As forensic science was getting a foothold during the 19th century, pathologists worked under tough conditions. Among the fascinating items that science journalist Douglas Starr includes in his new book, The Killer of Little Shepherds (Knopf), are the innovations they used to make their workspace – the corpse – tolerable for an autopsy. For example, bacteria that colonized a decomposing body produced fetid gases, so Paul Brouardel devised a way to clear them out: he would prick the body with numerous small holes and light the escaping gasses. This produced a series of fine blue jets that burned for days. When they disappeared, Brouardel knew he could safely proceed.
As a historian of forensic science and psychology, I’m always happy to find a well-researched book on the subject, and Starr has exhaustively explored the activities and contributions of one of my favorite forensic scientists, French criminalist Alexandre Lacassagne. For context, Starr lays out the crime spree of an infamous serial killer, Joseph Vacher, whom journalists likened to London’s Jack the Ripper. For authentic material, Starr had perused the files and met the descendants of the nineteenth century’s greatest pathologist, and years or research he’s produced a gripping tale. In addition, he brings attention to just how much the forensic scientists of today resemble their forerunners. “Theirs was the first generation of modern criminologists,” Starr writes, “ and they developed the techniques that characterize forensic science to this day.”
Lacassagne was one of the top innovators in Europe, as he approached crime scenes with a healthy sense of doubt. Too often he saw the effects of investigative tunnel vision that led to hasty resolutions that ruined innocent lives. Like forensic scientists today, Lacassagne and his colleagues were concerned about hired guns on the witness stand, the presentation of scientific material to uneducated juries, the best way to handle evidence, and using the most advanced knowledge and techniques. He kept on eye out for improving conditions and supporting justice.
Vacher Crime Scene Sketches:
Years before the publication of the first story featuring Sherlock Holmes, Lacassagne exercised full critical examination of the cases on which he consulted. When he suspected that a suicide was actually a staged homicide, for example, he asked colleagues to tell him immediately of recent deaths so he could see whether he could get the decedent’s hand to grip an object as tightly as the “suicide victim” had clutched a gun. A dead hand, he learned, could be positioned to form a loose grip, which tightened with rigor mortis. This weakened the determination of suicide, and with other suspicious factors, it inspired the police to re-open the case. They arrested the victim’s son for murder.
Due to his careful work, prestigious university position and authoritative bearing, Lacassagne became a celebrity consultant. Although his most memorable contributions were in pathology and criminalistics, I was most interested in his innovations for criminology. Lacassagne instigated the earliest criminal autobiographies, encouraging many inmates at Saint-Paul prison to write about themselves. Each week he checked their notebooks, correcting and guiding these men and women toward some revealed insight. Their family histories were full of violence, tension, and disease, which taught him a great deal about the origins and influences of criminality. However, he had no sympathy for malingerers.
Enter Vacher, arrested in 1897. Starr ably alternates his story with Lacassagne’s until they merge for Vacher’s pre-trial assessment. Vacher had terrorized the countryside, picking victims at random for bludgeoning, strangling, and mutilation. Despite how geographically far apart these cases were, common patterns alerted an astute magistrate to the possibility of a single offender. Thus, the country went on high alert. Vacher, a roaming vagabond, confessed to eleven murders, but he was suspected of many more. In his defense, he claimed to suffer from an irresistible impulse. Having been bitten by a rabid dog when he was a child, he insisted that his blood had been poisoned. His defense team believed his claim of madness.
Lacassagne was the lead examining physician for the prosecution, and he spent five months learning about Vacher’s background, supposed spells of temporary insanity, persecution mania, and trail of violence. In the trial, Lacassagne took the stand in an unruly courtroom, where Vacher shouted at witnesses and challenged anyone who did not believe him. (The courtroom scenes alone make this book worth reading.) Starr presents Lacassagne’s philosophy about the role and demeanor of an expert witness (including how to dress) and shows how the pathologist carefully laid out his opinion to a breathless audience. He’d even made his own crime scene sketches. Even Vacher was impressed.
Lacassagne once said, “Societies have the criminals they deserve.” While he believed that disease and addiction, passed on to successive generations, could cause mental and physical degeneracy, he thought that poverty, social marginalization, and other factors were also involved. “The criminal is a microbe,” he said, “that proliferates only in a certain environment.” Still, he knew that psychosis could be faked, and he found Vacher to be a “sanguinary sadist,” i.e., a calculating, bloodthirsty psychopath.
Starr gives both men so much life and dimension that readers will feel as if they’re right there in the courtroom, awaiting the outcome. Vacher holds his own as a belligerent and grandiose serial killer, which provides plenty of tension for the adversarial arena. This book is a must-read for anyone who likes tales about intelligent investigators matching wits against wily offenders. Along the way, you’ll also learn a lot about the birth of forensic science.
Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D., holds graduate degrees in forensic psychology, clinical psychology, and philosophy. Currently, she chairs the Social Sciences Department and teaches forensic psychology and criminal justice at DeSales University in Pennsylvania. She has published over 900 articles and thirty-seven books, including The Forensic Psychology of Criminal Minds, True Stories of CSI, Beating the Devil’s Game: A History of Forensic Science and Criminal Investigation, The Human Predator: A Historical Chronicle of Serial Murder and Forensic Investigation, The CSI Effect, Inside the Minds of Serial Killers, Inside the Minds of Healthcare Serial Killers, Inside the Minds of Sexual Predators, and Inside the Minds of Mass Murderers. She has been published in ten languages. Her background in forensic studies positioned her to assist former FBI profiler John Douglas on his book, The Cases that Haunt Us, to co-write a book with former FBI profiler, Gregg McCrary, The Unknown Darkness, and to collaborate on A Voice for the Dead with attorney James E. Starrs on his exhumation projects and on a forensic textbook with renowned criminalist Henry C. Lee, The Real World of a Forensic Scientist. She also published The Forensic Science of CSI, The Criminal Mind: A Writer’s Guide to Forensic Psychology, and The Science of Cold Case Files, and has written numerous editorials on breaking forensic cases for The Philadelphia Inquirer. For seven years, she contributed regularly to Court TV’s Crime Library, and now writes a column on historic forensics for The Forensic Examiner, offers cases analysis for the media and speaks internationally about forensic psychology, forensic science, and serial murder. She has appeared on numerous cable network documentaries, as well as such programs as The Today Show, 20/20, Montel Williams, NPR, Larry King Live and E! True Hollywood.
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