Authors: Geoffrey C. Bunn
In April 1891, Ronald Fletcher delivered his retiring presidential address to the Anthropological Society of Washington.
Claiming that nothing had yet been published in the United States on criminal anthropology, Fletcher's aim was to give his audience an impartial account of the work of the “New School of Criminal Anthropology.” Conceding that the school was divided whether there was a definite criminal type, “a variety of the human species who has degenerated physically and morally,” Fletcher quoted Lombroso's distinction between the murderer and the thief with approval. Fletcher's description of
the murderer's “cold concentrated look” wouldn't have looked out of place in Bram Stoker's
, which was still some six years away from publication: “Sometimes the eye appears injected with blood; the nose is often aquiline or hooked, always large; the ears are long; the jaws powerful; the cheek-bones widely separated; the hair is crisp and abundant; the canine teeth well developed, and the lips thin; often a nervous tic or contraction, upon one side of the face only, uncovers the canine teeth, producing the effect of a threatening look or a sardonic laugh.” The thief, however, had “less cranial capacity than the Assassin,” as well as “a remarkable mobility of countenance, the eye small and restless, the eye-brows thick and meeting, the nose flat, and the forehead always low and retreating.”
Fletcher was enthusiastic about the successful penal experiments at Elmira, the State Reformatory of New York.
Here, the inmates were taught trades and, proceeding on the assumption that “you cannot have a healthy mind without a healthy body,” provided with a “good diet, athletic exercises, military training, an elaborate system of baths, massage, and other methods known as belonging to scientific gymnastics.” Of 324 inmates paroled during the year, 148 went directly to employment at the trades they had learned in the reformatory. Despite having reformist ambitions for their charges, the prison physician, nevertheless, considered the typical inmate to be “undersized” and anatomically anomalous, “his weight being disproportioned to his height, with a tendency to flat-footedness. He is course [sic] in fiber and heavy in his movements, lacking anatomical symmetry and beauty. The head is markedly asymmetrical, with the facial lines coarse and hard, characteristic of a degenerative physiognomy.”
In 1892, D. G. Brinton explained to readers of
that criminal anthropology was “one of the most actively cultivated and also one of the most immediately practical branches of anthropology.” It consisted of three departments: observation, explanation, and application. While the first noted criminals' “anatomical and physiological peculiarities,” the second attempted to explain such peculiarities by relying on “the laws of heredity, atavism, congenital tendencies, early impressions and pathological sequelae.” Basing itself “on the inferences thus drawn,” the third suggested “modifications in penal laws and the management of reform schools and houses of detention.” So constituted, anthropologists considered the new science to be “the only method of procedure to deal intelligently with the great and growing problem of criminality.”
In 1894 Brinton reported that the American legal profession was “almost unanimously” critical of the notion: “Take, they say, a
dozen criminals as they come into the dock, wash and dress them as neatly, and they will certainly look as well as the dozen men in the jury box impanelled to pronounce upon their misdeeds.”
It was surely the case that many men became criminals “through want, misery and destitution.” But “as many more have not suffered in this manner; and a large class of crimes demand a well-regulated life for their commission.” “Of course,” Brinton concluded, “exception must be made in either case, of mental alienation, idiocy, insanity and the like.” And therein lay the dilemma: despite sounding a note of skepticism about the “so-called âcriminal type,'” Brinton recognized that no one could deny the existence of psychopathology: criminality and insanity were intrinsically linked.
This belief was widely held between 1890 and 1910âthe years when criminal anthropology exerted its greatest influence. Arthur MacDonald's
(1893) was the first work of criminal anthropology in the United States and Philip A. Parsons'
Responsibility for Crime
(1909) one of the last.
