On a drizzly spring evening in 1893, in the French provincial city of Besançon, nineteen-year-old Louise Barant was walking along the riverside promenade when she crossed paths with a man wearing the dress uniform of the French army. His name was Joseph Vacher (pronounced Vashay). “Ugly weather, isn’t it?” he said, and automatically she responded, “For sure.” Normally Barant, tall and wholesome-looking, with curly blond hair, would not have spoken to a stranger, especially one as brutish-looking as he; but Vacher projected a kind of disarming innocence, and the sergeant’s chevrons on his sleeve reassured her.
So they chatted and walked and shared dinner in a café. They learned that they both came from small towns: she from Baume-les-Dames, a pretty village near the Swiss border, and he from Beaufort, a nondescript hilltown southeast of Lyon. As they lingered over shared stories about their pasts, he told her he had never felt this comfortable with anyone, and she, too, sensed she could speak freely and easily. Yet she felt a shiver of doubt when she looked up from her meal and saw his eyes burning into her. Later that evening, he ardently proposed marriage. When he vowed that he would kill her if she ever betrayed him, she realized she had made a terrible mistake.
In the weeks that followed, he pursued her relentlessly. Like other men who live easily with violence, Vacher knew how to interweave threat, regret, self-pity, and charm in an attempt to prolong the relationship. Louise, who was a stranger to the town and worked as a housemaid, tried desperately to avoid him, inventing endless excuses for not being available. Once, taking pity as victims sometimes do, she agreed to meet him at a dance. They were standing awkwardly among the merrymakers when a soldier approached to talk to Louise. Vacher lunged at the man with such fury that the soldier and Louise ran from the dance hall.
Now she knew that she would never be safe in the same town as Vacher. Too afraid to reject him directly, she made up a story that her mother had forbidden their marriage and had ordered her home. The distance did nothing to quell his obsession. He kept mailing her love letters. Finally, she responded in the clearest possible way: “It would be best if you stopped writing to me . . . Everything is finished between us; I do not want to go against the wishes of my mother. Furthermore, I do not love you. Adieu, Louise.”
She hoped that would finally end things between them. Besides, she knew that if he left his unit to find her, he would face charges of desertion. But her departure and final letter had sent him into such a series of rages that the regimental doctor diagnosed him as having “nervous exhaustion” and gave him a four-month medical leave. He immediately headed to Baume-les-Dames, stopping to buy a revolver along the way.
Any of the soldiers in Vacher’s barracks would have told Louise not to get involved with the twenty-three-year-old sergeant in the first place, for something wild and violent dwelled within him. They had witnessed his manias and explosive temper: How once, when a soldier lagged in formation, Vacher swiftly and without warning kicked him in the groin; or how, during alcohol-induced tantrums, he would hurl heavy wooden bureaus across the room, roar like an animal, and rip handfuls of hair out of his forearms. Once, when he was passed over for promotion, he drank himself senseless, tore apart the barracks, and slashed with a razor at anyone who came near. He ended the episode by taking the blade to his own throat. After that incident, he was hospitalized and transferred to another company.
Yet at times, Vacher could appear deferential, and, when necessary, even charming. Undoubtedly, he behaved that way when he first met Louise, although under the stress of rejection the beast had reemerged.
Arriving in her village, he spent days trying to persuade her mother and family to accept him, only to succeed in frightening them as well. On the morning of June 25, 1893, he went to the house of Louise’s employer for a final confrontation before taking the train back to Besançon. Louise opened the door, recoiling when she saw him.
“Why are you afraid, Louise?”
“I’m not afraid,” she said unconvincingly.
“Look, I don’t want to harm you. I’ve come here peacefully to demand the things that you owe me.”
He had become obsessed with reclaiming the letters and trinkets he had given her, and money he had spent taking her to dinner. She gave him all that he demanded, but still he kept talking about needing more. As he rattled on about his various resentments, she furtively backed her way up the marble stairway. The more he spoke, the more agitated he became.
“When I think that you don’t want me, Louise . . . We would have been so happy! Listen, you don’t know what I am capable of doing. I have already told you and I repeat: I’m crazy about you! Come away with me.”
