Joseph Vacher: Serial Killer Known as “The French Ripper”

Joseph Vacher was a nineteenth century French serial killer. His place in French social history was much like that of England’s “Jack the Ripper” and so he became known as “The French Ripper” in Paris. Although he was tried and convicted of murdering just two victims, he was thought to have killed somewhere between eleven and twenty-seven people between 1894 and 1897. He also became well-known for his trademark appearance: having a scarred face and always wearing a white handmade rabbit fur hat.

Drawing of Joseph Vacher wearing his signature white rabbit fur hat. Author’s collection.

Vacher was the fifteenth child of an illiterate farmer born in Beaufort, Isère about 52 miles from Lyon, the birth city of the famous French socialite Madame Récamier. Vacher was also born the same year that Samuel Clemens began reporting in 1869 in Nevada’s Virginia City using the pen name of Mark Twain. Vacher also grew up somewhere between intense poverty and moderate means and his Catholic parents sent him to a very strict Catholic school where he learned to obey and fear God.

In 1892, Vacher joined the army and served in a regiment of zouaves. Although reputedly a good soldier, there were complaints against him for being brutal. Perhaps that was why he didn’t get promoted or receive the recognition that he thought he deserved. This lack of success while serving his country may have also contributed to him developing grandiose beliefs that he was not receiving the attention he merited.

While in the army, Joseph Vacher fell in love. His love interest was a young maidservant named Louise Barant. She worked in Beaufort and some historians claim that she was not attracted to Vacher and spurned his advances. Around this same time, Vacher became so disillusioned with his lack of military advancement that he sliced his own throat. His suicide attempt failed and he was then also dismissed.

Despite Louise being uninterested in him, he began to pursue her again. This time Joseph Vacher proposed marriage and may have also suggested they live together before they tied the knot. Whatever happened Louise was indignant and mocked him. He then became so enraged by her rejection that he shot her four times and tried to commit suicide a second time by shooting himself in the head twice. Fortunately, no one died; Louise survived the shooting and Vacher ended up severely maiming himself becoming paralyzed one side of his face, which then resulted in unflattering description thereafter of his physical appearance:

“He is thin and hollow-cheeked, his face pale and drawn and partially hidden by a stringy beard. A vertical scar across his lips draws his mouth into strange contortions when he speaks. Even the casual observer is impressed with a feeling of disgust and dread on seeing him.”[1]

One of the two bullets used in his second suicide attempt could not be removed and remained lodged inside his head. It is believed that bullet then exacerbated his mental condition. He himself maintained that his second suicide attempt damaged him more than just physically and he later claimed that the reactions of strangers to this self-inflicted deformity drove him to hate society at large and that he then began to wish people harm.

The second suicide attempt also resulted in Joseph Vacher having a yearlong stay at a lunatic asylum. He was first a patient at a mental institution in Dole, Jura, called the Asylum of Dole and then was then transferred to Saint-Robert. It was there, after a time, that doctors finally pronounced him “completely cured” and he was released.

At the age of the 25, despite being “cured,” Vacher began a bloodthirsty and unchecked murdering campaign. Not since the apprehension of Martin Dumollard, France’s first serial killer, were French people so shaken over a murderer and just like they decried Dumollard a monster, when Vacher was captured, they called him one too. Furthermore, newspapers claimed the two murderers had physical similarities, a description of which appeared in The San Francisco Call in 1897:

“The two French criminals bear a striking resemblance to each other, physically. Although of the same class of mental degenerates, … the most typical features of similarity between them consists of a gross form of lips, thick nostrils and the astonishing dog-like kindness of brown eyes that disarmed the distrust of their victims. Both were of a catlike muscularity. A slit in the lower lip of Vacher recalls the harelip of Dumollard.”[2]

Martin Dumollard. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Over a three year period, beginning in 1894, Joseph Vacher murdered and mutilated at least eleven people (one woman, five teenage girls, and five teenage boys). Katherine Ramsland, a non-fiction author and professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University, provides further information about Vacher and his homicidal tendencies:

“The series of murders in France seemed to have begun on November 20, 1884, when a killer strangled, stabbed, and mutilated a thirteen-year-old girl. The same thing happened the following May … In August ― the same month as the shepherd boy murder ― an elderly woman had been strangled and ravaged, and in September, a sixteen-year-old girl had sustained similar treatment, although her abdomen was also ripped open ― just like the Ripper murders. Then a fifteen-year-old boy was strangled, stabbed, raped, and disemboweled, including genital castration. The killer lay low or traveled for about six months, then a girl reported fighting off a man who attempted to rape her. Police in the area chased him off. During that fall, there were two more murders with bodily mutilation … In 1897, three more people were killed in a brutal fashion.”[3]

Most of the murdered victims were adolescent shepherds or shepherdesses working alone and watching over their flocks in isolated fields. Despite Vacher’s apparent success  in killing, his reign of terror came to an end in 1897 after he became careless. That is when he attempted to assault a woman gathering wood in a field in Ardèche. She fought back and her screams brought her husband and son, who quickly overpowered the 29-year-old Vacher..

By most accounts, Vacher was just an unkempt wanderer who traveled from town to town in filthy clothes, begged in the streets, and survived on scraps he received from anyone who graced him with kindness. Police were sure they had the right man for the attack on the wood-gathering woman, but initially it seems they had no idea that the man seated in front of them could be the killer of “little shepherds.” Vacher also resisted any idea that he meant to harm the woman he assaulted and claimed to be nothing more than a poor traveling farmhand.

Police thought the man they arrested for assault looked a lot like the description of the killer attacking shepherds and shepherdesses. However, they had nothing to link him to any of those crimes. As Vacher sat talking to police to their surprise he suddenly and with little prompting from them he began to confess to multiple murders and declared, “I committed them all in moments of frenzy.”[4]

Joseph Vacher

Drawing of Joseph Vacher after his capture. Author’s collection.

The French public was shocked when word spread that Joseph Vacher was the killer everyone had been looking for and hoped to apprehend. They were again stunned when they learned he was notoriously vain and thought himself a hero for having killed so many people. The public was further appalled when they learned that he demanded two things from police before he would confess to the horrible crimes: “One was that the full story of his murders be published in the leading French papers and the other was that he should be tried separately for each crime in the district where it was committed.”[5]

With an agreement from police, Vacher then confessed to having murdered the eight following people:

“Louise Marcel, a girl of thirteen, found murdered in a wood near Draguignan in the Var in November 1984; Augustine Mortueux, seventeen, found with her throat cut on the high road near Dijon, on May 12, 1895; a widow named Morand, sixty, assaulted and murdered in an isolated house at Saint Ours, in Savoy, on August 24, 1895; Victor Portalier, a shepherd boy, sixteen found in a field with his throat cut, and horribly mutilated on August 31; Pierre Pellet, a shepherd boy, fourteen, discovered with his throat cut in a lane at St. Etienne de Boulogne, on September 29; Marie Moussier, a young married woman of nineteen, found at Crusset in the Allier, on September 1, 1896; Rosine Rodier, a shepherd girl of fourteen, at Varenne St. Honorat, who had her throat cut and was disemboweled and mutilated; Pierre Laurent, a shepherd boy, fourteen, murdered, … found in a field with his throat cut and the body hacked and dreadfully mutilated.”[6]

Joseph Vacher attacking and killing Louise Marcel.

Depiction of Joseph Vacher attacking and killing Louise Marcel. Author’s collection.

The details Joseph Vacher provided to police about his murderous attacks as he zigzagged across France were gruesome. He claimed to have been seized with a frenzy after each attack began and he maintained that in his frenzied state he slashed, cut, and sometimes dismembered his victims. He also confessed that sometimes he killed his victims for food or for money.

Supposedly, once Vacher began confessing to the murders, he enjoyed his “hideous notoriety.” It was also reported that he was bombastic and proud of his sickening actions and found great delight in reciting his “revolting deeds” to whoever would listen. Of course, authorities knew that his confessions might be false and so they verified each of his stories as noted by Alabama’s Troy Messenger:

“He nonchalantly told the story of some fresh tragedy from time to time to the examining magistrate as the details came back to his mind, and in each case the investigation has furnished full corroboration of Vacher’s narrative. The bodies in each case were found in the place he indicated ― in lonely thickets or in unused wells. He seems to have killed merely for the sake of killing. … The crimes of Joseph Vacher have surpassed in number and atrocity those of the White Chapel murderer known as ‘Jack the Ripper.’ His homicidal manifestations broke out in 1894. He claimed after his arrest that, as every action has an object and as his motive was neither theft nor vengeance, his irresponsibility was established. Physiologically, physicians have regarded the case as interesting. … Referring to his crime, Vacher is quoted as saying: ‘My victims never suffered, for while I throttled them with one hand I simply took their lives with a sharp instrument in the other.’”[7]

Joseph Vacher attacking and killing Pierre Laurent

Depiction of Joseph Vacher attacking and killing Pierre Laurent. Author’s collection.

