‘It really is astounding the vogue that this puerile nonsense has obtained’: Discussing the Criminal and Criminal Anthropology at Victorian Broadmoor

The publication of Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso’s The Criminal (1876) established criminal anthropology as an independent science. Lombroso believed that there existed a criminal type: a man or a woman with a specific anatomical configuration.[i] Criminal anthropology had a limited following in Britain. In his The Criminal, Henry Havelock Ellis criticised Lombroso for his style, impetuosity, and lack of critical analysis, but believed that it would be ‘idle to attempt to deny [the] importance of a ‘morbid element’ in criminality’.[ii] He wrote of the size and shape of criminals’ heads, of their cranial abnormalities, prominent jaws and cheekbones, of their receding chins, and of their teeth, nose, ears and beards.[iii] Prison chaplain W. D. Morrison asked:

Has the criminal any bodily… characteristics which differentiate him from the ordinary man?… Does he possess a peculiar confirmation of skull and brain? Is he anomalous in face and feature, in intellect, in will, in feeling? Is he, in short, an individual separated from the rest of humanity by any set or combination of qualities which clearly mark him off as an abnormal being?[iv]

To Morrison the answer appears to have been yes: ‘it is highly probable that a distinct criminal type… exists.’[v] Yet despite such observations, by the mid-late 1890s there was a general feeling amongst medical and legal professionals that criminal anthropology was of little relevance. In 1892, John Baker, Prison Medical Officer at Portsmouth (later Deputy Superintendent of Broadmoor), wrote: ‘No safe diagnostic evidence of the criminal nature can be evolved from head measurements, or from the shape of the cranium.’[vi] Four-years later Baker criticised attempts to ‘draw an analogy between the Italian criminal and his English prototype’ and wrote about the ‘extravagant views’ held by criminal anthropologists: ‘Receding foreheads, square chins, large ears, and tattoo marks are but poor data on which to base pathological criminality.’[vii] In 1895 Broadmoor Superintendent David Nicolson delivered his Presidential Address before the Medico-Psychological Association. Based on ‘nearly 30 years’ work in prisons and in Broadmoor he robustly rejected criminal anthropology:

I object to the criminological method because it is not only useless, but misleading… I hope the day will never come when, in our official examination into the mental condition of suspected persons, or persons lying in prison upon a criminal charge, we as medical men will be expected to produce our craniometer for the head measurements, and to place reliance upon statistical information as to the colour, size or shape of any organ. A man is sane or insane, criminal or lunatic, apart from and without regard to such sources of information.[viii]

He believed that the anthropological method was destined to fail because it ‘does not include circumstance and motive in the computation, and… without these no standard of capacity, or of conduct, or of responsibility can be regarded as… possible.’[ix] Generally, Nicolson’s audience agreed with him. Dr Conolly Norman declared:

If a man has not a perfectly chiselled ear or a Grecian nose, if he has learned, when a boy, to tattoo his arm, he is hopeless. Everything that evolution, culture, training and education can do for him is of no avail, for behold his nose is a little crooked and the lobe of his ear is adherent to his cheek! It really is astounding the vogue that this puerile nonsense has obtained.[x]

Of course, not everyone agreed. Psychiatrist Thomas Clouston questioned Nicolson’s position: ‘to say that the mass of criminals in this country are merely criminals by want of opportunity… by want of education, and not by their organization, is absolutely contrary to the results of psychological investigation for the last fifty years.’[xi] The views expressed at this meeting tended to correspond with the general medical consensus in late-nineteenth century Britain that not all criminals were physically marked. Whether criminals were born or made was discussed. In the 1870s, eminent psychiatrist Henry Maudsley viewed the insane as the ‘inevitable spin off in the stern and remorseless process of evolutionary struggle.’ Criminals, on the other hand, were a presumed product of their inheritance.[xii] In 1875, Nicolson (who at this time was a Prison Medial Officer) drew from Maudsley when he advised that ‘the existence of this unavoidable “tyranny of (criminal) organization”’ must be considered.[xiii] By the mid 1890s, Nicolson had concluded that not all criminals were born and spoke of the importance of environmental factors: ‘I believe the lower-class child would be taught to adapt itself to the higher level of its surroundings, just as the better-born child would run the risk of becoming criminal-minded or criminal under the influence and training that attach to its existing conditions of life.’[xiv] Others agreed. (Former) Broadmoor Superintendent William Orange stated:

With regard to the question as to how much crime may be due to training and how much to natural propensity, it seems to me that the principle applied by an old theologian to prayer and works hold good, viz., you ought to pray as if everything depended on prayer, and work as if everything depended on work. So with regard to training, as compared to the germ we all bring into the world with us – both have to be considered and each has its influence.[xv]

[i] Cesare Lombroso, Crime: Its Causes and Remedies, trans. by Henry P. Horton (London: William Heinemann, 1911).

[ii] Henry Havelock Ellis, The Criminal, 2nd edn (London: Walter Scott Ltd., 1895), p. 227.

[iii] Ibid., pp. 49. 52. 63-67. 70. 72-73.

[iv] W. D. Morrison, Crime and its Causes (London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1891),p. 187.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] John Baker, ‘Some Points Connected With Criminals’, Journal of Mental Science, 38 (July 1892), 364- 369 (p. 368).

[vii] John Baker, ‘Insanity in English Local Prisons’, Journal of Mental Science, 42 (April 1896), 294-304 (p. 294).

[viii] David Nicolson, ‘Presidential Address Delivered at the Fifty-Fourth Annual Meeting of the Medico- Psychological Association, Held in London, 25th and 26th July, 1895’, Journal of Mental Science, 41 (October 1895), 567-591 (p. 580).

[ix] Ibid., p. 581.

[x] Ibid., p. 590.

[xi] Ibid., p. 589.

[xii] Henry Maudsley, Body and Mind: An Inquiry Into Their Connection and Mutual Influence, Specially in Reference to Mental Disorders being the Gulstonian Lectures for 1870, delivered before the Royal College of Physicians (London: Macmillan, 1870), pp. 52-53.

[xiii] David Nicolson, ‘The Morbid Psychology of Criminals’, Journal of Mental Science, 21 (July 1875), 225-253 (p. 233). In his Body and Mind (1870), Maudsley declared, ‘No one can escape the tyranny of his organization; no one can elude the destiny that is innate in him’, p. 69.

[xiv] Nicolson, ‘Presidential Address’, p. 577.

[xv] Ibid., p. 588.

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One thought on “‘It really is astounding the vogue that this puerile nonsense has obtained’: Discussing the Criminal and Criminal Anthropology at Victorian Broadmoor

  1. This is fascinating. A while back I read Paul Collins’s “Murder of the Century” (not as scholarly as here), but one of the interesting things vis-a-vis this post is that criminal anthropology was still very much accepted by the public in 1897, and was reported on seriously and without comment, and opinions solicited from “experts” in discussing the murder case, e.g.: “Cheap Don Juans, third-rate actors in melodramas, and Martin Thorns are frequently found with these highly attractive chins” (https://iheartliterati.wordpress.com/2014/03/23/yellow-journalism-and-butchery/)

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