In A Nutshell
In the late 19th century, Alexandre Lacassagne was rewriting the way law enforcement looked at crimes and crime scenes. He ushered in a new era of weapon identification and analytical sciences and should be known as the father of modern forensics, but his name has largely been swallowed by unforgiving, cramped history books. A real-life Sherlock Holmes, Lacassagne constructed the first forensics lab and taught countless students how to recreate a crime from the evidence left behind.
The Whole Bushel
For centuries, solving crimes was something of a hit-or-miss field. There was no such thing as forensics, no way to take and compare fingerprints, and no way of analyzing crime scenes or piecing together the events that led up to the crime.
Until, that is, one 19th-century professor teaching at the Institute of Legal Medicine in Lyon decided that his students needed some hands-on experience more than they needed a refresher course on the way things had always been done. Suddenly, for the first time, students weren’t sitting in lectures but they were performing dozens of autopsies every year.
Alexandre Lacassagne single-handedly revolutionized forensic science. He trained his students to look for the pieces that told the story of a person’s murder, from bruises on the body to checking the internal organs of a victim for signs of drowning. He taught them how to use chemical reactions to look for trace evidence, and how to tell the difference between dried blood and rust. He showed them how to examine the insects that were present on a dead body to determine just how long the person had been dead.
Since there was no place suitable for the type of exams and work that he had in mind, Lacassagne created his own laboratory—complete with state-of-the-art equipment, most of which had never been regularly used for police work.
He also constructed a macabre museum of sorts, where students could look at and learn about the human body under different types of conditions. He had skulls that were fractured and broken by different instruments, sketches and plaster casts of crime scene body parts, stillborn babies of different ages, displays of weapons both standard and makeshift. He had vials of poisons and bodily fluids, and even different types of ropes to show students how the rope itself would match the wounds it left behind.
He also developed the idea of ballistics. He’s noted for providing evidence in several cases in which he successfully proved a particular gun was a murder weapon by firing bullets into cadavers then comparing those bullets with ones that were pulled from a murder victim.
Lacassagne even cataloged thousands of different tattoos that were common among the underworld’s unsavory characters. While serving in the military, he became fascinated by the idea of tattoos providing a very visible look into a person’s most innermost feelings. Then he began recording.
If there were any who doubted these newly developed methods, those doubts were erased with Lacassagne’s persecution of a man known as the French Jack the Ripper. Joseph Vacher was a spree killer who raped and murdered his way across the French countryside in 1894 before finally being arrested. Clearly crazy, it was an insanity defense that was making it look likely that he wouldn’t be beheaded for his crimes, but instead committed to life in an asylum.
Lacassagne was, however, able to recreate the heinous acts that Vacher had committed, leaving no doubts that he knew exactly what he was doing. He showed no remorse, was known for torturing and killing small animals, and had all the hallmarks of what we would now call a psychopath. Vacher was deemed culpable and was executed in 1898.