at least 15 percent of whom were criminals. (Faced with such impossible conditions, even the most dedicated alienist could lose heart. When the director of the Villejuif asylum in Paris was asked what he found most effective for patients, he replied, “We wait for them to die.”)

Doctors had put Vacher in a special high-security wing, but, as in many asylums at the time, oversight was lax. On the night of August 25, 1893, Vacher sneaked out of his room, found a long wooden beam, leaned it against the wall, and shimmied over it to freedom. He was heading to Baume-les-Dames to find Louise. An all-points bulletin went out over the telegraph, with a special notification to the police in Louise’s village. It would not be hard to identify the fugitive: He wore the asylum’s standard-issue gray cotton shirt and trousers and there was no mistaking his disfigured face.

A couple of weeks later, some soldiers in Besançon caught sight of him. Local policemen jailed him. A few days later, he was put on a train, headed back to the asylum. His guards had instructions to handcuff him and to keep him in view at all times. As the train rumbled on, Vacher asked the guards if he could get off at the next stop to go to the bathroom. “You’ll have to wait,” they said. They had no intention of letting him off the train, even if manacled, for a minute. He persisted. Finally he offered to stand right in front of the guards and urinate out the door. They paused; the train was flying along at top speed, and it seemed there was no way he could even think of making that leap and surviving. He shuffled to the door, opened his pants, and, before they could react, heaved himself out. He hit the talus, then rolled and scampered off like a jackrabbit as the train roared away.

Two days later, police, alerted by some village children, found him eating dinner at a farmer’s house. They took him to the Dole asylum in chains. His condition grew worse. Increasingly “in the grip of melancholic ideas,” he tried to commit suicide by slamming his head against the corner of a wall. “We frequently have to take energetic measures to prevent him from harming himself,” wrote the doctors in a “situation report” of October 26, 1893.

Meanwhile, Dr. Guillemin had arrived to make an official assessment of the inmate’s sanity. He interviewed Vacher, physically examined him, spoke to his minders, and pored over his records. Guillemin diagnosed Vacher as “a deliriant with a persecution complex of the first order.” He had suffered this condition for most of his life. The symptoms, not always evident, would occasionally and dramatically appear. The rejection by Louise aggravated the condition as never before, the doctor said, and triggered the homicidal behavior. At the asylum, Vacher continued to suffer severe paranoia, aggravated by auditory hallucinations. He imagined the “entire world is in league against him,” wrote Guillemin. “From the moment he arrived at Dole, [Vacher felt] his doctors neglected him, ignored him, did not want to care for him, and wanted him to die. We have done our best for him, but he accuses us of trying to kill him, and shows no signs of being cured.”

