Popular Science Monthly/Volume 49/October 1896/Enrico Ferri on Homicide II


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FERRI passes in review 1,711 individuals, of whom 711 are soldiers, 699 criminals, and 301 madmen. In this minute examination of anthropometric data he discusses almost every case, pointing out its specific characteristics by means of ample comparisons, which justify his methods of research and his conclusions, as well as throw light on the difficult and not yet firmly established study of criminal anthropology. To close this section of his learned work, he devotes a portion to the reaffirmation of the inferiority of criminal as compared with normal man, and to the analogy that certain anomalies and delinquent characteristics present, deducing thence criminal degeneracy. Very remarkable are the differences of cephalometric characteristics between a certain number of soldiers examined, among whom were some students. The superiority of the latter was incontestably proved by the great anterior semicircumference of the head, by the greater cranial capacity, by the larger frontal diameter, and the minor development of the upper jaw. Worthy of note, too, in regard to this last point is the result of the examination of homicidal murderers as respects recidivistry. The former showed less cranial capacity and a minor frontal diameter, while their upper jaws were more developed.

Having examined these chronic anomalies in criminals in reaffirming the conclusions arrived at by the modern school of criminal anthropology, Ferri gives us the physiognomy of murderers in their characteristic traits, calling to aid the help of photography. It is an interesting series of pictures that he has thus grouped together. Here is the apish type; there the half-mad; there one with large jaws, the most characteristic and frequent feature; the type with receding forehead, etc. The study of temperament and of race in the order of delinquency, which represents the bio-psychic personality of an individual and of a people, is not yet well matured, as opinions with regard to their influences are many and varied. Still, some progress has been made. Thus it is popularly held that full-blooded, passionate, energetic temperaments are more prone to homicide, while the truth really lies in the opposite direction; the physiological character of this determination is rather a general denutrition of the organism and of the nervous system which originates that irritability and that lack of inhibition by which men react with more difficulty against the murderous impulse.

Race, whose marked influence in biological and social manifestations is, however, denied by many eminent scientists, is nevertheless one of the concurrent factors in the determination of a crime and one which can not be overlooked. Race is not the only factor in the distribution of homicide in Europe, for side by side with this run the social economical conditions induced in their turn by this very race. In this distribution there are manifest three distinct ethnographical groups—the Græco-Latin, the Germanic with the Anglo-Saxon, and the Slav—which stand for the three large zones of homicide. In the first place for the greater frequency of homicide stand the Latin peoples—Italy, Spain, Roumania, Portugal, France, and Belgium; in the medium zone the Slav people of Russia and Austria; for the minor frequency of this crime, the peoples of Germanic origin of Germany, Holland, and England. The sad supremacy pertains not to Italy but to Spain.

With this extended survey of the organic constitution of homicidal delinquents Ferri terminates the first section of his book. The second part is devoted to the study of the psychic constitution of the murderers. He first wisely clears the ground with regard to the interpretation of psychic data and the relations between ideas and sentiments in the genesis of homicide. In this place Ferri recapitulates his famous classification of homicides into madmen born; homicides habitual, by occasion, and by passion; and finds that among these types the most characteristic and marked are the homicides born and the insane homicides, with whom alone he is occupied in this volume.[1]

He then exposes with a large array of facts the most marked psychological characteristics of the born homicide which constitute his psychic condition before committing his crime. These characteristics are moral insensibility; insensibility toward the victim, toward the sufferings of others, a cold ferocity in the execution of crime, which is sometimes pushed to cannibalism; an apathetic impassibility after committing the crime and even in sight of the corpse of the victim; quiet sleep after the committal of the deed. These characteristics—indifference at sight of the sufferings and death of others—are extended to the personality of the murderer himself. Such persons are noted for their moral and physical insensibility with regard to themselves, which is sometimes pushed to the point of analgesia, to impassibility to their own punishment, to indifference to death, and which also manifests itself in the frequency of suicides among delinquents. They are also cruel and insensible toward their own accomplices, whom they will betray and even kill. This ferocity, this indifference, this insensibility, of born homicides, serve as a psychological explanation of other characteristics which are conjoined to these and which help to support these views. Indifference is chronic, manifesting itself also in a preoccupation with most trifling things quite outside of the crime committed or of a diverse character, and which certainly can not by any means be attributed to a supposed corruption during confinement. They feel no repugnance to the idea or to the act of homicide before the crime. They have no moral sense, they use expressions which pertain to honest work or expressions which ridicule their crime, which they regard as a simple transgression. They do not hesitate to boast beforehand of the crime they intend to commit, as though it would do them credit; and even admit that they are disposed to commit many more; they have not, in short, any remorse concerning their offense. To this absence of remorse, of which Ferri traces the differential characteristics, must be added the obstinate denial, the disinclination to repair the injury done or to repent, the indifference to escape punishment, the easy adaptation to prison life. the indifference to the number of their condemnation, and, in more direct mode, satisfaction in the crime consummated or remorse at not having achieved their aim; and, finally, in many cases the explicit confession that they feel no remorse or repentance. However, the lack of repugnance to crime and of remorse can not be said to be universal and to manifest itself in every direction of criminal activity, because, excepting in those criminals who have never had either the one or the other sentiment for any species of offense, there is often verified a kind of moral Daltonism which, though lacking in criminals who, having a very obtuse moral sense of certain crimes, on the other hand have a most delicate perception. One among many salient examples is that of a thief who has a horror of homicide, and of the homicide to whom the thought of theft is repellent. This moral Daltonism extends also to the impelling causes, and to the execution of the crime, that is committed for one reason and rejected for another. It extends itself to the very instruments used to commit the homicide. It may also arise from caste prejudices, as, for example, in the man who killed his brother because they were both in love with their housemaid, and who cried out in the court, "You had every right to kill me, but none to dishonor me!"