She told him that if he did not leave immediately, she would wake her boss, who would eject him. Vacher slipped his right hand into his pocket.
“So you do not want to come with me, then?”
He pulled out the revolver and began firing. The first bullet entered her mouth, shattered two teeth, ripped through her tongue, and exited her cheek. She screamed and collapsed. Two more shots grazed the top of her head as she fell and another smashed into the wall. Then Vacher turned the gun on himself, firing two bullets into his face.
The explosions echoed so loudly in the hallway that her employer’s family rushed down from their bedrooms and passersby ran in from the street. They found Louise crumpled on the stairs, Vacher staggering blindly, his face covered with blood. He lurched four or five steps out the door before collapsing in the street.*
And so began the public life of Joseph Vacher, one of the most notorious serial killers of his century, who slaughtered more people than the infamous Jack the Ripper. Although the incident with Louise Barant was the first of Vacher’s legal encounters, he had perplexed and discomfited the people around him for years. Neighbors in Beaufort remembered him as a child who was quick to pick an argument, and unusually violent in schoolyard scuffles. Once, when asked to guard the family’s livestock, he took the animals to a meadow and broke some of their legs. He
spent a couple of his teenage years in a monastery but was expelled for unspecified indiscretions. He was drafted and stationed with the Sixtieth
*Both survived, because the dealer who had sold Vacher the revolver loaded the cartridges only with half charges—just enough powder to stop an aggressor but not necessarily to kill him.
Regiment in Besançon. Although he thrived under the army’s strict discipline, he showed violent outbursts there, as well. All along, people found him strange, but as he himself had said to Louise, they had no idea of what he was capable.
Crimes of passion were notoriously common at the time, leniently punished, and often blamed on the victim. After he shot Louise, Vacher spent a couple of weeks in a hospital. He was then sent for observation to the public asylum in the nearby city of Dole, where doctors were to determine if he was sane enough to stand trial. The “Certificate of 24 Hours,” documenting the patient’s first day in the asylum, reported he was “calm, responds meekly to questions and regrets the act he has committed.” It described in detail how the shooting had disfigured him—a scarlet furrow ran the length of his right jaw; yellowish pus oozed from the right ear—stigmata that would mark him for life. With each breath, his right cheek fluttered like an unfettered sail, for one of the bullets had severed a facial nerve. When he spoke, he could barely open his mouth, and the voice that emerged was nasal and slurred.
He seemed a defeated man, rather than a menacing one. Yet over the weeks, as Vacher healed and became stronger, a more paranoid and violent character emerged. Quietly at first, and then more stridently, he accused the doctors at Dole of plotting against him. Day after day, he demanded to see a surgeon to remove the bullet from his ear. When medical personnel arrived for the procedure, Vacher accused them of trying to kill him and bolted from the operating room.
On July 20, according to hospital records, he experienced a “crisis of agitation.” He screamed at doctors and fought with his roommates. Sometimes he sat rocking on the side of his bed. “At certain moments he raises his head and focuses his eyes as if listening to invisible voices,” wrote Dr. Léon Guillemin, adjunct doctor at the facility. “During such times he has the facial expression of a madman.”
Inwardly, Vacher seethed. He hated the institution and everyone in it. According to him, the doctors were heartless and the patients were swine. Later, in a long, embittered letter to the authorities (Vacher would prove to be a prolific letter writer), he would write that the asylum was “everything that is dirty and abominable,” where he was forced to sleep “on a grubby flea-infested mattress.” The food was barely edible, he said, and the guards often stole it. Unsupervised patients often abused one another and took special delight in tormenting the blind. “They pushed them and spit in their faces. Some even pushed them outside naked in the snow.” At times, he thought of killing himself. “And I was not the only one . . . some people could not take this treatment, and committed suicide.”
