Death of the ‘Criminal Man’

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By | From the Collections

Professor Cesare Lombroso died on this day, one hundred years ago. Ironically his remains became part of his own museum, his head and internal organs joining those of the criminals which he studied throughout his career.

The Wellcome Library has recently purchased a rare early work on genius and insanity along with several letters to accompany its other holdings by this influential author. His chief work L’Uomo Deliquente (Criminal Man) in 1876 helped found the field of criminal anthropology.

Lombroso characterized criminals as atavistic ‘throwbacks’ to a more primitive form of man – out-of-place evolutionary anomalies less developed than their peers. Fortunately these ‘moral defectives’ could be recognised by key facial features. A large jaw, a prominent brow and low forehead were indicators of this type.

However, holes appeared in his argument and fellow scientists questioned his evidence because he did not use a control group of non-criminals against which to test his theory. Consequently the phrase ‘Lombrosian fallacy’ came into circulation and the idea of a ‘born criminal’ lost its appeal.

Despite these later set backs this Italian professor enjoyed considerable success and influence on popular culture of the late Victorian Era; he is cited in Tolstoy’s Resurrection (1899) and Stoker’s Dracula (1897) as an expert on the nature of criminality.

Lombroso’s employment of photography as a tool for research and identification ultimately lead the French Police Department to adopt the now standard use of the ‘mug-shot’ as a routine part of the arrest process. His interest in this medium was not unique: Sir Francis Galton in England had previously sought to show a criminal type through photography but wisely abandoned the idea early on.

Lombroso’s theories were pervasive and provocative, helping to galvanise opinion that crime was primarily a social problem, not a biological one. He is honoured in sculptural form in his home town of Turin.

If you are interested in the wider history of face reading and facial types there will a free talk held in the library in December. Details will appear on this blog nearer the time.

Danny Rees

Danny Rees

Hi, I am Danny Rees, an Engagement Officer for the Wellcome Library, one of my interests is the human face; its physiognomy, expressions and ideas about what constitutes beauty. When not at work I enjoy the Kent countryside and consider radio to be one of the best things in life.

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