It was soon ascertained that his murders recurred periodically and were of unknown frequency for at least a period of ten years. There were also great gaps in his travels that he could not account for, and it was difficult, if not impossible, to trace his exact routes as he was a vagabond. This meant it was also difficult to determine precisely how many people he killed.

There was also much conjecture among the public and criminologists about what drove Vacher to murder. Supposedly, other traumatic incidences besides the self-inflicted gunshot wound may have contributed to Vacher’s ideations of murder and his resulting serial killer status. For example, The Levenworth Times of Kansas noted:

“It was pointed out that when a youth he was bitten by a mad dog and that the village doctor gave him some medicine, after drinking which he became irritable and brutal, whereas he had previously been quiet and inoffensive. From that time, he developed a passion for human blood.”[8]

oseph Vacher attacking and killing Augustine Mortueux

Depiction of Joseph Vacher attacking and killing Augustine Mortueux. Author’s collection.

Joseph Vacher wanted to avoid the death penalty and claimed at trial that he was insane. He then attempted to prove it by telling stories like the mad dog tale, comparing himself to Joan of Arc, and declaring that he was sent by God. In the meantime, questions circulated at about whether his vile murders were premediated and deliberate. The San Francisco Call was one of the newspapers that reported that Vacher clearly knew what he was doing and that he was not insane when he committed the murders:

“As will appear from a study of Vacher he is an extraordinary pervert in that his own claims to maniacal obsessions are not borne out by the facts. Scarcely can he be described as mad, homicidal, or insane, in the accepted meaning of the terms as applied to persons who should be caged for life, because he is never unconscious of his acts. He followed a system, or rather moved along the lines of a design rendered easy of execution by natural circumstances and the incapacity and obtuseness of the country police and prosecutors. He sought his victims in obscure places, deliberately gratified his diseased imagination and left peculiar marks, such as were characteristic of the work of the London ‘Ripper’ taking great care the while not to be soiled or maimed. He never attacked physical equals. Every incident of every crime and the precise localities in which they were committed, time place, circumstance, all is distinctly remember by him. Nor is his tenacity of memory and clearness of mind less remarkable than his pronounced adroitness and audacity.

After each tragedy he hastened to the first pool or stream of water he could find, washed the blood stains from his person and destroyed any garment that might have a received a telltale splash. For this emergency he went prepared constantly. The sack he carried always contained a change of clothing.”[9]

Joseph Vacher was tried at the Cour d’Assises of Ain in 1898. Despite his protestations and attempts to prove he was insane, a team of French doctors, which included the eminent professor, physician, and criminologist Alexandre Lacassange, pronounced him sane. In addition, the evidence against Vacher was strong and he was ultimately convicted and sentenced to death on 28 October 1898.

Joseph Vacher - Alexandre Lacassange

Alexandre Lacassange. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Two months later, on 31 December 1898, Vacher’s execution was carried out. When it came time for the 29-year-old to walk to the guillotine, it was claimed that he still feigned insanity and that he refused to walk to his death. Thus, he was dragged to it by his executioners.

Although it might be difficult to determine exactly how many people Joseph Vacher killed, authorities were able to determine how he was able to carry out his murderous carnage wherever he went. Apparently, he was successful in killing partly because of a lack of communication between the outlying departments and the isolated hamlets where he committed the killings. In addition, after Vacher’s death, hoping to explain how he was able to kill for so long without detection, The San Francisco Call noted:

“The long immunity of Vacher, the ease with which he evaded detection, is incredible, unless one can comprehend the torpor of trustfulness and the dullness of honesty in the communal life in which his butcheries were committed. That one of their own kind, a wandering farmhand or shepherd, who possessed an honorable passport from the regiment in which he had served, could be guilty of such atrocities would be incomprehensible to those country folk. Rather must it be some devil in the form of a man, out of the subterranean mysteries of Paris. So, while they sought the monster in other guise and personality, they listened to the provincial melodies he played on his accordeon, gave him centimes to help him along in his career of carnage, and when required entertained him of nights.”[10]


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