Joseph Vacher (November 16, 1869, – December
31, 1898, Bourg-en-Bresse, Ain) 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, hand-made 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. In 1893, while in military conscription, he fell in
love with a young maidservant, Louise, who was not at all attracted
to him. When his time in the army was over, he tried to woo her and
propose to her for the last time before returning home, but she was
bored by him and mocked him. In a rage, he shot her four times (she
was badly injured, but survived) and then tried to commit suicide.
Shooting himself twice in the head accomplished nothing more than
paralyzing one side of his face (one of the bullets remained forever
lodged in his skull) and putting him in a mental institution in Dole,
Jura. Medical treatment did nothing for him, but the doctors
released him as "completely cured" one year later. Shortly after his
release, at the age of 25, he began his murder spree.
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.
In 1897, Vacher tried to assault a woman 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. The authorities had
little evidence that Vacher was responsible for the rash of murders,
but Vacher soon confessed to everything.
Vacher claimed he was insane because a of a quack
cure given to him as a child, when a rabid dog bit him (in fact he was
not bitten at all, just licked), then changed his mind and said that he
was sent there by God, just like Joan of Arc, in order to make people
think and understand the real virtues of faith. He was however judged
sane by the Cour d'Assises of Ain (the départment where he murdered two
youngsters) and sentenced to death on October 28, 1898. Vacher was
executed by guillotine two months later, at dawn on December 31, 1898.
He refused to walk towards the scaffold and had to be dragged by the
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).
As far as 19th century serial killers
are concerned, there are the well known, such as Jack the Ripper from
London, and H.H. Holmes from Chicago, and then there are the ones that
people SHOULD know about, like Vincenz Verzini from Italy, and this
week's profile, Joseph Vacher from France.
Far more vicious than his London
counterpart, Vacher was active over four years, killing as he went
wandering the French countryside, begging for food.
Right after the rash of prostitute
killings in London around 1888, the south east part of France
experienced a far greater string of vicious mutilation murders.
From the middle of 1894 through 1897,
no less than eleven men and women were murdered, both mutilated and
sexually assaulted around the woods of Tournon.
So vicious were the killings, the
French authorities investigating the deaths tabbed the murders the work
of the "Ripper of the South East."
It wasn't until a local vagrant named
Joseph Vacher confessed to the murders, while incarcerated for a
seperate attack on a couple collecting wood nearby, that authorities
were able to put a face to the crimes terrorizing the area for the last
Homeless and disturbed, Vacher was a
man who just wandered the southeast area of France, begging and stealing
whatever he needed to survive. He learned this early on in his life,
being born into extreme poverty, the 15th child of a poor peasent family.
He tried to escape the trappings of
his impoverished life by joining the French army in 1892, but after what
he percieved as lack of appreciation, he tried unsuccessfully to slit
his own throat. In 1893 his mental state was again tested when a young
woman rejected his advances. First, he tried killing her by shooting her
three times, but when he failed in that attempt, he then tried to commit
suicide by shooting himself in the head. All he managed to do this time
was get the bullet lodged in his ear, causing paralysis of the muscles
on the right side of his face, while also damaging his right eye.
However, more importantly for things
to come, he did irreparable damage to his brain, leading to mental
instability. After spending a few months in a mental hospital in Saint-Robert,
Vacher was discharged in April of 1894, choosing to wander aimlessly
without work or permanent residence.
It was quite a sight for area
villagers to see this filthy, deformed looking man wandering around,
begging for food, with an eye that frequently discharged puss. Even when
he wanted to communicate with others, it was difficult to understand him
because of the partial paralysis in his face.
Over the course of the next four years,
Vacher mutilated and killed seven women and four men. He would just
wander around the countryside, with an assortment of knives, cleavers,
and scissors handy, and come across an unsuspecting villager, begging
for food. Most of the time, he would rudely demand to be fed, and was on
his way once the stranger was given any morsel to eat.
But sometimes, when the kindhearted
person would turn to get him something, Vacher would attack, sexually
assaulting and butchering their bodies.
One day, while wandering around as
usual, Vacher came upon a young woman gathering wood. He immediately
attacked, but unknown to him, her husband and young sons were nearby,
also gathering wood. Upon hearing her screams, the family came running,
and they soon overpowered the vagrant.
Once in custody, authorities
considered Vacher as the elusive killer, but there was no evidence, and
more imporantly, no witnesses.
Then, for no reason whatsoever, Vacher
decided to confess to everything he did. He went on to tell a judge that,
"Yes, I committed them all in moments of frenzy." He went on to explain
that he felt he was insane because as a child, he was bitten by a rabid
dog, so he was not responsible for his actions as an adult later on.
