Book Review: The Killer of Little Shepherds

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The Killer of Little Shepherds by Douglas Starr is not just for readers interested in serial killers but foremost for those who love to read about forensic sciences.

It is a book about the evolution of society, how good trusting people changed into cautious people filled with distrust for strangers.

This is a book that signals how prejudice started to influence a community and how one person could incite a riot.

Of course, prominently featured are Cesare Lombroso and Alexandre Lacassagne. These two pillars and their schools of thought shaped forensic sciences.

The main story in the book is the case of Joseph Vacher, a man who was a schizophrenic psychopath. The psychopath in him killed many people. The schizophrenic in him made people believe that he was mentally disturbed. He claimed this had its source in his failed relationships.

This book describes in detail how autopsies were done in the late 1890s so get ready to read about autopsies without gloves, little sanitation, no refrigeration, and yes, Starr describes the scraping of the bones to measure their exact sizes.

This book held my interest from the start and not just because it hints at a serial killer at work. The case of Vacher is fascinating but the early days of CSI are a real treat for criminologists.

We learn about the work of Alexandre Lacassagne and Cesare Lombroso and how they tried to prove each other wrong. Lacassagne’s detailed descriptions of the circumstances under which the victims died is so meticulous that you can actually see the autopsy in your head.

Last but not least, we read about Vacher’s trial and how both sides tried to argue their cases. After he was arrested, Vacher claimed to be innocent by reason of insanity. He had once been bitten by a dog, so rabies might have made him do all these bad things, and the medicines he received to get better had lasting side-effects.

Vacher also tried to prove his insanity by proclaiming that God sent him to earth and when that didn’t work he tried to compare himself to Joan of Arc. Th experts found him sane and fit to stand trial.

Vacher was tried and convicted by the Cour d’Assises of Ain. Two victims were from Ain. He was sentenced to death on October 28, 1898. The method of execution at that time was the guillotine. The execution took place at dawn on December 31, 1898. Vacher refused to walk to the scaffold on his own and had to be dragged by his executioners.

The book has a table of contents, author’s notes, 8 pages with black and white photography, an epilogue, notes per chapter with sources, a bibliography, a cross-referenced index, a list of illustrations with credits.

Highly recommended reading. 

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