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Book Review: The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science by Douglas Starr

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The waning years of the nineteenth century were a heady time of new possibilities inherent in new, scientific ways of thinking and the technologies they birthed. The world for the first time seemed tamable, knowable, and possibly subject to human will as never before. And if human knowledge revealed disease as the work of bacteria not curses or evil spirits, certainly crime could be subjected to similar scientific scrutiny. Why was it that some people seemed to chose a life of crime while most lived normal, productive lives? “What was the seed of the criminal instinct?” More importantly, what could civilized society do to root it out and suppress it?

The late nineteenth century was a renaissance of scientific thinking, and the European continent was abuzz with conferences on the questions of crime — its causes and its detection — and European scholars were publishing books on forensics, crime investigation, and criminals. There was even money to be had in crime fighting by private enterprise. The first private detective was the French criminal-turned-agent-of-justice Eugene-Francois Vidocq. Along with his band of other ex-cons, he cleaned up Paris and inspired Alan Pinkerton to become the “Vidocq of the West.” Crime was recognized for the first time as a scourge upon civilization and an obstacle to progress; moreover, many felt that this scourge could be addressed by scientific thinking and eradicated. Several prominent figures emerged among the students of crime and criminals.

LacassangeThe central figure of The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science is the brilliant French thinker Alexandre Lacassagne, the real world version of Sherlock Homes, whose pioneering efforts have led to the birth of criminology and forensic medicine. Starr alternates the story of the birth of criminology and the professional life of Lacassagne with the bloody odyssey of the serial killer Joseph Vacher, a former soldier who roamed the French country side for three years, brutally killing more than Jack the Ripper ever did. The effect is a mesmerizing history of ideas and the men who matched their intellect and imagination against the criminal element, while the menacing true crime story of a madman stalking the French countryside adds tension and urgency to their quest. As Vacher preyed on shepherds of the French country side, men like Lacassagne, Bertillon and Lombroso were inventing ways of stopping crime and catching criminals.

Vacher’s eventual crime spree began with the rejection by the object of his romantic infatuation. But Vacher had been troubled long before he brutally attacked his romantic crush. After a mysterious concoction to treat rabies was administered during childhood, his brain chemistry changed, and he morphed from a nice boy into an enigma prone to violent outbursts. Despite his violent attack, however, Vacher did not stay long in the mental hospital where he was sent for treatment; after several months, he seemed to have gotten better and was released.

VacherUpon his release, Vacher vanished into the anonymous ranks of the vagabonds, a 400,000 strong reserve army of the chronically unemployed, victims of the economic and technological changes of the first era of globalization. He moved from village to village in search of odd jobs and farm labor, sometimes traveling many miles, leaving in his wake a trail of dead bodies, a monster in appearance as well as deed — a wound in his skull, the reminder of a botched suicide attempt, giving off fetid odors and discharges.

In an earlier era, men like Vacher went largely undetected, moving from place to place and killing often, aided by an old system of policing that relied, in the absence of skill and knowledge, on suspicion, innuendo and torture in order to placate community anger by finding a likely suspect and beating a confession out of him. This indeed happened on several occasions in Vacher’s case when innocent people were accused of his crimes. But if his murderous odyssey was aided by the old ways like false accusations and lack of skill of local magistrates and police, it would come to an end thanks to a new breed of men who utilized the latest methods of crime detection.

Vacher’s murderous career was interrupted by a prosecutor who was able to connect the dots. Emile Fourquet analyzed several cases that he found highly similar and generated a profile of the killer. And so the search began with Fourquet sending a description of the suspect all over the country netting Vacher, who had quite by chance been captured and held in another part of the country after his attack was foiled by the victim’s husband who was nearby and heard his wife’s screams. Eventually, Vacher was transported to Lyons, and into the hands of Fourquet, who now had to build a case, tying Vacher to the numerous other murders. To do this he called on the help of Lacassagne as one of the world’s foremost scholars of the criminal mind and France’s top criminal medicine expert.

The question that quickly arose involved Vacher’s mental state — was he responsible for his actions? The question was uniquely one for the new era of science when physicians and students of the human psyche were coming into the realization that many criminals belonged in asylums rather than jails. New legal standards evolved in response to scientific discoveries and such standards continue to evolve to this day. But if in Lacassagne’s era it may have seemed that future advances in psychology and science in general would lead mankind one day to a deeper understanding of the mind of a man such as Vacher, today, over a century latter, the question of whether someone chooses to do evil or is merely a victim of forces beyond his control — whether of broken brain chemistry, neural circuitry that fails to engage, or mysterious forces of the subconscious — is still open to debate. Despite advances and new technologies capable as never before of peering deep into the mechanisms of the brain, we have not found the seed of criminal instinct, discovered why some people seem to chose crime or found any means to prevent criminal violence.

In fact, only more questions, thornier ones, have arisen as a result of scientific inquiry. For example, Starr asks, what if a person knows the wrongfulness of a violent act but lacks the neural circuitry to resist it? And progress had been hard, defined by setbacks. The science of criminology itself, Starr writes, is in a bad state, with some of its methods now in question and with the labs “understaffed, overburdened, and lacking in proper equipment and training.” Indeed, recent studies have challenged “infallible” procedures, including fingerprint matching. Things are so bad that the National Academy of Science has called for a “wholesale revamping” of the field. In many ways, we have not advanced far since the era of Lacassagne, despite whatever shows like CSI may lead the average person to believe, and catching serial killers still poses challenges today not only because scientific progress is slow — due to inefficiencies in funds and training — but because the nature of human nature still eludes our grasp.

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About A. Jurek

A. Jurek is one of the editors at Blogcritics. Contact me at: a.jurek@blogcritics.org