Joseph Vacher (November 16, 1869 – December 31, 1898) was a French serial killer, sometimes known as “The French Ripper” or “L’éventreur du Sud-Est” (“The South-East Ripper”) due to comparisons to the more famous Jack the Ripper murderer of London, England in 1888. His scarred face, accordion, and plain, white, handmade rabbit-fur hat became his trademark appearance.
The son of an illiterate farmer, young Joseph was sent to a very strict Catholic school, where he was taught to obey and to fear God. Seeking escape from the intense poverty of his childhood as the 15th child of a peasant family, he joined the army in 1892. Frustrated by slow promotion and no recognition and infused with the grandiose belief that he was not receiving the attention he deserved, Vacher attempted to kill himself for the first time by slicing his throat. This would prove to be the first of two unsuccessful suicide attempts.
While Vacher had been in the military, he fell in love with a young maidservant, Louise, who was not attracted to him and spurned his advances. After his attempted suicide lead to his dismissal from the military, he again tried to woo her, even going so far as to propose. Bored by him and uninterested in his offer, she mocked him and his proposal. This second slight also motivated violence: in a rage, Vacher shot Louise four times and then tried to commit suicide. Both attempts were unsuccessful. Louise was badly injured but survived the shooting, and Vacher severely maimed himself. Shooting himself twice in the head, Vacher succeeded in paralyzing one side of his face, deforming him severely. One of the bullets would remained lodged in his ear for the remainder of his life, and the damage to his brain likely exacerbated his existing mental illness. Even he felt this shooting damaged him – he would later claim, after his arrest, that the reactions of strangers to this self-inflicted deformity drove him to hatred of society at large. This second suicide attempt put him in a mental institution in Dole, Jura. Despite a one-year stay and a pronouncement from his doctors that he was “completely cured,” Vacher began murdering his victims shortly after his release at the age of 25.
During a three-year period beginning in 1894, Vacher murdered and mutilated at least 11 people (one woman, five teenage girls, and five teenage boys). Many of them were shepherds watching their flocks in isolated fields. The victims were stabbed repeatedly, often disemboweled, raped, and sodomized. Vacher was a drifter, travelling from town to town, from Normandy to Provence, staying mainly in the southeast of France, and surviving by begging or working on farms as a day laborer. By most accounts, he appeared unkempt and frightening, wandering from town to town as a vagrant in filthy clothes, begging in the streets and surviving on the scraps he received from anyone who spared him a kindness.
In 1897 Vacher tried to assault a woman gathering wood in a field in Ardèche. She fought back and her screams soon alerted her husband and son, both of whom came rushing to her aid. The men overpowered Vacher and took him to the police. Despite their surety that they had apprehended the man responsible, the authorities had little evidence that Vacher was responsible for the series of murders. However, and with little apparent prompting, Vacher confessed to committing all eleven murders, saying, “I committed them all in moments of frenzy.”
After his arrest, Vacher claimed he was insane and attempted to prove it in a variety of ways. He claimed that a rabid dog’s bite had poisoned his blood, causing madness, but later blamed the quack cure he received for the bite. He also claimed he was sent by God, comparing himself to Joan of Arc. Despite his protestations, he was pronounced sane after a lengthy investigations by a team of doctors which included the eminent professor Alexandre Lacassagne. He was tried and convicted by the Cour d’Assises of Ain, the county where he had murdered two of his victims, and was sentenced to death on October 28, 1898. Vacher was executed by guillotine two months later, at dawn on December 31, 1898. Reluctant if not insane, he refused to walk to the scaffold under his own power and was dragged to the guillotine by the executioners.
In popular culture
In 1976 French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier made a film called Le juge et l’assassin (The Judge and the Murderer), which was inspired by Vacher’s story. The name of the murderer, played by Michel Galabru, is slightly changed into “Joseph Bouvier” (in French, bouvier and vacher are two words describing the same profession, a herdsman).
In the 5th episode “Probable Cause”, of the 5th season of the American comedy-drama television series Castle, the killer uses as a fake name “Joseph Vacher”.