The Execution of Joseph Vacher

Joseph Vacher (1869 – 1898) was a French serial killer who is often referred to as “The French Jack the Ripper.”

Between 1894 and 1897, he murdered and mutilated at least eleven people, some accounts claim that the number of his victims may have been as high as twenty-seven, the majority of them adolescent boys and girls, a large percentage of whom were shepherds and agricultural workers.

A photograph of Joseph Vacher.
Joseph Vacher


In 1897 Vacher attacked a woman who was gathering wood in a field in Ardèche, in south-central France.

However, she put up a fight, and her screams were heard by her son and husband who both came to her rescue.

They succeeded in overpowering Vacher and took him to the police.

Despite being convinced that Vacher was the man responsible for the spate of murders that had terrorised France over the previous three years, the police had almost no evidence that actually linked him to the crimes.

But, under interrogation, Vacher finally confessed, telling the officer who was interrogating him that he had committed all the murders “in moments of frenzy.”

The South Wales Daily News carried the following summary of his life and murderous campaign on Thursday, 14th October, 1897:-


The perpetrator of a terrible series of crimes has, at last, confessed his guilt.

A French Jack the Ripper has been discovered, and he admits having perpetrated eight of the most wanton and bloodthirsty murders it is possible to imagine.


Towards the end of 1894, a girl named Louise Marcel, aged 13, a shepherdess, living at Vaquiere, in the department of the Var, was found dead in a wood. Her throat was found to be cut, her breasts literally gouged out, and her body mutilated in the same fashion as adopted by the Whitechapel Jack the Ripper with his victims.

This was in November 1894, and all efforts to trace the murderer were of no avail, when on May 12th, 1895, a somewhat similar crime was perpetrated at Etaules, near Dijon.

In this case, a girl of 17 years of age, Augustine Mortueux, was murdered on the public highway, but was not mutilated to such an extent as to render it impossible to ascertain that a criminal outrage had been attempted.


On August 24th of the same year, a widow, aged 65, named Moraud, was foully murdered in the early morning at her isolated cottage in the province of Savoy. Her throat was cut from ear to ear, and the victim was violated.

One week later, day for day, a 16-year-old lad, named Portalier, employed as a shepherd, was murdered in the open fields at Benonces in daylight. With a most ghastly nonchalance, the assassin set to work to carve the body up as though he were cutting a sheep, and left the horrible remnants strewn about.

This crime, by the way, was enacted in the department of the Ain, and it is a singular thing that, although the murders followed each other with such startling rapidity, no two were committed in the same province.

Four weeks afterwards Pierre Massot Pellet, also a shepherd, aged 14 years, was murdered in the mountainous country near St. Etienne de Boulogne, in the department of Ardeche. He was frightfully mutilated after death.

The next victim was a young girl named Lorut, aged 19, she was newly married, and was violated and killed in a field while occupied in tending some cattle.

This occurred in the department of Allier, a year and a fortnight after the murder of young Pellet.


The next was a very similar case.

A little 14-year-old girl named Rosina Rodier was watching the flocks three weeks later in a field within a hundred yards of the village of Varenne Saint Honorat, in the Haute Loire, when she was assassinated without anybody in the neighbourhood noticing the aggression. Her throat was cut to the vertebral column, and her trunk was mutilated as in many of the previous cases.

Then the murderer took another long rest, and the next, and eighth, crime was not committed until June 19th of the present year, when a youngster named Laurent, aged 14, also a shepherd, was murdered and mutilated at Courzon-la-Giraudiere, near Lyons.


It was after this crime that an arrest was made, but even then the accused was not suspected of complicity in the seven preceding horrors which had been enacted at spots so many hundreds of miles apart in Central and Southern France.

A man named Joseph Vacher, born at Beaufort, in the department of Isere, on November 16th, 1869, fell into the hands of the Tournon police on a charge of indecent behaviour.

The examining magistrate, into whose hands the case was put, was not satisfied with knowing that Vacher was sentenced to imprisonment for the offence on which he was arrested, but thinking that he struck a resemblance between the prisoner and the man whose description had been circulated two years before as the presumed murderer of the lad Portalier, he had Vacher transferred to Belley for inquiries.


Probably imagining that there was some valid reason for his transfer to Belley, the accused endeavoured to commit suicide en route. He sprang to the door of the railway carriage and succeeded in opening it before the gendarmes were able to interfere. They caught him by the feet and held him until the guard was communicated with and the train brought to a standstill.

