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The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science
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The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science

3.82  ·  Rating Details ·  3,658 Ratings  ·  380 Reviews
A riveting true crime story that vividly recounts the birth of modern forensics.

At the end of the nineteenth century, serial murderer Joseph Vacher, known and feared as “The Killer of Little Shepherds,” terrorized the French countryside. He eluded authorities for years—until he ran up against prosecutor Emile Fourquet and Dr. Alexandre Lacassagne, the era’s most renowned c
Hardcover, 300 pages
Published October 5th 2010 by Knopf (first published 2010)
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Wendy Not in too much detail - you get an idea of what happened, but not written in a sensational way -

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Nancy Oakes
Oct 01, 2010 Nancy Oakes rated it really liked it
Shelves: gave-away

If you're expecting a titillating tale of true crime, this isn't it.

Set in 1890s France, The Killer of Little Shepherds contains two simultaneously-told stories. First, there's the account of Joseph Vacher, who roamed the countryside of France and left only gruesome death in his wake. The second story is that of Alexandre Lacassagne, head of the department of legal medicine at the University of Lyon, who pioneered many forensic techniques in the areas of crime-scene and post-mortem analysis, and
Oct 07, 2011 Lea rated it really liked it
For some reason I'm finding it harder and harder to get all the way through a book, even when it's interesting. My attention span seems to be getting shorter, with the computer and TV calling to me whenever I'm reading. Hopefully this is a temporary problem, but it probably explains why it took me sooooo long to finish this book, even though I found it fascinating and beautifully written.

Possibly my entire brain is turning to mush, because I'm finding it difficult to write a coherent review, so
♥ Marlene♥
Feb 16, 2012 ♥ Marlene♥ rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: if you like historical true crime
This is not the typical true crime book but more of a historical true crime which is genre I love. It is not as easy to read because you also learn a lot of things. That happened to me while reading The Killer of Little Shepherds. I love history so it was interesting to read how the criminologists of the 19th century worked. For instance which devices they used for autopsies, how they figured out what to use and how blood spatters worked. Back then there were alienists who claimed that criminals ...more
Amy Corwin
Jan 05, 2011 Amy Corwin rated it it was amazing
Shelves: forensics
This is one of the best books I've read in quite a while. It reads like the best historical murder mysteries, although it's based upon the true story of Joseph Vacher who killed more people than Jack the Ripper, between the years of 1894 and 1897.

In alternating chapters, we get the gruesome details of Vacher's slaying as he wandered the French countryside and the story of ciminologist Alexandre Lacassagne who is credited as one of the founding fathers of modern forensics. I've had a long-time in
Sep 15, 2016 Chris rated it really liked it
Pretty good history about forensics in France.
This is an interesting book that combines the crimes, trial and punishment of a French vagabond named Vacher and the development of the new scientific and investigative techniques of the time, including detailed autopsies and crime scene investigation. Starr follows Vacher as he travels through the French countryside, detailing each of his crimes, which he intersperses with the investigations into these and how different each one was depending on the area and the people involved. This showed the ...more
Amy Sturgis
This is the engrossing tale of serial killer Joseph Vacher, “The Killer of Little Shepherds,” and Dr. Alexandre Lacassagne, France's pioneering criminologist. Author Douglas Starr does an excellent job of weaving the narratives of their lives together to tell not only the story of brutal crimes and the punishment of them, but also the unique historical moment that brought the two men together at the end of the nineteenth century. This moment included the birth of forensic medicine, the growth of ...more
Kate F
Aug 21, 2011 Kate F rated it really liked it
The Killer of Little Shepherds is the story of a serial killer and how he came to be detected and caught. The fact that there was a serial killer stalking the countryside of late 19th Century France is less surprising than that he was eventually caught and convicted by the nascent field of forensic science. Douglas Starr has written a well researched book and told the story of Joseph Vâcher in an accessible and fluid manner. Although the body of the text itself has very few references or footnot ...more
In 1893 Louise Barant crossed paths with Joseph Vacher, he became obsessed with her, stalked her and shot her then himself. Both survived the shooting, Vacher was sent to an insane asylum. He was released on April 1, 1894, on May 19 he committed his first admitted murder. Investigators involved with the murders believe that this murder was not his first, but Vacher insisted it was. His last murder was committed on June 18, 1897 and he attacked his last victim on August 4, 1897. He confessed to 1 ...more
Jun 29, 2011 Nancy rated it really liked it
This is a book that delivers on its title. Joseph Vacher was a serial killer in 1890s France. This is the story of how early forensic scientists (not called that yet) put together the pieces to both convict the killer and exonerate others, who by happenstance had been accused of some of his crimes.

