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Professor Alexandre Lacassagne – a real Sexton Blake

Found in the endless Haining archive, an article cut from The Union Jack Detective Supplement, undated but about 1925. Peter Haining was a collector of Sexton Blake books so this piece on the scientific / forensic detective Professor Alexandre Lacassagne (1843-1924) would have interested him.

A Real Sexton Blake

By Donald Campbell.

They read like improbabilities, the achievements of this real-life Sexton Blake. But we credit them when we see the working methods of Professor Lacassagne, who has recently died.

  A few weeks ago there died at Lyons one of the greatest scientists of his own kind in the world.
This was Professor Alexandre Lacassagne, honorary professor to the Faculty of Medicine, who passed away at the ripe old age of eighty-two. He was the first man in Europe to apply science to detective work. He served as an officer in the army of Napoleon III., and fought through the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.He was taken prisoner. When released he was attached to the Bataillons d’Afrique, then a species of depot for all the rough characters who came to do their military service, usually very much against their wills.
  First he merely studied characters, but afterwards the real criminals, and specialized offenders who came under his treatment.

  His representations to the French War Office undoubtedly saved many half-witted unfortunates and men who were of weak mind or physique, from harsh punishment.
  Lacassagne was no idle sentimentalist. When he left the Army, he applied himself seriously to criminal detection.
  The very astute French secret police noted this, and soon called upon his services, naming him chief “medecinlegiste,” or medical expert.
  There had been a series of ghastly murders in France, and Lacassagne was given a free hand. There was no sneering at his new methods, for the police saw that here was a man who knew more than they did.
  He began by using the microscope and other instruments, which latter he had personally devised for his work. Also, he would reconstitute the crime. His knowledge of anthropology and medicine was combined with an extraordinary acquaintance with the habits and methods of the criminal, whether a professional or a crazy type, which usually murders in a certain fashion.
  He was put on to three cases which had baffled the French police for their apparent “absence of motive,” which is the first thing to be considered by the Surete.
  It was he who determined the guilt of Vacher, the murderer of shepherds; of Vidal, the woman-killer, a French Jack-the-Ripper; and of an assassin named Gouffe.
  Besides this work, he had another side, and published a little book on how to attain a ripe old age. He put his own precepts into practice, and succeeded well.
  Lacassagne had all the stern logic of the well-educated Frenchman, with all the pet manias that most great men of science are prone to have.
  His analysis of the famous Court scandal in Berlin of twenty years ago, is one of the most fearful indictments of the Prussian nobility ever made. It could not be published in English, not even in a medical paper, yet it was proved to be true, as the evidence which came out afterwards in the famous Eulenburg case made manifest.
  Lacassagne was the father of modern scientific detection.
  He kept abreast of all discoveries, and some of his deductions were marvelous. He was called at one time the Wizard of Crime. Nowadays, his methods are known to all well-trained detectives, but not all his discoveries.
  It is doubtful if even the foremost experts of to-day can equal Lacassagne as a “re-constructor” of crime.
  The French scientist would give a rough opinion after a hasty survey. He would then examine the premises where, say, a murder had been committed, and shut himself up in his laboratory while a staff of detectives waited outside. Every now and again, his elderly housekeeper would bustle out with a hastily-scribbled message, and a sleuth would depart on an errand.
  Some of Lacassagne’s instructions seemed absurd to the professional crime-hunters, but they had to admit that he had excellent method in his madness. He would send a man to a certain village to find if a left-handed, red-headed man lived there. This would seem elemental nowadays, but in those times it almost smacked of wizardry; yet it was simple enough, as the professor would explain in the lectures he would give after the investigations and the trial.
  I do not know of one instance of Lacassagne failing, when he had been called in within a reasonable limit of time.
  He was responsible for the police axiom: “Never touch the body until a trained investigator has arrived on the scene and given you permission to do so.” And also this: “More successful criminals can bless the over-enthusiastic detective for their escapes than they can credit their ingenuity.”
  Lacassagne put his own health precepts into such good practice that he would probably be alive today, if he had not met with a motor accident when insisting on crossing a street alone a few weeks ago. The after-effects of this were too much for the octogenarian.
  He did not believe in the “born criminal type.” but always sought to find out the circumstances which induced the offender to perpetrate his misdeed. He was sympathetic and not a “man-hunter.”
  In fact, it is largely owing to him that French treatment of arrested offenders has been humanized, except in the penal settlements. More consideration is given in France to the mental physical condition of the accused than in this country. This is often abused, yet it is the first step to more humane justice–as several of our English judges and police magistrates believe, and have sown in recent summings-up and sentences.
  To the student of criminology with a working knowledge of French, there can be no more interesting study than that of the late professor’s magazine, “Les Annales de l’Anthropologie Criminelle.”
Some of his theories are very astonishing, but the old gentleman would not brook contradiction about them. Like most celebrated scientists, he was, as I have already hinted, exceedingly dogmatic. After all, if he has been mistaken in some ways, he should nevertheless be saluted as one of the foremost pioneers of humane punishment and discriminating detection.

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