4 Suspect Historical Theories for Predicting Criminality

When was the last time you looked a stranger in the face and made a snap judgment about how they behave? If you've graduated kindergarten, you know you're not supposed to. But for centuries, scientists and philosophers believed that physical traits corresponded to personality. Even Aristotle thought there was a connection between the book and its cover.

Today, physiognomy—as the study of facial features linked to personality became known—is considered a pseudoscience, but it was the first application of any science at all to criminology. Some argue that it helped pave the way for the development of forensics and tools like psychological profiling; others point out that attempts to link biology to criminal behavior are often deeply problematic, and have been used to justify discrimination against various ethnic and religious groups.

Controversial though they may be, theories linking biology to criminal behavior have not gone away. From skull shape to body types, here are some of the ways we've tried to use what's on the surface to unearth the monsters underneath.

1. PHRENOLOGY

As a young man in late 18th-century Vienna, physician Franz Josef Gall wondered why his classmates were so good at memorization while he struggled. And why did he surpass them in other areas? After noticing that those who were particularly skilled at memorization had prominent eyes, he spent years searching for a biological explanation for differences in mental characteristics. Eventually, he landed on a theory that aimed to explain all human behavior.

Gall based his theory, soon to be known as phrenology, on the notion that the brain was composed of 27 separate “faculties,” or organs, each responsible for a behavioral trait—benevolence, covetousness, arrogance, and wit, just to name a few. He believed that the size of an organ was correlated to its power and that the skull took its shape from the brain. As such, by examining the shape of the skull one could determine personality. Eventually, Gall's followers introduced the idea that people were born with their faculties in balance and were essentially good, but under- or over- development, diseases of, or damage to any of these faculties could cause an imbalance that would lead to a particular behavior.

Phrenology soon took off in Europe and then in North America. It wasn't long until Gall's acolytes were applying his principles to the study of criminality, examining the skulls of criminals for clues about their personality and publishing books and treatises that showed others how to do the same. For phrenologists, crime was a result of an overgrowth or other anomaly in a particular faculty—say, destructiveness.

By attributing behavior to a brain defect, phrenology broke with existing notions of deviant behavior. Pre-Enlightenment theory had held that such behavior was the result of “evil” or supernatural forces. During the Enlightenment, free will reigned supreme, and criminality was seen as an exercise of that will, the only deterrent for which was severe punishment. Phrenology removed free will from the equation. While those with “normal” faculties could commit crimes based on free will and should be punished accordingly, the habitually criminal were not necessarily responsible for their actions—they behaved the way they did because of mental disorder, one which could be addressed and treated. It's no coincidence that phrenologists were among the most vocal opponents of capital and corporal punishment and major proponents of rehabilitation in the middle of the 19th century.

Phrenology declined in popularity in the second half of the 19th century, although it persisted into the 20th century in some areas. For a brief moment, it was the first and most comprehensive scientific approach we had to criminology.

2. DEGENERATION

A page from Cesare Lombroso's book l'Uomo Delinquente, 1889
A page from Cesare Lombroso's book l'Uomo Delinquente, 1889

Sometimes called the “father of criminology,” Italian physician Cesare Lombroso spent much of his career examining the bodies (both dead and alive) of convicted criminals and the mentally ill. The army doctor and professor of psychiatry was struck by both Darwin's theories and the work of Italian evolutionists during the 1860s, and evolution greatly influenced his later work.

Like Gall, Lombroso experienced a “eureka” moment while making a minute examination of a human head—only in his case, it was the skull of the recently deceased thief and arsonist Giuseppe Villella. Villella had a small indentation at the back of his skull; unusual for a human, but common in some primates. Lombroso noticed the trait in a few other crooks, and theorized that criminals were in fact some evolutionary throwback to primitive humans. He began to argue that deviance was inherited in many of these “born delinquents,” and they could be differentiated from the masses by physical characteristics that he claimed resembled our primate ancestors: large jaws, jug ears, high cheekbones, bloodshot eyes, to name a few attributes. Behavioral traits like idleness and non-biological features like tattoos could also be a sign.

Lombroso ran experiments on prisoners, the insane, and even low-lifes he wrangled from Italian alleyways. He took measurements of their bodies and features and tested their blood pressure, pain resistance, and reaction to other stimuli. Over the years, he established a set of features associated with different types of crime. His theory, known as degeneration, laid the foundation for a systematic approach to crime and even punishment. Like the phrenologists, Lombroso and his acolytes argued against capital punishment for those whose degeneration was not particularly advanced but triggered by an environmental factor—they were to be treated rather than locked up.

While wildly popular during his lifetime (he even argued the merits of his theory with Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy while visiting the writer's home), Lombroso's ideas faded from prominence as sociological theories of crime became more popular at the turn of the 20th century. Besides his emphasis on a scientific approach to criminology, his legacy consists of a museum in Turin stocked with the skulls and other ephemera he collected throughout his career ... along with the good doctor's own head, preserved in a jar.

3. SOMATOTYPES

Body type is blamed for a lot these days—a propensity for obesity, jeans that don't fit quite right. But in the early 20th century, an American psychologist named William Sheldon looked a little deeper.

Sheldon examined some 4000 photographs of college students and distilled their bodies into three categories, or somatotypes: endomorphs, mesomorphs, and ectomorphs. Endomorphs were soft, round, and put on fat easily; they were also amiable, relaxed, and extroverted. Mesomorphs were hard, muscular, and broad-chested; they were also assertive, aggressive, and insensitive. Finally, ectomorphs were long, narrow, and fragile-looking; they were also more introverted and anxious. Bodies fell into a spectrum defined by the degree to which they exhibited each of these three traits.

