here - Douglas Starr

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here - Douglas Starr
BOOKS & ARTS
The case of a
French serial
killer in the 1890s
helped bring about
modern forensic
science.
NOTA BENE
B18
Archives of Criminal Anthropology, which quickly established
itself as the leading journal in
the field of criminal science.
Autopsies, procedures once
primitive and haphazard, were
paragons of precision and innovation under Lacassagne.
To better understand his
work, Starr sat in on autopsies,
an experience that gave him
nightmares. One of the bodies
was badly decomposed. “The
stench is even worse than the
appearance,” Starr writes. “It
is a mixture of every repulsive
odor in the world—excrement, rotted meat, swamp
water, urine—and invades the
sinuses by full frontal assault,
as though penetrating through
the bones of the face.” (Lacassagne and his colleagues, mind
you, worked with no mask, no
gloves, and often in hot, unventilated rooms.)
Vacher, who had spent time
in a mental asylum before
his killing spree, was the
first serial killer to claim that
mental illness made him not
responsible for his crimes. His
trial, in 1898, made headlines
around the world. The French
press deemed Vacher “a new
The Granger Collection
Jack the Ripper”; The New
York Times placed him among
“the most extraordinary criminals that has
ever lived.” Lacassagne was assigned to assess
the defendant’s sanity. His work on the case
marked a “golden age” of forensic discovery,
On the afternoon of May 19, 1894, the
Starr writes. “Science had become part of
strangled and stabbed body of a woman was
detective work, used not only to identify the
found in the town of Beaurepaire, France.
‘who,’ ‘when,’ and ‘how’ of a crime but also to
The killer—though the police didn’t yet
deduce the criminal’s mental state based on
know it—was Joseph Vacher, a vagabond who
crime-scene analysis—something unthinkover the next three years would kill at least
able a generation earlier.”
10 more people. Douglas Starr’s gripLacassagne interviewed Vacher for months,
ping nonfiction narrative, The Killer
studied his crimes, and conof Little Shepherds: A
cluded that the defendant’s
True Crime Story and
methodical approach to murder
the Birth of Forensic
represented the actions of a
Science (Knopf), juxtasadistic but sane man. “He is
poses Vacher’s crimes and punresponsible,” Lacassagne told the
ishment with an account of how
court. Vacher met his end at the
science began to grapple with
guillotine.
questions of morality, insanity,
Pieces of his brain were sent to
and culpability. The case helped
half a dozen scientists eager for a
bring to prominence a generalook at the criminal mind. (The
tion of pioneering criminolomost sought-after brains for ceregists, who “opened realms of
bral autopsies, Starr notes, were
discussion formerly reserved for
those of intellectuals. Lacassagne,
priests and philosophers,” writes
for his part, donated his body to
Starr, a professor of journalism
science and was dissected by his
at Boston University and author
former students and colleagues after he died, in
of Blood: An Epic History of Medicine and Com1924.) Analyses of Vacher’s brain were contramerce (Knopf, 1998). “What impulses for
dictory and inconclusive. The mysteries of the
good and evil naturally existed within human
mind, wrote one observer, were “inaccessible
beings? What modified those impulses along
to our sharpest senses, our most perfect instruthe way? What were the limits of free will
ments, and our most subtle methods.”
and sanity? Could the impulse to do evil be
Today our instruments are more sophistiunderstood, predicted, redirected, or cured?”
cated (though not nearly as sophisticated as
Foremost among the criminologists of the
they appear on television shows like CSI). But
era was Alexandre Lacassagne, a scholar of
the big questions—Is there a part of the brain
forensic medicine at the University of Lyon,
that regulates criminal behavior? Are murwho had written numerous popular books
derers born, or are they created?—remain
on criminology and founded, in 1880, the
The Criminal Mind
THE CHRONICLE REVIEW
unanswered. “We will never understand why
people like Vacher arise to bring chaos and
violence into a world that we struggle to keep
orderly and safe,” Starr writes. “We cannot
account for the source of that impulse. We
can only study it and try to keep it at bay.”
All About ‘OK’
From the birth of a science to the birth of
a word. Allan Metcalf’s new book, OK: The
Improbable History of America’s Greatest Word (Oxford University Press), has a lot
to say about “OK.” As the subtitle suggests,
Metcalf, a professor of English at MacMurray College, is a champion of the term. In
an interview, he explains why: “There is no
other word in
the English language that is so
successful, so peculiar, and so absolutely essential
to our everyday
conversations.”
According
to Metcalf,
“OK”—or “o.k.,”
as it initially appeared—made
its printed debut
in a news item
in the March 23, 1839, edition of the Boston
Morning Post. It was defined for the reader
as “all correct.” The 1840 presidential campaign helped secure its place in the American
lexicon because Martin Van Buren’s nickname, Old Kinderhook—a reference to his
hometown, in New York—was commonly
shortened to “O.K.” “If he had been born in
Schenectady, ‘OK’ may never have existed,”
Metcalf says.
The term gained further prominence with
the spread of the telegraph. As a 19th-century
manual informed users, “An acknowledgment
of the receipt of any kind of communication
is made by returning O K.”
In 1858, “OK” went to college. That year
some Harvard University students founded a
literary society, The O.K. At meetings they
debated rhetoric, drank beer, and ate little
cakes cut into the shape of the letters “O” and
“K.” (Theodore Roosevelt was a member.)
Though it was a closely held secret, Metcalf
believes the Harvard “OK” stood for “Orthoepy Klub,” “orthoepy” meaning proper
pronunciation. By the mid-20th century, he
reports, “OK” had become a mainstay in
American fiction.
No one has done more to elevate the place
of “OK” in the culture than Thomas A. Harris, whose 1969 book, I’m OK, You’re OK,
transformed it from a word to a philosophy.
The book—parodied by George Carlin as “I
suck, you suck”—popularized transactional
analysis, a theory of personality that emphasizes human interactions. Few people remember transactional analysis, Metcalf writes,
but the book’s title made “OK” a “two-letter
American philosophy of tolerance, even admiration, for difference.”
Then there is the celebrity-gossip magazine OK! Asked for his scholarly judgment,
Metcalf thinks for a moment: “OK! is very
OK.”
—Evan R. Goldstein
OCTOBER 1, 2010