The ability to doubt: forensic pioneer, Alexandre Lacassagne.
Subject: Criminal investigation (History)
Forensic scientists (Services)
Forensic scientists (History)
Author: Ramsland, Katherine
Pub Date: 09/22/2006
Publication: Name: The Forensic Examiner Publisher: American College of Forensic Examiners Audience: Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Health; Law; Science and technology Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2006 American College of Forensic Examiners ISSN: 1084-5569
Issue: Date: Fall, 2006 Source Volume: 15 Source Issue: 3
Topic: Event Code: 360 Services information
Persons: Named Person: Lacassagne, Jean Alexandre Eugene; Lacassagne, Jean Alexandre Eugene
Geographic: Geographic Scope: France Geographic Code: 4EUFR France
Accession Number: 150862799
Full Text: In 1885 in Lyon, France, an elderly man was found on the bed in his locked bedroom with a wound to his head and his hand firmly grasping a pistol. There was no evidence that anyone had forcibly entered the room, and two physicians called to the scene stated that the manner of death was clearly suicide. However, when the professor of medicine from the University of Lyon, Dr. Jean Alexandre Eugene Lacassagne, examined the scene, he noticed something odd. The bed linens had been pulled over the dead man's arms, a difficult feat for someone who has just put a bullet through his brain. On closer examination, Lacassagne noticed other items indicating that the scene had probably been staged: the man's eyes were closed and his skin lacked the usual gunpowder burns that resulted from a close-range shot.

Years before the publication of the first story featuring Sherlock Holmes, Lacassagne believed that it was imperative to use observation and critical examination to get the big picture before he made a judgment. He knew from his experience working on corpses how suicide-by-gunshot should appear, and he was convinced that the weapon was held too far away. Yet Lacassagne was not certain about the relationship between violent deaths and eyelids, so he questioned a number of nurses. They said that only in natural deaths had they seen the eyes closed; in contrast, sudden or violent deaths generally resulted in the eyes remaining open, even staring. Assured that he was on the right track, Lacassagne turned his attention to the revolver in the dead man's hand. Such a tight grip would be difficult to achieve by placing the weapon there after death, but he considered several possible scenarios and then collected data from an experiment.

He requested that other medical personnel inform him immediately whenever someone died in the area, and he would then go to the scene to attempt to place an object into the decedent's hand in a grip as tight as what he had observed with the elderly man. He learned that a dead hand, immediately postmortem, could indeed be made to grip something, though not tightly. However, once the early stages of rigor mortis set in, a gun placed in an initially loose grip could become more tightly clasped. Relying on the evidence, his experiments, and his own reasoning, Lacassagne decided that the elderly man had been murdered. The police turned their attention toward the victim's son as an obvious suspect. It seemed that while he'd hoped to dispatch the man, the slight degree of fondness he felt had compelled him to close his father's eyes and cover him. The son was tried and convicted on Lacassagne's findings; had the police relied only on the doctors who had performed a cursory examination, this killer would have gotten away with his crime.

In his day, due to his careful work, prestigious university position, and authoritative bearing, Lacassagne became a celebrity investigator. Born in 1843, he had attended military school and qualified as a surgeon, becoming an army physician in North Africa. There he developed an interest in pathology and the identification of the dead and was especially adept at the interpretation of wounds and casualties from violent incidents. In 1878, when he was 35, Lacassagne published Precis de Medicine, which helped him obtain a teaching position at the Institute of Medicine at the university, which was established 2 years later.

He was an obsessive learner who read documents from a variety of fields, and because his knowledge proved comprehensive he won the respect of colleagues in other disciplines. Yet he remained ever cognizant of the limitations of medicine, and he exercised doubt about even the most seemingly obvious situations so as not to miss the tiny clues that could produce a more accurate opinion. By the time he retired in 1921, he donated his impressive collection of over 12,000 books.

Lacassagne's most memorable contributions derived from his work in pathology, notably his observation of the stages of death. Many 19th-century pathologists believed that the time of death could easily and accurately be determined by measuring body temperature and the stages of rigor mortis and lividity, but the more homicide cases they saw, the less certain they were. It took physicians as observant as Lacassagne to recognize and admit that the interpretation of decomposition and other postmortem indicators was not sufficiently reliable to be deemed a science. There were too many environmental and individual variables. Nevertheless, he spent considerable time making calculations from the dead for a better understanding of the postmortem interval.

Lacassagne also made a contribution to several areas of investigation. Among them was the field of ballistics. After removing a bullet from a victim during an . autopsy in 1889, he noticed longitudinal grooves on its surface and counted them; there were seven. Then he examined the barrels of several pistols that belonged to the various suspects and identified the one he believed had been used to commit the murder--the only one with seven grooves. Its owner was convicted. While this kind of analysis was primitive and could easily have been wrong, the early scientists--mostly physicians, pathologists, and chemists--were at least moving in the right direction.

