The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and The Birth of Forensic Science by Douglas Starr
Hooray! I’ve finished a few of those 10 books I was telling you about :) So here’s an update!
I was given this book by a friend after discovering our mutual interest in true crime. As an avid reader of mysteries from a young age, I quickly became fascinated with the criminal mind, and have spent WAY too many hours watching Investigation Discovery before bed.
At this point, though I get to call it research, as I am now working on a mystery series of my own. In an effort to keep my plot lines original, yet realistic, I am always keeping my eyes and ears open for the newest developments in police work, forensics, and of course, crime sprees.
So, while the events in this book may have occurred over a hundred years ago at the end of the 19th century, I was surprised to learn just how relevant the investigation and technologies were today.
Centered around the crime wave of Joseph Vacher, a vagabond who terrorized the french countryside for years, The Killer of Little Shepherds was a remarkably interesting true story of one of history’s most notorious serial killers, and the forensic science that grew alongside the attempt to capture him.
The thing I enjoyed most perhaps, was that author Douglas Starr did a very thorough job of researching both Vacher, but also the men – including the famed Dr. Alexandre Lacassagne - who were responsible for his prosecution. There was a very nice balance between learning about the crimes and the criminology.
Also, it was amazingly informative! I had no idea that until the 1960s, we were using microscopes invented in the 1800s – and that they were actually accurate to boot! In fact, the most surprising aspect of the read was to discover that things weren’t as “backwards” as we often think of life being, before the advent of “technology.” For all that they lacked – refrigeration, proper lighting, etc – investigations and autopsies were nearly as thorough as they are today. When you think of the conditions under which most coroners and police officers were working – and add in the fact that basically all of their knowledge of the human body came from operating on those who were already dead, (since surgeries were still quite risky, much of our knowledge of anatomy came from autopsies performed on criminals sent to the guillotine) – it’s pretty impressive that we figured anything out at all!
Starr also touches on the social commentary of the time. Overlaps between law enforcement and the bourgeoning study of psychology began to lead to discussions on how to treat the sane vs. the insane during trials, and which factors (biological or social) created a criminal. In addition, a lack of widespread education lead to a large disparity between the incomes and belief systems of those who lived in the city vs. the country – this, among other factors, lead to significant numbers of homeless people and vagabonds (making tracking Vacher extremely difficult at times). In fact, as Starr alludes, in some ways, many of the issues faced by our ancestors over 100 years ago are still things we struggle with today. One of the most haunting lines of the book was this quote from Dr. Alexandre Laccassange: “Society has the criminals it deserves.” *Shudder* I can’t help wonder about it’s continued truth.
Whoever said “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it” may just have been on to something!