Influence of 19th Century Criminological Theory on Penal Practice

Throughout the course of the 19th century, the definition of who the criminal man was influenced the way he was treated. Whether theorists could identify the criminal along biological, social or psychological terms influenced prison policy on how to turn crime doers away from their lives of evil. In fact, reform was the ultimate goal of the 19th century penitentiary. It was for this reason that policy makers were so adamant in aligning the way criminals were treated with their perceptions of how ‘the criminal’ came to be. If the criminal is simply, as classical theorists would suggest, a rational man, then to force him to contemplate his actions will reform him. If, however, he is biologically pre-disposed to commit crimes, harsher reform strategies need to be taken. We will analyze those strategies taken within the context of the New York State penitentiary, Sing Sing Prison and its predecessor Auburn Prison.

Neoclassical Perceptions of the Criminal

Sing Sing opened it doors in 1826 as a replacement for the overcrowded Newgate prison located in New York City’s Greenwich village. It rose to prominence during a time period where neoclassical theory of crime was in decline. From that neoclassical idea that the criminal is a rational man, developed a prison style infamously known as ‘The Auburn System.” This system, which was adopted into Sing Sing in its early days, employed solitary confinement at nighttime and silent labor during the day. The hope of this strict policy of limited inter-prisoner communication was to force inmates into quiet contemplation of their actions so they could repent to them[1]. In fact, the word penitentiary comes from the same Latin word as penitence.


Positivist Perceptions of the Criminal

As neoclassical views filtered out and were replaced with the more popular mid 19th century views of positivism, biological positivist thinkers came into NY prisons as prison reformers. These reformers saw the criminal man as subject to his own biology, and as someone who could be changed if prisons worked to change him. However, they argued that a system of forced silence and torture was no way to go about that change. Reformers such as Geroge Combe and Eliza Farnham contended that because the criminal man is biologically distinct, he cannot be changed through rational contemplation of his actions.

George Combe


Efforts to identify biologically distinct criminals and reform them were headed by George Combe, founder of the Edinburgh Phrenological Society and leading phrenologist of his time. In his 1839 visit to the NY state Auburn penitentiary, he observed that:

“Their {the prisoners’} heads presented the usual development of criminals, viz., deficiency of size in many, deficiency of the moral organs in the great majority, deficiency of intellect in many, with large organs of the propensities in nearly all. …”[2]

Combe believed, like many phrenologists of his time, that prisoners must be humanely treated. Their crime was a disease of their minds that they didn’t have direct control over, so they could not be tortured into reform. It was for this reason that in the 1830s and 1840s Combe used phrenology to advocate rational and secular reform of education and society throughout the United States.[3]

Eliza Farnham


While Combe’s work with NY state prisons was influential, Eliza W. Farnham had a much more profound impact on Sing Sing prison. Appointed as matron of its women’s prison in 1844, Farnham spent the first two years there writing the American edition of English phrenologist Marmaduke B. Sampson’s 1841 work, Criminal Jurisprudence Considered in Relation to Cerebral Organization. She edited the book to make it receivable to the “popular mind in republican America” and added distinct and descriptive profiles of inmates to demonstrate their criminal nature with distinct biological and psychological traits they had. Like Combe, Farnham’s belief in phrenological determinism did not affect her role as a prison reformer. Even though the inmates she profiled had set biological predispositions to commit crimes, they could still be changed. It was for this reason that she was a huge advocate for the introduction of music and reading into Sing Sing women’s prison as reformative activities over past practices of total isolation and torture. This belief that you can ‘change’ a person genetically predisposed to crime was consistent not only with early 19th century phrenology, but late 19th century degeneration school of thought. Farnham relaxed the regime of communicative repression in the women’s prison in 1845 and abolished it entirely by January 1846. However, a backlash from other penal leaders caused its re-establishment in November 1847.[4]

The 19th century penitentiary saw distinct influences by criminological theories on their penal practices. Dominant neoclassical thought at the turn of the century supported isolation and torture of prisoners thought to be rational men making evil decisions. But as the century developed and ideas of biological positivism began to take root, reformation of prisoners became the accepted way of dealing with inmates. Through the work of George Combe and Eliza Farnham, these reforms were able to gain traction within the walls of Sing Sing prison. In the next essay we will explore the implications of the predominance of positivist thought and how it contributed to a Eugenics movement throughout the United States criminal system.

[1] (Capo 2011)

[2] “Phrenologists at New York State Prisons.”

[3] (Whye 2000)

[4] “Phrenologists at New York State Prisons”