He also tried telling anyone who would
listen that it was others' reactions to his deformed face (because of
the attempted suicide) that led him to hate others so. However, this was
obviously just smoke, since Vacher was well on his way to more serious
crime by the time he was 19, as evidenced by his conviction of
attempting to rape a young boy.
None of this worked for Vacher, and on
December 31st, 1898, he was guillotined outside Tournon.
A vagrant who wandered the countryside of south-east France at the end
of the last century, begging, stealing and killing. So vicious were
Vacher's killings, so gratuitous the mutilations, that he quickly earned
the name the 'Ripper of the South-East'.
Joseph Vacher escaped the deprivation of being bom
last of fifteen children of a poor peasant family by joining the army
where, in a fit of pique brought on by slow promotion, he tried
unsuccessfully to cut his own throat. In 1893 Vacher attempted to shoot
a young woman who had rejected his unwelcome advances and again tried
without success to comn-iit suicide; the bullet lodged in his ear
causing paralysis of the muscles on the right side of his face, damage
to one eye, and mental instability. After spending some months in the
asylum at Saint-Robert, Vacher was discharged in April 1894 and became a
During the next three and a half years, Joseph Vacher
butchered seven women and four young men, subjecting their bodies to the
most appalling sexual mutilation. On 4 August 1897, he assaulted a woman
collecting pine cones in the woods near Touman, but was taken by the
police after the woman and her husband, who had been working nearby,
overpowered him. Even so, it was considered a comparatively slight
offence, and the multiple killer was sentenced to three months for
offending public decency.
Although there was never any more than a strong
suspicion of the true extent of Vacher's crimes, like many criminals
before him and since he proved his own worst enemy. For no apparent
reason, Vacher wrote a letter to the examining judge confessing, 'Yes, I
committed the crimes ... I committed them all in moments of frenzy.' He
explained that as a child of eight he had been bitten by a rabid dog and
it was his belief that his blood had been permanently poisoned. Whether
this seemed to him an adequate excuse for killing at least eleven people,
and probably another fifteen besides, we will never know.
After prolonged investigation by a team of doctors
headed by the eminent Professior Alexandre Lacassagne, Joseph Vacher was
found, in their opinion, to be legally sane and fit to stand trial. At
the Ain Assizes in October 1898, Vacher found himself facing charges
connected with the killing of a young shepherd three years earlier.
Clearly still determined to establish his insanity Vacher, uninvited,
addressed the court, 'Glory to Jesus! Long live Joan of Arc! Glory to
the great martyr of our time! Glory to the great saviour!"
Sane or Mad, a reluctant Joseph Vacher was half-dragged,
half-carried to the guillotine on 31 December 1898; he was 29 years of
This bio was taken from "The Encyclopedia of
Serial Killers," by Brian Lane and Wilfred Gregg.
to history as the "French Ripper," Vacher was one of the few
serial killers en record who looked and acted the part in daily life.
Born in 1869, the last of 15 children in a poor farming family in
southeastern France, Vacher was known throughout his life for erratic
fits of temper.
the French army in 1890, published accounts disagreeing on whether he
was drafted or enlisted voluntarily.
In any case, Vacher seemed to enjoy military service at first,
striving hard to earn the rank of corporal.
When his prometiera was delayed-unjustly, in his view-Vacher
attempted suicide by slashing his throat with a razor.
The wound was not fatal, and his superiors were so impressed with
Vacher's dedication to the service that they hastened his prometiera.
soon became apparent that Corporal Vacher had serious problems.
He intimidated his fellow soldiers, eyeing their throats and
mumbling comments about "flowing blood," to the point that
some of them complained and Vacher was sent to the infirmary for
Out on sick leave, he met a young woman at Baumes-des-Dames and
fell in love at first sight.
The lady did not spurn him outright, but her response was cool
enough to provoke one of Vacher's tantrums.
Whipping out a pistol in the midst of an argument, he shot the
woman three times (she survived) and then turned the gun on himself.
No great marksman, even at point-blank range, Vacher survived his
second suicide attempt with a damaged right eye and a partially
Committed to the Asylum of Saint-Ylle, Vacher behaved in such
outrageous style that even the most violent of his fellow inmates gave
him a wide berth.
Transferred to the Asylum of Saint-Robert in 1893, he seemed to
improve dramatically-so much so, in fact, that doctors released him as
"cured" on April 1, 1894.
started drifting, adopting a vagrant lifestyle, hiking from one town to
the next with no clear destination in mind.
What he did have in
mind was the sadistic rape and murder of anyone who caught his fancy, a
homicides compulsion which claimed at least 11
w¡ves (some accounts say
14; one claims 26) before his next arrest, in August 1897.
Gender seemed irrelevant to Vacher, though he apparently murdered
more women than men.