Criminal Anthropology: A Brief History

When someone utters the word criminal, perhaps a certain image springs to mind:  someone in all black and a ski mask, a mob boss in suit and tie or maybe a tattooed, bare-headed guy in orange and handcuffs. Yet we know that for every criminal who looks rough and intimidating, there could be who knows how many that look unassuming, sweet and perfectly innocent. A college student with blue-eyed, blonde-haired packaging, plus a sweet smile and a blush on the apples of her cheeks could be just as guilty of murder as a haggard Ted Kaczynski-type. Physical appearance, therefore, isn’t very telling when it comes to identifying who is a criminal (or likely to become one) out of a group of civilians.

What’s interesting is that it wasn’t always this way.  A group of what were, in effect, early criminologists working and associated with Cesare Lombroso in Italy developed what became known as anthropological criminology, linking physical appearance with criminal activity.

The Humble Beginnings

The roots of thought which form the basic theory of anthropological criminology only go as far back as the 1700s. Tucked within in the work of physiognomist Johann Kaspar Lavater, who suggested there might be a connection between one’s facial features and their capacity to commit crime. In 1820, philosopher Jacob Fries further commented in his Handbook of Psychical Anthropology that he thought there could be a link as well.

Lambroso, Ferri and Garofalo: The Italian School of Criminology

Lombroso and his Italian associates elaborated and came up with the concept of criminal atavism; that is, criminals can be recognizable because of physical anomalies. It was an early, if flawed, theory of criminal profiling.

Lombroso, an army surgeon and professor of forensic medicine (there were no formal schools for criminology at the time, of course, no criminology master’s programs), developed his theory of criminal atavism while he autopsied the body of a notorious Italian bandit named Giuseppe Villella in 1871. His work as the head of an insane asylum had exposed him to various criminal and insane persons (living and dead), and as he examined the body of Villella it dawned on him:  the man’s features reminded him of the skulls of inferior races and the lower types of apes… In short, Villella’s criminal occupation, Lombroso conjectured, might have been the result of savagery as a result of his being less evolved (beastly, even) and more like the early men from which we came.

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Lombroso and two of his adherents, Enrico Ferri and Raffaele Garofalo, worked out the details of their new theory, categorizing three types of criminals: atavistic born criminals, insane criminals and criminaloids. Insane criminals, whom the men defined as having suffered an alteration of the brain which upsets their moral nature, bore less physical distinguishing characteristics than their atavistic counterparts, and criminaloids less still.

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, especially the idea that some species are morally superior to others, obviously played a strong role in influencing the concept of criminal atavism. It was, unfortunately, a viewpoint prone to racism (Ferri, one of Lombroso’s disciples, considered black people to be an inferior race; Lombroso defined Southern Italians as more crime-prone and lazy because of lesser amounts of Aryan blood).

According to the Italian school of criminology, there were 14 different physical characteristics that were found in common among all criminals, some of which include a small head but large face, receding hairline, high cheekbones and bushy eyebrows.

As offensive as this might sound to modern readers, strains of this school of thought are evident in American history (the outlawing marriage between different races, for instance), as well as the Third Reich’s murder of 250,000 mentally disabled Germans and the whole system of what became known as Eugenics as well.

Reaction to the Italian school was mostly negative. In the early 20th century, Charles Goring in particular criticized the work of Lombroso, calling his theory an organized system of self-evident confusion whose parallel is only to be found in the astrology, alchemy, and other credulities of the Middle Ages.

Anthropological Criminology in the 21st Century

In general, modern science rejects Lombroso’s theory of criminal atavism and those seeking their master’s degree in criminology would most likely gloss over the history of such. Anthropological criminology and the Italian’s school’s ideas have, however, come down to us in the study of physiognomy, which is experiencing a revival of interest, as well as in some aspects of forensic psychology and social psychology.

This article was written by Sheila Browne, who is a student of both history as well as psychology and often, in her research, marries the two subjects. She is going to graduate with her master’s in spring 2013.

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