It is thus in cold blood, so to speak, that Ferri studies the psychological constitution of born homicides and the manifestation of their moral sense. He also examines their sentiments. Religious sentiment is extraneous to the genesis of crime, and hence moral and immoral men are found indifferently among atheists and believers, though the number of atheists is rare among homicides, who, as a rule, have the religious sentiment highly developed, a proof of which is found, among other things, in being tattooed with religious symbols, their superstitious piety, and lastly their true and real religious cultus, even to seeking a comfort in crime and to finding a convenient faith in pardon. As a general rule, indeed, nearly all delinquents are deeply pious. The egotistic sentiment of homicide may be resolved into the forms of amour propre and the sense of enjoyment, including under the latter heading pride, vanity, love of display, vendetta, covetousness, and prodigality. Homicidal thieves have also other characteristics of the true homicide, such as a reckless squandering of money acquired by murder, a passion for play, for women, and for alcohol. The ego-altruistic sentiments or those purely altruistic, such as love, family affection, etc., are not lacking in homicides when they are not in conflict with the egotistic. Murderers are even not incapable of noble actions, but their immoral temperament renders these unstable and contradictory, and thus it may occur that the same altruistic sentiment finds expression in their very crime.

And this brings us to the last portion of this study concerning the psychic constitution of murderers—that is to say, to the intellectual element. We already know the cerebral inferiority of delinquents as compared with healthy subjects. This inferiority in the class of born homicides can not be better characterized than as a weak and incomplete association of ideas. The intellectual characteristic of mental weakness in delinquents does not exclude in some of them a certain degree of intelligence in other branches of mental activity—so much so that, according to Lombroso, there are found murderers who have talent, not to say genius. These, like all born homicides, have in common the lack of a moral sentiment; as regards intelligence, they may be classed under these two headings: The sanguinary homicide, la bête humaine, who kills more often for vendetta or for covetousness, and the calculating homicide, who kills for covetousness and for ambition, and is often endowed with brilliant intellectual qualities. Generally speaking, however, in all criminals, as a result of their defective association of repellent ideas, there is very marked improvidence. This improvidence is shown in many criminals by the carelessness with which they themselves reveal their misdeeds, the imprudent manifestations they are the first to give during and after the consummation of the crime, the careless manner in which they leave traces of it, the way in which they return to the site of their deed, as well as in not foreseeing the punishment. In others, instead, the art they adopt to render difficult the discovery of their deeds is very marked, and the percentage of the authors of crimes who have remained undiscovered is remarkable—twenty-five per cent in Italy on crimes that have been denounced, without counting the contingent of those where even the crimes have not been discovered.

As a conclusion of this positive examination of the born homicide, Ferri thus defines the fundamental psychological characters of these persons: "Abnormal impulsiveness of action for lack of or owing to weak power of resistance to criminal desires." In general, normal man, although subject to temptations and to momentary criminal impulses, fights against them. A case in point is that of the celebrated alienist doctor Morel, who, feeling himself suddenly impelled to the idea of throwing a workman who happened to stand near him into the river, fled from the spot. The born homicide can not thus defend himself. These facts, in which is delineated the embryo of that pathological homicidal obsession which our author now goes on to examine, can be explained by congenital weakness of development, the nerve centers having been arrested, and hence not apt nor educated to resist.

