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Welcome to the Scientific American podcast science talk posted on March 15th, 2013. I am Steve Mirsky. On this episode -
Douglas Starr: The late 19th Century was a blossoming of all forms of science from anatomy to chemistry to bacteriology, and this started coming together in the minds of some scientists as a way of solving crime.
Steve Mirsky: That’s Douglas Starr. He’s a veteran science writer and co-director of the graduate program in science journalism at Boston University. He’s also the author of the 2010 book, The Killer of Little Shepherds, subtitled A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science which I’ve wanted to do an episode about for quite a while.
Starr was interviewed by my friend, Steve Berkowitz, a New York City storyteller and an instructor with the Moths Community Education Program. Steve is also a reporter for Story Collider Magazine which explores the intersection between science and narrative. So, without any further adieu, here’s Steve Berkowitz talking to Douglas Starr.
Steven Berkowitz: Doug, why don’t you tell us the story of Joseph Vacher?
Douglas Starr: Joseph Vacher was basically a psychopath before people knew the term psychopath. He grew up in a farm in rural France, early on had clerical tendencies. And he was sent to a monastery but then sent away for, at the time, undisclosed reasons.
He went into the army where, for a while, he did well, although he was somewhat brutal in his command of his other soldiers, and then, as often happens with psychopaths, he fixated on a woman in 1893. He met her in a park, dated her a couple of times, and her instincts told her that this was a problem.
And when she tried to extricate herself from him, he followed her to her hometown, and eventually, after seeing - shot her and himself. They both survived, and he was sent to a couple of mental institutions where they thought they cured him, and several months after that, he embarked on the worst killing spree known at the time.
I should say his killing spree, he admitted to murdering and dismembering 11 people. He probably killed more than twice as many.
Steven Berkowitz: Why is it we have never heard of this guy?
Douglas Starr: I think his story didn’t come down to us because, in the end, it was solved, and he was executed, whereas Jack the Ripper remained a mystery.
Steven Berkowitz: Can you tell us the story about Alexandre Lacassagne?
Douglas Starr: Yeah. What interested me in this period was it was really when forensic science, as we know it, was born and developed. The late 19th Century was a blossoming of all forms of science from anatomy to chemistry to bacteriology, and this started coming together in the minds of some scientists as a way of solving crime.
And Lacassagne was premier among these scientists. He founded something called the Institute of Legal Medicine in Lyon, and he was the first among equals among a cadre scientists who were using the tools of modern science to solve crimes.
So he and his colleagues developed almost everything we think of as forensic science, and what was so exceptional about Lacassagne was, in addition to doing all that, he was interested in why people became criminals. So, every Sunday, he would stroll from his offices to the other set of Lyon to the old prison, and he would spend the morning with criminals. He would talk to them, and he would help them keep diaries. He was really interested in the criminal culture and what made people behave like this.
So it was an extraordinary period of solving crimes and an enlightened approach to understanding the criminal, and this man was really the first among equals.
Steven Berkowitz: Why haven’t we heard of Lacassagne either?
Douglas Starr: It was interesting because, after the book came out, I got a number of emails and letters from modern forensic scientists saying, “Finally, somebody has written about our hero,” but I do not know why we haven’t heard of him. I think, in part, a lot of that period was lost in the cast of World War I.
But, really, once I came upon this person and realized what an enlightened person he was, I almost felt a sense of mission to bringing him back from obscurity.
Steven Berkowitz: So did your decision to tell this story start with Lacassagne then?
Douglas Starr: One day, in desperation, I was in the basement of the library at Harvard Medical School going through some old historical journals, and somebody had written a thesis on the Vacher case and some of the implications. And from there, I started reading the works of Lacassagne, and I realized I really wanted to write about him, but in order to make it drama, it would be good center it around the most challenging case faced.
So it was sort of a decision to look at both of these characters. To be honest, I really enjoyed writing the chapters about Lacassagne, and the chapter about Vacher really made me wince.