The book also offers a look into mental health practices of the era which were more humane than I'd been led to believe.
Carrie Bottoms
Aug 01, 2011 Carrie Bottoms rated it it was amazing
This book was extremely educational about the birth of forensics! It was written as a story, so very easily understood, and not so science-y that a person with little-to-no science background would have difficulty reading it. I was fascinated the whole way through!
Eustacia Tan
May 25, 2015 Eustacia Tan rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: ebook
So lately, I've been in a bit of reading slump. One of my seminars has monthly book reports (multiple books), and reading three Japanese books in three days basically killed all my drive I had to read. Really. All I was reading, for a time, were comics (thankfully, there's Scribd). It wasn't until I picked up this book that the reading slump was broken, and I managed to finish the book (in about two days, so I'm closer to form).

This book has two components: One follows the case of Joseph Vacher,
Aug 21, 2011 Kathleen rated it really liked it
The first thing I should mention in this review is my life-long love affair with crime procedural television shows. The L&Os, The CSIs, Homicide, Bones, the list goes on and on. I should also point out that I do know (as the author points out) these TV Shows are just that -- TV Shows. They do not reflect the real state of forensic science or the real lives of detectives, forensic anthropologists, researchers, or psychological and medical professionals. What these shows do represent is the pu ...more
Sep 20, 2011 Cindy rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Cindy by: Nancy Oakes
Themes: forensic science, mass murder, mental illness, homelessness, crime, court system, police work

Amazing book. Yes, it's shelved with the true crime, but it doesn't quite fit. This book is so much more. Starr tells the story of two extraordinary men, one compelled to kill in the most grisly manner possible and one who put him away.

Joseph Vacher was the killer. Always violent, his first actual crime was motivated by an obsession with a young woman. When she rejected him, he stalked her, shot
May 25, 2011 Lucy rated it liked it
I think I've been a bit spoiled by true crime geniuses like Harold Schechter and Erik Larson. I enjoyed Starr's book for its take on the beginnings of forensic science in Europe and I also liked the back-and-forth between killer Vacher's path and the efforts of the French authorities to figure out who was committing the atrocious murders that kept springing up from district to district. I also liked the attention to the historical context of late 19th century French mores in response to widespre ...more
Jun 27, 2011 Cheri rated it really liked it
Shelves: science, history, crime
The Killer of Little Shepherds is the true story of Joseph Vacher who killed, mutilated and sexually assaulted dozens of innocent people, mostly young women and children, in the late 1800's. The book follows the story of the killer and the the men behind the bourgeoning science of forensics, covering not only their successes, but their excesses and mistakes as well. Finally, the story comes to focus on the two people most involved with bringing Vacher to justice. Alexandre Lacassagne, who pionee ...more
Bookmarks Magazine
Feb 08, 2011 Bookmarks Magazine rated it really liked it
Shelves: mar-apr-2011
Douglas Starr is an old pro at reporting and writing science history, which puts The Killer of Little Shepherds squarely in his wheelhouse. The author ably tells two stories -- of the serial killer Vacher's lust for murder and of the developing science that finally caught up with him -- and there are enough fascinating details here to keep even the most jaded forensics fans entertained. More popular journalism than a failed Òquest to understand evilÓ (New York Times), Starr's compelling history ...more
Jan 25, 2011 Mackay rated it really liked it
This is a fabulous book, which while historical and true, reads as well as a crime novel--and its villain is fascinating, while its heroes are noble men of science, men who ought to be as well known as their contemporaries Pasteur, Eiffel, and Zola. With fingerprints not yet known, and a microscope the best tool in a forensic scientist's arsenal, Lacassagne and Bertillon advanced forensics, and especially forensic medicine and the art of autopsy, to a modern and professional level.

This book shou
Joe Chacon
Feb 22, 2012 Joe Chacon rated it really liked it
Do you like true crime stories? Do you like history? Do you like stories about prolific serial killers with gory detail and the drama of solving crime? Do you like science? Forensic science? Psychology? Forensic psychology? THEN THIS IS THE BOOK FOR YOU! SO GET A COPY AND READ IT ALREADY. It's a page-turner. I enjoyed every chapter. While it's in the same vein as "Devil in the White City" and "Death in the City of Light," I feel that the humanity and spirit of the times were not caught up in the ...more
Jul 25, 2015 Paul rated it really liked it
This is a great book if you're at all interested in forensic science and the insanity defense. A serial killer in France is killing and gutting young shepherds, and for the first time, the detectives use forensics to solve the crime instead of the notoriously unreliable eyewitness evidence. It's also an interesting study in how the serial killer, when brought to court, began to affect all kinds of craziness to be able to escape the guillotine and be sentenced to an asylum. The prosecution demons ...more
This was an excellent true crime and history. I had heard of Joseph Vacher, but I didn't know very much about him, and I don't think there are any other books about him in English. His crimes are straight out of a Hollywood slasher film -- he made Jack the Ripper look like a sissy. The author was able to seamlessly integrate the life and crimes of Vacher with details about the advent of forensic science, forensic medicine and psychology. He must have done a tremendous amount of research for this ...more
Mary Spiro
Nov 15, 2010 Mary Spiro rated it really liked it
Update: I finally finished this book! See, I am not kidding when I say it takes me forever to really read a book. And I really read this one. Amazingly well researched, fascinating to read. If you enjoy a little true crime with your science writing you will love this look.

Only a couple chapters in but this book made me gasp in the first few pages. Incredibly well researched and totally factual. I want to BE like Douglas Starr and write a book this good. I am not worthy!
The forensic history was kind of cool, but overall the story didn't hold my attention very well. And this is not a comment on the book itself, but I also find it very irritating when I'm reading a non-fiction book on my Kindle and literally 35% of the book is footnotes, but I don't realize it, and don't know that I'm almost finished with the actual book. I should start checking the table of contents when I read :\
Aug 24, 2012 Deanne rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: true-crime
Found this fascinating, Laccassagne sounds like a man possessed with a brilliant mind and Starr is obviously a fan of the great man.
The story though non-fiction isn't dry, but reads like a novel. I was going to read this slowly but found I couldn't put it down. Do enjoy historical true crime especially cases over 100 years, safe in the knowledge that the criminal is long gone. There's also the history itself of the people, the culture and the social norms of the time.
Aug 02, 2011 Peggy rated it really liked it
Although certainly not the first serial killer, Joseph Vacher was the first to be caught using what we would think of as the modern tools of criminal investigation: careful autopsy, scientific testing, profiling, and correlation of data from different areas. Vacher was an odd and interesting killer, but the real fascinating stuff here is the birth of modern forensics and the personalities involved in it. Good read!
Mar 16, 2011 Alicen rated it really liked it
This was a fascinating non-fiction book that weaved together the story of a serial killer that ravaged the French countryside in the late 1800's, and the simultaneous development of the forensic science field that helped hold him accountable for his crimes. Although at times this connection felt a bit tenuous (and convenient) I felt drawn in by both storylines and, as such, was willing to forgive the author a bit. If you liked "Devil in the White City" I think you would really enjoy this book.
One of the best historical true crime books I've read in a while. I don't know why I hadn't heard of Vacher earlier. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the birth of forensic science and how it aided in his capture, and how advances in psychology and mental health at the time worked in his case, as well. A fascinating read.
Ann Ackermann
Jun 28, 2016 Ann Ackermann rated it it was amazing
This book follows the birth and infancy of forensic science against the backdrop of a 19th-century French serial killer case. It offers the perfect combination of science and suspense. Of all the historical true crime books I've read, I like this one the best -- for the fantastic research, the chilling story, and the exotic location in rural France. Great job, Douglas Starr!
Sandie Buto
The murders get a little monotonous because there are so many and the method is the same- it is hard to distinguish one from another. The general conversation about what makes a criminal legally responsible is well done and the author acknowledges that the conversation continues - we have yet to really find the answers. A fascinating history, well researched and well written.
Jul 04, 2011 Angela rated it really liked it
Starr does an excellent job of weaving science, history, and story together in a readable package that delivers the intellectual satisfaction of reading a monograph with the excitement of finishing a novel.
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Madison Mega-Mara...: #52 - The Killer of Little Shepherds 1 1 Apr 13, 2015 06:53PM  
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