It may also happen that the delinquent does not complete his crime; but this is usually due not so much to internal resistance (active inhibition) as would occur in normal man, as to an external and present force (passive inhibition), which hinders its execution, such as an unexpected incident which takes the place at times of this defect of inhibition, giving to the delinquent the resisting force which he lacks. And this brings us by a natural transition to insane homicide. The author arrives at the conclusion that there does not exist a special form of homicidal "monomania," but that all the forms of madness may be accompanied by homicidal excess. Hence the criterion that he has adopted in his symptomatology of homicidal mania. He differs from the classification that is purely clinical and descriptive, and frequently insufficient for the scientist as for the magistrate. His favorite genetic criterion of the initial idea and the action of homicide in the insane delinquent is very useful in achieving a good result from the important and very distinct comparisons between the delinquent and the criminal madman, and the delinquent and common or non-criminal madman. As a basis for this comparison it is necessary to distinguish the insane delinquent from the non-insane, a matter of deep importance not only for science but also for jurisprudence, because from this distinction arise the various degrees of imputability and the divers means of social defense to be adopted. It is further needful to distinguish in these madmen the insane conduct exclusively due to their intellectual degeneracy from that criminal one which is also due to the lack of the moral sense. In point of fact, in non-delinquent madmen the greater abnormities are to be found in the intellectual functions, while in the delinquent abnormities of the moral sense are most marked. Of course, this is a mere academic discussion, for a real and sharp natural distinction between the forms discussed can not exist, and the non-insane delinquent and the insane are fundamentally equal when it comes to be a question of criminal manifestations.

Let us now consider the psycho-pathological symptoms of homicide. Ferri, with his rich array of facts, of opportune elucidations and examples, undertakes this examination, dividing this last section of his book into two groups which deal with the moment of the homicidal act and the attitude of the insane murderer before, during, and after its execution and during his trial; and finally, as a last chapter, he adds the conclusions to be drawn from the antecedents of the criminals life and the recidivity of the insane homicide.

The deliberation in this unhappy person is due either to the slow invasion of the homicidal idea (homicidal obsession) or to momentary impulse. Hence two distinct generic types of psychopathological characteristics. The first type, in which the decision to commit the crime springs from a slow and reflective process which increases from the weak or static (obsession) state until it becomes an irresistible impulse and takes a violent and dynamic form, finding vent in the criminal act, is very frequent under the influence of the delusion of persecution, in chronic alcoholics, in hysterical subjects, etc., and is also seen in other non-violent forms of mental alienation. Sometimes the madman has a perfect cognizance of his own madness, so that he will often warn others as to the crime he intends to commit and knows the punishment due to it, and yet nevertheless this will not deter him unless fortuitous external causes intervene. In fact, it often happens that madmen affected by homicidal obsession, incapable of restraining themselves, afraid of themselves, in order not to yield to the homicidal impulse, take the precaution of wounding or mutilating themselves, in order thus to divert their ungovernable impulse, and render it impossible to execute their purpose. A case in point is that of a man who, unable to dominate the violent force impelling him to murder his wife and children, consigned himself to the police and had himself shut up in an asylum.

The second type, in which the determination to homicide proceeds from a spontaneous impulse (the transitory mania of the old school of psychiatry), from a species of impulsive vertigo, without a real impulse or motive, is found generally in epileptic subjects. This tyrannous impulse toward crime is also due very frequently to hallucination and illusion, often ignored by those who have to do with madmen. Homicide from hallucination presents three subtypes: first, that in which the madman acts under the terror of a fearful hallucination (epileptics, alcoholics, etc.); secondly, in consequence of delirium from delirious homicidal premises (persecution mania); thirdly, in obedience to the imperious commands of an inward voice. Nevertheless, this does not exclude the criminal motive (vendetta, jealousy, etc.) which sometimes determines the insane to commit homicide (especially the epileptics), motives which they readily, however, confess.

To complete the psycho-pathological characteristics as to the deliberate moment of homicide in the insane, Ferri treats of homicide as an end in itself or as a means toward a legitimate end, observing that if in mad homicides murder is an end in itself (killing to kill, impulse without motive) or as a means to an end, more often social and juridic (defense from imaginary perils, withdrawal of their victim from misery, etc.), in common madmen it is always a means to reach an antisocial end. This remark is all the more important because, besides refuting the ancient affirmation which is still repeated, that delinquents have always a motive for their deed, while madmen have none, it also refutes the other no less erroneous affirmation of Esquirol that "in delinquents murder is a means, in madmen it is an end," adopted until now by most scientists, and only lately dismissed as inadequate by the most eminent anthropologists and criminalists in consequence of Ferri's criticisms published in 1886.