This attempted suicide satisfied the examining magistrate that something was wrong, so he got together all the persons who could speak to the murder of young Portalier.

They identified Vacher as a man who had been seen wandering about Benonces the night before the murder.

Although he was still disposed to deny the crime, the proofs were so convincing that he ended by making a full confession.


Vacher has all the appearances of a sick man, and impresses one unfavourably. He is of middle height. Until the age of 18, he was brought up in a Catholic school at Saint Genis, Laval.

In 1890, he enlisted in the 60th Regiment of the line, where his conduct was so good that he became a non-commissioned officer after two years’ service.

He made the acquaintance of a young woman at Beaune, and was engaged to marry her, when suddenly she threw him over without giving any reason.

Very upset at the disappointment, he attempted to murder the girl by firing four revolver shots at her, but did not injure her.

He then fired the two remaining shots into his own body and, according to his own statement, the bullets have never been extracted.


Vacher’s next experience was in the lunatic asylums at Dole and Saint Robert (Isere).

Quitting the latter institution in April, 1894, he then commenced his life of vagabondage and crime.

For three years he begged from one farm and another, never working, assaulting women whenever he met them alone in the roads and fields, and if necessary, murdering them.

He was twice convicted in that period, once for being abroad without visible means of subsistence, and a second time for attempting to criminally assault a young girl.


Vacher is evidently out of his mind.

He says that God has called upon him to commit murders:-  “I cannot help killing when the fit seizes me, and I feel so much better after doing so, that I cannot but be glad. I do not search for my victims, but Heaven help those who cross my path when I am in the mood.”

He confesses to all of the eight crimes, and adds that he simply washed away the blood from his hands and clothes in the gutters and streams.”


Vacher claimed insanity as his defence, but, following a rigorous examination by a panel of doctors, he was declared sane and was subsequently convicted of his terrible crimes.

He was executed by guillotine at dawn on the 31st of December, 1898.

An illustration showing the execution of Vacher.
The Execution of Joseph Vacher. From The Illustrated Police Budget, 14th January, 1899. Copyright the British Library Board.


The Illustrated Police Budget published the following account of his execution on Saturday, 14th January, 1899:-

“M. DZIELBE, the executioner, has now finished his career by guillotining Vacher, the French Jack the Ripper, whose head fell on the Champ de Mars, at Bourg.

The felon was called at a quarter-past six in the morning, and heard his doom with apparent indifference.

He refused to confess to the chaplain, and asserted that he had committed no crimes, being, on the contrary, a pure and innocent victim of society.


He said that he would hear mass, however, if he were carried to the chapel, so two turnkeys conveyed him thither; but he changed his mind at the door of the place and refused to enter.

The executioner’s assistants then took hold of him and cut off the collar of his shirt.

Vacher complimented himself on having parted with his beard a few days since, so as to be in better trim for what he called the ceremony.

He was much disgusted when told that Mazoyer, another murderer, was reprieved, and complained that he was being offered up to expiate the crimes of fin-de-siecle France.

When in the vehicle which was taking him to the Champ de Mars, Vacher again rejected the services of the chaplain, and said that he wanted to prepare an address to the people before he was dispatched to the other world.


The people were, in the meantime, only anxious to see his head chopped off, and shouted, “Monster!” and “Murderer!” as he approached the place of execution.

Vacher refused to budge when the car stopped, and was told that if he did not get up he would not be allowed to address the crowd.

“I don’t want to address them,” he replied, “and so much the worse for society.”


So saying, he threw himself down, face foremost, on the floor of the vehicle; but was soon carried by Deibler’s son and the other assistant, Berger, towards the guillotine, groaning and shouting, while the people, in their turn, uttered cries of “Cut off his head!” “The coward!” “The ripper!”


At last the man was put on the bascule by force, and Deibler got the knife down without a hitch.

The head rolled, not into a basket, but a coffin supplied by Vacher’s sister, and the people clapped their hands and cried “Bravo!”

The postmortem examination was held at the Hotel Dieu of Bourg, and the doctors came to the conclusion that the brain was that of s perfectly sane person.

The body was buried in the local cemetery, but the head has been brought to Paris, for deposit in the Dupuytrien Museum attached to the School of Medicine.”