A criminal look

Vaught’s Practical Character Reader, apparently published in 1902 and revised in 1907 by Emily H. Vaught. Also available on Amazon. The book can best be described as an application of the theory of physiognomy, which is the idea that you can tell all kinds of things about a “person’s character or personality from their outer appearance” (wikipedia). Some images from Vaught’s book:
Gwen Sharp PhD
For those of you who are considering procuring yourself a wife, Vaught provides some tips on picking out a woman who will be a good mother (the same general head shape indicates a good father as well):
Avoid at all costs a man or woman with this head shape (notice the pointed nose, larger ears, and smaller eyes compared to the image above, in addition to the apparently super-important head protuberance):



Physiognomy is the belief, that a person’s appearance can tell us something about their personal characteristics.

Physiognomy is the study of a person’s physical characteristics, especially their face, in order to determine things about their personality. Although it was widely discredited during the 20th century, during the 18th and 19th centuries it was a legitimate and respected science. Many hoped that this study of faces could be used to pinpoint a ‘criminal look’ which could help police identify criminals, perhaps even before they committed a crime.


What does a person’s face tell you?

Many cultural traditions developed ways to ‘read’ faces. However, they disagree on the meaning of exterior features. The face is an important site of medical diagnosis in traditional Chinese medicine, as different parts of the face are considered to correspond to different organs of the body. The colour and constitution of facial features is assumed to indicate health or disease of the corresponding organ. Chinese doctors interpret the face using a diagnostic map.

In Europe the face is often considered to be an outward expression of a person’s character

Practitioners of physiognomy maintain that a person’s inner character is revealed by his or her external features.


The ‘criminal look.’

Throughout history, scholars  have tried to develop means of distinguishing  villains and people with criminal tendencies from those who are honest and law abiding. They believed that it would be a good idea to know if an individual was reliable and trustworthy before offering them a job or granting them extra responsibility. Seems reasonable.

Early scholars began to develop the theory that if a person was trustworthy and good, this would be reflected in the individual’s physical appearance. Equally, if an individual was dishonest and indulged in criminal activities this would also be reflected in their physical appearance. In other words, honest behaviour produces an honest look and criminal behavior produces a ‘criminal look’.

The belief that criminals would have a ‘criminal look’ has had its advocates for hundreds of years, and from the beginning of the 19th century  philosophers and scientists have attempted to find a scientific basis for these ideas, resulting in the growth of physiognomy, craniology, and phrenology, sometimes referred to as pseudosciences.



Physiognomy has its roots in antiquity. As early as 500 B.C., Pythagoras was accepting or rejecting students based on how gifted they looked. Aristotle wrote that large headed people were mean, those with small faces were steadfast, broad faces reflected stupidity, and round faces signaled courage.

The earliest-known systematic treatise on physiognomy is attributed to Aristotle. In it he devoted six chapters to the consideration of the method of study, the general signs of character, the particular appearances characteristic of the dispositions, of strength and weakness, of genius and stupidity, and so on. Then he examined the characters derived from the different features, and from colour, hair, body, limbs, gait, and voice. While discussing noses, for example, he says that those with thick, bulbous ends belong to persons who are insensitive, swinish; sharp-tipped noses belong to the irascible, those easily provoked, like dogs; rounded, large, obtuse noses to the magnanimous, the lionlike; slender, hooked noses to the eaglelike; and so on.     Encyclopaedia Britannica


This is from The Physiognomist’s Own Book: an introduction to physiognomy drawn from the writings of Lavater, from 1841:

“CUNNING, DECEIT, AVARICE.In such a face we may search in vain, for a single expression of frankness; for the slightly projecting chin, when accompanied with small penetrating eyes, denotes the absence of sincerity. There is no display of benevolence in the oblique mouth ; and avarice reveals itself in the close-locked lips. Combine all these features, and they result in a cunning, deceitful, avaricious, and not merely firm, but stubborn old fellow. Such a man moves quick, and speaks slowly and circumspectly; for suspicion is the mainspring of his character.”


18th-19th century

Physiognomy also had a direct link to the development and use of mug shots in the late 19th century. Sir Frances Galton (1822-1911), who is best known for his innovations in the science of fingerprinting, studied the potential of mug shots to reveal the ‘look’ of criminality. He layered mug shots of certain ‘types’ of criminals (such as smugglers, thieves, arsonists, etc.) into composite photographs. He hoped that by combining their faces, he would be able to identify facial features that indicated criminal tendencies.

Galton was the first to use mug shots in this way, but he wasn’t the first to study the face to try and identify the ‘criminal look’. For example, Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741-1801) was a Swiss poet and physiognomist who published Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beforderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe in 1775-78. In this popular book, he claimed that a person’s facial characteristics reflected their ‘temperament’ or character.


Bringing a character to life

For centuries in story telling, religious texts, literature and film, writers have portrayed a character’s personality through their looks.


Physiognomy in Literature

By Kristy Littlehale

No doubt that many students will already have a basic understanding of physiognomy, especially if they’ve ever watched a Disney cartoon. Characters who are good are generally depicted as physically beautiful and flawless; characters who are evil tend to be ugly, disfigured, or have other grotesque features. For example, in Sleeping Beauty, Princess Aurora and Prince Philip are both beautiful and handsome, respectively; the three good fairies are also cute and surrounded by colorful light. However, evil fairy Maleficent has greenish-gray skin, yellow eyes, and black horns on her head. Children intuitively know that Maleficent is up to no good, and that the fair young Princess Aurora is in danger.

Authors use this same method in their character descriptions to give readers hints as to the deeper intentions and inner workings of the souls of their characters. This practice dates back to the Middle Ages, where it was believed that outer flaws, illnesses, and defects were the result of the devil, witchcraft, and sin. Shakespeare routinely utilized this practice in his plays, including depicting Richard III as such a disfigured hunchback, that it was only upon the discovery of his bones in 2012 that the King’s severe scoliosis was confirmed to be barely noticeable. Julius Caesar notes that Cassius has a “lean and hungry look”, which makes him and the audience rightfully suspicious of his motives as a conspirator to kill Caesar. Chaucer used physiognomy in the Canterbury Tales to subtly direct his readers to make decisions about certain pilgrims based upon their physical flaws or beauty.

Physiognomy plays an important role in literature by allowing the audience or reader to identify characters who have hidden intentions or motives.


What do we make of it?

It might be easy to laugh at the idea that eyebrows and other facial features could be indicative of one’s character, but physiognomy, was extremely popular throughout history and well into Victorian times, perhaps because it feels intuitively right.

We are still fascinated by faces, and other people will make assumptions about us from our appearance, so it is not surprising that physiognomy had and has a strong appeal even though it has no basis in modern science.

The assumption of physical appearance as moral indicator still lives on. Homer Simpson must be ugly, because he’s so stupid.




Physiognomy, The Beautiful Pseudoscience.    Sarah Waldorf
Physiognomy.    Wellcome library London
Physiognomy, Photography and the criminal look.    New Zealand Police
Encyclopaedia Britannica
Physiognomy in Literature  By Kristy Littlehale
That criminal look. Criminology and Pseudoscience.      David Richardson

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