Popular Science Monthly/Volume 56/March 1900/Typical Criminals


IF the question of a criminal type, defined by certain marks of a physical nature and emphasized by accompanying mental and moral characteristics, were confined to the technical speculations of a special craft of scientists, the public would have little interest in the spread of the doctrines of Cesare Lombroso and his confrères in this country. When it is believed, however, that certain men and women are committed to prison or condemned to death not on account of crimes in any ethical sense, but because of spontaneous actions from vicious impulses beyond their control, the subject affects the administration of law, the theory of punishment, and the safety of society.

Lombroso and the Italian school say that they have discovered a type of man who is born a criminal, and who may be recognized by a Mongolian face, abnormal features, ill-shaped ears, unsymmetrical skull, and various psychical peculiarities, which are the result of bad organization. This doctrine is illustrated by descriptions of criminals who have the abnormalities, and in the hands of skillful writers the case is made very plausible. The theory is in harmony with so much popular modern thought, which loosely interprets the doctrine of evolution by a crass materialism, that it has infected American prison literature, while it has never misled those men to whom practical experience has given the most right to have an opinion on the subject. The sense of personal responsibility is still the foundation of social order, and if in truth there is no such thing, the world is awake at last from its dream of morality; righteousness is resolved into heredity, structure, and habit; living is a mere puppet show, and the wreck of things impends. If Lombroso

PSM V56 D0556 Typical criminals from group 1 1.png
Group 1, No. 1. Group 1, No. 2.

is right, modern scientific methods are sure to prove him so, and we shall have at last sound theories; but we shall have no world in which they can be used, PSM V56 D0556 Typical criminal from group 1 2.pngGroup 1, No. 3. for the dissolution predicted by Herbert Spencer will have come.

Exceptional opportunities for the study of the abnormal classes in the institutions of this country and Europe have given me a personal interest in the question of the criminal type. I have discovered that the criminal anthropologists do not choose for comparison with the prison population their normal men from the ranks where the criminal classes are recruited. Blackwell's Island has 110 more peculiar inmates than abound in sections of New York near the East River; the residents of the Whitechapel district of London may be compared with the inmates of Pentonville, to the distinct credit of the latter; and the man in Roquette is no worse off in body than scores whom I have seen in certain localities south of the Seine. The fact is, no human body exists which is not in some

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Group 2, No. 1 (forger). Group 2, No. 2.

respects abnormal. The number of abnormalities and their extent depend upon a variety of circumstances, among which are food, climate, occupation, and the incidents of birth itself, PSM V56 D0557 Typical criminal from group 2 2.pngGroup 2, No. 3. as well as the various forms of infantile disease. I will undertake to find enough physical peculiarities, in any locality, or among the members of any profession, to establish any physical theory which may be propounded.

It occurred to me to try an experiment in a manner entirely different from the usual criminal researches. Having been very familiar with a certain prison for many years, I requested the warden, who is a very able man in his profession, to send me the photographs of ten or a dozen men whom he regarded as the most representative criminals in his population of some-five hundred persons. The warden was not informed of the use I intended to make of the material, and supposed it was for illustration in university class work. Later, he gave me the Bertillon measurements of the men, with an epitome of their history. A number of these men I have known for years. So far from this selection supporting the modern theory of a criminal type, it confutes it in a conspicuous manner. The abnormalities are slight, and there is as great a diversity among the men as could be asked. It must be remembered that these cases were selected by a shrewd and competent official, solely upon their criminal record, and not in the interests of any theory whatever.

Of course, the men do not look well, but neither would any ordinary company of citizens if their heads were shaved and they were put in prison dress. I am always shocked by the changed appearance of the men after the prison transformation. Young embezzlers of elegant figure, who have moved in good society without a question, easily look the rascal behind prison walls.

The first group are murderers. No. 1 murdered his daughter because she insisted upon going to a party against his wishes. He has the head of a philosopher. It was his first crime. It may be noted that tattooing is supposed to be common among criminals. This man is tattooed, but committed no crime until fifty years of age, and was a deputy sheriff for some years. No. 2 did not kill his victim, but the assault was murderous, and the escape from death was accidental. It is difficult to discuss the negro in crime without entering into racial and social questions beyond the present limits. No. 3 has a very good head, an excellent ear, and, barring the expression, a pleasing face. He has a life sentence for murder. He is the worst man in the prison. I have for years believed him to be insane. His family is criminal. His father murdered his mother in a brutal manner before the child's eyes, when No. 3 was only eight years old. He himself has committed several desperate assaults, growing out of his persistent mania of persecution. No. 3 is not morally responsible, and there are usually two or three such prisoners out of a thousand subjects.