Phrenology had already encouraged Americans to link character and morality to biology, and Lamarckian and degenerationist notions had further correlated biology with social progressâand decline. This was a period in which both policing and penology were professionalizing and were receptive to new ideas that promised expert solutions to social problems. Criminal anthropology provided a useful set of explanatory tropes for a nation concerned with the illnesses, poverty, and biological dangers associated with a growing underclass. “The Degenerate Stock has three main branches, organically united,” wrote social welfare worker Charles Henderson in 1893, “Dependents, Defectives and Delinquents. They are one blood.”
Diseases of Society
, Frank Lydston suggested that rapists should be castrated and all habitual criminals sterilized: “The confirmed criminal â¦ is simply excrementitious matter that should not only be eliminated, but placed beyond the possibility of its contaminating the social body.”
W. Duncan McKim's solution for a “tremendous reduction in the amount of crime” was even more extreme: “the
weak and the
vicious” should be afforded a
“gentle, painless death”
by gassing with carbonic acid.
In effect, the people “most concerned with crime control were receptive to the idea of the criminal as a biologically distinct and inferior being.”
As had been the case in Italy, in the United States the impact of criminal man was to refigure the social problem of crime as biological.
Criminal anthropology was in a constant state of flux. It was not an ordered and precise system in which the criminal body was fully decipherable, but an unruly and often obscure discourse. Incapable of delineating criminal
man's precise qualities, the science instead provided a flexible set of interpretative notions that were widely applicable. Lombroso's ideas appealed to the police and also to administrators of asylums, hospitals, and orphanages.
The fecundity of categories such as “moral insanity,” “atavistic stigmata,” and “inhibition” was a function of their plasticity and inherent ambiguity.
Above all it was the network of associations between physical, psychological, moral, and political domains that established scientific criminology.
might have been elusive but he was very promiscuous.
Criminal man was the offspring of a variety of heterogeneous discourses. Criminological texts were consequently a captivating assemblage of words, statistics, and images. Lombroso's description of the brigand Villella's skull for exampleâ“the totem, the fetish of criminal anthropology”âmight well have been a post hoc rationalization of events, but its legacy was a dramatic origin myth:
At the sight of that skull, I seemed to see all of a sudden, lighted up as a vast plain under a flaming sky, the problem of the nature of the criminalâan atavistic being who reproduces in his person the ferocious instincts of primitive humanity and the inferior animals. Thus were explained anatomically the enormous jaws, high cheek bones, prominent superciliary arches, solitary lines in the palms, extreme size of the orbits, handle-shaped ears found in criminals, savages and apes, insensibility to pain, extremely acute sight, tattooing, excessive idleness, love of orgies, and the irresponsible craving of evil for its own sake, the desire not only to extinguish life in the victim, but to mutilate the corpse, tear its flesh and drink its blood.
Considering the long history of the many concepts that went into making criminal man, it is telling that Lombroso claims to have discovered the essence of the criminal in an Archimedean moment of sudden insight. Although this passage contains some unusually arresting imagery, its poetic language was far from unique within criminal anthropology, a discourse that was often composed for a mass-market audience. Lombroso retained a strong interest in language throughout his career, a concern his biographer attributes to the influence of the linguist Paolo Marzolo.
Aiming to communicate “the positivist gospel to the masses, criminal anthropologists were indefatigable in giving public lectures and writing articles for popular audiences.”
Such an ambition required a sensitive ear for rhetoric and a keen awareness of the power of metaphor. In his 1893 book
Prisoners and Paupers
, the American criminal anthropologist Henry Boies, for example,
wrote that criminals were “the imperfect, knotty, knurly, worm-eaten, half-rotten fruit of the human race.”
Lombroso's own writings were bursting with quotations from literature, history, and folklore, all burdened with carrying the same evidentiary weight as personal observations, statistics, and experimental data. Aiming to be simultaneously popular and scientific, Lombroso was perpetually drawn to sensational examples that supported his argument.
Anecdotes were presented in captivating, lugubrious prose: “It is almost superfluous to record once again the instance of the aboriginal Australian, who, in reply to an inquiry as to the absence of old women in his country, said, âWe eat them all!' and on being remonstrated with for such treatment of his wives, answered, âFor one whom we lose, a thousand remain.'”