Steven Berkowitz: Can you give us an idea of some of his violence, maybe tell us why those were painful chapters?
Douglas Starr: Vacher’s method was he was incredibly strong. He would stalk people. He was a creature of the rural areas and of the hill country especially, and one of the other things I did was actually follow in his footsteps. I went where he went, so I could describe it.
But he would usually find a shepherd or a shepherdess and creep up on them or get them close and grab them around the neck with such force that they almost went limp and then he would stab them and then he would sexually abuse and eviscerate the bodies.
Lacassagne wrote a manuscript on the case, and even looking at the line drawings was disgusting. The crime scenes were so horrific that sometimes they would traumatize the entire village. An entire village would have PTSD and kind of go nuts. It was so horrific.
Steven Berkowitz: One of the things that really struck me about this book is sort of the tension between how much information was actually gathered. I mean it still exists for you to do the research versus how poorly it propagated.
Douglas Starr: You mean in those days?
Steven Berkowitz: Yes, in those days.
Douglas Starr: Very interesting stuff. The science was there. The mass communications was there. People had the telegraph, but folks hadn’t caught up to the technology that they had. So, in the big centers - I mean in Lyon, for example, Lacassagne had his criminal museum, his autopsy lab. It was an amazing thing.
They saved it fortunately, and there was one in Paris and one in Vienna and one in Berlin. But big parts of Europe were rural, and anybody committing a rural crime could pretty much get away with it. They just didn’t have the kind of communications that they ought to have, and he took advantage of that.
You know, I think we had this situation where science was roaring ahead in the major centers, but it just did not get propagated. Sometimes, you’d have these rural doctors doing autopsies, but it would be in a drizzly winter’s night in the middle of the field with lamplight and trying not to cut themselves. So the disparity between the frontiers of science and the practice of science were really quite great.
Steven Berkowitz: I’d like to talk a bit about the science - the state of the science as it was and what Lacassagne and others, that were working at the time, brought to the idea of forensic science. I mean, in a way, it’s sort of the start of the modernization of forensic science.
Douglas Starr: It was. The previous was just to accuse and torture or have - they call them agent provocateurs have squealers, and these guys felt that the evidence should tell the story.
So Lacassagne himself did a few things. He really systematized autopsies. He famously said, “A bungled autopsy can never be undone.” So he had these things called observation pages, basically what we would call a checklist, and he would teach his students and anybody he could come in contact with that here is the series of things to do in an autopsy.
You open the skull. If you see this, you proceed that way. If you see this, you proceed the other way and you fill this out, and it was incredibly scientific. He learned things like how to tell the size of a body from the leg bone, how to tell the age of a body from the size of the spaces between the growth plates. This was at a time when criminals knew that, if they dismembered the bodies, the police could never identify them.
He did a huge study of scars and tattoos. His colleagues studied teeth. Until then, teeth were just considered chomping machines, but his colleague, Mageto, figured out that teeth themselves have growth cycles not only in the tooth itself but in the patterns of teeth that come in. And this was very effective because, if all you had was a head, you could use the teeth to estimate the age.
His colleague Magnine was the one who determined that squads of insects will populate a corpse in waves, and you could use insect populations to determine how long a goad body had been killed. This is something that’s practiced today.
He colleague Orpehla practiced toxicology, what you could chemically analyze, what kind of poisons may or may not have affected the people. They analyzed things like carbon monoxide poisoning and how that would kill somebody.
One of the big things, at the time, was this question of identity because a recidivist could commit a crime, be jailed, have a record taken, even a photograph taken, go away, get a new tattoo or shave a beard or shave his head and commit a crime again.
So the big question, at the time, is how do you identify somebody? They didn’t have fingerprints, and one of Lacassagne’s colleagues in Paris named Alphonse Bertillon, whose family was - were anthropologists, came up with a system, after years of monkeying around obscurity, in which he measured 11 parts of the body, say one of the finger joints or from the knuckle to the elbow or the size of the head, and he found that - if you took a number - a combination of these 11 measurements, it would rule out suspects to the tune of one in four million which is almost as precise as anything we knew. And this became known as the Bertillon numbers, and the practice became known as Bertillonage, and, if you look in my book, it’s diagrams of how they did this.