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews

The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 44 reviews.
BookSakeBlogspot More than 1 year ago
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.
motor2me More than 1 year ago
As a retired homicide detective in a major city I found this book to be one of the best non-fiction accounts of forensic and detective work in a book that I have ever read. Kudos to the author!
kassiebird More than 1 year ago
A thoroughly researched, fascinating histoy of forensic science as it pertained to a serial killer in France in the 1890's. I found it interesting that we are still grappling with the same social and moral questions.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I'm not generally a great reader of true crime books. I am, however, a great lover of Science! This approach, this historical analysis of an early scientific approach to a series of murders, makes me want to learn more about so many things--about the period, the burgeoning sciences, and the people. When a book satisfies but also leaves me curious to explore even further down particular avenues, that's a success in my book.
Ausonius More than 1 year ago
Douglas Starr's THE KILLER OF LITTLE SHEPHERDS is a fascinating, easy to read encyclopedia of late 19th century crime solving techniques and theories of crime and criminals. It is built around the real life story of the greatest French mass murderer in 500 years, former sergeant Joseph Vacher. The interplay between case study and encyclopedia is a close to perfect teaching vehicle for the nineteenth century history of the science of criminology, especially as that science draws on anatomy, biology, dissection and constantly adds to the repertory of items that count as clues to the causes of death. ***** The book's obvious villain is Joseph Vacher. He was convicted and guillotined for only one particularly ghastly murder. He confessed to ten others between 1894 and 1897 and is suspected of 25 or more in total. His was a tortured psyche from an early age, to some extent derived from an unhappy childhood. He was twice institutionalized for insanity and twice declared cured and released. ***** Was Joseph Vacher a born murderer as Italian scientist Cesare Lombroso insisted was true of all criminals? Or was he morally free enough to be convicted of murder, as the great French criminologist Professor Doctor Alexandre Lacassagne theorized at his trial? ***** Lacassagne is the leading hero of THE KILLER OF LITTLE SHEPHERDS. But a close second is state prosecutor Etienne Fourquet. Fourquet connected the dots that were the multiple locations of Vacher's murders, did psychological profiling and discovered the killer's modus operandi sufficiently well to alert other investigators in other jurisdictions that behind many crimes there could be only one killer. Fourquet also persuaded Lacassagne to take an interest in the case and testify at Vacher's trial as an expert witness. ***** The encyclopedic dimension appears when author and Boston University Professor Douglas Starr recreates the intellectual excitement of France's Belle Epoque of creative ferment among psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists, criminologists and others determined to understand the mind and milieu of criminal, vagabonds and persons on the margin. ***** A sample of the writing: -- Lacassagne studied tattoos as clues to the milieu of criminals. "Tattoos had the added advantage of revealing something about the victim's character -- occupation, politics, sexual proclivities. Lacassagne referred to them as "speaking scars." (Ch. 6) -- Identifying deceased humans through their teeth has a long history. It works because dentists keep records and enamel is hard. "One of the early cases of forensic dentistry occurred when Paul Revere, who worked as a dentist as well as a silversmith, identified his friend Dr. John Warren, killed and buried during the Revolution, by an artiificial tooth Revere had implanted" (Ch. 6). ***** The book also has fascinating vignettes of the great minds of Europe debating the crime solving techniques of fictional Sherlock Holmes. Holmes was a quintessential lone wolf during a Belle Epoque enamored of building teams of specialists. ***** This is a splendid book. You will not be disappointed by it. -OOO-
cmbohn on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Themes: forensic science, mass murder, mental illness, homelessness, crime, court system, police workAmazing book. Yes, it's shelved with the true crime, but it doesn't quite fit. This book is so much more. Starr tells the story of two extraordinary men, one compelled to kill in the most grisly manner possible and one who put him away.Joseph Vacher was the killer. Always violent, his first actual crime was motivated by an obsession with a young woman. When she rejected him, he stalked her, shot her, and then himself. Unfortunately for France, he didn't die. But that was the beginning. He was sent to an asylum where he seemed to improve. But on his release, he began a killing spree which ended in perhaps as many as 30 dead.Dr. Alexandre Lacassagne was really the first forensic scientist. He not only figured out how to read a crime scene and a victim for clues, but was dedicated to teaching others how to do the same, drawing up guidelines for police to follow, and preserving specimens that would illustrate his findings. Bones, CSI, Quincey ME, all of them are only pale imitations of the real thing.Starr made these stories so compelling that I couldn't put the book down. Great writing. I also appreciated that he didn't have to spell out every single nasty thing Vacher did to his young victims, but I still definitely got the point that this was a horrible man.Highly recommended, and like I said, my first 5 star read of the year.
391 on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Really an interesting read! I picked this up because I really enjoyed The Poisoner's Handbook, and wanted to find something similar. The Killer of Little Shepherds is fantastic, especially for any crime or forensics aficionados!