The second group are very diverse in structure and temperament, but have committed the same kind of crime. No. 1 is a confidence man and a forger. He is a crafty and an habitual criminal, has served terms in various prisons, is keen of intellect, well educated, has traveled in many countries, and is a citizen of the world.

No. 2 is a confirmed forger, and has served several terms in prison for the same offense. He is a skillful bookkeeper, has an attractive manner, and as soon as he is out in the world secures employmont and plans his next crime.

No. 3 is a counterfeiter. His head is small, but of excellent shape, and he has rather a refined physical organization. His criminal

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Group 3, No. 1. Group 3, No. 2.

record is bad, and he has served at least one term before for the same offense. His imagination, temperament, and vices would select him as a person who would be guilty PSM V56 D0559 Typical criminal from group 3 2.pngGroup 3, No. 3. of a very different and more fleshly kind of crime. The group is formed by the correlation of crime; they have nothing in common in physical organization.

The third group are thieves. No. 1 is a confirmed criminal, and has served several terms in prison. He is the tallest man in the list. His head is "long" and well formed, and his features are regular. His expression indicates power of sustained thought, and his peculiar appearance is not due to his kind of crime, but to his habit of mind. He is a pessimist of the first rank, and hates the world, his fellow-men, and perhaps himself most of all. He will not work when at liberty, thinks that society is totally deprived, and that war upon it is the only proper mission in life. he is pre-eminently the antisocial man.

No. 2 is really a pleasing fellow. He is tender, sympathetic, and pious. Under proper circumstances he might have made an admirable Sunday-school superintendent. He is plausible, insinuating, and winning. In temperament, feeling, and social habit he is the complete antithesis to No. 1. He is a most dangerous criminal, and has a black and varied record.

No. 3 is a man of lower grade of organization and habit, but he is a criminal by profession. He is an idle and worthless vagabond, but he is an accomplished thief. He makes an excellent prisoner, obedient to the rules, industrious, and seemingly anxious

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Contrasts, No. 1. Contrasts, No. 2.

to improve. In fact, the prison furnishes his best environment, for it is only there that he is at peace with himself and his world.

The last two men presented are contrasts. No. 1 is an accidental criminal. His previous history and character give strong grounds for the belief that, under pressure of want for the necessaries of life, he was led astray by a man older and stronger than himself. It is not likely that he would repeat his fault. No. 2, on the other hand, is a sexual pervert of the worst kind, whose ease seems so hopeless that perpetual imprisonment is indicated as the only relief for him, and the only safety for society. Apart from the expression of his eyes, caused by an irregular focus, there is nothing marked about the face. The head is of a pronounced "broad" type, but, on the other hand, he comes from a province of Germany where that type is dominant.

To complete the experiment, I submitted these portraits to a number of gentlemen, and to no two of them at the same time, for their opinions of the cases. The informal committee represented the different professions which might be expected to fit men for observation, for there was a lawyer, a physician, a railway president, a criminal judge, and a college professor. Each of them is eminent in his special field. The committee was manifestly handicapped by the shorn head, the prison dress, and the lack of the accessories of masculine ornamentation, such as collars and cravats. The committee was asked to name the crimes, and to group the men according to their criminal record. Each opinion differed from the other, and all were wide of the mark. The shrewd lawyer thought the accidental criminal "might be guilty of anything." It was only the college professor, the last man of the company from whom anything might properly be expected, who was able to select the worst two cases with the remark, "These men are degenerates." But while the committee was at work on the photographs the writer was at work on the committee, and actually discovered more anomalies of organization in these distinguished citizens than are apparent in the criminals. After this remark it is necessary to withhold their names, though some of them are men of national reputation.

It is time to reassert with increasing emphasis the personal responsibility of the individual, and to insist upon the enthronement and guidance of conscience. There are certainly social and economic reasons for crime, some of which the writer has pointed out elsewhere, but the chief fact in human life is the power of self-determination. The chief causes of crime, outside of personal and moral degradation, are psychical and not physical. The reader of history can not fail to have noted that relation of prevalent ideas to conduct which is so conspicuous in human affairs. The scenes of blood and desolation characteristic of the French Revolution are directly traceable to the doctrines which prepared the way for anarchy, but not for rational freedom.

We have had our attention directed to the contagion of suicide which has marked the last half decade. But Lecky tells us that suicide was made practically unknown in the civilized world by the spread of Christianity and its beliefs in the dignity and sanctity of man. The present contagion will disappear not as the result of food, or raiment, or houses, or any other material good, but by a revival of practical faith in the human soul and its capacity, in human righteousness and its obligation.