So a person would come in and they would take these 11 measurements, and thee Bertillon numbers would be put on a card which would follow this person for the rest of his life. Now what made this interesting was not only was this a positive ID, but by using the telegraph, you could send somebody’s Bertillon numbers across the ocean at the speed of light which meant, for the first time in history, a person’s criminal record down to his precise identity, could arrive at his destination before he got there, and this became used in international criminal pursuits. It was absolutely brilliant. Eventually, it was replaced my fingerprints.
One of Lacassagne’s most famous discoveries was bullet markings. An old man had been shot to death. Lacassagne was called in on the case, and he looked at the bullets. Some hit bone and some stayed in flesh, and he was struck by the fact that they all had similar markings.
And, until then, it was assumed that, if a bullet hit a bone, it would be marked a certain way. So he called in an expert from a local munitions company, and he explained the notion that there are these rifling grooves or spirals in the barrel of a gun and that gives a bullet a mark.
So a young man in town was suspected, and a gun was suspected. So Lacassagne took the body and the gun and some ammunition to his laboratory in Lyon, and times being different then, he could simply call the hospital next door and say, “You know, I need a 78 year old body.” And they sent it over, and he took the gun and he shot it in soft tissue and bone. This is - things were a little more rough and ready then.
And he discovered, under a microscope, that all the bullets had similar traces. He then would get one of his students - because he ran a graduate program, he got one of his students to do a survey of all the bullets know. I think it was 35 at the time, and thus was born the theory that you could identify a bullet by the rifle marks.
So this was the kind of science that was going on, and it was simply extraordinary. Not only did they look at how does the evidence tell what kind of crime was committed but also what might be going on in a criminal’s mind to cause them to behave this way.
Steven Berkowitz: What strikes me about the science of forensics is not just the sweep of different sciences involved. It’s you can divide those into things that happen before death and things that happen during death and things that happen after death. Or somewhere in the book, you talk about death as a pivot point.
Douglas Starr: Lacassagne and his crew understood that, after you die, the immune system shuts down and all the bacteria that are kept at bay flourish, and this is what causes what we know as putrefaction when the body begins to swell and turn colors. It’s just the production of gasses and colors by the different bacteria, and that gas will often cause blood to push out a wound that previously had stopped bleeding.
So they really were able to understand that, by looking at a body very carefully, you could begin to divide those things that happen to the body before death and those that happen after death. For example, when a body is laid in a certain position after death, because the heart is no longer working, the blood settles by gravity, and it makes purple splotches on the area that touches the floor.
After awhile, this stays in place. So there was a famous case in which a body was found in a trunk, and the woman claimed that he was accidentally put there. Lacassagne saw that the splotches were on top of the body and not on the body which meant the person had been forced into a position and killed and then turned. So these were the kinds of things that were so helpful.
Steven Berkowitz: So it’s not just forensic science that is changing here. It’s also police methodologies, and I think that perhaps the story of Fouquet and his role in the Vacher case will illuminate that.
Douglas Starr: Yep.
Steven Berkowitz: Can you tell us a bit about Fouquet’s role?
Douglas Starr: There was a magistrate in a rural part of France named Emile Fouquet. He was very ambitious and very smart, and there was a gruesome murder committed in his district. And he looked at it, and it now bore the telltale traits of what we now know as the Vacher killings.
And he seemed to recall reading about a similar killing in another part of France. So he put together what’s now called a rogatory letter in which he said, “I had this kind of a killing.” He sent it out to 85 districts all over the country because Vacher wandered all over the country, and he said, “Has anybody had similar killings,, and if so, can you give me any kind of descriptions?”