In the present book the author adds two other characteristic motive factors found in mad delinquents—that is to say, homicide for purpose of suicide (for example, a man kills another in order to expiate his crime on the scaffold); and sacrificial homicide induced by the desire to kill, to sacrifice a victim for his own good or for the good of both murderer and victim. This, according to Ferri, is the attitude of the insane homicide before, during, and after his criminal excitement. First, and less common, there is the premeditation which approximates the insane homicide to the homicide born. The concomitants of this type may be the killing of his victim openly in the face of witnesses, the lack of accomplices, the latter an important feature and one that the mad homicide has almost always in common with the murderer by passionate impulse. It is not, however, unknown that madmen associate to commit crimes, from the sociability that is a characteristic of the epileptic, and forms indeed yet another proof of the fundamental identity of epilepsy and congenital delinquency with so-called moral insanity, so wonderfully demonstrated by Lombroso.

While committing the crime the manner of the mad homicide is generally agitated. He is also of a violent ferocity, which differs from that of the born homicide, which may lead him to the point of cannibalism, just as it does the latter. Another symptom, which is, however, exclusively seen in the insane (imbeciles, idiots, epileptics), is that of the monstrous sexual passion that finds its vent on the corpse of their victim (necro-philomania), to which must be added the murder of persons beloved or of persons unknown, as well as indiscriminate massacre.

The symptoms and the attitude of the mad homicide after his crime are in part common to those of the born homicide, although the psychological genesis of these symptoms is different. These are: calmness after committing the act, which often continues when arrested and during the trial, impassibility at sight of the corpse, etc. A true characteristic symptom distinguishing the mad homicide from the born homicide is great prostration and abnormal sleep into which he often falls after his murderous assault, very different from the calmness and the placid sleep of the born homicide. Notable, too, is the impulse toward suicide that seizes him immediately after the consummation of the deed, an instantaneous reaction of his moral sense, the feeling of relief, as though a heavy weight were removed, the moral Daltonism and the moral valuation of the crime which, may rise to the point of true remorse.

The characteristics of the attitude of the mad homicides during their trials are the frequent energetic protests that they are not mad, the dissimulation of their insanity or even the simulation of another form of madness different from that from which they suffer, the nonresistance when arrested, the instinctive attempt at flight, and the alibi they prepare for themselves in cases of premeditation; their frequently detailed confession, often made in phrases such as "It was not I. It was my head. I was blinded by my illness. I felt a blow on my head," and so forth. Or when, like other delinquents, they are not anxious to invent excuses for themselves, they either do not excuse themselves at all, or even accuse themselves of imaginary crimes, as though they wished to make themselves out worse than they are.

Ferri finally proceeds to analyze very carefully the groups of symptoms regarding the life of the criminal before and after the committal of his crime as well as his hereditary antecedents. The previous conduct of the born homicide is often very regular; and then suddenly, a little before the murder, a change of life and character will take place. Another characteristic sometimes is the perpetration of other crimes after the first homicide.

Following this last research Ferri gives us in conclusion the most important deductions which result from this portion of his great work, as to the psychical constitution of the born homicide and the mad homicide. He sums them up into twelve axioms, which should prove of invaluable use to the judicial authorities. These it is not easy to condense, and for their precise formula we must refer our readers to Ferri's book.

Crime is always a decided condition. This is the final and lucid outcome of his learned work, a conclusion at which Virgil and Lombroso respectively arrived, and a conclusion that honors these thinkers. In his future volume he promises to treat of the two other typical figures of homicides from passionate impetus and homicides from occasion, to which we look forward. One important point Ferri touches but slightly, and that is. Is crime nowadays the exception or is it not rather the rule? It must unfortunately be concluded that it is the rule in the actual epoch Europe is traversing; this does not mean, however, that crime is a normal phenomenon, but only helps to confirm the innate relations that exist between economic conditions and criminal facts, or rather, in Ferri's own words, "that the present social crisis has reached such a point as to render even criminal symptoms acute and profound, which does not exclude that in a more advanced phase of social order, such as scientific socialists look forward to, crime, like every other symptom of social pathology, will be reduced to the smallest proportions, such, as occurs to common illnesses on the cessation of a more or less prolonged epidemic.”

This book Ferri has dedicated to his little three-year-old son Dante, expressing the hope, as he says in his dedication, that when he is old enough to understand it, Italy may show fewer signs of moral pathology. It is certainly a remarkable work, and reflects great credit on its writer by its minute and impartial research.

  1. The invention of this gradation and variety of types among criminals, certainly the most fecund and fundamental, so cleverly carried into the camp of criminal anthropology, has already been put forward by Ferri before the publication of this his latest work, and he has every right to be proud of it.