In a study of 200 delinquent youths, Sheldon concluded that mesomorphs had the greatest predisposition for impulsive (and thus perhaps criminal) behavior. While his work was criticized for its methodology, Sheldon did attract more than a few students, some of whom modified his theory to include social pressures; for example, it was possible that society treated people with certain physical characteristics a certain way, thereby encouraging delinquency.

4. XYY SYNDROME

XYY syndrome karyotype
An XYY syndrome karyotype

In 1961, a 44-year-old man underwent genetic testing after discovering his child had Down syndrome. The test results surprised his doctor—the man had an extra Y chromosome. Over the following decades, further testing revealed that XYY syndrome, as it became known, was rather common, appearing in men at a rate of 1 in 1000.

In 1965, when a study from a Scottish institution for people with dangerous, violent, or criminal propensities reported a high frequency of XYY syndrome among its population, scientists and the media alike began to wonder if that extra chromosome somehow caused violence and aggression in men. XYY was used as a defense in the trial of a French murderer, and has been brought up in regard to the case of Richard Speck, the student nurse killer of Chicago, though he turned out not to have the extra Y. Books and TV shows featured XYY killers even into the 1990s.

But what does the science say? While men with XYY syndrome tend to be taller, more active, and have a greater chance of having learning or behavioral problems, there's been no evidence showing a decrease in intelligence or a higher propensity for violence or aggression. In fact, most XYY men are unaware of their genetic quirk and blend perfectly well into the rest of the population. While two Dutch studies did show an increase in criminal convictions among XYY men, researchers have posited that this could be explained away based on socioeconomic variables that have also been linked to the chromosome aberrations.

For now, the XYY theory remains just a theory—as well as a convenient plot device.

DNA Links Polish Barber Aaron Kosminski to Jack the Ripper Murders, But Experts Are Skeptical

Express Newspapers/Getty Images
Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Many people have been suspected of being Jack the Ripper, from author Lewis Carroll to Liverpool cotton salesman James Maybrick, but the perpetrator of the grisly crimes that gripped Victorian London has never been identified. Now, one of the case's first suspects is back in the news. As Smithsonian reports, Aaron Kosminski, a barber from Poland, has been linked to the Jack the Ripper murders with DNA evidence—but experts are hesitant to call the case closed.

The new claim comes from data now published in the Journal of Forensic Science. Several years ago, Ripperologist Russell Edwards asked researchers from the University of Leeds and John Moores University in Liverpool to analyze a blood-stained silk shawl thought to have belonged to Ripper victim Catherine Eddowes. The item, which Edwards owns, has been a primary piece of evidence in the murder investigation for years. In 2014, Edwards published a book in which he claimed Aaron Kosminski's DNA had been found on the garment, but his results weren't published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Five years later, the researchers have released their findings. Using infrared and spectrophotometry technology, they confirmed the fabric was stained with blood and discovered a possible semen stain. They collected DNA fragments from the stain and compared them to DNA taken from a descendent of Eddowes and a descendent of Kosminski. The mitochondrial DNA (the DNA passed down from mother to offspring) extracted from the shawl contained matching profiles for both subjects.

Kosminski was a 23-year-old Polish barber living in London at the time of the Jack the Ripper murders. He was one of the first suspects identified by the London police, but there wasn't enough evidence to convict him in 1888.

Following the newest study, many Jack the Ripper experts are saying there still isn't enough evidence to definitively pin the murders on Kosminski. One of the main issues is that a mitochondrial DNA match isn't as conclusive as matches with other DNA; many people have the same mitochondrial DNA profile, even if they're not related, so the forensic tool is best used for ruling out suspects rather than confirming them.

The shawl at the center of the study is also controversial. It was supposedly picked up by a police officer at the scene of Eddowes's murder, but that version of the story has been disputed. The shawl's origin also been traced back to multiple eras, including the early 1800s and early 1900s, as well as different parts of Europe.

Due to many factors complicating the Jack the Ripper case, the murders may never be solved completely. The crimes spurred a flurry of hoax letters to the London Police department in the 1880s, and even the letters that were thought to be authentic, like the one that gave Jack the Ripper his nickname, may have been fabricated.

[h/t Smithsonian]

Last Surviving Person of Interest in Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist to Be Released From Prison

Federal Bureau of Investigation, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain
Federal Bureau of Investigation, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

Almost exactly 29 years ago, two men disguised as police officers weaseled their way into Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and started removing prized artworks from the wall. They made off with 13 famous paintings and sculptures, representing a value of more than $500 million. It remains the largest property theft in U.S. history, but no one has ever been charged in connection with the heist.

Now, as Smithsonian reports, the last living person who may have first-hand knowledge about the heist will be released from prison this Sunday after serving 54 months for an unrelated crime. Robert (Bobby) Gentile, an 82-year-old mobster who was jailed for selling a gun to a known murderer, has been questioned by authorities in the past. In 2010, the wife of the late mobster Robert (Bobby) Guarente told investigators she had seen her husband give several of the artworks in question to Gentile—a good friend of Guarente’s—eight years prior.

A 2012 raid of Gentile’s home also revealed a list of black market prices for the stolen items. Previous testimony from other mob associates—coupled with the fact that Gentile had failed a polygraph test when he was questioned about the art heist—suggest Gentile might know more about the crime than he has let on. For his part, though, Gentile says he is innocent and knows nothing about the art or the heist.

The FBI announced in 2013 that it knew who was responsible for the museum heist, but would not reveal their names because they were dead. Still, the whereabouts of the artworks—including prized paintings by Rembrandt, Manet, Vermeer, and Degas—remain unknown. The museum is offering a $10 million reward to anyone who can provide information leading to “the recovery of all 13 works in good condition," according to the museum's website. A separate $100,000 reward will be provided for the return of an eagle finial that was used by Napoleon’s Imperial Guard.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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