How to spot a criminal

L0010112 Criminals from Cesar Lombroso's L'Homme Criminel, Rome Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Plate illustrating four types of criminals. L'Homme Criminel Lombroso, Cesar Published: 1888 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0
Washington and Lee University
Cesare Lombroso is seen perfectly preserved in a bottle of formaldehyde.

Do we know what makes a person become a criminal and can we spot them?


Many people in the 19th century believed they both knew and they could.


Do you have high cheekbones? Is your nose upturned or flattened, is it shaped like the beak of a bird of prey? Do you have small, wandering, bloodshot eyes, full lips and large ears? Do you have tatoos?

Some prominent Victorian scientists believed that these were the physical characteristics of the criminal.

They also believed that female criminals were far more ruthless than their male counterparts and that they were wicked, immodest, short, wrinkled and had darker hair and smaller skulls than ‘normal’ women.

Ever heard the phrases, ‘E looks a wrongun,’ or ‘I don’t trust him, his eyes are too close together?’

We often make judgements about people based on their appearance. In fact, as children and adults, we avoid those who look as if they might be a danger to us. You might call it a necessary survival strategy.

Cesare Lombroso

In the 1870s Dr Cesare Lombroso, sometimes called the father of scientific criminology, was studying criminals imprisoned in Turin, Italy.

He became convinced that criminals are a step back down the evolutionary ladder, a reversion to a primitive or subhuman type of man. He decided, after years of study, that you could tell a criminal by the shape of their face and the excessive length of their ape-like arms.

“A criminal’s ears,” he wrote, “are often of a large size. The nose is frequently upturned or of a flattened character in thieves. In murderers it is often aquiline like the beak of a bird of prey.

Michael Mosley


These attributes were, to him, clear signs that the individual was a throwback to an earlier stage of evolution and possessed  the ferocious instincts of primitive humanity and the inferior animals.


A life devoted to science

Cesare Lombroso was born in Verona in 1835. He graduated in 1858 from the University of Pavia. He begun his career working in lunatic asylums and then become interested in crime and criminals while studying Italian soldiers. He later tried to pinpoint the differences between lunatics, criminals and normal individuals by examining inmates in Italian prisons.

From his time in the army, he collected skulls, skeletons, brains and other objects related to his studies which formed the basis of his private collection. Once a professor of forensic medicine, he moved the collection from his home to the university and set up what would later become one of Italy’s most macabre museum. He added skulls from distant places and, later, those of criminals and madmen.

Later he added murder weapons, photographs, drawings, charts and instruments for taking scientific measurements. As his fame grew, other scholars sent him materials from all over the world. He amassed a huge collection which ultimately included himself, as his final wish was for his family to donate parts of his body to the museum.

The “born criminal”

His theory of the “born criminal” came from the data collected from over four hundred autopsies of criminals and over six thousand examinations of criminals who were still alive.

He believed that if crimilality was inherited, then the born criminal could be distinguished by physical characteristics. Effectively, he was saying that their nature was influenced by hereditary factors or mental disorders that diminished their responsibility.

This begs the question, how can you blame someone for behaving according to their inherited character? After all, it’s in a cat’s character to kill birds so can we blame it for doing so?


Essentially, Lombroso believed that criminality was inherited and that criminals could be identified by physical defects that confirmed them as being atavistic or savage. A thief, for example, could be identified by his expressive face, manual dexterity, and small, wandering eyes. Habitual murderers meanwhile had cold, glassy stares, bloodshot eyes and big hawk-like noses, and rapists had ‘jug ears’.   Diana Bretherick.   History Extra.


As modern science and our understanding of the human brain has progressed,  Lombroso’s ideas appear racist, sexist and discriminatory and many of his studies tended to ‘demonstrate’ the inferiority of criminals to honest people and of women to men. However, to his contemporaries his work was cutting-edge science.


His legacy

With good reason, Lombroso’s theories have been scientifically discredited, but he and his theories had the merit of bringing up the importance of scientific studies of the criminal mind and focusing on the criminal rather than the crime.


Sadly, spotting potential murderers turned out to be nothing like as simple as Dr Lombroso claimed and his “scientific” findings were soon discredited. But this was the beginning of a search that has continued for more than a century – to find out if criminals, and in particular murderers, have different brains to the rest of us.            Michael Mosley




History Extra


Washington and Lee University

BBC news

The Lancet

The American Journal of Psychiatry


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