Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jesse Harding Pomeroy

The Look of Evil

Criminologists and biologists have tried for decades to link appearance to criminal propensity. Around the time Jesse Pomeroy was beginning his second decade in prison, Charles Darwin published The Descent of Man (1884). In that book he referred to "atavistic characters," or the reappearance of a characteristic in an organism after several generations of absence, usually caused by the chance recombination of genes. In other words, a human born with a vestigial tail, for example, could be considered a throwback to an earlier phase of human development. Less sophisticated readers took this to mean that people who resembled apes — perhaps they had a low forehead or were extremely hairy, or they just plain looked odd — were subhuman.

Cesare Lombroso (CORBIS)
Cesare Lombroso
(CORBIS)

The Italian criminologist Lombroso seized Darwin's ideas and termed the phrase "stigmata of degeneration" to predict criminal behavior. People who looked "less evolved" were perhaps not thinking with the higher brain functions of homo sapiens and therefore more likely to act on criminal impulses that cultural training requires most of us to forgo, Lombroso speculated. Further research showed Lombroso's stigmata of degeneration were present in noncriminals in almost equal proportion to the criminal population, and the Italian was forced to revise his theory.

What he ended up hypothesizing was that "in almost all cases, it was not the unfavorable environment which led to the commission of crime, but the biological predisposition to commit it, externally advertised by the presence of stigmata," wrote biologist and social scientist M.F. Ashley Montagu in "The Biologist Looks at Crime."

Lombroso made the simple research error of confusing correlation with cause. This is the difference between saying, "Where there is smoke, there is fire" and "One often finds smoke and fire together, but not always."

But what does appearance and its correlation to criminal behavior have to do with Jesse Pomeroy?

Jesse looked different from other children, and those differences were so severe that it wasn't difficult to make the leap that because he was "malformed," he was subhuman. Most notably, Jesse's right eye was almost pure white. One of his molestation victims described it as a "milky" or white-hued marble, and in Harold Schechter's authoritative biography of Pomeroy, Fiend, he reports that "many people (according to some accounts, his own father) could barely look at it without a shudder."

His mother blamed the cataract on a reaction to a smallpox vaccine, but others claim a viral infection as a baby left him blind in the eye. Regardless, the absence of an iris and pupil gave the poor boy an evil aura even before his acts became public.

During the incarceration before Jesse's murder trial, a writer for the Boston Globe described Jesse's features this way: "They are wicked eyes, sullenly, brutishly wicked eyes, and as in moments of wandering thought the boy looks out of them, he seems one who could delight in the writhings of his helpless victims beneath the stab of the knife, the puncture of the awl, or the prick of the pin, as he has so often delighted in.

"There is nothing interesting in the look. It is altogether unsympathetic, merciless."

Drawing of Jesse Pomeroy around the time of his arrest
Drawing of Jesse
Pomeroy around the
time of his arrest

Pomeroy was also sensitive to his larger-than-normal head. He asked a nearby cellmate locked in the cell next to his in the city jail if the boy thought he looked strange, a telling question that might explain some of Jesse's anger: "What do you think of me, my appearance? Do I look like a bad boy? Is my head large?"

Jesse was bigger than many of the boys his age and was plagued with facial features that seemed large even on his hulking frame. His mouth, despite a thin upper lip, was much wider than appropriate for his face and in an 1874 etching of the boy, taken from a booking photograph, his ears appear overly large and stick out noticeably from the sides of his head. Add to his appearance the fact that he rarely smiled, preferred solitary play and suffered epileptic-like shaking episodes, and Jesse Harding Pomeroy was an easy target for the other children in his neighborhood.

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