Tracing the Criminal: The Rise of Scientific Criminology in Britain, 1860–1918
Oxford: The Bardwell Press, 2005
301 p., ISBN: 0-9548683-1-5
Reviewed by Laurence Talairach-Vielmas
If today we associate the Victorians with their immense private collections and museums, we tend to forget that they did not simply measure and classify their criminals as they classified curios and works of art. As Neil Davie's historical account of the emergence of criminology in Britain underlines, the Victorians also attempted to explain criminals and to explore crime itself. Davie's book examines the works of criminal anthropologists, alienists, and prison medical officers which typified the British interest in crime and criminals. Though the British, Davie argues, hardly took part in the continental debates dealing with the causes of crimes, such as the international congresses on criminal anthropology of the 1880s and 1890s, British experts—mainly criminal justice professionals, ranging from doctors, psychiatrists to civil servants working in the Home office-run prison system—were nonetheless avidly looking for solutions to the problem of the punishment of criminals. Davie's study does not trace the history of female criminal behaviour, however, instead focusing exclusively on the male criminal type, as the figure emerged after the crime wave of the 1850s and 1860s.
In his first chapter, Davie explains how physical deformity was read as evidence of criminal propensities. In the 1820s and 1830s, while the pseudo-sciences of physiognomy and phrenology were thriving, its practitioners were not criminologists researching the causes of criminal behaviour. Rather, their interest lay in the workings of the human mind. Still, from Lavater's Essays of Physiognomy, published in English in 1789, to W. Hatfield's Face Reading (1870), the criminal became increasingly stereotyped, all the more so because British criminology, whose birth Davies situates between 1869 and 1870, was highly informed by mid- and late-Victorian anthropological research in racial "types."
The stereotype of the criminal was reinforced even more by the rise of illustrations, especially in popular magazines, which exhibited images of criminals hinged upon physiognomic principles. Regarding the science of phrenology, which examined the bumps of the head, Davie highlights the significance of the work of Frantz Joseph Gall and John Caspar Spurzheim, as well as the foundation of Britain's first phrenological society in 1820 by George Combe. Interestingly, Gall and his fellow phrenologists, carrying out their research among subjects found in jail and lunatic asylums, were led to reflect on the causes of criminal behaviour, on the responsibility of criminals as well as on the potential therapeutic use of phrenology for the reform of criminals.
Moreover, the conception of the criminal changed throughout the nineteenth century, as Jeremy Bentham's Penitentiary illustrated for example: penal reformers constantly sought to find suitable regimes for the prisoners. As a result, experts started making a distinction between "habitual" and "accidental" offenders and attempted to set up families of criminals which might help find them adequate punishments for each category. Public spectacle, transportation, discipline and productivity were so many different methods of punishment which needed to be adapted to each type of prisoners, gradually highlighting the potentally reformist aims of imprisonment.
Chapter 2 looks at the evolution of the British penal system in the 1850s and 1860s, focusing more particularly on the function of medical officers. Prison doctors had to establish objective criteria for deciding whether the prison inmates were "fit" for labour and punishment. They had therefore to analyse the nature of the offenders' physical and mental disabilities.
From the work of George Wilson to that of David Nicolson, Davies traces the attempts that were made to distinguish types of criminals. As Davie argues, both Wilson's and Nicolson's works were heavily influenced by the sciences of phrenology and physiognomy, hence grounded upon popular stereotypes, though their research was that of medical practitioners.
Focusing then on the English alienist Henry Maudsley's exploration of the criminal's organisation, Davie leads us into the theories of heredity to understand criminal behaviour. Explaining the notion of "degeneration," originally linked to the French alienist Morel, Davie foregrounds the impact of the degeneracy debate and the British concerns about the potential effects of urbanisation. The fin-de-siècle criminal was aligned with the weakest and was considered very close to the insane. Whether the degenerate was likely to become infertile, as Morel had suggested, or dangerously threatened the nation, as the work of Darwin's cousin, Francis Galton, exemplified, illustrated the various interpretations of Darwin's principle of natural selection, which probably gave rise to Social Darwinism at the end of the nineteenth century.
Davie underlines as well the development of criminological expertise in the 1870s, mentioning the rise of photographic portraits which, from 1871 were systematically added to the criminals' registers. However, the expansion of the Scotland Yard data base made it difficult to use and the registers were replaced in 1877 by Alphabetical Registers of Habitual Criminals where only 22,000 names were listed. Developing next Galton's research and his role in the British Association's "Anthropometric and Racial Committee," Davies relates the history of his "composite" photographs, which superimposed several convict portraits to bring to light the incriminating features of the criminal.
Chapter 3 investigates the complexities of the reception of Lombroso's "Born Criminal-Type" in England. Lombroso's theory, as expounded in Criminal Man, was grounded upon the premises that 70% of criminals were biologically programmed to commit crimes. Lombroso regarded his 219 criminal portraits as evidence of an atavistic criminal type and foregrounded the relevance of anatomical or physiognomical features, such as the prominence of the jaw, the harshness of the look, or the abundance of hair. Lombroso saw atavism as the primary biological cause of criminal behaviour and paid little attention to socio-economic factors; yet he gradually included congenital illnesses and forms of dégénérescence in his criminal type, increasingly merging criminality, insanity and epilepsy, as underlined in his Crime: Its Causes and Remedies (1899). Though Lombroso's theories did not reach England before the 1880s, some of Lombroso's attributes of the criminal did bear a resemblance to mid-victorian stereotypes of the "criminal classes" and his theories were close to those of Henry Maudsley, as well as to the work of other pioneers of criminal anthropology, such as James Bruce Thomson, George Wilson or David Nicolson, all researching in the late 1860s and 1870s.
In the 1880s, however, if some seemed to subscribe to the Italian school, others viewed it with scepticism. As Davie explains, prison medical officers, such as John Campbell, or John Baker or David Nicolson, did examine criminal heads in search of the physical stigmata of crime, and in the 1890s, Havelock Ellis's "instinctive criminal" is ample evidence of anthropometric measurement in the prison medical service. Yet, the 1880s and 1890s also saw virulent British opponents to Lombrosian criminology. If the latter did take into consideration hereditary factors and their potential manifestation in outward physiognomic stigmata, they rejected the idea of the criminal constitution. Revealingly, Maudsley even revised some of his arguments concerning criminal constitution in the late 1880s, attempting to avoid generalisation—hence rejecting the notion of the criminal-type. Likewise, Ellis, strangely enough, given the portrait of his "instinctive criminal," advocated caution when analysing the role of heredity.
In fact, if the English medico-psychiatric Establishment disapproved of Lombrosian criminology, the popular success of Ellis's The Criminal, just like Galton's appraisal of Ellis's work, suggests that the English response to the criminal-type was hard to frame. This is what Davie tries to make clear, by comparing the theories advanced by Henry Maudsley with degenerationist discourse and the French Milieu Social School. As posited by Maudsley or Herbert Spencer, using Lamarckian theory of evolutionary heredity, inimical social conditions could create biological anomalies and be passed on to succeeding generations. The weight of hereditary and environmental factors must thus be considered simultaneously.
Chapter 4 focuses on British theories of crime and the criminal and on British criminologists' attempts to categorize and individualize criminals. British criminology, emphasizing the influence of biology and environment, portrayed the criminal as the victim of social or hereditary factors. As a consequence, individualized and medicalized solutions to crime increased, ranging from sterilisation, preventative detention and incarceration to shipping to the colonies. Significantly, the stress was more and more laid on the importance of good living conditions to prevent criminal behaviour. This is why the "Department Committee on Prisons", set up in June 1894 asked for more humane administration, emphasizing education and more individualized treatment.
The question of habitual criminals remained nonetheless thorny. Though cumulative sentencing had already been tried in the 1869 Habitual Criminal Act, the 1908 Prevention of Crime Act advocated the idea of "preventative detention," transferring the habitual criminals to a penal colony once their statutory sentence had been served. Furthermore, if Lombroso's physical stigmata were deemed unreliable by British criminologists, the latter agreed with his theories in viewing the habitual offender as low in intelligence. Using J. F. Sutherland's 1908 study (Recidivism: Habitual Criminality and Habitual Petty Delinquency: A Problem in Sociology, Psycho-Pathology and Criminology, Edinburgh: William Green), Davie explains how the British portrait of the criminal heightened anatomical and physiognomic abnormalities in mentally deficient habitual criminals. Sutherland, moreover, following the French Lamarckians, argued that acquired characteristics were likely to entail permanent changes to the brain. The burning issue of the feeble-minded was tackled further by the Eugenics movement, as well as by the newly-founded Eugenics Education Society (1907), together with the National Association for Promoting the Welfare of the Feeble-Minded. On the other hand, to the threat of degeneration, criminalizing the poor, was also added the rise of middle-class criminality, featuring criminals who could not be recognizable on sight.
The development of fingerprinting at the beginning of the twentieth century helped the tracing and tracking of white-collar crime, though French researchers' as well as Galton's attempts to find a correlation between fingerprint patterns and social and intellectual traits had failed. The new French system of anthropometric measurement or "Bertillonage," named after Alphonse Bertillon, gradually replaced Galton's composite portrait and older existing systems of criminal identification and was adopted by Scotland Yard in 1895, twelve years after its introduction at the Paris Préfecture de Police.
The portrait of the habitual offender, Davie argues further in Chapter 5, often bridged the gap between Lombrosian criminology and its detractors. This is particularly true in the Edwardian period in which the habitual criminal was caught between mainstream criminological thinking and the Eugenics movement. Davie first examines the work of Charles Goring, who collaborated with Galton and Karl Pearson. The latter, just like Galton, was interested in measurements and applications of statistical methods to evolutionary questions. Pearson, Galton and W. R. Weldon founded the academic journal Biometrica in 1901 and a Biometric Laboratory followed in 1906. Rejecting Lombrosian criminal anthropology (at least, as expounded in Lombroso's first 1876 edition of L'Uomo delinquente), Goring investigated the links between criminal behaviour and physical and mental traits which were found in Lombrosian criminology, such as left-handedness, weight or hair-colour. As he classified his convicts, he showed that no correlations could be found between the stigmata, the length of sentence and gravity of offence. Yet, congenital "mental defectiveness," Goring contended, was a determinant of crime. Thus, his view of criminality as hereditary, together with his belief that education could not solve the crime problem, remained close to Lombroso's argument. In addition, segregation and supervision of the mentally and physically deficient, just like forced sterilisation, were measures advocated by Goring and other eugenicists who welcomed his conclusions in The English Convict (1913). Hesitatingly published by the Home Office, Goring's work gave rise to much criticism as it constructed criminals as irresponsible for their actions—a conclusion once again not unlike Lombroso's.
Focusing next on the Eugenics movement, Davie explains the origin of the term "eugenics," which was coined in 1883 by Galton to define the science of improving human stock. Galton's Hereditary Genius, published in 1869, influenced by Darwin's theory of natural selection, stressed the "degenerative" effects of modern urban life and urged human intervention to protect the fittest and save the human race. Galton, like his fellow eugenicists, advocated selective breeding in order to improve British manhood, especially as alarming research carried out in the 1880s in the East End of London, like Charles Booth's Life and Labour of the People in London (1892–1897), showed that a third of the population in the capital was living in poverty. The fear of degeneration led many eugenicists to favour sterilisation of the "unfit," though the British were on the whole reluctant to follow American eugenicists campaigning for compulsory sterilisation and still believed in habitual criminals' eventual reform.
There is no doubt that Davie's book will prove useful, as it provides historians and literary scholars with detailed and much-documented analysis of the rise of scientific criminology in Britain. Davie not only refers to central nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century works, but he also frequently acknowledges former research on the subject. We may perhaps regret the significant number of misprints which can sometimes be confusing, especially as nineteenth-century works appear to have been published in the twentieth century. But the alert reader will probably not be led astray by such obvious misprints and will certainly follow Davie's convincing argument throughout.