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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

3.81 of 5 stars 3.81  ·  rating details  ·  2,802 ratings  ·  316 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
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ebook, 320 pages
Published October 5th 2010 by Vintage (first published 2010)
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Nancy Oakes


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
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Lea
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
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♥ Marlene♥
Apr 01, 2012 ♥ Marlene♥ rated it 4 of 5 stars
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
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
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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
Carrie Bottoms
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!
Kate F
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
Kathleen
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
Cheri
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
Lucy
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
Mackay
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
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Bookmarks Magazine
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
Joe Chacon
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
JQAdams
This one was sold to me as a history of forensic anthropology, but it does edge into true-crime territory -- which means this comment comes with a caveat that I am again not the target audience. The book uses the same template as Erik Larson's Devil in the White City, with chapters alternating between the story of a serial killer and discussion of parallel societal developments, which in this case means following the career of a pioneering coroner in late nineteenth-century France. The two stori ...more
Douglas Lord
Nothing to read? Need some quality nonfiction? Don't despair, smarts are alive and well in master brainiac Starr's fascinating dual account of the birth of forensic science and the whimsical adventures of a carefree serial killer in pastoral 1890s France. A book so painstakingly—even fearfully-researched should not be so smoothly readable, but the craftsmanship is just part of the ride. Starr avoids what could be quite the desultory recitation of facts by skillfully weaving one narrative from tw ...more
Katie
For anyone who's ever enjoyed CSI in any of its incarnations... this is the story of how forensic science all got started.

It's turn-of-the-century France, and there's a serial killer on the loose. The story focuses on this man, and all the people (usually young shepherds) he brutally kills and violates. A brilliant and inquisitive doctor was basically the catalyst who engineered the birth of forensic science, turning his team of assistants/graduate students onto certain specific issues to help h
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Cornerofmadness
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Meaghan
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
Alicen
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.
Georgie
Mar 13, 2014 Georgie rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Georgie by: Bev Leymus
very interesting (but gory and grim) book about the 'French Ripper' murderer Joseph Vacher. The book follows the progress/rampage of Vacher across the French countryside as he commits one brutal murder of after another. Several of his victims were young shepherds, hence the title. The chapters on Vacher's life are interspersed with chapters about one of France's earliest and most progressive (in some ways) criminologist Alexandre Laccassagne. He solved cases using new and daring methods and ways ...more
Mary Spiro
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!
Mckinley
After reading that in response to Vacher shooting a woman multiple times in the face at close range, he spent a few weeks in hospital, I flinched. After some further treatment this man was released and tragically went on to murder and mutilate at least 11 people (1 woman, 5 teenage girls, and 5 teenage boys) during a 3 year period beginning in 1894. Many of his victims were shepherds, hence the title of the book, caring for their flocks in isolated fields. These were violent crimes: victims were ...more
Ann
This was an excellent and informative book. In 1893, a serial killer was loose in France. His name was Joseph Vacher and he traveled around the French countryside killing and raping any young person who caught his fancy. Vacher is thought to have raped, killed, and mutilated at least 25 people, but he would confess to only 11 murders. It focuses on Dr. Alexandre Lacassagne who was the most famous criminologist of that time. Mr. Starr describes how evidence was gathered meticulously and how Lacas ...more
Nancy
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.
Cynthia
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 :\
Peggy
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!
Zeb Kantrowitz
This is another of the fine ‘true crime’ stories that have begun being published over the last few years. This one is about a serial killer at the end of the nineteenth century and how the beginnings of ‘forensic science’ helped to catch him. At a time when each department (county or province) of France was an ‘island’ without any jurisdictional interaction, the work of one man looking to find a common denominator to a crime in his district.

Joseph Vacher was a troubled child and youth. He becam
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George Billadeau
Douglas Starr's fascinating read that goes back and forth between the birth of forensic science and serial Killer Joseph Vacher in late 19th Century France. As with today's abundance of TV CSI programs, readers will enjoy the science's history told with titillating anecdotes. Particularly interesting is the level of sophistication of Dr. Alexandre Lacassagne in conducting autopsies and gathering evidence and at the same time be appalled at the level of incompetence of others. The book gives us a ...more
madsenmel
Great story of forensic science in its infancy and the great men who pioneered its use, told around the setting of a serial killer in France. Also delves into questions of insanity defenses in trials. Fascinating!
Angela
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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