Everyone knows the tale of the infamous Jack the Ripper who across three months in 1888, butchered five young women to death on the streets of Whitechapel in London. This man’s infamy has arisen from the fact he has never been caught and still today over 100 years later, theories are rife on just who he was with many scrambling to solve the mystery.
Few, on the other hand, are aware of the horrific series of murders which took place in France between 1894 and 1897. Murders equally as brutal and as gruesome as those of Jack the Ripper, but whose numbers totalled 11 victims compared to the Ripper’s five. Here, the man responsible was caught and put to death for his crimes. That man was the intriguing character Joseph Vacher.
Vacher was the youngest of 15 children born into a low-income farming family in Southwest France in 1869. So many children meant he was always vying for his parents’ attention and living in clothing handed down from his siblings while the family spent the little money they had on trying to feed so many mouths. He joined the Army at 17-years-old but didn’t do well with a quick temper and a lack of obedience. He did eventually, however, make it to the rank of Corporal and it was while he was on leave he met and fell in love with a young maidservant called Louise Barant. She did not feel the same about him and made it clear a relationship between them was not on the cards but this did not deter Joseph Vacher.
He was determined this was the women he would marry and when he came out of the Army in 1893, he found her and proposed but she refused, telling him she wanted nothing to do with him. His response was to shoot her four times before trying to take his own life and shooting himself in the head twice. Both survived the gunshots and Joseph Vacher was considered mentally unstable and sent to a mental institution in Jura in eastern France. His suicide attempt left Vacher with injuries to his face which deformed his appearance. One side of his face remained paralysed, with his mouth slanted to the side giving him a constant unbalanced grimace.
He was released from psychiatric care just one year later when he was 25-years-old with his doctors believing he was ‘cured’ and posed no risk to the public or to himself. Their assessments, however, were incorrect and Joseph Vacher went on to become one of the worst serial killers in the history of France.
Once free from enforced mental health treatment Vacher became a vagrant, wandering aimlessly from town to town, getting day labourer work on the farms where he could in exchange for food and lodgings. He often simply approached people asking for money, something which would have been most alarming for those he imposed himself on with his disheveled appearance, constant scowl and a gruff attitude. In May 1894, Vacher murdered his first victim in Beaurepaire in the southeast of France. 21-year-old Eugenie Delhomme was a mill worker and Vacher slit her throat, killing her quickly but continued to viciously attack and mutilate her body after her death.
After the murder of Eugenie Delhomme, Vacher realised no one was on his tail and he could kill without being tracked down. Over the next four years, it is believed that Joseph Vacher murdered at least 11 people. Vacher mutilated his victims leading to the comparisons made between him and London’s Jack the Ripper. Killing both males and females, he stabbed them repeatedly, disembowelled them and sexually assaulted them.
Joseph Vacher was caught in 1897 after he attacked a woman in a field in Ardeche, south central France. When he pounced on the unsuspecting woman, her screams alerted her husband and son who came to her rescue and tackled Vacher, dragging him to the police station. Vacher confessed to not only this attack, but his multiple other murders to stunned police officers who had no idea the vagrant that had just been dragged in by an angry farmer was a serial killer.
The big question that surrounded Joseph Vacher was not whether he committed these heinous crimes, but whether or not he committed them because he was insane. His victims were mainly shepherds working alone on their land tending to their livestock when Vacher struck them, earning him the nickname “The Killer of Little Shepherds”.
While he confessed to 11 murders, it is believed Vacher could have murdered up to 27 victims. No real connections were ever made between the murders before his unexpected confession. Spread out geographically due to Vacher’s vagrant status and his choosing of victims entirely at random meant there were no links between the victims and the places they were murdered. The similarity on how they were killed, all in vicious attacks involving mutilation did raise some suspicions but no one fully considered that these murders could have been the work of just one man.
Vacher tried to claim he was insane for a number of bizarre reasons, including being bitten by a rabid dog as a child and given a cure that caused his insanity and that he was sent by God, comparing himself to Joan of Arc, a peasant girl in medieval France who believed she was sent by God to lead France to victory in their war with England. He also suggested his killing of so many was due to their unsavoury reaction to his appearance.
Joseph Vacher went on trial in October 1898 in Bourg-en-Bresse, northeast of the city of Lyon. He was charged with only one murder with the theory that it only takes one guilty verdict on a charge of murder to result in the death penalty. Dr. Alexandre Lacassagne, a prominent criminologist of the time, testified to the forensic evidence found in each one of Vacher’s murders, the modus operandi present and the similarities across the killings, leading him to believe they were indeed carried out by the same person. Dr. Lacassagne’s views on the development of criminals were in opposition to the more well-known opinions of criminologist Cesare Lombroso. Lombroso believed violent criminals were born that way and their behaviour was entirely due to their biology. Lacassagne, on the other hand, believed that a criminal’s behaviour was the product of the environment they lived in, along with their own free will and purposeful decisions to cause harm to another.
In Lacassagne’s opinion, the man who stood accused of these murders, Joseph Vacher, was not insane, he was simply evil. It was testimony by an experienced and well-respected man in his field and it was taken seriously and most likely the main testimony at Vacher’s trial which sent him to the guillotine. During his trial, Vacher would shout out strange statements. “Glory to Jesus! Long live Joan of Arc!” outbursts which may have been orchestrated to bolster his claims of insanity.
Vacher took to wearing a white fur hat, an image picked up by the media frenzy that surrounded his crimes and his trial meaning his image circulated repeatedly around the country. Despite his claims of insanity and his antics, Joseph Vacher was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death by guillotine, France’s standard method of execution at that time, on 28 October 1898.
When the time came for Vacher to face his execution he did not accept his fate, instead, he refused to walk to the guillotine and had to be dragged there by the prison guards, fighting them every step of the way. Just before the blade came down and ended Joseph Vacher’s life, he told his jailers, “You think to expiate the faults of France by having me die? That will not be enough. You are committing another crime. I am the great victim.”