On this date in 1898, “the French Ripper” Joseph Vacher was guillotined for a three-year homicidal spree through the French countryside.
Less renowned to posterity than the unidentified British contemporary to whom his nickname alluded, Vacher was thoroughly infamous in his day. The New York Times‘ report of his beheading noted that “[t]he crimes of Joseph Vacher have surpassed in number and atrocity those of the Whitechapel murderer.”
After release as “completely cured” from a mental hospital to whose hapless mercies a failed murder-suicide — both murder and suicide failed — involving his unrequited love had left him, Vacher drifted through rural France from 1894 until his arrest in 1897 killing randomly, frequently, and savagely.
He left at least 11 victims, and possibly several dozen, often atrociously mutilating the bodies. The seeming sang-froid of his murders — one story has him coolly misdirecting a police officer in a frantic chase for the killer of a body he has left behind minutes before — and their horrific nature and extent threw his case into the eye of a public already fearful of “drifters”.
If it is likely that the murders themselves demanded their author’s execution regardless, Vacher’s claim that madness — “simulated insanity”, the Times called it — drove the killings and negated his culpability remained a challenging medical and judicial issue. As Susan A. Ashley writes in The Human Tradition in Modern France:
The … judicial proceedings centered on his mental competence. Could he be held responsible for his actions? He claimed that he acted on impulse, that he was driven to kill and maim by fits of uncontrollable rage. The court-appointed experts, however, concluded that he had carefully planned and carried out the killings, and the jury agreed.
Medical experts and legal authorities seriously disagreed over Vacher’s mental state and over the limits of his legal responsibility. They examined his past and his behavior after his arrest and drew very different conclusions about his sanity.