Book Review: The Killer of Little Shepherds

This book is in the same vein of a lot of historical non-fiction I’ve read lately. It follows the path of two people, antagonist and protagonist, superhero and villain, alternating chapters until their lives intersect. This may as well be Sherlock Holmes versus Hannibal Lector.

The Killer of Little Shepherds takes place in late 19th century France. The western world was going through a stretch of unparalleled progress and optimism. Electricity lit the streets and the telegraph made communication instantaneous. The Paris World Fair in 1889 unveiled Gustave Eiffel’s eponymous Tower. There was little mankind believed it could not accomplish through science and industry. For you Titanic fans think: “Unsinkable Ship.”

Criminal science was no exception. The hero of the story is Alexandre Lacassange, a real life Sherlock Holmes and the father of modern criminology and forensics. Where previously criminal justice relied on ancient superstitions, unreliable eye witness testimony, and confessions rung from suspects, Lacassange used the scientific method to solve the most difficult crimes, and identify even the most unrecognizable remains. Evidence was everywhere, if one knew what to look for; High levels of oxygen in the blood meant a sudden death instead of a slow asphyxiation. Puncture wounds revealed not only the weapon, but what hand the killer favored. He standardized charts that analyzed rigor mortis, livor mortis and
other effects to narrow the time of death. He discovered the length of any number of different bones could accurately predict the height of the deceased. His act of wizardry in identifying a decaying body four months deceased (the fascinating Gouffe Affair) earned him international fame, but by then he had already revolutionized criminal science. The book provides plenty of fascinating anecdotes.

Even more interesting to me are the superstitions of those in rural France, whose poverty and superstition offer a startling juxtaposition from the blossoming cities. Here are a few highlights:

  • The eyes of the dead freeze the last image they saw. How useful for identifying a murderer!
  • A body’s wounds bleed anew in the presence of the murderer.
  • The bloating and green discoloration in dead bodies owes to “unquieted spirits” trying to escape. And that’s from none other than scientific eminence Francis Bacon.

Lacassange bursts all those theories. Take those green bloated bodies. Spirits? No, actually. Bacteria from the pancreas escape into the dead host, turning skin green and emitting gasses that cause the swelling as a chemical by product. In fact, while performing an autopsy, he would prick a bloated body in a number of places with a needle and light the gasses on fire that escaped. The gas would burn for days.

His counterpoint is Joseph Vacher, a former monk and soldier whose lifelong anger issues boil over into a series of gruesome killings throughout pastoral France. Though his method of escape seems just to be walk really fast to another small town, poor communication and worse police work allow him to leave a disturbingly long trail of carnage (and falsely accused victims) throughout France. When he’s finally caught, he’s just crazy enough to take advantage of new theories about whether the mentally insane are responsible for their actions. That’s when the authorities call in Lacassange, to forensically analyze his murders and deduce his mental state. Lacassange decides whether he’ll meet the guillotine or head to the asylum, and that question is the climax of the book.

While there wasn’t much here that I could use teaching a 6th grade geography class, there are plenty of takeaways for those teaching about the pre-World One Europe/America, as well sociology and psychiatry teachers. I recommend the book for bringing to light the fascinating story of the birth of modern criminology, and the questions it raises about guilt and innocence in the mentally ill are relevant even today. The Killer of Little Shepherds provides a largely unexplored side of the scientific hope and optimism found before the first World War. It also provides an illuminating criminological look at the vast differences that existed at the time between forward looking cities and the more traditional country side.

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