In 1888, Whitechapel, was gripped by fear of a brutal series of murders perpetrated by a sadistic killer that named himself Jack the Ripper. He would go on to be one of the world’s most famous, and elusive serial killers of all time. Jacks escapades took place just a single step ahead of the curve of criminal forensics, an opportune window in time aiding him in his flight from capture. Across The Channel, just a decade later, another, less well known nightmare was stalking the countryside. No less brutal in his killing spree, Vacher the Ripper, was tearing up victims in secluded forest pathways and the deserted barns of isolated, rural communities across France. The march of science, psychology and criminology had not been standing still, however, and what were only the nuclei of ideas during Jack’s reign, were emerging as full fledged methodologies, developed to pull a criminal from the shadows or a brutal murder out, from under the shroud of speculation.
Starr, Douglas. (2011) The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story & The Birth of Forensic Science. Vintage, London, UK.
Gibson, Dirk C. (2012) Legends, Monsters, or Serial Murderers? The Real Story Behind an Ancient Crime. Praeger, CA, USA.
Renneville, Marc. (2005) La Criminolgie Perdue d’Alexandre Lacassagne (1843-1924) History of Criminology, Volume 1. Accessed online 17 February 2020: http://journals.openedition.org/criminocorpus/112
V comme VACHER Joseph : Itinéraire et parcours de vie d’un des premiers Serial Killer Français. Accessed online 16 February 2020: https://mesracinesdu07aujura.wordpress.com/2018/11/26/v-comme-vacher-joseph-itineraire-et-parcours-de-vie-du-premier-serial-killer-francais/
Un Tueur en série d’autrefois. Accessed online 18 February 2020: http://collections.bm-lyon.fr/presseXIX/PER0044ae55cdc069a7
Smith, B. Timothy. (1999) Assistance and Repression: Rural Exodus, Vagabondage and Social Crisis in France, 1880-1914, Journal of Social History, Vol. 32, No. 4. P. 821-846. Oxford University Press, UK
Renneville, Marc. (2010) L’affaire Joseph Vacher: La fin d’un “Brevet d’impinité” pour les criminels? Droit et Cultures, 60 | 2010, p. 129 – 142. Accessed online, 18 February, 2020: https://journals.openedition.org/droitcultures/2323#quotation
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Joseph Vacher: The French Ripper
In 1888, Whitechapel, was gripped by fear of a brutal series of murders perpetrated by a sadistic killer that named himself Jack the Ripper. He would go on to be one of the world’s most famous, and elusive serial killers of all time. Jacks escapades took place just a single step ahead of the curve of criminal forensics, an opportune window in time aiding him in his flight from capture. Across The Channel, just a decade later, another, less well known nightmare was stalking the countryside. No less brutal in his killing spree, Vacher the Ripper, was tearing up victims in secluded forest pathways and the deserted barns of isolated, rural communities across France. The march of science, psychology and criminology had not been standing still, however, and what were only the nuclei of ideas during Jack’s reign, were emerging as full fledged methodologies, developed to pull a criminal from the shadows or a brutal murder out, from under the shroud of speculation. This is Dark Histories, where the facts are worse than fiction..
France in 1890 was square in the middle of a period of peace and prosperity. La Belle Époque, or “The Beautiful Epoch”, was an era characterised by the optimism of the French people, Music, Literature and the Visual Arts flourished, Gaugin, Rousseau, Toulouse-Lautrec, Rodin and a young Picasso emerged into the Paris art world, with their brand of modern, post-impressionistic masterpieces, whilst Debussy, Ravel and Satie composed pieces of music still familiar in almost every household today. The optimism and confidence of the nation was indelibly marked by the eclectic, bold, modern and often-times surreal nature of the output across all of the arts. In science and technology, germ theory became further established as Louis Pasteur, pioneered with Pasteurisation and immunology and vaccination research. Radiotelegraphy spread across the country allowing for quicker, wireless communication, steps were being taken into the strange world of cinematography, whilst electric lighting became increasingly common, superseding gas lighting in every city. The fashionable district of Montmartre saw the opening of the Moulin Rouge in 1889, the same year as the construction of the Eiffel Tower, built as an opening arch to welcome national and international visitors to the Worlds Fair, which Paris hosted that year.
This period of Joie de Vivre enjoyed by the growing middle class, was not the reality for all, however, and one less celebrated aspect of the late 19th Century in France was the stark contrast between the flourishing wealth of culture, learning, politics and economy in the cities, a growing, violent, anarchist movement and the disconnected rural farmlands of the countryside that still held dear old superstitions and whose precarious economies fell only further and further behind. Entire communities were finding themselves increasingly isolated, as telegraphy connections spread slowly, and electricity even slower. Whilst the well off bourgeoisie in Paris feasted themselves figuratively and literally, the peasant farmers of rural France lived on a pittance, entirely at the mercy of a single poor season that could ravage an entire community. Security was largely supplied by the self-policing of close knit communities, backed up by the authorities, who were thinly spread and operating entirely independent of one another according to jurisdiction. Oftentimes, all it took for a criminal to evade capture would be no more than a short walk to the next town where anonymity prospered beneath a shroud of official ignorance for their neighbours. And the French countryside of the 1890s saw no shortage of walkers. Throughout the late 19th Century, the phenomenon of Vagabondage had been growing. A vast group of misfits, beggars, vagrants and nomads took to the trails, migrating with the harvests, working their way through to the South of France into winter and then back North as the temperatures rose and temporary work helping with the harvests in the farms responded. By the mid 1890s, their number sat at around 400,000, roughly 15 of the French population. This rise in Vagabondage also came hand in hand with a growing fear of a rapidly ballooning crime rate, though some argued that this had more to do with the rise in tabloid newspapers reporting more widely due to the ease in communication, others began to fear “the other”. Quickly, the vagabonds that lived on their own terms began to be seen as less of a helpful, temporary workforce during tight harvest periods, and more of a threat to stability in society. They became likened to pack animals and seen as an early evolution of humans, less inclined to live like modern, “civilised” people. This stigma was not at all helped but he fact that many of their number were often mentally or physically ill, released from packed mental asylums with little clue on their next step in life and no-one to offer much in the way of assistance. They were the homeless and the disenchanted and they were increasingly a force to be feared, though many found them agreeable, work, food and a place to stay was increasingly offered with more than a slight pang of hesitation and suspicion. One man who found himself rolling together with this wandering group of nomads was named Joseph Vacher. In Vachers case, however, the rural people of France had very much to fear. Joseph Vacher, blessed by God was not a man that one would wish to meet on a dark path, meandering through the thick trees of a Southern French forest, winding between vast shards of Granite that stuck out from the tips of the trees, piercing the murky skies and towering over the scattered, wirery fields.
Born in 1869, Joseph Vacher was the fifteenth child of Pierre and Marie-Rose Vacher, a poor, peasant farming family living in Beaufort, in the region of Isère, in the South-East of France, perched to the South of Lyon at the foot of the French Alps. It is a diverse region, with vast lakes, forested valleys and mountainous peaks. Josephs birth had been troublesome for his mother and was noted by the arrival of his twin sister, who sadly failed to live past infancy and who died when she was aged only 8 months old, choking on a ball of bread. The village of Beaufort, situated in the Western region of Isère is surrounded by large, flat fields and swathes of farmland, which Vachers family worked on, herding cattle and raking out a piteous existence that like many, lay in stark contrast to the well publicised lifestyles of the city dwellers of La Belle Epoch. Life was challenging in the fields for the farmers and many rural French had grown a steadfast reputation as being both a hardy and determined people. The Vacher family may have been large, but both parents and all of the children lived in a single roomed, brick house that bordered a small patch of land upon which they grew what little crops they could and housed their cattle. At the age of 5, Joseph was bitten by a stray dog and treated with a rabies vaccination, an outcome that would prove to traumatise him for the entirety of his life.
Marie-Rose was fifteen years younger than her husband, Pierre, though he outlived her by some margin, after she passed away abruptly in 1883, when Joseph was just 14 years old. Already a troublesome child, his father found him difficult to deal with. He had once taken the cattle out to pasture and passed the time in the field by choosing to experiment with breaking several of the cows legs. One year after his mothers death, he was passed into the care of the monks of Saint-Genis-Laval, a monastery 100 miles to the East of Beaufort, on the Southern outskirt of Lyon, for schooling. Joseph had grown up fiercely religious and had shown signs of his devotion to Catholicism from an early age, when at age 10 on a school trip, he gave an impromptu sermon whilst visiting a church. This upbringing him served him well during his time at the Monastery and the strict catholic teachings didn’t phase him at all. Instead he found that he had a keen enjoyment of writing and gained an education that he may otherwise have never have been afforded back in Beaufort. It wasn’t to last however, and at the age of 17 he was thrown out for conducting “Inappropriate sexual acts” with other pupils. He spent the next years drifting between odd jobs, sleeping with prostitutes and contracting various general diseases, one of which eventually led to a partial castration, when his left testicle became infected and had to be partially removed.
In 1892, 23 year old Joseph Vacher was drafted into the army under compulsory conscription and served in the 60th Regiment in Besançon, near to the French-Swiss border. The military structure suited Vacher and he took to the strict regime in the same way he had equally flourished within the Monastery as a child. In Spring of 1893, whilst wandering around Besançon one evening, he passed a young girl by the riverside. Finding an instant attraction, he introduced himself by commenting on the weather. The girls name was Louise, a 19 year old from Baumes-Les-Dames, a small village to the North East of Besançon. Working as a housemaid, she was new in town and keen to make friends. Joseph was wearing his army uniform and so, like many others would have done at the time, she judged it fair to trust the stranger and the pair walked along the river and visited a local cafe to eat dinner together. Over their meal, the pair chatted and discovered that they were both born in small towns and had both wound up in Besançon without any prior plans. For Joseph, it was more than mere coincidence and so took it upon himself to propose that evening, telling her in what most might consider to be a fairly unendearing testament of love, that he would kill her if she were to ever betray him. Sensing that Joseph might not quite be the man of her dreams, she quickly backed off rapidly, though the pair spent several weeks going out together, she slowly distanced herself from any romantic notions, eventually telling him that her mother forbade their marriage and had instead ordered her to return home at once. It was a shocking heartbreak for Joseph, who seemingly thought all was perfectly fine between the pair and he spent much of his free time writing letters to her begging her to reconsider and put the concept of their marriage was more to there parents. Finally, once she had had enough of receiving letter after letter, she wrote to him with a letter she assumed would put a stop to his pining.
“It would be best if you stopped writing to me, everything is finished between us; I do not want to go against the wishes of my mother. Furthermore, I do not love you. Farewell. Louise.”
It was a deep heartbreak for Joseph, who attempted to channel his attentions instead towards his army career. He saw himself as prime officer material, although his hopes were once again dashed early that Summer, when in June he was passed over for promotion despite his conduct and hard work. Instead of knuckling down and awaiting a second opportunity, however, he proved his superiors right in their determination that he was “unfit for command” by getting drunk, smashing up his barracks, threatening his comrades with a razorblades and eventually attempted suicide by slashing his own throat. In truth, many of his bunk mates in the army knew Vacher to have a reputation already, often flying off into violent rages, bouts of heavy drinking and tossing furniture about in fits of petulance. After his suicide attempt, he was promptly hospitalised and transferred away from his regiment. Given four months medical leave, he knew exactly how he should spend his new-found spare time. He packed his bag and made straight for Louises hometown in order to convince her that she should give him another chance. Just to make sure the whole interaction might travel smoothly, he stopped off at a firearms dealer along the way and bought a revolver.
When he arrived in Baumes-Les-Dames Joseph introduced himself to Louises family, imploring the bemused mother and father to allow him to reconsider and allow him to marry their daughter. Finding himself somewhat unwelcome in the small town, on June 23rd, he instead changed tact and visited Louise directly at the house of her employers. He knocked on the door, enquired after the young housemaid and when she came to the door only to greet the man she thought she had already ended her relationship with, reconfirmed, angrily, that she had no intention of marrying him. Joseph turned his sorrow into bitter anger and demanded she return all the money he had spent on her, taking he out to dinner and dances during their time spent together in Besançon. Louise begrudgingly accepted, telling him that if she paid him his money, he must leave and never disturb her, nor her employers again. In desperation, Joseph pulled out his revolver, shot Louise point blank in the face and then turned the gun onto himself, shooting twice. One might expect a revolver shot to the face would have no other result but to be fatal. Joseph however, had either fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on perspective, bought his bullets from a somewhat dubious seller who had chosen to only half fill the shells with powder. Due to this little money saving stitch up, Joseph instead only broke a few of Louises teeth and punctured her cheek, whilst he himself suffered from fairly horrific disfigurements, as the bullets lodged in various points in his head. The gunshots drew attention from other townsfolk, who quickly ran to the scene only to find Vacher staggering listlessly in the street, covered in his own blood, ready to collapse onto the floor.
After his inevitable hospitalisation, Joseph Vasher was sent to an asylum in Dole, lying two thirds of the way to Baumes-Les-Dames from Lyon. Once settled into the overpacked, poorly lit and poorly looked after asylum, he was observed by the doctors in order to discern his mental stability and to determine wether or not he was fit to stand trial for the shooting of Louise. The bullets may not have killed Joseph, but they had had a devastating effect on his physical appearance. He found himself with a thick scar on his right jaw, the bullet had severed the nerves in the right side of his face, leaving him with an uncontrollable twitch on that cheek. The effects of the tightly drawn skin and severed nerves also made speech difficult for Vacher and he slurred his speech, which now had a constant nasal ring. If that wasn’t enough, one of the bullets he had fired into his own face was now lodged in his right ear canal, leaving an open wound that would leak pus and which made him partially deaf in that ear. Joseph spent much of his time locked behind the bars in his asylum cell writing letters to Louise, telling her how dirty the institution was, how poor the food was and how the other patients were criminals and degenerates. Vacher wasn’t far wrong in many of his observations, The asylum in Dole had been built for 500 patients, but at the time Vacher stayed there, it was holding 900. Whilst the institution claimed to be a modern hospital, casting aside torturous methods of treatment and forgoing the use of shackles and chains, patients were still placed behind bars and held in rooms that far more closely resembled prison cells rather than hospital rooms.
The doctors in Dole watched Vacher closely and found him to be suffering from what seemed to be auditory hallucinations,
“At certain moments he raises his head and focuses his eyes as if listening to invisible voices. During such times, he has the facial expressions of a madman.”
He frequently needed to be restrained in order to protect himself from self-harm and he attempted suicide on a t least one documented occasion, whereby he repeatedly smashed his head into a wall. At the end of August, 1893, Vacher decided he had had enough of the asylum life and propping a plank up against the perimeter wall, scaled the makeshift bridge and sprung over the wall to freedom. He evaded capture in the surrounding countryside, wearing the grey cotton uniform of the Dole asylum patients for two weeks before he was spotted by a pair of soldiers and promptly picked up and returned to his cell. On the train back to the asylum, however, Vacher wasn’t keen to give up his freedom so easily. He requested the use of the toilet and when the two guards that watched over him, whilst he sat in handcuffs and leg irons, denied him to leave the carriage, he asked instead if they could shimmy him over to the door and allow him to urinate out of the moving train that way instead. The guards agreed and stood behind him whilst he did his business, but at the very first opportunity, Joseph threw himself out of the moving carriage and hobbled away into the empty field. His escape was not long lived, and he was picked up two days later whilst he slept in a local farmhouse. Once back in the asylum, his observations ere completed, with the doctors concluding,
“A deliriant with a persecution complex of the first order. He imagined the whole world di sin league against him. We have done our best for him, but he accuses us of trying to kill him, and shows no signs of being cured. Conclusion: (1) Vacher suffers from mental alienation characterised by a persecution complex, and (2) he is not responsible for his actions.”
This diagnosis was critical for the case against Vacher for shooting Louise. He was promptly found not guilty by reason of insanity and carted off to a new hospital near his hometown, on the outskirts of the town of Grenoble, named the Saint-Robert asylum.
The Saint-Robert asylum was a vast departure to the asylum in Dole. It was a modern hospital, built in the campus style and nestled up against the Alps, it was thought to be one of the best institutions for the care of the insane in all of France. There were male and female wings to the East and West, flanking a large main building reserved for common use. Therapies at Saint-Robert reflected the modern architecture and gone were the shackles, chains and bars of the past. Each day was regimented into blocks of time, with the day starting at 5am, and lunch sandwiched by a morning and afternoon work shift, where patients practiced music therapy, theatre, sewing and cobbling. For Vacher, he felt that all his Christmases had come at once upon his arrival, just after midnight on 21st December, 1893, although getting there had been somewhat of a struggle. Though he promised the guards that escorted him by train that he would behave himself on the journey, he later wrote that he “wanted to see blood running everywhere.” For the most part, this only translated to him yelling anarchist slogans and mildly struggling throughout. He was placed into the High Security win and given a room with a view of the Alps. As before, one of the first thing that Vacher did once he settled in to his new room, was to write. He wrote incessantly and often, he wrote letters to Louise, which he was permitted to send once every two weeks, though none ever reached her as her father intercepted the letters in order to save his daughters anguish. Upon his arrival in Saint-Roberts, he wrote to Louise of the institution,
“I arrived by train through a little valley surrounded by snow capped mountains, and there it was, glowing by the light of the moon. We crossed gardens as beautiful as any in Grenoble. Whereas in Dole we were surrounded by guards who might as well have been executioners, here there are guards who embody vigilance and humanity.”
Vacher spent the next three months relaxing in Saint-Roberts asylum, where he underwent hydrotherapy, treatment via leeches, opium and traditional talking therapy. In his downtime, away from the common area, he spent his time reading quietly in his room. Doctors found him to be “docile and polite” and he in the letters he wrote to Dr Edmond Dufour, the director of the hospital, he explained how he had accepted and understood his crime and his punishment and of how he wished to put his life back together. At the time, hospitals like Saint-Roberts were a lifesaving institution for many unwell members of society, made destitute and homeless by their various ailments, however, they were constantly under desperate pressure to rehabilitate and release their patients, rather than allow them to stew in despair, as they had in the decades prior. On April 1st, 1894, four months after his admission, Joseph Vacher was judged as perfectly well cured by the hospital staff and found the gates swing open to him, granting him freedom. Vacher, however, was far from a well man. As he left the asylum he saw himself as blessed from God for having the opportunity to stay in such an institution and cared for so well. This feeling of being blessed was reinforced by the voices in his head which he attributed to God telling him what to do and where to go next. During his time in the asylum, the work he had undertaken saw him paid 170 Francs, and with this money along with his personal articles of a knife and a revolver, that were returned to him upon his release, he set out onto the open road of the French countryside. At first, his direction was listless, wandering for two weeks, taking odd jobs, until he bought a train ticket to go and stay with his sister in Menton, a South-Eastern coastal town, a stones throw from Monaco. His sister was not entirely happy to see him, however, and after only one week, she bought him a train ticket back North to Saint-Genis-Laval, suggesting he return to the Monastery that he had attended as a child. Once Joseph had boarded the train s was safely in the distance, she returned home to clear out the room he had stayed in during the week only to find piles of crumpled letters tossed into the fireplace, all written to Louise. Once he arrived at the Monastery, Vacher found himself once more less welcome than he might have hoped and the monks turned him away. With no where else to turn, Joseph began walking the 130 miles towards his hometown of Beaufort. It was quite a hike through the French countryside and he would pass through deep forested canyons, vast open farmland and rocky mountainous shards fo granite all along the way, but incredibly, the distance was nothing to the ground that Vacher would eventually cover in his lifetime, as he unwittingly strolled his way to Beaufort and into the lifestyle of the nomadic life of vagabondage, trudging up and down France in characteristic, migratory fashion.
The Vagabond Life
Whether it was ever a conscious decision or simply a consequence of his situation, like it would have been for so many others, Joseph Vacher seamlessly slipped into the life of the Vagabond. He carried his possessions, a change of clothes, a few Francs, his regimental papers and a strong, wooden club, in a traveling sack and adopted the lifestyle of the road, hopping from hamlet to hamlet, looking for work, begging for food and bedding down under the branches of a chestnut tree, or on a pile of hay in an old barn. At times, he would strike lucky and be invited into the homes of the people he would meet on his journey, but times were becoming tough for the nomadic travellers and trust was trending at a premium. Vacher was fortunate in that he still carried his regimental papers and whenever he felt people were eying him suspiciously, whether begging for food or seeking a job, he could always fall back on the official documents to gain a helpful portion of trust or to turn the cautious glances at his facial disfigurements into caring looks of sympathy.
10 Miles to the West of Beaufort, Vacher reached the small town of Beaurepaire. Surrounded by fields on all sides, rolling hills laying on the horizon, it was a sprawling town with a population of around 3000. Alongside the farming economy, Beaurepaire supported a healthy textiles industry with several small factories employing the locals, many who lived in dorms owned and operated by the factory workers, with bed and board used to offset the low wages paid for their daily rate. Eugenié Delhomme was a 21 year old young, silk mill worker who had been born in the local area and now worked within the textile industry. She, like many lived in the factories dorm on the outskirts of the town and worked from 5am in the morning until 8pm at night for a pittance. She was well known in Beaurepaire, popular amongst the local men and she enjoyed all the fruits of her position as a young, attractive, independent woman. At 7:30pm on the evening of May 19th, she left her workstation at the mill and told her colleagues she was stepping outside to get some air. The next day, after Eugenié failed to show for work, a few of her colleagues began asking after her, but no one it seemed had seen her since she stepped out on the previous evening. A few people went out to see if they could track her down, but it was the unfortunate fate of a local sheep farmer who stumbled across her feet sticking out of a hedge just 200 yards from the mill, who was to uncover her fate. Thinking it strange, the farmer pulled out the body of Eugenié to find a true horror show. He called for help and the local authorities quickly removed the body, taking it to the Beaurepaire hospital for autopsy. Doctor Brottet had the ugly task of inspecting the remains, which lay on the operating table, an unidentifiable mess. In his report he noted bruising, scratching and finger marks around her throat, leading him to believe she had been initially strangled, but the killer had not stopped there. The young girls face had been brutally mutilated, with torn lips, bruising and stab wounds in her throat and chest. Her right breast had been cut off and her stomach and chest had been badly mutilated by blunt trauma.
The local police began their investigations, initially believing it to be a crime of passion, their first suspect was a man named Eugene Dorier. Locals pointed out that Eugenié had had many boyfriends in the town, but Dorier had been her most recent. With no other evidence and despite the fact that Dorier had an alibis, police arrested the man and held him in jail for questioning. With no other leads, the police continued to work backwards through Eugeniés love life and next picked up Louis François. Rumours turned up the fact that Eugenié had recently had an illegitimate child and believed it to have been François’, police swooped, arresting the man and jailing him, again despite a credible alibis and the fact that the same rumours surrounding the illegitimate child claimed that the entire issue had already been sorted with no animosity from either party. When the police found a watch near to the crime scene, they arrested the owner, a young servant of the local factory owner named Lois Lacour. It turned out that Louis had lost his watch several days prior to the murder and he once again, had a solid alibis but just like the others, police jailed him anyway. It’s safe to say that authrities were fairly desperate and clutching at straws. They had no other evidence to lead from and so, just simply swept up all with the most tenuous links to Eugenié. Remarkably, when a local visited the police to hand in a bloody knife that he had found near to the crime scene, they simply turned him away and discarded the knife, thoroughly uninterested.
At the same time, word in the town began to spread and stories circulated of who the townsfolk thought was the primary suspect. On the day of the murder, several had stories of a stranger with a scarred face. 55 year old sheep herder Victorine Gay told her own story of how she had been stalked by the man until she ran away. This story was not unique. Two other local women claimed to have been stalked by a “disfigured vagabond” and a “scarred man”, the first was followed by the man until she met with her husband, which soon saw him clear off, whilst the second had to use her own initiative, talking loudly to an imaginary companion in order to frighten him away from following her. The jailed suspects were eventually released, almost a month later, after the members of the town filed a petition for their freedom. It seemed all but the local police knew, or cared, who the murderer of Eugenié had been.
After Vacher had killed Eugenié Delhomme, he dragged her body from the alleyway where he had crossed her path and thrown her to the ground to strangle her, stuffing her remains in a bush and washed himself in the river that passed by the mill.
“A kind of fever came over me… Of revulsion and craziness, I tried to contain myself, but the rage made me stronger. I let go of everything and threw myself at my victim.”
“Ever after that, to the four corners of France, I have been shaking out this bag of burdensome abominations I had inherited at Dole.”
Vacher bedded down on a haystack overlooking the scene that had in the hours prior, been the location of a violently brutal assault and murder by his own hands, and fell into a deep sleep.
The next morning, Vacher woke and began walking out of town. He walked the forty miles to the city of Grenoble, the capital of the district of Isère, lying at the feet of the French Alps. He attempted to find work in various positions, but found that people there were suspicious of his facial scarring and scruffy, vagabond appearance. In an attempt to relax them, he showed many his regimental papers, but thought it may have softened some attitudes towards him, it didn’t help in securing work and so, he began walking further out into the French countryside. Here he was slightly more successful, gaining employ in small temporary farming positions. In June 1894, he was hired to scythe hay near Geneva, 90 miles North of Grenoble. Somewhere along the road, he had picked up an accordion, which he played for passers by and children. In his downtime, he wrote to Louise, telling her about his travelling lifestyle and the sights he saw on the roads and walkways of France, describing the sprawling, varied landscapes of the rural countryside. As the summer drew on, Vacher worked his way South down the Rhône Valley, working on small farms for the grape harvest and averaging around 20 miles per day. By the end of the summer, as the leaves turned dark and began falling from the trees in the North, Joseph Vacher entered the French district of Var, in the far South Provence region, bordered on the coast by the Mediterranean Sea. Here there were sharp, shards of granite piercing the deep green valleys filled with forests and rivers, small hamlets built at the base of rocky outcrops and small clearings in the treelines. On November 20th, Vacher spied a young, 13 year old girl named Louise Marchel walking by herself along a forest pathway. He dragged her into a nearby disused barn, strangled her, slit her throat, mutilated her abdomen and raped her dead body. Later, when a neighbour of Louise, Charles Roux discovered her body, police arrested him as they had no other leads and were suspicious as to how he may have found the body, if he didn’t know it was there already. They also found a set of footprints nearby to the body that had been made by wooden soled shoes, the type worn by Roux. The problem with this evidence was that wooden soled shoes were worn by most other people in the area too, as they were the traditional footwear, made locally. After weeks of questioning, Roux was eventually released by a bemused police, who had no more to work with.
Whilst Charles Roux stewed in prison, Vacher kept walking back North, accepting a job outside Grenoble in December watching over a farmers cattle, though he found the work too dull and left the town hall way through his contract. Heading North-West, Vacher spent most of the rest of the winter walking towards the West coast of France where he was next spotted outside of the village of Étaules, on the South-West coast of France, 100 miles to the North of Bordeaux. Around noon on Easter Day of 1895, Vacher attempted to rape a woman named Antoinette-Augustine Marchland at knifepoint. She had been returning from a neighbouring town where she had spent the morning selling oranges, when she had been grabbed from the road from behind. Struggling, she squirmed out of Vachers grip and threw rocks at him, screaming until two local men showed up, eventually scaring the him away.
Augustine Mortureux was a young, 17 year old girl from Étaules, she was the youngest child of 7 in a small farming family, though her father worked mainly as a woodcutter to supplement their small income. Augustuines elder sister had moved to a neighbouring village and had recently fallen sick. Requesting that her parents visit her, they requested for their daughter Augustine to go in their place as they weer too busy with work to tend to the sick child. At 9am, Augustine left her home under a grey sky. She grabbed her umbrella and began walking along the road to the next village with her small dog, Quiqui for security. It was a big journey for Augustine who had never made the trip alone before, but being a public holiday the road was busy with people coming and going, many of the faces familiar locals. Around 11am, a woman with her two daughters stumbled across her body, lying under an open umbrella in a small thicket just off the roadside. She rushed off to get help, but by the time she returned, she found a large crowd already gathering around the girls body. Just prior to her own discovery, three local boys out rehearing mushrooms and also discovered Augustine, and between them and the woman, word had spread fast around Étaules. By noon, almost the entire village had amassed by the side of the road to see for themselves what had become of the young local girl. Her body was eventually removed from the road and taken to the local hospital where an autopsy discovered that she had several massive stab wounds in her throat and chest, her abdomen eviscerated. She was also missing both her shoes and her earrings, both appeared to have been removed from her body after her death.
That morning, several witnesses responded to the murder by recalling a “mean looking’ stranger on the road. A man with Vachers description, wearing grey pants, a blue, tattered shirt and wooden soled shoes was sent out by the local magistrate, Louis-Albert Fonféde, who honed in on this man as the number one suspect. The locals had other ideas though. With the help of the local newspaper, a local landowner by the name of Eugene Grenier had fallen under suspicion by many. A businessman with several enemies, rumours began circulating that he had fallen to “erotic insanity”, slaying Augustine in a blind rage. The story had absolutely no grounding in reality, but to the small community, hell bent on gaining some kind of retribution and with the local authorities failing to offer any answers themselves, the local people made their own conclusions. On a wave of hatred, locals scratched slogans such as “death to Eugene” in the trees surrounding the crime scene, and when authorities ordered the graffiti removed and refused to arrest Grenier, the papers accused them of protecting the rich, whilst stomping over the feelings of the poor. The 27th of August was designated as Augustine Mortureux day and a large gathering of locals visited her gravesite in the local cemetery. Talk rumbled, emotions swelled and the gathering marched towards Greniers house to Lynch the innocent man. Fortunately, the local authorities had expected something to happen and had set up a road block en route to his house. Eventually, probably more in view of his own safety, Grenier was arrested and jailed for 45 days. Upon his release, he escaped to a town 25 miles away with his family. The locals hunted down the carriage he was suspected to be travelling in, drove it from the road and attacked the driver. Opening the doors however, they found it empty. Grenier had slipped out the back door and made his way far, far from the baying crowds, never to return.
Vacher meanwhile, washed in the small creek outside Étaules, changed his clothes and cut the toes from his new shoes in order to accommodate his own feet. He had stolen the girls earrings, but now, perhaps it hadn’t been such a smart idea, he reasoned. If he was caught with the earrings, he could be arrested for thievery and so he tossed them into the bushes by the roadside and walked out of the region, North-East towards Paris. Just outside o the village, he stopped off into the house of an old widow named Madame Girardot and asked to make lunch on her stove. Whilst cooking, he told her his name. She noticed he was nursing a small injury. It was a bite from a dog, he explained and she cleaned the wound for him. He then went on to tell her all about the local girls body he had seen by the roadside earlier that morning as he had left Étaules. A week and a half later, Vacher met a farmer on the road who he stopped to chat with. The old farmer noted Vachers shoes and offered him a pair of his own shoes to replace the butchered pair that Vacher had taken from Augustines body. Vacher received them gratefully, took off the girls pair and cut them to pieces in front of the farmer, tossing the scraps into a nearby bush. Thinking his behaviour suspicious, the farmer later recalled his story to the mayor who sent out the local police to catch up to Vacher, who apprehended him several miles up the road. They questioned him about his travels and where he had come from, but when he showed them his regimental papers, they changed tact and allowed him to continue on his way. Vacher changed direction and once again began heading South-East towards Lyon. Over the next few weeks in July, several reports of attacks by a dark haired, vagabond circulated wherever Vacher set foot. Two women claimed to have escaped from attacks by a would be rapist and one old lady was found with her head and neck torn apart by stab wounds. In the forests outside of Lyon, two young boys told their parents how a man had tried to lure them from the road and into the darkness of the forest, but they had ran away. On the 24th August, in the forested area of Saint-Ours, 120 miles to the west of Lyon, a young boy returned home from tending his cows find the body of his mother lying on the kitchen floor. She had been brutally eviscerated, her throat cut wide open and her body raped. A week later, Vacher had exited from the East side of Lyon and found himself in the small village of Bénonces, it was a tiny hamlet with a population of 450, isolated from the nearby city of Lyon by the lack of electricity and the swaddling cliffs and forestland that hung over the valley housing the village. Vacher stopped into a small farmhouse to beg for food, but found himself promptly turned away, the same was repeated in the farmhouse next door. Seeing his luck running out in Bénonces, Vacher walked instead to the neighbouring village of Onglas, many of the farmers who had turned him way noticed him hanging around for the next several days on the road between the two villages.
On August 31st, Victor Portalier, a 15 year old shepherd from Onglas was out watching his cattle whilst they pastured in a nearby field. Born to a poor family in the town of Trévoux, North of Lyon, Victors father died when he was age 12. It was a family destroying event that saw his mother, destitute, turn to prostitution to survive, a move that later saw Victor taken away by child protection services. He was removed to Lyon and then later fostered to Onglas, where he lived a modest life, daily tending to the farms livestock. Every day the boys in the local farms took their cattle out to graze at 2pm, but on this particular day, Victor left thirty minutes early. Showing up in the empty field overlooking the valley below, he sat down to rest beneath a large tree and watch over the cows. By the time the other boys arrived in the field, just thirty minutes later, Victors body was found resting up against a juniper bush, large pools of his blood stained the ground between his body and the walnut tree he had sat below just thirty minutes before. The shepherd that found him ran off back to Onglas to alert the authorities, who carried out the autopsy in the field where he lay. As before, Vacher had killed the boy by strangling him, then sliced him open, mutilating his body, slicing off his sexual organs and raping his dead body. The newspaper commented on the scene,
“The cadaver was mutilated so appallingly that it is impossible to believe in a single murderer; one would think the little one was killed by a bull who then turned it’s horns on him.”
A search party was put together by 150 of the local villagers, who fanned out across the local area in search of the murderer. Over the previous days, many had seen Vacher by the road between Bénonces and Onglas and several had turned him away from their door. As such it was a simple matter to put together a reliable description, which was published to all the local towns and hospitals,
“Age: 30-35 years, Height: 1m 56cm, thick black eyebrows, colouring: Pale and sickly. White hands indicate that he does not indulge in any hard work. Head covering: Straw hat, said to be a Panama, with the front pulled down over his eyes. Sometimes he wears a beret. Distinguishing characteristics: Scar across his right eye. Carries a small work bag and club.”
It was a remarkably on point description, but nevertheless, only one person was arrested who turned out to be a case of mistaken identity. He was later released and the case fell completely cold. As the police scrabbled around for non-existent clues in the local fields, Vacher meanwhile coasted along the road, headed in the direction of Marseille, but within a month, on 22nd September, his path, 120 miles to the North of Marseille, on the outskirts of the village of Truinas, crossed with Aline Alaise, the 13 year old daughter of a local landowner who had been out that morning to a neighbouring village selling eggs and cheese. As she strolled along the road home, Vacher sprung on her, slashed her throat and sliced open her abdomen, mutilating her corpse. Moments after he had murdered the young girl, whilst he was in the process of attempting to scrape up dirt from the floor to cover the pools of blood left by her body, a local farmer named Thèodor Vache passed by Vacher on the road and asked him if he was ok. Vacher told the man that he was fine, he just had a nosebleed. Whether or not the man bough the story, which seems doubtful, he left the scene fairly rapidly, allowing Vacher to go on covering the stains on the ground. During the investigation, a schoolbook was found nearby to the body, a page had been torn out which had the letters M A R C scribbled across. Authorities took this to be a name, which led to the arrest of a local carnival fighter named Auguste Marseille, which made very little sense to anyone, given that the first four letters of his surname were spelt M A R S. Police eventually conceded to the obvious and released him.
One week later, on 29th September, 40 miles away from the crime scene in Truinas, a body was discovered in a threadbare field, nestled among the rocky outcrops of the Ardeche hills. It was the body of 14 year old Pierre Massot-Pellet, a shepherd from Saint-Etienne-de-Boulogne. Pierre was still in school and watched sheep on Thursdays and Sundays to earn a small wage. When he took his sheep to graze in a the field and failed to return for lunch, the farm owner sent out another shepherd boy to fetch him, who found the body of Pierre stuffed behind a large boulder in the corner of the field near a small wooden hut. He displayed the typical signs of a Vacher murder, having his throat and stomach sliced open and his pants removed. The police arrested a local man named Bernadin Bannier for the murder, a local political figure who had several enemies. With no evidence to hold him on, however, he was quickly released, much to the locals chagrin, who took it upon themselves to break into his house and set fire to the ground floor. Bannier was eventually forced to flee from the mob violence and leave town.
With Autumn approaching and the cold weather setting in, Vacher began a trek towards Brittany, in the West of France. Along the way, he made a hat of white rabbit fur, which he believed symbolised his purity with God. He also Tok the time to carve the initials M.J.L.B.G into his club, though the meaning of which is completely lost. Throughout the winter Vacher kept his head down and laid low, eventually emerging in February near Le Mans, 150 Miles South West of Paris. Here he attempted to rape a 12 year old girl named Alphonsine Derouet on her way to church, but when she screamed and alerted nearby onlookers, Vacher was forced to retreat back into the shadows. When officers took his description, they found that the vagabond man had made his presence known in the days and nights prior, twice attempting to assault local women. They also found he’d spent an evening in a local farmhouse where he’d told the owner his name. A description was published locally amongst the neighbouring towns and a gendarme met him just a few miles down the road from where he’d grabbed the young girl, but when Vacher showed the officer his military paperwork, he was simply asked if he’d seen anyone suspicious on the road. Not one to miss an opportunity, Vacher pointed in the opposite direction and insisted that in fact he had, several miles down the road. The Gendarme thanked him and left him on his way.
Just a few miles down the road and a matter of days later, Vacher was once again entangled with the law. This time for aggravated assault, only this time, the arresting officer had actually taken him in to the station and not allowed him to pull any wool over his eyes. He was sentenced to one month in jail and never realising that Vacher was the hunted man, just miles down a short road to the next village, he served his time in relative peace and quiet and was released on the 6th April, 1896. With a spark of religious fervour, Vacher decided to make the pilgrimage to Lourdes, 470 Miles South, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, on the border of France and Spain. Vachers path to Lourdes was long and winding, by the time he arrived in the winter, he had spanned over 1400 miles on foot, stopping off to brutally murder Marie Moussier, in a small town outside Lyon and Rosine Rodier, Marie Moussier had only just married and Vacher stole her wedding ring after he had strangled, bitten her face, gutted and raped her body, though like the earrings earlier, he later thought this may be incriminating and tossed it away. The story of Rosine Rodier was similar. He killed her as he passed through the haute Loire region, South Central France. Prior to murdering Rosine, he became lost in a dense fog, convinced he would be caught, he finally came across a train track that he had been following before he had made his brutal diversion. “I really believed God saved me” he later said of the event.
When he reached Lourdes, winter had rolled back around and the hills and mountains surrounding the town were capped in snow. Joining with the other pilgrims, he visited the Masabielle Grotto where Bernadette Soubirous had seen an apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1858, transforming the quiet mountain town into one of the most important Catholic pilgrim sites in the world. After, he climbed a mountain overlooking the town and wrote a prayer in the snow on behalf of Louise, the woman he had loved and then shot in the face.
“Oh! Virgin Mary, Mother in the sky, watch over her as you watch over me and with all your power before God, bring her back to me one day as white as the snow.”
He spent the remainder of the winter in the South of France, collecting a second club, upon which he scratched the name “Marie, Lourdes”. During the colder weather, he managed to find trusting families to stay with, in February he stayed with a husband and wife and their children. In the evenings he read to them and played accordion for them. The family later recalled that he had been a “polite and proper guest”, had told them that the scars on his face had resulted from a kick by a rose whilst eh was in the Army and took a keen liking to their son Henri, whom the father said, “he frequently called to sit beside him.” In a second farmhouse that he stated in, he traded his board for penmanship lessons for their daughter, he wrote lines with the young girl,
“Among travellers there are often great minds and sometimes even great friends of God.”
As the weather began to warm and Spring of 1897 dawned, he met with a traveller friend, Cèlestin Gautrais. Over drinks Gautrais told him of how he had 200 Francs stored in a lockbox, unsurprisingly, the very next day, his body was found with his head stoved in by a club weapon or stones, his trousers pulled down around his ankles. As he looked don from the crowd that gathered around the body the next day, Vacher stepped out and offered to carry the body to the mayors office. Being a stranger however, the local authorities were quick to suspect him and they noted that he had bought a ticket on a train bound for Lyon that same day. Vacher had so far killed with impunity, offered to him by the isolated and fragmented nature of the local police in rural France at the time, but in April of 1897, a man was hired in the town of Belley, in the foothills of the Alps who would take another look at some of the files from the murdered victims. His conclusions were to make entirely unattractive reading for the authorities.
Fourquet & The Capturing of the Beast
35 year old Èmile Fourquet obtained his law degree in Paris in 1886 and after graduation, served in several minor judicial roles before eventually, in April 1897, he was hired and installed as the investigating magistrate for the market town of Belley, in the Bugey district of France, near to the Swiss, and Italian borders. Belley had a small population of around 4000, surrounded by rolling hills and vast, sprawling fields in the foothills of the Alps. Fourquet was a tall, thin, balding man with glasses and a tightly twisted moustache, who had a penchant for paperwork. He remarked that the position of investigating magistrate afforded him he opportunity to “fulfil a burning passion.” When he took office, he immediately set about reading through the paperwork left behind by his preceding officers and came across the file on the murder of Victor Portalier, who had been killed in Benoncés, a small village that fell within his jurisdiction. It was a disturbing case and stuck in his mind long enough to reignite a spark of curiosity in June, when one morning, as he read the ‘Lyon Republican’ and came across a story of another mutilation, he instantly made a connection to the earlier murder. What the rural French authorities lacked in communication, they made up for in their collection and filing of case paperwork. Fourquet Tok advantage fo this and ordered copies of Dosiers from across French districts which had been written up on unsolved, violent murders from the past several years. Within 48 hours, he had received the reports on a further 7 murders from across France that had involved abdominal eviscerations and post-mortem rape. Recognising a series of patterns within the gruesome facts of each murder, Fourquet began tying connections amongst each case together and surmised that each murder, despite the vast distances that stretched between them, may have been carried out by one and the same man. He meticulously pieced together a criminal profile, over a century before criminal profiling was a standardised process adopted by the FBI and pieced together a series of tables documenting probable murder weapon and location of wounds on each body, which he used to create an identifiable Modus Operandi by the suspected assassin. He then created a second table, in which he filled in all the details supplied by the witnesses of each case on the suspect of the murderer. The process was laborious and honed in on the finest of details, which all amounted to a finely detailed profile of the man he suspected to have carried out the crimes, from psychology to physical features. On July 10th, Fourquet sent out this profile to over 250 magistrates across the country, pre-empting by a decade the nationwide process of investigation and co-operation between the French district level police that would eventually be introduced in 1907.
Whilst Fourquet was busy working on the paperwork, Vacher was out on the road. In early July he bought a dog from a cobbler which he named Loulette and somehow managed to tame a magpie, tying it to a piece of string. He kept his companions close for almost a month before the dog angered him by not eating the stew that Vacher put down for it. Seeing it as a snub, Vacher killed both the dog and the magpie.
By August Vahcer had made it to the dense forested landscapes of the Ardèche region in the South-East of France. Outside of the isolated village of Champis, Vacher crept up on a woman named Marié-Eugenie Heraud as she watched her two young children play amongst the trees. He grabbed he ray the throat and threw her to the ground. As he reached for his bag, she let out a loud scream. Unfortunately for Vacher, she had been in the woods with her husband and three children, and within moments, Seraphin and his son Fernand stepped into the clearing and launched themselves on top of him. In the commotion, rocks flew through the air as wildly as fists. The brawl was loud enough to alert another group of neighbours who were out walking nearby and they also came into the clearing, jumping on the dog pile, pinning Vacher to the ground. The men dragged Vacher to a nearby farmhouse and locked him inside to await the local gendarme, who arrived from the next town, six hours later. Vacher was sentenced to 3 months imprisonment for “outrage to public decency”, but it was no sweat for the vagabond. He envisaged another quiet stint in prison like before, a few months and then he could hit the road again. Vacher, however, had no way of knowing that Fourquet had been busy profiling him and sending out his description across France and as luck would have it, finally, an official who crossed paths with Joseph Vacher was aware that he may have been in the presence a wanted man. The local magistrate sent the description of his prisoner to Fourquet’s office, who immediately requested for his transfer to Belley. For the nomadic murderer, it appeared the game was finally up.
To transport Vacher to Belley, two guards were appointed to his care, who handcuffed him and placed on an empty train carriage, siting on either side of him. Despite their careful watch, Vacher still very nearly escaped, when he tried to toss himself out of the window as the train sped along the track. Upon his meeting with Fourquet, the magistrate knew he had surmised correctly, he now just needed to coax some form of admission from the man he had so fastidiously studied via the details of the murders he was sure he had carried out. In order to do so, Fourquet adopted a technique of “Psychological questioning.” Turning his back on the barbaric, old fashioned techniques of torture, aggression and violence that had for hundreds of years yielded results within investigation work, instead Fourquet acted to allow Vacher to open up on his own accord by questioning him from an emotional distance and gaining trust by listening to the prisoners stories. Vacher told Fourquet of how he had met, fallen in love and shot Louise, of the asylums in Dole and Saint-Robert and of how he had been treated since his release,
“People ridiculed the deformity of my mouth… And because of the bad door that came from the pus from my ear.”
For three weeks, Vacher told him of life on the road, but crucially, avoided incriminating himself in a single murder. Fourquet knew he needed to change tactics and step things up a gear. In a bluff, he told Vacher that he would release him in a few days, that clearly, he had been mistaken. Before releasing him though, he requested that Vacher might help him with a personal request. He invented a story that he had been researching and writing a book about the migratory habits of the Vagabonds, rather than need any details on murders, he would appreciate it if the pair could pass the time until Vacher’s release discussing his observations on the people and places of French rural life. Vacher agreed and promptly went on to furnish Fourquet with a host of detail regarding his whereabouts over the previous years, including time and season. With each thud of the shovel into the ground beneath his own feet, Vacher dug himself a hole deeper and deeper and Fourquet passively filed each detail away without batting an eyelid. On October 7th, Fourquet bought in twelve witnesses from across France who had seen Vacher near to each of the murders. Each witness identified Vacher as the man they had seen. It was enough for Fourquet, Vacher had supplied him with enough incriminating information to plant him at each of the murders crime scenes at the correct times and the witnesses solidified his stories. Feigning slightly more confidence than he really had, Fourquet told Vacher that he knew everything, knew he was a murderer and knew it all well before the two had even met. “It was only a matter of apprehending you” he boldly stated. At 7pm the same evening, Vacher handed over a written confession to Fourquet, implicating himself in the murder of 10 people.
“God, Rights, Observations – To France – So much the worse for you if you think I am responsible. Your way of acting by itself makes me pity you. If I kept the secret of my misfortune it’s because I believed it to be in the general interest, but since apparently I am mistaken I have come to tell you the whole truth. Yes, it was I who committed all those crimes you blame me for… And all of this in a moment of rage. As I said to the doctor from the prison medical service, I was bitten by a rabid dog around the age of seven or eight, but I’m not so sure, although I remember taking a remedy. Only my parents can assure you of the bitings. As for myself I always believed that it was the medicine that corrupted my blood.”
“Let those who think they are crying over me cry over themselves. It would be better for them to be in my place. Help yourself, and God, who makes everything possible and whose reasons no human can understand, will help you. Signed, Vacher, J.”
The confession letter was long, rambling and attempted to push responsibility away from himself, blaming the bite of a rabid dog as a child. Over the next days and weeks, he too used his experiences in the Dole asylum as pushing him to commit murder, furthermore, the confession letter was vague. Too vague for Fouquet, who feared it would not hold up to judicial standards, and so he isisted to Vahcer that he needed more details on the crimes. Vacher, however, was not in the mood to furnish him with anything more. The details, he said, were “too ugly”. Fourquet turned it back upon Vacher, explaining that if he intended to plea insanity, then undoubtedly the court would need more detail. This had the desired effect and Vacher agreed to give more details if the newspapers would print his story, naturally, the newspapers were falling over themselves to get in on the details of Vachers gruesome crime spree and so, with the publication of his confession letter in “Le Petit Journal” on the 16th October, 1897, Vacher told the nation all.
Vachers story spread rapidly throughout the French press and leaked out across borders, finding headlines globally, referring to Vacher as “The French Jack the Ripper”, “The shepherd Killer”, “Vacher the Ripper” and “The Ripper of the South East”. His story ran as far as the San Francisco Call, who ran a full page story on Vacher with the headline, “The Greatest of Human Monsters.”
“He is repugnant physically as he is morally, this being whose face convulsively contorts and grimaces, this cripple whose defects repulse even the ugliest prostitutes.”
When he spoke with the French reporters as part of his deal with Fourquet, Vacher referred to himself as an “Anarchist of God” who was “Creating victims on earth.” He told them of how his victims never suffered, and of how the entire thing was difficult for him to recollect, due to an inexplicable rage that would flood over him as he committed the crimes, naturally being sure they were writing of his mental instability.
“Why did I kill? I don’t know; it just came over me. I had fits; I don’t know why. It’s the poison that wanted to get out. And the mutilations? How do you explain them? I don’t know what happened after the murders. But when I left, I was relieved; I felt better. Moreover, if God did not command me to kill, it wouldn’t have happened. Do you have any remorse for your victims? No, because God wanted it. Your fits are less frequent now that you’re her. You haven’t tried to kill anyone. Yes, but look – the last person that I took I let go without harming her. It could be that the sickness has passed over me.”
He agreed to pose for a press photo if he could be allowed to wear his white rabbit fur hat to symbolise purity. He then asked a guard to borrow his set of keys, which he held in his left hand, this he said, was to symbolise the keys to heaven.
With the publication of Vachers story, Fourquet was now becoming a very busy man. Though Vacher had admitted to 10 murders, the widespread coverage of the case had sparked a flurry of magistrates sending in their cases which they believed may have been linked. A total of 88 case files now sat on Fourquets desk and witness testimony flowed in day after day.
In December 1897, Vacher was transferred to a maximum security wing of Saint Paul Prison on the South edge of Lyon. Having gained Vachers indisputable confession in the murders, it now fell to Fourquet to establish whether or not he was insane and wether or not he would be fit to stand trial for his crimes. It was a question that was far more divisive than one might imagine. The papers ran two opposing editorial opinions on the case that represented well the public opinion. If Vacher was deemed insane, he would be sent to an asylum, promptly “cured” and released back into the wild, a situation that very few felt appealing. If he was deemed sane on the other hand, what did that say about the French people? Were they all capable of such brutal crimes? The case had stirred up a public storm and many were demanding that justice be seen to, if Vacher managed to return to the asylum, quite aside from questions of justice, the public outrage would be disastrous for Fourquets career. In order to answer the question of sanity, the magistrate turned to the help of three extremely qualified men which he felt sure he could rely on. First up was Monsieur Rebatel, whose job it would be to observe Vachers behaviour in prison. Then there was Pierret, who was drafted in to check through Vachers family history and asked to research if he had any history of hereditary mental illness. And finally, a doctor named Alexandre Lacassagne, a criminal anthropologist working in the University of Lyon who was to dissect his criminal behaviour. This was something that Lacassagne had something of a penchant for and over the previous years, was an area that he had made quite a name for himself in, pioneering investigative forensics. If you needed the right man for the job in the 1890s, you could not get much better than Dr Lacassagne.
Doctor Jean-Alexandre Eugène Lacassagne was born in 1843 in Quercy, Cahors, to modest parents. His father worked tirelessly as the director of the Imperial Hotel in Cahors, whilst his mother stayed at home to look after Alexandre and his two younger brothers. In 1874, too poor to study at a private medical school, Lacassagne enrolled at the Imperial School of Military Health Service in Strasbourg to study medicine. During the Franco-Prussian war, he found his school wrecked and so instead transferred to Montpelier to finish his education. As his training had been with a military school, post-graduation work led him to split his time between working as both professor and military doctor, where he served as both a military doctor in Algeria, and at the Val-de-Grâce Army Training Hospital, where he climbed the ranks and obtained the position of chair of hygeine and legal medicine in 1874. In 1878, he continued his academic interest in criminal anthropology in the Department for Legal Medicine in the University of Lyon, which later appointed him chair of the department in 1881. During his time serving in Algeria, Lacassagne became fascinated with the tattoos fo the soldiers he lived alongside and took to documenting each and every one he could lay his hands on, copying the images and systematically filling each one into a database that categorised them by theme, wording and meaning. By the time his service was over, he had catalogued over 2000 tattoos, which he went on to publish in an anthropology journal.
This obsessive drive to categorise, file and neatly curate manifested itself in his main anthropological interest too. Lacassagne was obsessed by criminology and spent much of his early life as an academic deeply pondering what it was that drove a criminal to commit the crimes they did. Throughout his research into this area, he visited criminals in prison across France, facilitating some o the hardest criminals to write autobiographies, furnishing them with pencils and paper and motivating them to tell him their stories. In life, he collected their writings and then later, after their heads were guillotined, would dissect their brains in the laboratory. For Lacassagne, he believed wholeheartedly that the brain was a “malleable organ” that would respond to outside stimuli and that human instinct was highly reactive to “social circumstance.” In short, he believed that both biological and sociological forces created a criminal and both lay at the very foundations of criminal anthropology. These theories were in direct opposition to the Italian schools of criminology at the time, that theorised and taught in the concept of the “born criminal.”
In his practical work, Lacassagne believed that forensics needed to be brought into the modern, scientific era. He taught practical training and extensive research were the keys to unlocking the secrets of every crime and that standardised procedures were needed in every area of medical forensics to get to the bottom of each case without any lingering doubt. In the late 1800s, doctors were still poorly paid to carry out autopsies, often done at all hours of the day, often by candlelight and at times, on kitchen tables belonging to the victims. Lacassagne recognised that this practice had to change if reliable records were to ever be collected and used as useful evidence. To this end, he worked on and eventually published a pocket sized handbook titled “The Handbook for The Medical Expert”, which could be read by every doctor, no matter if they practiced in the darkest rural recesses or the brightest cities, allowing them to follow forensic procedure and to carry out a minutely detailed autopsy, recording all the data necessary to identify among other things, a victims height, age, weight, cause of death and pre-existing conditions.
Under his tutelage, students learnt in both theory and practical lessons, assisting directly with autopsies carried out by himself and his assistants at the University, where he would start by laying out the known facts of each case, then hand out charts detailing each and every procedure they were to carry out in order to arrive at a conclusion and a cause of death, along with method of killing and other details. For his purposes, he built a world class teaching laboratory on the ground floor of the University, with an elevator that would bring each cadaver to be worked on by an electric elevator. On the floor above, Lacassagne amassed a collection of weapons, stains, teeth, skulls, bones, vials of poisons and microscope slides filled with blood, hair, pus and sperm, all displayed to serve as an exhaustive reference base for studying and solving crime.
During the time he worked at the University, Lacassagne went on to become one of the founding members, and editor of the Journal for the Archives of Criminal Anthropology, the pre-eminent journal in criminology in its day, publishing papers on philosophy, psychology, pioneering forensic techniques and chemistry. Amongst the papers that Lacassagne either published, worked on directly, or was involved with indirectly, were cutting edge techniques, such as the study of blood spatter and the meanings behind the various stains they left behind, identification through chemistry of blood, vomit and semen, stages of body putrefaction and the identification of ballistics, where he pioneered the techniques used to match a bullet with a unique firearm through rifling marks.
In his work outside the University, Lacassagne was often called in by external authorities to help in uncoveringg details of cold cases or cases that were flummoxing the police. In one of his most famous cases, he exhumed the body of a victim four months after their death and carried out an autopsy using the techniques that he and his colleagues were pioneering int the laboratory to gain a positive identification which lead to the conviction of the murderers. It was through this fame that Alexandre found himself being contacted by Fourqet in 1897 in order to help ascertain the veracity of Vachers claims of insanity. So it was that one of the days leading criminal anthropologists stepped up to study the case of one of the days most brutal murderers in order to determine whether or not he was responsible for his crimes.
In order to ascertain wether or not he was insane, one of the first and easiest things for the group to enlist was the X-Raying and analysis of Vachers head to see if any parts of the lodged bullets were resting on any nerve endings. The X-Rays promptly came back as negative, concluding that the pieces of shrapnel did nothing but cause a grotesque wound. Vacher’s story quickly evolved, not only had the Rabid dog bite turned his blood to poison, he now blamed “The bitterness of a painful operation” on his testicles after his bout of general disease, the bullets that were lodged in his head and the “unfortunate events” as he delicately put it of his shooting Louise and himself in the face, and finally, his “bad memories” from his treatment at Dole asylum. During the downtime between meetings with Lacassagne, Vacher wrote incessantly to family, friends, Louise, his victims, would be victims and even to himself. On all the letters he write his return address as “Jerusalem”.
Whilst his behaviour was undeniably strange, Lacassagne was not buying Vacher’s insanity plea for a second. “The real alienated do not act that way” he wrote in his journal. In fact, Lacassagne was quite aware that Vacher was methodically piecing together an insanity plea from the moment he was transferred to Belley by the request of Fourquet and he held a deep suspicion that Vacher was calculating each and every step. Using all of his experience in Forensic medicine, Lacassagne went back to each murder and meticulously pieced together all of the facts of each crime scene. He pulled together every last detail from the autopsies to the blood stains on the ground, to each and every wound on the bodies and created a detailed Modus Operandi for Vacher. He concluded that each murder was calculated and planned, marking out specifically that Vacher always hid the bodies, dragging them out of the polls of blood they had sat in and that they always took place in opportune moments, off the main pathways and on people he could easily steal away and overpower. This he argued proved without question that the “rages” Vacher alluded to, were nothing more than a fiction. Vacher was perfectly lucid throughout each attack and he was nothing more than a vicious, brutal killer.
“From time to time, Vacher forgets his amateur dramatics and the role he is playing and spontaneously makes quite sensible statements and comes out with quite clever replies, or with a crafty smile parries arguments directed against him and avoids leading questions. Often, when he feels himself being drawn away from the position he has consistently determined to take, Vacher will remain cautiously silent, or make sporadic, deliberately unreasonable remarks, behind which he takes shelter.”
“We have seen that he knows how to organise his thoughts toward simulating delirium, disguising or blocking his confession, and his insistence on being declared non responsible during his wandering life. All this is too adept to be coming from an insane person.”
In conclusion, Lacassagne submitted his final report to the magistrate, stating that Vahcer had “Temporary attacks of melancholic delirium with ideas of persecution and suicide.” But that his acts of insanity were nothing more than acts.
“He should be considered responsible, and this responsibility is in no way attenuated by any preceding psychological troubles.”
The trial of Joseph Vacher fo rate murder of Victor Portalier was scheduled to begin at 8:40am on the morning of 26th October, 1898, in the town of Bourg-En-Bresse, 60 miles to the North of Lyon and Vacher, despite all his attempts, would have to stand as a sane man, shouldering all the responsibility of the verdict.
Trial & Conclusion
On the eve of the trial, the town of Bourg-en-Bresse saw a swarm of reporters from across France. As night fell on the town, there was not a single rented room left vacant. The affair had caused a huge stir and as expected, the court room was packed to the rafters. As Vacher was brought in, he yelled to the onlooking crowd “Glory to Jesus! Long live Joan of Arc! To the grand Martyr of the times! And glory to the grand saviour!” Much to the amusement of all.
“His whole conduct in court was of the most eccentric description. His appearance is repulsive. Aged about thirty, he has a flat nose, jet black hair, and a horrible squint. He wears a brown frieze suit and a rabbit skin cap.”
The judge laid out the tight schedule for the hearing, allowing for the first day to be entirely filled with Vachers testimony. The second day would see the 49 scheduled witnesses take the stand and the third and final day would be reserved for the medical evidence against the case for Vachers insanity plea. After the Defense fired their first shots, attempting to get Vachers evaluation thrown out and repeated within a hospital environment, which the judge promptly denied, Vacher stood upon to give his testimony.
“Yes I killed and then soiled and mutilated the cadavers, but the guilty ones, the only guilty ones, are the doctors from the Saint-Robert asylum, who, instead of keeping locked up, let me go running into the countryside.”
He told the court of how he was an instrument of God, his crimes a method to show up the evils of the French asylums. Later he compared himself to Joan of Arc, who he said was “A great martyr like me”. At the end of the third day, the defences closing statement went on for over three hours. It was all to be in vain for Vacher, however, as the jury were out for only 15 minutes, before returning a verdict of guilty to the premeditated murder of Victor Portallier. The judge handed down a sentence of death, condemning Vacher to the guillotine, scheduled on the 31st of December at 7am. The event commanded a crowd of over 3500 spectators and at precisely 7:03am, the steel blade severed Vachers head from his body, putting an end to the life of “The French Ripper”.
Vachers crimes highlighted both the isolation and insecurities of travelling the roads and highways between French rural towns as well as the incredible level of ignorance that permeated throughout the fragmented, rural French policing system. Whilst he was eventually convicted for just a single murder and confessed to only 11, many suggest that his crimes were carried out on upwards of 20 victims. Fourquet himself believed at the time that the number was around 27-29, but with almost 90 unsolved cases, many of which matched Vachers MO and Vachers incredible mileage, the number could outweigh any conservative estimate by some margin. After his beheading, Vachers brain was promptly studied, dissected and cast in plaster by the forensic criminologists in Lacassagnes laboratory in order to study how a man could have been lead to lead such a horrific life. The cast of Vachers brain still sits in the Faculty of Medicine in Paris, though it has long passed its usefulness, it serves as a reminder of the crimes of Joseph Vacher that have often fallen into the shadows of history.