The Original Sherlock Holmes: How a French Doctor Helped Create Forensic Science

A 19th-century French medical examiner and criminologist was even more skilled than the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes. A new book recounts his biggest case, which heralded the age of forensic science.

Frank Thadeusz in Der Speigel:

ScreenHunter_04 Jan. 23 11.28 On a good day, Joseph Vacher could win over a woman with his disarmingly innocent demeanor. In these states of mind, he wrote letters in an ornate, rounded feminine handwriting and amused children by making faces at them.

But then Vacher would go into uncontrolled rages. Once, he beat his small dog to death with a club because it wasn't eating its food.

His crimes against human beings were much worse. In remote forests and barns, Vacher, the son of a farmer, raped and murdered a total of 11 people, most of them children.

In late 19th-century France, this diminutive serial killer epitomized ordinary citizens' fears of the evil that lurks in the darkness. At the time, the guillotine was still used to execute dangerous criminals in France. In the Vacher case, however, the judges were hesitant to impose the death penalty. Was the mass murderer “a cannibal” who had to be beheaded, or was he a “certifiably insane person” who was to be locked up in an asylum?

Douglas Starr, a professor of journalism at Boston University, has now reconstructed the series of murders Vacher committed.

In his book, “The Killer of Little Shepherds,” Starr does not, however, assign the leading role to Vacher, the child murderer, but to the man who was to solve the Vacher mystery: Alexandre Lacassagne, the head of forensic medicine in the southern city of Lyon.

Lacassagne solved murder cases that seemed unsolvable at the time. To this day, students in police academies are taught the methods of the master criminologist from Lyon.

More here.