ijustgetbored on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Starr has done some very exhaustive research, and he presents it compellingly in The Killer of Little Shepherds. He traces the story of 19th century French vagabond Joseph Vacher, a serial killer whose true number of victims we'll never know. He traces Vacher's story from its beginnings, his obsession with a young woman and his attempted murder/suicide involving her, to his revolving-door stays in mental institutions, to his eventual countrywide preying on the unprotected and vunerable. In the first half of the book, the stories of Vacher's known crimes are interwoven with the story of French criminologist Alexander Lacassagne. He details many of the cases Lacassagne was involved in and some of his great forensic studies and triumphs (you'll find yourself thinking, "so that's where that idea came from!"); the brutality of Vacher's crimes and the intellectual brillance of Lacassagne stand in stark contrast to each other, and it was a very nice narrative stroke for Starr to set up the book this way.In the second half of the book, the stories of Vacher and Lacassagne, along with a team of other French criminologists (again, you'll be stunned by how much we know of forensics was being discovered in this time), begin to intertwine as Vacher is caught and the justice system begins to weigh in on his guilt and sanity. We see other developments, too, like the development of the popular press as a tool for molding popular opinion, for example: in short, Starr has chosen the Vacher case well, because it happened during a time when the world was very much in transition, and things were changing very rapidly. This isn't just a book about a serial killer and forensic science; it's a book about a world that was in upheaval and the reaction of people to those rapid changes. Indeed, one of the most interesting aspects of the book for me was how the public reacted to the killings, the trial, the press, etc.; Starr has documented all of this as well. The "common man" has not been left out of this account.One thorny issue Starr has to contend with is this book is the question of whether or not Vacher was insane, either medically or legally. Wisely, in my opinion, he refrains from weighing in on the question with his opinion or moralizing on the subject; he presents what the views of the day were on the subject, and the reader is able to understand from those facts why the question of Vacher's sanity was decided the way it was. He does not attempt to use Vacher's case to make any arguments about modern-day cases where a person who has committed murder is medically or legally sane or insane; he remains firmly bound to his time period, and that is where his discussions belong, because, again, this book is a snapshot of a very specific era.Though Starr repeatedly makes the point that all he is telling us about forensics demonstrates that it is not a magic, CSI-style performance, fans of popular forensics in addition to more serious scholars will also enjoy this book. They will enjoy reading about things like the advent of fingerprinting, blood analysis, and the like. Starr's book isn't a piece of pop culture, but that isn't to say that fans of pop culture should dismiss it out of hand.One side note: If you're considering buying this for your Kindle, be advised that there are a fair number of period photographs, and they may not show up overly well on your screen. That's a very minor point, but just something to consider if you're debating a hard copy versus an electronic copy.
Katebat on LibraryThing 8 months ago
In the last decade of the nineteenth century, when the application of leeches and bloodletting were still common medical practices and grisly murders would incite a vicious mob out to punish innocent bystanders by matter of proximity and little other evidence, French scientists were on the forefront of revolutionary criminal investigations that we now know as forensic science. Between 1893 and 1898, a dangerous wanderer stalked and killed the easiest of targets in the rural French countryside; children of peasant families, some while tending their flocks, others who were simply on their way to toil in factories or on farms, all of them defenseless. Although that murderer, Joseph Vacher, benefited from the era's lack of communication between remote police outposts, he fell back on traits we see in serial killers of any age; preying on the young and defenseless, returning to the scene of the crime, and charming his way out of incriminating scenarios. Some of the most brilliant minds in psychology, criminology and forensic anthropology were already working together in the gleaming academic halls and moldering make-shift morgues of France to standardize crime-scene investigation and promote tested-and-proven scientific methods. Douglas Starr weaves frightening tales of Joseph Vacher's crimes together with the hopeful advances of the brilliant Dr. Alexandre Lacassagne and his colleagues in criminal anthropology in this fantastic true-crime thriller.
meggyweg on LibraryThing 8 months ago
This was an excellent true crime and history. I had heard of Joseph Vacher, but I didn't know very much about him, and I don't think there are any other books about him in English. His crimes are straight out of a Hollywood slasher film -- he made Jack the Ripper look like a sissy. The author was able to seamlessly integrate the life and crimes of Vacher with details about the advent of forensic science, forensic medicine and psychology. He must have done a tremendous amount of research for this book.
picardyrose on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Fascinating account of how developments in criminal investigations tracked down a serial killer in 1890s France and led to his execution -- after he confessed, out of vanily, he tried to pass himself off as insane, but the evidence proved otherwise.
bnbookgirl on LibraryThing 8 months ago
This is an interesting look at the beginning of the field of Forensic Medicine and a killing spree that was going on in France. It traces Dr. Lacassagne's pioneering start in the field of Forensics which includes a giant leap in autopsies. There are some interesting comparisons of Dr. Lacassagne and Sherlock Holmes. The story also follows the horrible crimes of Joseph Vacher who confessed to killing numerous people. The story then converges together when Emile Fourquet's (prosecutor) , Dr. Lacassagne's and Joseph Vacher's paths cross. They bring justice to the families of the victims that Vacher left behind. This is written in the same manner as Devil in the White city, paralleling a crime with a historical event. At times this book gets a bit bogged down with science, but overall it is very intersting.
murraystone on LibraryThing 8 months ago
This is an extraordinary book combining two histories: one of the development of French forensic science in the 19th century, the other of the life and deeds of one of France's most notorious serial killers. How these two tales interact is itself a harrowing story, well told.
LVassmer on LibraryThing 8 months ago
This book is extremely well written and has a surprisingly good flow. I was a little hesitant when I read the description. I wondered how the author would be able to marry the two separate subjects of the rise in forensic science and the serial killer that the title is taken after. I was pleasantly surprised however. The author is able to interweave the two subjects while keeping them separate enough that there is no confusion. The subject matter is already interesting, but the author manages to make it more so. There are a few graphic explanations of crimes and various other things, but it is not overdone and felt appropriate.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
itunes More than 1 year ago
Worth reading
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago