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We may never know how many victims were killed by Joseph Vacher during his bloody reign of terror in 19th century France.
Born in 1869 to a peasant family in the French town of Beaufort, Joseph Vacher's early life was marked by fairly bizarre behaviour. According to testimony that came out during his later trial, he had been caught mutilating animals and once fired a gun in the direction of some children his age. His parents eventually sent him to a strict Catholic school at Saint Genis Laval where he was taught to "obey and fear God". Just how successful this schooling actually was seems open to debate considering that he was later thrown out for "inappropriate sexual acts" with other boys in the school
With no other options, Vacher began his compulsory military service though his explosive temper and odd appearance marked him as a loner. There is at least some evidence to suggest that he may have responsible for five unsolved murders that occurred between 1884 and 1890 although they remain officially unsolved. What is known about him was that Vacher fell in love with a pretty maidservant named Louise Barrant. She felt absolutely no attraction for the strange-looking soldier and, after his tour of duty was over, laughed at him when he proposed marriage in 1893. Vacher was enraged and shot her four times before shooting himself.
They both survived although Vacher's face was left partially paralyzed as a result. One of the bullets also remained lodged in his skull and brain damage may have contributed to his later psychiatric issues. He was sent to the Saint Robert Asylum in Dole, France and released as completely "cured" just a year later. The doctors would later regret their optimism.
He then became a drifter moving from one part of France to another. His facial paralysis added to his already odd appearance and he formed no real community ties wherever he went. Supporting himself through begging and odd jobs, Vacher began a murder spree with at least eleven victims over a three-year period. His known victims included one adult woman, five teenage girls and five teenage boys. Most of the victims were shepherds that Vacher was able to attack while they tended flocks in isolated fields. After raping the victims, Vacher would often disembowel the corpses before leaving them to be found by others.
Despite the trail of bodies, Vacher's murderous career was only stopped in 1897 when he attacked a woman near her home in southern France. The woman fought back and her screams brought her husband and son to her aid. The men took Vacher to the local police. Were it not for Vacher eventually confessing everything, the police might never have been able to link him to the other murders.
Given that he faced the death penalty, Vacher had ample reason to have himself declared insane. In the letter that he wrote to the judge, Vacher stated that he had committed the murders due to a lifelong insanity caused by being bitten by a rabid dog as a child. His insanity caused him to go into a wild frenzy in which he would kill his victims and drink blood from their necks. Vacher also argued that the asylum doctors who released him were the ones who were really at fault for his murders.
As part of the prosecution's case, the legendary forensic pioneer, Alexandre Lacassagne was called in to do an in-depth evaluation of the defendant. After an exhaustive five-month examination of Vacher including exploring his various bizarre symptoms, Lacassagne concluded that Vacher was faking insanity and that he was fit to stand trial. His comprehensive presentation to the court in which he described his findings were so impressive, even Vacher was heard to murmur, "He's very good." In the end, Joseph Vacher was convicted and sentenced to death in 1898.
The French newspapers of the time trumpeted the news of the Vacher Affair and played up the fact that he had been a homeless vagabond when he committed the murders. Thousands of other drifters were wandering about France and the newspapers used Vacher's case to highlight the danger that homeless beggars posed and the need for action to deal with them. The fact that Vacher's fellow beggars were also his most likely victims seemed irrelevant. Some columnists even expressed a perverse national pride since "their" Ripper had more victims that the English Ripper.
The publicity of the case guaranteed an enormous turnout on December 31, 1898 when Joseph Vacher was sent to the guillotine. Crowds cheered as he was led out and he was heard to shout, "Look, the victim of the asylums" (:Ah voila! La victime des fautes des asiles"). He refused to walk to the guillotine and needed to be carried to his execution.
Public interest in the case faded quickly after the execution but forensic experts and journalists continued to write about Vacher. The body was carefully dissected as researchers tried to learn more about what caused his violent acts. Researchers found nothing unusual about Vacher's brain but his head still went into one of the large criminal anthropology collections of the time. Forensic authorities including Lacassagne and Richard von Krafft-Ebbing wrote about Vacher's sadism (it was still a new diagnosis at the time), his "inverted" tendencies (homosexuality) and other bizarre sexual behaviour, his psychiatric symptoms, and speculations about his early childhood.
While Joseph Vacher's case was famous for its time, he seems largely forgotten today. Dubbed "the French Ripper" to distinguish him from the more famous Ripper case in England, Joseph Vacher represents one of the first known serial killers. Others would soon follow in his footsteps.
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