Whilst languishing on the beach of a Greek Island this summer, I read the gruesome yet fascinating history of Joseph Vacher, the French Ripper (as you do on holiday!):
On the night of 18 June 1897, 13-year-old shepherd Pierre Laurent was returning home to his village near Lyon from the local fruit market, when he was murdered and sexually assaulted. His mutilated body was discovered by local residents the following day. This sickening case was investigated by local law enforcer Émile Fourquet who was about to uncover the heinous crimes of one of the most notorious serial killers in history, known as ‘L’Éventreur’, the French Ripper.
Fourquet was an investigating magistrate, working in the market town of Belley, near Aix-les-Bains in the foothills of the Alps. When he read about the murder of the shepherd boy in the local press, it reminded him of the similar killing of Victor Portalier, aged 16, two years earlier in Bénonces, some 30 km away – the case had been closed unsolved. Fourquet immediately sent for the file and soon discovered some striking similarities: both shepherd boys had been stalked by their assailant, who might have been a vagabond. They were both killed by a deep cut to the throat and their bodies were defiled after death. He also found a letter from another magistrate suggesting a connection between the Portalier case and that of the murder of 17-year-old woodcutter’s daughter Augustine Mortureux, also in 1895. Despite the similarities, it was not thought that all these crimes could have been committed by a single hand. However, in Fourquet’s mind a pattern began to form. After receiving the details of seven cases, he began his meticulous research that would prove the links. The newspapers started referring to the potential murderer as the ‘new’ Jack the Ripper.
In the 19th century, the French police was famous for its paperwork, which far surpassed their counterparts in other countries, including Great Britain. Former criminal Eugène Vidocq, began collecting data when he established the first police detective department, the Brigade de la Sûreté, in Paris in 1812. In the 1880s, Alphonse Bertillon developed his own method of measuring suspects. Using his anthropomorphic technique, known as ‘bertillonage’, of taking multiple bodily measurements, he recorded all the details on cards, eventually amassing vital information on tens of thousands of individuals.
By 1897, record keeping was well established and Émile Fourquet used this practice in his investigation into the shepherd boy killings. After reading through the dossiers, he created two charts, one for the method of the crimes, and the second to compile the characteristics of the, as yet, unknown killer. The pattern of crimes pointed to a single methodology, leading Fourquet to the conclusion that one man had committed all murders. On 10 July 1897, Fourquet sent an arresting warrant to all 250 investigating magistrates throughout France, which included a description of the wanted man. After receiving many more files, he re-investigated some of the earlier crimes, by interviewing witnesses and even interrogating suspects. However, less than a month later, a man arrested for public indecency fell right into his trap.
On 4 August, Marie-Eugénie Héraud was out in the woods collecting pinecones for fuel with her children, when she was viciously attacked by a man. Her assailant was overpowered by her husband and some neighbours, who imprisoned him in a stable. Joseph Vacher was tried and sentenced to three months for ‘outrage to public decency’ and when the magistrate remembered Fourquet’s warrant, he contacted him with a description of the prisoner, who was transferred to Belley.
Joseph Vacher was born in Beaufort, Isère in 1869, he was the 15th of 16 children. His twin sister had been killed in an accident when both were infants, which miraculously he had survived. Aged 15, Vacher joined a monastery but was expelled two years later after committing sexual acts on his fellow monks. He then joined the French Army and whilst stationed in Besançon he met Louise Barant and fell in love with her. When she spurned him, Vacher shot her in the mouth and then turned the gun on himself firing two bullets into his own head. Both survived as the cartridges had not been fully loaded. The bullets were never removed from Vacher’s skull.
During the next three years Vacher spent short periods in asylums and prison but most of the time he wandered around the French countryside leading the life of a vagrant. After his arrest in 1897, he confessed to 10 murders, mostly of teenage shepherds, over a 600-kilometre area. The remains of an eleventh victim were discovered while he was being interrogated.
Dressed in velour and wearing his trade-mark white rabbit fur hat, 29-year-old Joseph Vacher stood trial for the murder of Victor Portalier on 26 October 1898. His plea of insanity was overruled by the careful forensic examination of all the alleged cases by expert criminologist Alexandre Lacassagne. Vacher was found guilty and sentenced to death. He was executed by guillotine on 31 December and his dissected brain remains in the Faculty of Medicine in Paris to this day.
In the aftermath of this sensational and historic case, Lacassagne recognised the importance of Fourquet’s painstaking research and he called on the French government to create a national database for unsolved crimes. In 1923, this extended to the police forces in 20 countries with the formation of the International Police Commission. It is now known simply as Interpol.
You can find out more about Joseph Vacher in The Killer of Little Shepherds by Douglas Starr, the perfect beach read!