One of the first cases in which hair was carefully analyzed also involved Lacassagne. In August 1889, the decomposed nude body of a bearded, dark-haired man was found near Le Tour de Millery, France, 10 miles from Lyon. It had been wrapped in oilcloth and placed headfirst inside a canvas bag. Dr. Paul Bernard, who had once studied with Lacassagne, examined the corpse with some difficulty because it was in an advanced state of decomposition and had a terrible odor, but he estimated the victim's age to have been around 35. He also thought, but could not be certain, that the man had died by strangulation because the larynx showed two breaks. Around the same time a wooden trunk, broken into pieces and smelling distinctly of decomposition, turned up not far away; it bore a shipping date from Paris that was difficult to read. Investigators speculated on whether it might be associated with the deceased, and a key found near the area where the corpse was dumped fit the lock, clinching the connection. They started to work on learning when the box and body had been shipped.

The corpse was not identified as a local resident, so the press picked up the story and it reached the ears of Assistant Superintendent Marie-Francois Goron at the Surete in Paris. He looked through his reports on missing persons and came across the name of Toussaint-Augsent Gouffe, a known womanizer whose brother-in-law had reported that he had not been seen since July 27. Gouffe was a 49-year-old court bailiff with an office in the neighborhood of Montmartre, and during the investigation Goron had learned that a strange man had entered Gouffe's office on July 26 and left in a hurry without stating his business. Because Gouffe's financial affairs were in order and there appeared to be no reason that he might flee town or kill himself, Goron paid more attention to the case.

He sent Gouffe's brother-in-law to Lyon to look at the remains found there, which were stored on an odiferous barge converted into a morgue. The man looked at the black-haired, rotting corpse for as long as he could bear and stated that because Gouffe had chestnut-brown hair, it was not him. The unidentified decedent was finally buried, while Gouffe remained missing.

However, Goron thought there were too many circumstances in common for the cases to be unrelated, so he persisted. A Lyon cab driver claimed to have picked up a heavy trunk from the railroad station on July 6, along with three men who had asked him to take them to the vicinity of Millery. They'd left the trunk there, returned to Lyon, and were arrested for robbery. Thus, since this all occurred before Gouffe had disappeared, the corpse that had clearly been in the trunk could not be the missing Parisian. But Goron was not convinced that this ended the case. He learned that Gouffe had been seen with a man named Michel Eyraud, a known pimp and scam artist, and Eyraud's mistress, Gabrielle Bompard. Both had also vanished from Paris on July 27. Then the police managed to track the trunk to a shipping agent whose records indicated that it had been sent to Lyon on July 27. Goron was now certain that the corpse was their missing citizen, especially after the cab driver admitted that he had fabricated his tale about the trunk.

Goron asked Dr. Bernard for a sample of the dead man's hair, kept in a test tube, and immersed it in distilled water. The "black" hair, now free of grime and crusted blood, turned out to be chestnut brown, the color of Gouffe's hair, so Goron petitioned for an exhumation and invited Lacassagne to make an opinion. (Some sources indicate that Lacassagne is the one who washed the hair.)

Knowing that a bungled autopsy cannot be revised, Lacassagne performed a re-autopsy as best he could on November 12, 1889, removing the putrid flesh to examine the bones. He noted with dismay that Bernard, his own former student, had smashed the skull and sliced so ineptly through the flesh that much of it was damaged. It took Lacassagne 11 days to make his way through the putrid remains. His colleague, Dr. Etienne Rollet, had recently published a method for determining the size of a body from the bones, so Lacassagne relied on these calculations to state that the man had once been about 5 ft. 8 in., which matched Gouffe's military record. Under a microscope, compared hair removed from Got hairbrush with selected hairs from the corpse. Their thickness corresponded exactly, and another type of analysis showed that no hair dye had been used. In addition, the corpse had a deformity in the bone of the right knee from an accumulation of fluid, which corresponded to a limp that the missing Gouffe was known. to have (his doctor also confirmed treatment for water on the knee). Wear on the dentine of the teeth and an accumulation of tartar revealed a man closer to 50 than 35, and Gouffe had been 49. Lacassagne also re-examined the bones of the throat and found the two breaks, which confirmed some type of strangulation as the cause of death, and he believed it was done manually. On November 21, Lacassagne said to Goron and his associates, "Messieurs, I herewith present you with Monsieur Gouffe."