Contrary to Vacher’s accusations, the alienists at Dole considered themselves sympathetic and attentive. (Alienist was the era’s term for a psychologist, as mental patients were seen to be “alienated” from themselves.) Printed materials from the asylum described their treatments as “gentle, tolerable, humane, and more in agreement with modern ideas.” Unlike in the past, inmates were not shackled to the walls or beaten for offenses they unwittingly committed. “All the coercive methods that tortured the sick patients have been abandoned . . . the fate of the sick [who come to the asylum] is nothing other than completely humane.”
When Vacher was admitted, the asylum’s director was preparing to move the patients to a new facility, a cluster of pavilions in a pastoral setting just outside of town, a notable improvement on the present fortresslike edifice. Scores of such facilities were being built throughout Europe.
Still, conditions at Dole were not what they should have been. A late-nineteenth-century visitor to the asylum noted that many patients still lived behind bars in dank cells and received inadequate personal care. In truth, this asylum, like many others, had far too many inmates. The population of insane people had exploded in France (and throughout Europe and in the Americas, as well) due to the epidemics of alcoholism and syphilis, and to the increasingly common diagnosis of mental disease. In time, insanity became a catchall diagnosis for all sorts of deficiencies, including dementia, homelessness, and criminal behavior. As a result, asylums became dumping grounds for the overflow from prisons, almshouses, workhouses, and the streets. By the time Vacher entered the asylum, the state-run system was housing more than twice the capacity it was designed for. Dole, built for five hundred patients, was bursting with more than nine hundred—at least 15 percent of whom were criminals. (Faced with such impossible conditions, even the most dedicated alienist could lose heart. When the director of the Villejuif asylum in Paris was asked what he found most effective for patients, he replied, “We wait for them to die.”)
Doctors had put Vacher in a special high-security wing, but, as in many asylums at the time, oversight was lax. On the night of August 25, 1893, Vacher sneaked out of his room, found a long wooden beam, leaned it against the wall, and shimmied over it to freedom. He was heading to Baume-les-Dames to find Louise. An all-points bulletin went out over the telegraph, with a special notification to the police in Louise’s village. It would not be hard to identify the fugitive: He wore the asylum’s standard-issue gray cotton shirt and trousers and there was no mistaking his disfigured face.
A couple of weeks later, some soldiers in Besançon caught sight of him. Local policemen jailed him. A few days later, he was put on a train, headed back to the asylum. His guards had instructions to handcuff him and to keep him in view at all times. As the train rumbled on, Vacher asked the guards if he could get off at the next stop to go to the bathroom. “You’ll have to wait,” they said. They had no intention of letting him off the train, even if manacled, for a minute. He persisted. Finally he offered to stand right in front of the guards and urinate out the door. They paused; the train was flying along at top speed, and it seemed there was no way he could even think of making that leap and surviving. He shuffled to the door, opened his pants, and, before they could react, heaved himself out. He hit the talus, then rolled and scampered off like a jackrabbit as the train roared away.
Two days later, police, alerted by some village children, found him eating dinner at a farmer’s house. They took him to the Dole asylum in chains. His condition grew worse. Increasingly “in the grip of melancholic ideas,” he tried to commit suicide by slamming his head against the corner of a wall. “We frequently have to take energetic measures to prevent him from harming himself,” wrote the doctors in a “situation report” of October 26, 1893.
Meanwhile, Dr. Guillemin had arrived to make an official assessment of the inmate’s sanity. He interviewed Vacher, physically examined him, spoke to his minders, and pored over his records. Guillemin diagnosed Vacher as “a deliriant with a persecution complex of the first order.” He had suffered this condition for most of his life. The symptoms, not always evident, would occasionally and dramatically appear. The rejection by Louise aggravated the condition as never before, the doctor said, and triggered the homicidal behavior. At the asylum, Vacher continued to suffer severe paranoia, aggravated by auditory hallucinations. He imagined the “entire world is in league against him,” wrote Guillemin. “From the moment he arrived at Dole, [Vacher felt] his doctors neglected him, ignored him, did not want to care for him, and wanted him to die. We have done our best for him, but he accuses us of trying to kill him, and shows no signs of being cured.”
Excerpted from The Killer of Little Shepherds by Douglass Starr. Copyright © 2011 by Douglass Starr. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.