Authors: Geoffrey C. Bunn
It was a simple step to consider the “dangerous classes” in terms of their deterioration to an earlier stage of biological development, most famously in B. A. Morel's influential
Treatise on the Physical, Intellectual and Moral Degeneration of the Human Race
of 1857. An extended allegory of the Fall, Morel explained how God's original creation could have become corrupted over
countless generations. Included in his theory was a Lamarkian account of the origins of stigmataâdegenerated physiological and anatomical characteristics: “When under any kind of noxious influences an organism becomes debilitated, its successors will not resemble the healthy, normal type of the species, with capacities for development, but will form a new sub-species, which, like all others, possesses the capacity of transmitting to its offspring, in a continuously increasing degree, its peculiarities, these being morbid deviations from the normal formâgaps in development, malformations and infirmities.”
Morel's theory facilitated the entry of “moral insanity” into criminological discourse, a term that was soon part of the language of mental disease.
Initially coined to label offenders whose behavior appeared mad while their minds remained sane, moral insanity was transformed into a standard, if contested, psychiatric term by James Prichard's
A Treatise on Insanity
Morally insane defendants should be sent to the asylum, not the gallows, Prichard argued. Thought to affect the emotions and the will rather than the intellect, moral insanity was a catalyst for psychiatry's redefinition of madness as loss of control.
As the nineteenth century progressed, “characterizations of deviance and crime moved from moral to natural categories â¦ [appearing] more deeply rooted within the offender's nature than in the moral consciousness or the rational intellect.”
By the early twentieth century, the explanation of crime in terms of moral weakness had been replaced by scientific, bureaucratic, and literary discourses that privileged naturalistic explanations.
Yet the emphasis on naturalistic causality led to an increase, not a decrease, in the opportunities for governanceâthe targeting of the criminal's body and mind by mechanisms of regulation and control.
An important stimulus for criminology's concept of inherent criminality was phrenology, the art of reading character from the contours of the skull.
Emphasizing observation and reasoning about empirical facts rather than divine revelation, it brought about one of the most radical reorientations of ideas about crime and punishment in the Western tradition.
As one leading exponent put it in 1836, the science “explains and proves the fact of some individuals being naturally more prone to crime than others.”
A popular science, phrenology was also a technology of self-fashioning and personal transformation.
Although only a few phrenological works were exclusively devoted to crime and punishment,
phrenological periodicals regularly featured extensive discussions of case studies of notorious thieves and murderers. Most phrenological practitioners were interested in the criminal. Phrenology's
founder, Franz Josef Gall, left a collection of skulls and casts of heads and brains consisting of “103 famous men, 69 criminals, 67 mental patients, 35 pathological cases and 25 exotics (non-European races).”
The anonymous author of
The Philosophy of Phrenology Simplified
(1838) discussed the skulls of two infamous villains: one of the grave robber and murderer William Hare (of “Burke and Hare” fame), whose “acts were such as to fill every well constituted mind with horror and disgust”; the other of Pope Alexander VI, a man whose “life was a series of crimes” and whose character was “grossly bestial, without a redeeming amiable quality.”
Of two women in confinement, the author explained, one imprisoned for stealing, the other for concealing the stolen articles, “the former will have the organ of Acquisitiveness larger â¦ while the second will have the organ of Secretiveness much developed.” The “chief of a robber band” would have enlarged organs of Self-Esteem and Determinateness whereas the “habitual vagabond thief” could be distinguished from “a coiner of false money by his having, besides the organ of Acquisitiveness, the organ of Locality larger, and smaller organs of Cautiousness and Constructiveness.”
Thomas Stone, President of the Royal Medical Society, presented data to suggest that Burke's organ of Benevolence was “both
above the average size of the same organ” found among a group of thirty-seven law-abiding citizens. Stone considered the claim made by “some of the most distinguished of the Edinburgh Phrenologists â¦ that â¦ Burke was really a benevolent man” patently absurd: “to argue the point seriously would be to indulge in one of the severest satires that can be conceived, on the incongruity of the phrenological doctrines.”
In principle many of the phrenological faculties or “organs,” either enlarged or diminished, were believed to predispose an individual toward criminal acts. A robber of churches, for example, would likely be thought to have a smaller organ of Veneration compared to a humble purse-snatcher. Veneration was considered one of two mental organs that were damaged when an iron rod pierced Phineas Gage's brain in a dreadful railway accident in 1848.
The injured laborer's subsequent descent into crime was explained in phrenological terms. Quiet and respectful before the injury, after he recovered Gage became “gross, profane, coarse, and vulgarâ¦ . The iron rod passed through the regions of benevolence and veneration, which left these organs without influence in his character, hence his profanity, and want of respect and kindness; giving the animal propensities absolute control in his character.”
Gall proposed that the faculties of greed, self-defense, and the “carnivorous instinct” could lead to theft, aggression, and murder respectively.
organ was thought to be especially relevant to the discussion of criminality: Destructiveness, the faculty that Gall called “the organ of Murder.”
One of the “affective propensities,” a developed organ of Destructiveness could apparently be found among enthusiasts of hunting and shooting, and “those fond of attending executions, cock-fighting, and such amusements as lead to the severe punishment or probable death of animals.”
George Combe, whose
Constitution of Man
(1828) did much to popularize the science, suggested that the faculty produced “the impulse, attended with desire to destroy in general.”
Conspicuous “in the heads of cool and deliberate murderers, and in persons delighting in cruelty,” it was also evidently enlarged among satirists, especially those authors “who write cuttingly, with a view to lacerate the feelings of their opponents.”