Once Gouffe's identity was established, the police set out to find his killer, and it proved to be an ingenious bit of work. Goron had a replica of the steamer trunk built and placed in the Paris morgue for the public to see. Twenty-five thousand people filed past. When no one offered useful information, a photograph was published in newspapers abroad. A Frenchman in London who saw it recalled meeting a father and daughter who had purchased one like it. This information was publicized as well, and Goron subsequently received a 20-page letter from Michel Eyraud, then in New York. He accused his mistress, Gabrielle Bompard, of the murder, and she arrived in Goron's office to implicate them both in the grifting scheme. They had killed the man, she admitted, attempting to hang him but finally strangling him with their hands (as Lacassagne indicated). Their trial was brief, and both were convicted. Eyraud was executed, and Bompard was given a prison sentence.

During Eyraud's execution, peddlers sold tiny replicas of the trunk with lead corpses inside, bearing the inscription, "L'Affaire Gouffe." This case was widely publicized, turning forensic pathology into a public sensation. The careful unraveling of the mystery and the collective persistence of brilliant minds gave the struggling discipline of forensic science a real boost.

After his involvement in this incident, Lacassagne's fame spread internationally, so people listened when he introduced new ideas into other forensic arenas. He analyzed blood stains at crime scenes and studied the criminal psyche. He was also invited to analyze criminal suspects and offer his opinion. In 1897 a tramp from southwestern France named Joseph Vacher was accused of crimes against 14 people, including 11 murders. The police also believed he had raped as many as 40 children. Vacher had been arrested after a 17-year-old shepherd was found strangled and stabbed, with his belly ripped open, and Vacher, 29, offered a written confession in which he claimed to suffer from an irresistible impulse that drove him to commit murder. Having been bitten by a rabid dog when he was a child, he insisted that his blood had been poisoned. He admitted that as his victims died, he drank blood from their necks.

A team of doctors, including Lacassagne, examined the defendant for 5 months, learning from relatives and associates about his "confused talk," spells of delirium, persecution mania, and violent history. Indeed, 3 years earlier he had been treated in an asylum after he killed a woman and had sex with her corpse, and it was also known that he'd removed the genitalia from several children. Lacassagne nevertheless decided that Vacher was faking a mental illness. Because the assailant's memory was clear about the crimes and because he had run off after committing them, he demonstrated sufficient awareness to be judged sane and thus responsible for what he had done. In 1898 in court, Lacassagne demonstrated how he believed the defendant had carried out the crimes and Vacher reportedly said, "He's very good." Indeed, Lacassagne's reputation and commanding stance helped to convict Vacher, who was executed 2 months later by guillotine.

Lacassagne's interest in criminology had a long history. A once-avid student of the works of Italian criminal anthropologist Cesare Lombroso, who believed that criminal types could be recognized via bodily "maps," Lacassagne redirected the discipline by noting sociological influences. He formed a group of professionals around his own ideas, becoming famous for the comment, "Societies have the criminals they deserve." While he believed that disease and addiction, passed on to successive generations, could cause mental and physical degeneracy, other factors such as poverty and social marginalization were also involved. In fact, in a speech given in 1881, he stated that the fight against criminality was the physician's social responsibility. "At the present time, it will be the physicians, once again, who will show judges that some criminals are incorrigible [and] some are organically bad, defective individuals...." Lacassagne came to realize that, contrary to the ideas of physical anthropologists, criminals appeared physically normal but for various reasons were vulnerable to corrupting social influences. "The criminal is a microbe," he said, "that proliferates only in a certain environment." He then launched a journal, Archives de l'anthropologie criminelle, to discuss social initiatives to ease crime.

In addition to making analyses, Lacassagne also instigated the earliest criminal autobiographies. He encouraged a number of prisoners to write about themselves, and each week he checked their notebooks, correcting and guiding these men and women toward some revealed insight. He found that their family histories were full of violence, tension, and disease. Interestingly, these prisoners seemed eager to contribute to the new science of the criminal type and some even critiqued the theories. Lacassagne, who always collected data before offering a theory, is to be credited for his contributions to many forensic techniques.

Works Consulted

Becker, P., & Wetzell, R. F. (2006). Criminals and their scientists: The history of criminology in international perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Evans, C. (2004). The second casebook of forensic detection. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons.

Lane, B. (1994). The encyclopedia of forensic science. London: Magpie Books.

Thorwald, J. (1964). The century of the detective. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

von Krafft-Ebing, R. (1928). Psychopathia sexualis with especial reference to the antipathic sexual instinct: A medico-forensic (Rev. ed.). Philadelphia: Physicians and Surgeons.

Wilson, C., & Wilson, D. (2003). Written in blood: A history of forensic detection. New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers.

Katherine Ramsland, PhD, CMIV, has published 27 books including The Human Predator: A Historical Chronicle of Serial Murder and Forensic Investigation. Dr. Ramsland is an assistant professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University in Pennsylvania. She is a Certified Medical Investigator (CMI-V) and has been a member of the American College of Forensic Examiners since 1998.
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