So people began telegraphing back, and Fouquet started making two charts which was probably the first criminal profile ever compiled. On one chart, he had all the telltale signs of the killings, strangled, eviscerated, body was in this position, and in the other chart, he had any fragmentary descriptions of the suspect because people would always see some sort of a vagabond wandering through towns.
In a blue pencil, he started circling similar descriptive pieces, and he came up with this description. And it went out, and time went by. And eventually, among his many, many assaults, Vacher assaulted a woman who was out collecting chestnuts in an area called the Ardeche, and her husband was nearby. And he came, and he tackled Vacher, and a furious fight ensured. And the villagers came, and they subdued him, and they had him arrested.
Now most police were really negligent about reading their telegraphs, but the cop in the little village in the little jail read this description from Fouquet. And he wrote back to Fouquet, “I’ve got somebody who might fit his description.” So the police bought Vacher to the little jail where Fouquet works, and he then began a several month period of question that probably ranks as one of the most brilliant interrogations in criminal history.
Steven Berkowitz: It’s not just in the way that Fouquet actually tracked Vacher down but he represented an evolution in police interrogation methods as well. You were taking earlier how it used to be drag in the usual suspects and beat them until somebody talks. That’s not what Fouquet did was Vacher. Is it?
Douglas Starr: One of the advances was a deep understanding that you do not get the truth out of people by torturing them, and one of the most famous jurists at the time, Hans Gross of Austria wrote an entire manuscript on how to interrogate people and how you should not lose your temper and how you work the person up to a sense of comfort and you go over the story. You rehash the story.
This is now known as the cognitive interview which is currently the state of the art in police interrogation. But Hans Gross and his colleagues figured this out and that you worked the person up. You go over the story again to trip them up if they’ve made something up, and as Gross wrote, the person eventually feels the need to unburden himself to you.
So Fouquet was a student of modern methods, and instead of torturing Vacher, he brought in witnesses. He discussed. He talked. He couldn’t get anywhere, and he realized that Vacher was a cunning man and he was a tough nut. So Fouquet took a different approach.
He said, “You know, I’m very interested in this culture of vagabonds,” and I should mention that, at the time, there were hundreds of thousands of unemployed rural people wandering around and they were known as vagabonds. There was terrible unemployment.
And Fouquet, in fact, was writing a book about vagabonds and their patterns of immigration, and he said, “I’m writing about vagabonds. It’s going to take a few days for the paperwork to clear. I know you're innocent, but I could really enlist your help in understanding vagabondage. So how about, if each day we meet, and we talk about your wanderings?”
And Vacher was skeptical, but Fouquet showed him his files and so they began to work as collaborators. By now, Fouquet had a list of all the suspected killings in every region of France and the details and the times. So each day, they would begin talking, and he’d say, “And where were you then?” “Oh, I went to this village, and here’s where I picked strawberries and here’s where I picked peaches , and here’s where I did farm work.”
And as Fouquet described it, Vacher would be talking, “Oh, I was in _____ at this time,” and it would go ding in Fouquet’s head. Yep. That’s where that killing took place. So, over the days, he was able to elicit from Vacher a precise map of where he was and what he did, and he built a very, very strong circumstantial case.
And then, finally, after many days of interviews, he went into Vacher’s cell, and he completely changed his affect. Instead of being colleagues, he said, “Joseph Vacher, I accuse you,” and then he went through, almost in one sentence, “This murder on such and such a date, this murder and, on this murder, you killed this girl.”
And he wrote that Vacher was shaken. He almost collapsed. Several hours later, when Fouquet’s eating dinner, there’s a knock at his door, and the it’s the guard, and in his hand is Vacher’s written confession.
Steven Berkowitz: So Vacher is now in custody. He’s now confessed to the murders, and the next step is the trial and that’s where Lacassagne comes in again.
Douglas Starr: Yes and now here’s a problem because Vacher’s confessed, but his confession is so incoherent that Fouquet knows that he’s going to make it on the insanity defense, and he knows this is his strategy because this is a time when the insanity defense was getting going. It had happened a few decades before, and people knew, if somebody was a raving lunatic, he didn’t kill the person. His symptoms did.