Criminal anthropology thrived on the sober reporting of the scandalous. Anecdotes that made the same point could be stacked one after the other in an apparent parody of inductivist science. Like so-called “savage races,” criminals were idle. As the New Caledonians were stereotyped, they would rather die than work. North American Indians were thought to enjoy savage games: so did criminals. In the same way that South American Indians were thought to be incapable of blushing, so criminals were considered shameless. Criminals were inveterate thieves, a flaw they were thought to share with British New Guinea natives.
Criminal anthropology was obsessed with “otherness”: the child, the woman, the so-called primitive, the mad. It was an otherness that had to be relentlessly reiterated.
The Female Offender
, amid the exhaustive presentation of prosaic statistics, Lombroso and Ferrero occasionally devoted space to particularly noteworthy case studies. Three photographs of “The Skull of Charlotte Corday,” assassin of Jean-Paul Marat, were accompanied by a detailed description of her “extraordinary number of anomalies.” Having discussed wrinklesâzygomatic, goniomental, and labialâin their chapter on the “Anthropometry of Female Criminals,” the authors recalled “the proverbial wrinkles of witches, and the instance of the vile old woman, the so-called
Vecchia dell' Aceto
of Palermo, who poisoned so many persons simply for love of lucre.” The authors revealed that although their evidence concerning the wrinkles had come from a photograph of a statue, it nevertheless possessed good evidentiary value of the criminal's “virile angularities.” The bust, “so deeply wrinkled, with its satanic leer, suffices of itself to prove that the woman in question was born to do evil, and that, if one occasion to commit it had failed, she would have found others.”
In their chapter, “Vitality and Other Characteristics of Female Criminals,”
Lombroso and Ferrero presented a list of anecdotes featuring historical and classical figures in support of their claim that “if statistics are silent â¦ history and tradition are there to show that the women who most frequently survive accidents and incidental and professional maladies are not the women of purest life.”
The chapter “The Born Criminal” consists of little more than explanations of general principles interspersed with terse descriptions of notorious female villains, whose appalling crimes are described with staccato prose: “Tiburzio, after having killed a companion who was pregnant, bit her ferociously”; “Ta-ki used to order pregnant women to be torn limb from limb”; “Hoegli beat her daughter, and plunged her head into water to suffocate her cries”; “Pitcherel poisoned her neighbour out of revenge for his having refused to consent to his son's marriage”; “Jegado constantly poisoned people without any object”; “Sophie Gautier killed, by slow torture, seven children who had been given into her care”; “P â¦ preferred to wound [her ex-lovers] by throwing into their eyes a powder made of fine glass which she had crushed with her teeth.”
The wicked deeds of more than sixty named women are thus described, although some are used in evidence on three or four occasions at different points in the chapter. The narrative darts along, rarely dwelling long on any one particular theme. Single sentences are packed with disparate but colorful images: “It is a familiar remark in farmhouses that the most active and the readiest servant-girls are the least honest; while as for prostitutes, their agility is proved by the numbers among them who are dancers and tight-rope performers; and there is no cocotte who does not fence.”
Narrative was one of criminal anthropology's most important popularization devices.
Lombroso's 1902 study of the capture of the “celebrated brigand” Guiseppe Musolino for
magazine, for example, appealed both to conservatives and liberals due to its rich if logically inconsistent framework that attributed criminality to both innate physical factors and environmental forces. Guglielmo Ferrero deployed rhetorical stylistics to great effect in his account of the murderess Ernesta Bordoni for his
World of Crime
(1893), reporting the lurid facts of the case before proffering a scientific diagnosis. Giovanni Falco's account of one of Ottolenghi's case studies for the
Bulletin of the School of Scientific Policing
faithfully recorded the multiple voices of the participants, a tactic that encouraged the audience to make multiple interpretations.