Phrenology's flexible explanatory system was part of its great appeal.
The work of the Liverpool phrenologist Frederick Bridges illustrates many of the science's assumptions and valuesânot to mention its popularity. In his
Criminals, Crimes, and Their Governing Laws, as Demonstrated by the Sciences of Physiology and Mental Geometry
(1860), Bridges protested that the topic had “hitherto, been treated by the fallacious methods of scholastic metaphysics.” This error “rendered it impossible to deduce any sound practical system of treatment of this greatly mistaken class of unfortunate beings.”
Basing his ideas instead “upon the order of nature,” Bridges argued that a symmetrical balancing of propensities was necessary for mental harmony and “moral self-government.” Were a person's animal propensities and instincts to preponderate over their moral and intellectual faculties, violence and criminality would ensue. “A very large head,” wrote Bridges, “where the organism is badly proportioned is a sure sign of a weak character.”
Bridges invented a “Phreno-physiometer” to assess the extent of any disequilibrium, an instrument that measured the angle subtended by a line drawn from the opening of the ear to the eyebrow and the horizontal. The angle, which he called the “basilar phreno-metrical,” allowed Bridges to infer the class a criminal belonged to, “whether it be that of the murderer, the freebooter, the petty thief, the swindler, or the mental and moral class.” Bridges hoped his scheme would be of great practical importance in education and the treatment of criminals.
Bridges claimed to have discovered a natural system for classifying criminals. In murderers the angle was thought to be around 40Âº, in the law-abiding it was a mere 25Âº. Too small an angle would produce a “tame and useless” person. Bridges predicted that a parcel boyâwhose basilar phreno-metrical he measured to be 38Âºâwould go on to “commit some most diabolical outrage.” The boy later set fire to a small child. He also recounted the execution of a certain “Dove of York,” who had been convicted of poisoning his wife. Having measured the executed man's basilar phreno-metrical to be 40Â°, Bridges concluded, “the reflective faculties and moral feelings of the culprit were so small that he was rendered idiotic.” “The type of his head is that of a low, vicious, partially mental and moral idiot, who ought not to have been allowed personal liberty.”
The configuration of his brain, furthermore, did “not range much higher than that of the black monkey.”
The result was that in Bridges' opinion the execution had been an illegitimate “legal murder.”
The “basilar phreno-metrical angle” allowed Frederick Bridges to determine which criminal class a person belonged to, “whether it be that of the murderer, the freebooter, the petty thief, the swindler.” Frederick Bridges,
Criminals, Crimes, and Their Governing Laws, as Demonstrated by the Sciences of Physiology and Mental Geometry
(London: George, Philip and Son, 1860).
According to George Combe, because a single mental faculty could become diseased “moral patients â¦ should not be punished, but restrained, and employed in useful labour during life, with as much liberty as they can enjoy without abusing it.”
Phrenologists also argued against debilitating punishments such as the whip, treadmill, and solitary confinement. They favored prison reform and opposed the death penalty on the grounds that it brutalized onlookers. Some also lobbied for an end to transportation to the colonies, a measure they regarded as devoid of reformative value.
The origin of phrenology's reformist agenda lay in its conviction that the human mind had a certain inherent plasticity and could be improved with the appropriate techniques.
The notion that the faculties could be changed accounts for the science's enormous appeal among artisans and the aspirational classes.
This ethic provided middle-class reformers “with exactly the science they needed to fight their jurisprudential and penological crusades.”
Phrenologists were active in a wide range of reformist projects such as the slavery abolition movement, temperance movement, and public health campaigns. The science, thus, played an important role in the reform of criminal jurisprudence, opposing retribution and deterrence in favor of reformation.
In Britain, phrenology was but one project among manyâsuch as vegetarianism and sexual purityâthat sought to assemble character in alignment with the values of duty, citizenship, integrity, and, above all, self help.
Character was not fixed by nature, but was considered to be malleable and susceptible to moral training. For early Victorians, the ambition to build character permeated every field of understanding of human nature, society, and public policymaking.
Because it resulted from defective self-management, crime could be treated by developing the offender's psychological capabilities. By the 1860s, the law was being used with increasing consistency as an instrument for developing character and self discipline. The effect of this “civilizing
process” was to center the criminal justice system on the ideal of the self-restrained responsible individual.
In his 1869 defense of phrenology, the Coventry philanthropist and “phreno-socialist” Charles Bray reported that the science had influenced at least one senior police officer: “Our most respectable and highly intelligent superintendent of police I found had long been a phrenologist without knowing it. In choosing his men he said he rejected small heads, and chose overhanging foreheads and high heads, as far removed as possible from the criminal type, with which he seemed to be perfectly familiar.”
Bray approved of this method of selection for the law-abiding but lamented its neglect elsewhere. He reported that as early as 1836 Sir G. S. Mackenzie had unsuccessfully advocated the use of phrenology in the classification of criminals. Mackenzie had petitioned Lord Glenelg, then Secretary to the Colonies: “At present,” [Mackenzie] said, “they are shipped off, and distributed to the settlers, without the least regard to their character or history.” “There ought,” he said, “to be an officer qualified to investigate the history of convicts, and to select them on phrenological principles. That such principles are the only secure grounds on which the treatment of convicts can be founded; proof may be demanded, and it is ready for production.”
“Of course,” Bray complained, “the prayer of Sir George Mackenzie's petition could not be granted. What would all the parsons have said to the doctrine, that the âdifferences in moral character are now ascertained to be the effects of difference in organisation!'”