Magazine article The Spectator

Massacre of the Innocents

Magazine article The Spectator

Massacre of the Innocents

Article excerpt

The Killer of Little Shepherds: The Case of the French Ripper and the Birth of Forensic Science

by Douglas Starr

Simon & Schuster, £16.99, pp. 312,

ISBN 9780857201669

'La justice fletrit, la prison corrompt et la societe a les criminels qu'elle merite' - Justice withers, prison corrupts, and society gets the criminals it deserves. With that terrifying and depressing thought, the fin-desiecle criminologist Jean-Alexandre-Eugene Lacassagne summed up his views at the end of his long career. A hundred years later, they are still worthy of attention, for Lacassagne was, perhaps, one of the greatest pioneers of forensic science and medical jurisprudence in his century or any other.

It was he who discovered that bullets show markings that identify the weapons that fired them; he who set out the stages at which bodies putrefy; he who demonstrated how bruising showed that a body had been moved after death. The only man who challenged his pre-eminence in his day (and who was ultimately proved to be the lesser scientist) was the Italian, Cesare Lombroso.

Lacassagne first came to public recognition in France in 1889, when he managed to identify a body that had been found in a sack four months previously. He taught his students - and the public - that autopsies were unmistakable records of crime, provided one knew how to read the bodies. He did, and the newspapers and the penny-press of the day, reaching mass audiences for the first time, were enthralled.

And then, in 1897, an equally methodical and scientifically-minded magistrate, Emile Fourquet, gathered reports of murderous attacks on adolescents spread hundreds of miles apart across the back roads of rural France. Long before the idea of serial killers was commonly recognised, he understood that these were not single episodes, but a series of crimes that followed a pattern: the victims, usually of similar ages and backgrounds, were all similarly stabbed, mutilated and sodomised.

Thus, when in the Ardeche a man named Joseph Vacher attacked a woman collecting pinecones for fuel, Fourquet quickly realised that this crime fitted the pattern, and Vacher was put under investigation not for a single assault, but for the murder of 11.

(In fact it was probably closer to double that number. …

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