May 15 2018

The Killer of Little Shepherds

Interesting CasesMediaMeetingSpeaker

Douglas Starr, Professor of Science Journalism at Boston University, tells the story of the people who invented forensic science, the first criminal profile, and the first serial killer brought to justice using these techniques.





My name is Douglas Starr. I’m a Professor of Science Journalism at Boston University, and co-director of the graduate program of Science Journalism, and we teach young journalists who have a strong science background how to report and analyze issues that involve science, medicine, public health, and the environment; issues that really need to be taken seriously and dealt with in a perceptive way.

In addition to doing that, I’m a writer, and I’ve written a couple of books in the field of medicine and medical history, and the book we’re talking about today is The Killer of Little Shepherds, and it tells the true story of the people who invented forensic science at the turn of the century and the first serial killer who was brought to justice using scientific techniques.

Well, I was always interested in medicine and what especially interests me in medical and science writing isn’t the nerdy stuff about a particular thing, but these larger issues of social justice and where does science predict how people perceive things, and sort of the scientific pursuits of humanity.

So, I’ve previously done a book which was one of these mammoth histories of a scientific enterprise; in this case it was blood – how blood has been seen through the ages from the time of mysticism through the first transfusions, through the use in the war, up to the AIDS epidemic. That put me onto this whole notation of science and justice, and one day I was in the basement of Harvard Medical School looking through journals, and I came upon something that mentioned the case of Joseph Vacher, and the great forensic scientist Alexandre Lacassagne, and I realized this could have the makings of a book.

So the protagonist of the book is Dr. Alexandre Lacassagne, from Lyon, France, who I’m afraid has almost been lost to history. When I started looking into this case, I started understanding what a remarkable man he was. He lived in Lyon. He could’ve been anything. He was a great scientist. He was a great doctor. He was a great writer. He understood the arts. But, he picked on forensic science, because he felt that science could really serve the cause of justice. So, he, over the course of his lifetime, with his colleagues, developed many of the techniques that we now know. He figured out ballistics testing of bullets, he figured out the angle of wounds, they figured out body position, blood spatter evidence; pretty much everything except DNA and fingerprints. He and his colleagues really set the stage for CSI as we know it today. They knew how to match the wound to the weapon, to the type of bullet, they were extraordinary in what they could do.

They analyzed footprints in a way that we could barely imagine using plaster of paris and gels to get footprint imprints and even salt solutions to get footprints from snow. Fingerprints came a little bit later, but really, when you think of it, they had almost everything we did except for DNA.

Now what they did with Vacher; it was a duel effort. First there was an inspector named Forquet, who was the first to see a pattern in the crimes. People had very bad communication in those days, and Vacher would commit a murder in one district, walk 20 miles in a day, and be in another district where no one had ever heard of him. This Inspector Forquet began to see a pattern and he sent telegrams out to all the districts of France saying, “Has anybody had this kind of murder, and if so, send me a description of the culprit.” And he began to create what was the first criminal profile ever done.

Lacassagne moved Vacher to Lyon for three months, where for three months he visited him every day trying to psyche him out, trying to get the truth out of him, because he didn’t believe he was crazy. He felt he was malingering, and what he finally did was he then analyzed all of the murders and used autopsical drawings to come up with a M.O. In doing this over a period of months, he realized that Vacher wasn’t acting like a crazed animal on impulse like he claimed. He wasn’t forgetting what he did, but these murders were planned. The methods were very effective. The escape was very effective, and he was able to take that evidence to court and show that he wasn’t insane.

So, it was a combination of brilliant psychological police work, the first criminal profile, very modern and humane interviewing, and then finally Lacassagne coming with the piece that really condemned him – the modern analysis of autopsies to see what was really the pattern in the killing. That combination of extremely modern techniques is what put the guy away.

I was surprised how like our own time the turn of the century was. There is something about the 1890’s that fascinates all of us. In a way it was an end of the old age, an era that we think is more courtly, more genteel. There were machines with moving parts, as opposed to digital machines. The art world was flourishing, In a time, it was the birth of modern times; Pasteur had discovered germ theory, modern neurology was born, modern chemistry was born, modern forensics was formed. It was really the birth of the modern era, and what’s amazing about it compared to our own times, was at the same time, it was the birth of the middle class, it was the invention of the department store, the popularity of the bicycle – all these wonderful things. People could really enjoy life. And at the same time, just like our own era, there was this sense of dread. There was a sense of, “We’re doing fine, but there’s a whole class of people who are not doing fine, and what happens if they get tired of being that way?” And there were these rumblings from the underclass, and there was an international terrorist movement. We call it Al-Qaeda, in those days it was anarchism, and they were setting off bombs, and assassinating presidents, so you had a real interesting situation that although a hundred years removed, was a period very much like our own: both in the technologies, and the hopes of people, and their fears.