But Vacher’s really going for it, and after weeks of cross-examining him, Fouquet now realizes he’s in over his head, and he brings in the world’s most famous forensic scientist, Alexandre Lacassagne. Lacassagne interviews Vacher for three months. He brought him to St. Paul Prison in Lyon, and despite the fact that there was never a criminal that wouldn’t warm up to Lacassagne, Vacher never did.
Lacassagne had this humane approach, a respectful approach. It never worked. So that’s when he decided to let the evidence tell the story, and he went back to the forensic evidence and reexamined it and organized it brilliantly. And the forensic evidence showed that these crimes were committed with method, and even though Vacher claimed he went into an insane rage, which he probably did, the approach to the crimes was so systematic and the cleanup and the exit was so clever and his ruse were so carefully planned that he was able to prove to a jury that this man, although psychotic, was not legally insane.
Now this trial went on for three days, and it was an absolute circus. It was covered internationally. It made the O.J. Simpson case look like pedestrian stuff. It was a mob, and they had to have army battalions outside to keep out the crowds. And the judge constantly had to call them to order, and after three days of chaos - and, of course, Vacher dressed up in a very bizarre way and did everything he could to incite people.
And when Lacassagne came in, there was this feeling of calm, and Lacassagne actually wrote papers on how should a medical examiner dress and behave and address a jury with dignity but not in an oversimplified way and respect people’s intelligence. So there was just something about the man that inspired confidence and calm.
And he was questioned, and, one by one, he went through the killings, holding up autopsy drawings, showing the crime scenes, how methodically these crimes were committed and how similar they were to each other. After that, it really was an open, shut case. The jury found him guilty.
Steven Berkowitz: The question of legal responsibility versus legal non-responsibility came up a lot in the trial, and so the question Lacassagne was addressing was whether he had the capability to plan these murders and knew what he was doing at their execution.
But there’s another tack about responsibility and that falls into the nature, nurture debate. Lacassagne following more on the nurture side, if you will, and he had something of a nemesis.
Douglas Starr: Yes. The other great criminologist was Cesare Lombroso in Italy who’s actually more widely known, and Lombroso really felt that crime was genetic. And he did huge numbers of studies looking at the skulls of criminals and the statures of criminals, and he would testify in murder trials based on somebody’s appearance, that this guy is a born killer.
There was a famous criminal conference in Rome in 1885 that was so gruesome that women and children were kept out. People from all over Europe had exhibits, and Lombroso had exhibits of the skulls and skeletons of criminals with little anthropological signals showing he - this indicates he has a criminal type development and a criminal brain.
And Lacassagne showed up with charts, and he correlated crime with crop yields and poverty and lack of education. He was a tremendously enlightened man, and yet, he did believe in the guillotine for real killers. But this was the birth of the nature, nurture debate that’s with us today.
I should also say it was the birth of the question about the localization of brain function, and as you know from reading the book, after the trial and the execution , the controversy did not go away and then the great anatomists of Europe dissected Vacher’s brain to see was there something in there that caused him to do these things.
Steven Berkowitz: Not so much dissected it, it seemed, but sliced it up like a Christmas ham and gave it to everybody who wanted a piece.
Douglas Starr: Everybody wanted a piece. It was the crime of the century. It was the crime of the century, and the conversation and controversy went on for months as one group after another produced a paper on here’s what we found in our part of the brain and here’s what we found in our part of the brain.
And, as you know, this kind of thing is going on today, but instead of dissecting the brains of psychopaths, people are doing MRIs to find if there is something in the structure, and they’re finding some disturbing results. But this whole discussion about is there a localized moral seat of the brain started back then.
Steven Berkowitz: Despite some people speaking up at the trial on behalf of Vacher not being legally responsible, did Lacassagne’s view hold sway?
