A Conviction and a Souvenir
One of Lacassagne’s treasured artifacts was the skeleton of a young man hanging in a display case, its head re-attached after an encounter with the guillotine. On the inner surface of the right pelvis the name “Gaumet” was inscribed in inch-high letters. It served as a reminder of a brutal crime and the power of science to use even the tiniest traces of evidence to solve it.
Annet Gaumet was a hardened criminal, with fourteen convictions by the age of twenty-four. On the night of December 21, 1898 he and several gang members broke into the apartment of the widow Foucherand above her bistro on Rue de la Villette in Lyon. They strangled her, clubbed her to death and stole her money. The police had been well-versed in the management of crime scenes, so when Lacassagne arrived the next morning with the prosecuting attorney and the commissioner of police he found the scene undisturbed. They found the woman’s body on her back on the floor—legs splayed, skirts hiked, her right arm in a defensive position across her chest, her left extended outward, bruises on her throat and a gaping wound on the right side of her head. Next to the body was a blood-covered wine bottle. Furniture had been turned over; drawers had been emptied.
The investigators proceeded carefully from room to room, carefully noting the position of the furniture, blood stains and artifacts. Yet this scene seemed abnormally free of telltale traces. The bloody bottle may have been used in the attack, but it turned out to be free of handprint and finger-marks. No footprints marked the scene, despite the apparent chaos. There was no clothing that did not belong to the victim and no bits of foreign hair.The one thing that struck Lacassagne as unusual was a lump of human fecal matter on the bed. He had no idea why someone would do such a thing, or if it would prove useful in the investigation. He had it brought back to the Institute, along with the body and bottle.
At the crime scene Lacassagne had noted blood stains to a height of more than five feet on the door frame and on a newspaper on top of the bar. The shape and location of the splashes told Lacassagne that the body had not been killed elsewhere and dragged, but struck by a blunt instrument with such violence that the blood droplets had been splashed to their current locations.
The examination of the body in his lab told him that at least two people took part in the murder. Lividity stains showed she had been killed and left on her back on the ground. He found extensive bruising on her wrists, stomach and rib cage. Internal examinations showed that the wounds penetrated deeply, with bleeding into the muscles and organs and breaks in several ribs. All these signs indicated that an assailant violently held the victim to the floor while kneeling on her rib cage. At one point he must have strangled her: the hyoid bone above the larynx had been broken, the thyroid cartilage had been broken at its base and mid-section; and the ring-like cricoid cartilage had been broken as well. To Lacassagne this indicated the presence of two killers—there were too many breaks to be accomplished by the same pair of hands that was holding her down. He found no evidence of a sex crime. The right side of the head was one enormous concavity, which Lacassagne attributed to strikes from the bottle.The left side of the head showed several reciprocal fractures, indicating that the left side of her face was against the ground when she was struck. The bottle, more bloody on one side than the other, probably was the murder weapon, but it bore no hand-prints or finger-marks.
Lacassagne still had no evidence to tie any specific person to the crime. When he examined the fecal matter, however, he saw something threadlike, white and about half an inch long. He dissolved the fecal mass and a dozen more appeared. A Professor Lortet, an expert in parasitology, identified the creature as pinworm, a fairly common intestinal parasite.
The authorities, meanwhile, had detained six suspects, members of a gang who operated in the Madame Foucherand’s neighborhood. Lacassagne gained permission to examine their waste buckets. “These observations gave no results,” he reported, because the suspects had contaminated the contents by throwing in bread and other bits of food. He went back to the prison. Using a long swab, he took samples directly from the suspects, which he mounted on slides and examined microscopically. In the swab from one suspect, Annet Gaumet, Lacassagne noticed microscopic translucent disks, which Lortet identified as pinworm eggs.
Confronted by the evidence, all six prisoners admitted to breaking into the apartment with the intention of robbing Madame Foucherand. Things got out of hand when she resisted, and theystarted to beat her. Gaumet and the gang’s leader, Émile Nouguier, got particularly out of control: Gaumet threw her down and started strangling her, while Nouguier grabbed another part of her throat. Finally, he finished the job by clubbing her with a bottle. Nouguier and Gaumet were sent to the guillotine.The other four received life sentences.
On the morning of his execution Gaumet conveyed a message to Lacassagne. He was so impressed with the power of science, he said, that he wished to donate his skeleton to the professor’s laboratory. It has been hanging in the display case ever since.
Douglas Starr is co-director of the Programin Science Journalism at Boston University. His previous book, BLOOD: An Epic History of Medicine and Commerce, won the Los Angeles Times book award. The book from which this excerpt is drawn, The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science, tells the story of a serial killer and the forensic scientists who brought him to justice. Additional excerpts and a photo gallery can be found at his website: www.douglasstarr.com