“Perhaps it is part of the human condition that we cannot analyze or explain that which most frightens us. We will never understand why people like Vacher arise to bring chaos and violence into a world that we struggle to keep orderly and safe. We cannot account for the source of that impulse. We can only study it and try to keep it at bay.”
These are the last three sentences of the epilogue to Douglas Starr’s The Killer of Little Shepherds, my second-most favourite true crime book. I have read this book—an account of the 19th-century serial killings by Frenchman Joseph Vacher—a total of 27 times and counting. Vacher, also known as “The French Ripper” and occupying a similar psychological space in France as Jack the Ripper in England, murdered between 11 and 27 people in the French countryside between 1894 and 1897. Born of a combination of unrequited love and brain damage from a failed murder/suicide attempt, Vacher’s modus operandi involved stabbing, disemboweling, raping, and sodomizing his victims, many of whom were shepherds keeping an eye on their flocks in isolated fields.
But The Killer of Little Shepherds is not a story about Vacher—not Vacher alone, at least. This true crime book is an account of the birth of forensic science and how the Belle Époque sought to investigate the shadows of the human condition. Prosecutor Émile Fourquet and renowned criminologist Dr. Alexandre Lacassagne hunted not just Vacher, but the truth of the nature of insanity and its reckoning in the pursuit of justice.
Anyone who is interested in forensics and/or is an admirer of luminaries such as Sir Bernard Spilsbury absolutely must read The Killer of Little Shepherds.
My Recurrent Psychosis,
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