Douglas Starr: Yes. To read the transcripts and the follow-up appeals was fascinating beyond measure. I mean, first, there is this whole literature on legal responsibility and intent and understanding the crime, and Lacassagne felt, no, Vacher knew what he was doing.
Steven Berkowitz: Vacher’s lawyer appealed in a very interesting way. They got him on the fifth murder he committed which was 1895, and it was horrible. And they got him because they had evidence, but Vacher had killed four people before that. And the first person he killed was five weeks after he got out of the asylum, and in his appeal, Vacher’s lawyer wrote, “You have found this man guilty and with full intent and consciousness on a murder he committed like a year and half after getting out of the asylum. What if he was being tried on that very first murder when he just got out? Wouldn’t you then entertain the possibility that he really wasn’t cured?”
But the public hysteria was so high about this that the president of France knew that, if he commuted it, he’d be committing political suicide, and so he didn’t and Vacher was sent to the guillotine.
There are a couple of parts about this that are fascinating. The question came up why did the director of the asylum let Vacher go? And I actually was able to get the asylum records. I took these reports to modern day forensic psychologists and said, “How could this be? They said his crazy symptoms abated and yet he went out and killed.”
And the best theory I was able to come up with in consultation was he may have been suffering for a couple of things. If he was a schizophrenic in which he heard voices and had these bouts of irrational behavior, his symptoms could have abated with the gentle treatment of the second asylum, but he was also a psychopath and that’s something that doesn’t abate. So it was very possible that he was suffering from what they call a comorbidity in which he was a psychopath who also happened to be schizophrenic, and when the schizophrenic symptoms abated, he still was a psychopathic killer.
Anyway, that’s how the jury found it, and he was executed. And I was able to find eyewitness accounts of the guillotine case and then, yes, his head was taken in a sealed cooking pot to Paris where his brain was divided up among the great anatomists of Europe who would study it for months and try to come up with a theory as to why somebody would do such a thing.
Steven Berkowitz: It’s that why question that seems ultimately to evade Lacassagne. The science of forensics focused so very much on the what and the how, on the physical evidence, and even when he concluded that Vacher was responsible for his actions but he drew those conclusions based on the physical similarities and what they showed of Vacher’s intent but nobody ever quite got to the why.
Douglas Starr: Nobody ever gets to the why. Have we got to the why today? Why do people do such a thing? Have we really figured that out? I spoke to so many psychologists and scholars. I spoke to a neurologist who is deeply familiar with this material, and he said, “Well, here’s the ____.” I said, “Deeper. Why?”
And it’s to the point of here’s why certain people can’t resist this impulse. Here’s the dysfunction between the amygdule, sort of that primitive part, and the frontal cortex, the reasoning part. Here’s the - maybe here’s how, but the initial impulse, why, and this neurologist actually said, “You know what? Now you're talking about something for the philosophers and the clergymen.”
And, to me, what’s so compelling about this and what makes this not a historical anecdote but a story that continues to resonate for us is these people were confronting a mystery in a way that it had never been confronted before. Before that, it was always, okay, he’s evil, but this was one of the first times people said it’s not good and evil. It’s something to do with neurology. It’s something to do with the way criminals are formed, but we still don’t know why.
And all of the main protagonists went to their deaths never knowing why, and even today, you can’t talk to any psychologist or legal scholar or even clergyperson and know what is the root of this initial instinct to do harm. We still don’t know that.
Steve Mirsky: Douglas Starr’s book, again, is called The Killer of Little Shepherds, and it’s one of the titles available as a free audio book in that offer I mentioned at the beginning of the episode. Just go to www.Audible.com/sciam.
Well, that’s it for this episode. Get your science news at our website, www.ScientificAmerican.com were you can check out the Google Hangout video featuring Noble laureate Harry Kroto talking with Scientific American Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina and follow us on Twitter where you’ll get at tweet whenever a new article hits the website. Our Twitter name is @sciam. For Scientific American’s Science Talk, I’m Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.
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