Amid the grisly curios at Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum nestles the Hyrtl Collection. Joseph Hyrtl, a 19th-century Viennese anthropologist, amassed 139 skulls, each with name, birth date, nationality, and cause of death carved into its side. Fate, Hyrtl believed, could be read in the cranial bones.
Skull scholars will welcome the work of Italian father of criminology Cesare Lombroso. In L’uomo deliquente (1876) and La donna deliquente (1893), the latter newly translated as Criminal Woman, the Prostitute, and the Normal Woman, Lombroso explored the link between physical abnormality and criminal behavior. A confirmed Darwinian, Lombroso read certain features as symptomatic of atavism. A protuberant jaw, broad cheekbones, and puffy lips indicated regression and marked their bearers as born malefactors.
Wildly influential in their day, Lombroso’s theories combine empiricism, speculation, and tortuous reason. As a prison doctor, he amused himself amassing tables such as “Facial Height by Crime Type” (infanticides tip the scales at 83 millimeters) and “Weight of Jaws of Prostitutes.” These measurements supported foregone conclusions and, when the data didn’t match his claims, offered extraordinary explanations. For example, though he marks the criminal impulse as atavistic, he suggests there are fewer female criminals than male because backward women don’t demonstrate the same evolutionary variability. But Lombroso softens this blow by adding, “If I must show that in mind and body woman is a male of arrested development, the fact that she is less criminal than he, and a little more pitiful, can compensate a thousandfold for her deficiency in the realms of intellect.”
With such claims, Lombroso risks appearing backward himself. Yet his still-relevant works haunt contemporary ideas of criminality and jurisprudence. Current debates over the biology of mind versus the role of environment ably show that we haven’t resolved the nature-nurture fray Lombroso entered—nor do we actually know much more about what makes a criminal than he did. Although maybe we doubt it has quite so much to do with the mandible.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 13, 2004