Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Bad to the Bone: All About Criminal Motivation

The Born Criminal

"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 criminal!" physician Cesare Lombroso as he performed an autopsy on a Italian convict in 1894.

A drawing showing the alleged physical and psychological relationship between man and animal. From: New Physiognomy or Signs of Character (1871)
A drawing showing the alleged physical
and psychological relationship between
man and animal. From: New Physiognomy
or Signs of Character (1871)

Despite the failures of phrenology, the mysterious connection between crime and physiology persisted. Cesare Lombroso, (1835-1909) was the next researcher to build upon the theories of Gall. Lombroso was an Italian physician who performed hundreds of post mortem examinations on criminals during the late 19th century. He noticed that many of these criminals shared some of the same physical characteristics. Lombroso compiled a list of these characteristics which included receding hairline, forehead wrinkles, bumpy face, broad noses, fleshy lips, sloping shoulders, long arms and pointy fingers. Lombroso associated these stigmata with primitive man. This condition was called {atavism}. Its theological roots were firmly embedded in one of the most influential books ever written, Charles Darwin's The Origin of the Species, published in the 1870s.

Cesare Lombroso (CORBIS)
Cesare Lombroso
(CORBIS)

Lombroso became convinced that a criminal was an immoral person, a sort of throwback to primitive man who had not developed to the same biological level as the modern, non-criminal man. Lombroso called this inferior being the "born criminal", a being who was pre-destined for criminal behavior due to his physical configuration. According to Lombroso, the "born criminal" descended from a "degenerate family with frequent cases of insanity, deafness, syphilis, epilepsy and alcoholism among its members."

A 19th century image indicating a suspected resemblance between appearance and personality. From: New Physiognomy or Signs of Character (1871)
A 19th century image indicating a suspect-
ed resemblance between appearance and
personality. From: New Physiognomy or
Signs of Character (1871)

Lombroso also became fascinated with the practice of tattooing which he associated with criminality. In a famous article titled The Savage Art of Tattooing, which he wrote for Popular Science in 1896, Lombroso described his revulsion to tattoos. "Certainly these tattooings declare more than any official brief to reveal to us the fierce and obscene hearts of these unfortunates," he wrote. From his narrow observations of prisoners, Lombroso made sweeping assumptions. "Among eighty-nine tattooed persons," he said, "I saw seventy-one who had been tattooed in prison." Because he believed tattooing was prevalent in criminals, Lombroso deduced that criminals had a higher tolerance to pain. "Tattooing is, in fact, one of the essential characteristics of primitive man," he said, "and of men who still live in the savage state."

Facial characteristics described by Lombroso, some of which may indicate criminality. From: New Physiognomy or Signs of Character (1871)
Facial characteristics described by
Lombroso, some of which may indicate
criminality. From: New Physiognomy or
Signs of Character (1871)

However, Lombroso's theories began to unravel when several weaknesses were discovered in his research. Virtually all of Lombroso's presumptions were based on studies performed only on convicted criminals. He did not use a control group to which he could compare his results. Therefore, his conclusions could not be broadened to include the general population as a whole. This basic flaw in his research came to be known as "the Lombrosian fallacy." Years later, Charles Goring, an English physician who took an interest in Lombroso's theories, decided to examine more closely some of his conclusions. Goring studied thousands of prisoners in British jails. He compared their physiological traits to members of a military unit, the Royal Engineers. Goring found no substantial differences between the two groups. He published the results in a book called The English Convict in 1913. Goring proved that atavism had no scientific support and the data he gathered essentially discredited Lombroso's idea of a "born criminal" forever.

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