Criminal Phrenology

These essays will explore the development of criminology both into and out of the 19th century and how it informed the definition of what constitutes a criminal type. The dynamic definition of who a criminal is influenced how he was treated and we see the effects of this in the 19th century penitentiary system. We use the reform efforts of George Combe and Eliza Farnham to demonstrate how the introduction of phrenology into the prison system changed not only what is the ‘criminal type’, but also how that criminal should be punished.

Table of Contents:
1. Classification of the Criminal: A Brief History of Criminology

2. Influence of 19th Century Criminological Theory on Penal Practice

3. The Born Criminal and Indeterminate Sentencing


    Classification of the Criminal: A Brief History of Criminology


    When creating the image of the ‘criminal man’ it becomes necessary to ask oneself whether there exists a definitive model of who is and who is not a criminal. Are lawbreakers anatomically similar? Do they constitute a class of people? In short, is there such thing as a criminal ‘type’? Throughout the next 3 essays I will seek to answer that question in the context of the 19th century American penitentiary. I will revolve around the central claim that throughout the course of the 19th century, the criminal type was identified and re-identified constantly along both biological and social terms. This dynamic definition of the ‘criminal man’ lends support to the fact that there actually did not exist a definitive definition at all. Developments in psychology and science demanded constant re-evaluation of what constitutes a criminal both into and out of the 19th century. In this essay, we will look into the history of criminology and how it had developed into the 19th century. From there we will enter the century with the end of classical and the beginning of positivist theory and explore how the 1800s saw developments in biological explanations of who the criminal man is. These explanations transformed themselves throughout the course of this time period and eventually fed into the 1900s with the beginning of social explanations to crime.



    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.


    The Born Criminal and Indeterminate Sentencing

    The Failure of Reform:

    The rise of bertillonage and increased interest in rates of criminal recidivism led to the realization by policy makers of the late 19th century that in many cases, reformation of criminals does not work. The Bertillon system, which found its origins in the studies of French criminologist Alphonse Bertillon, focused on the measurement and recording of body parts as a means of identifying the criminal. The system helped create a profile that identified criminals based on their unchangeable physicalities, and could identify repeat offenders despite new tattoos or aliases they may use to mask their identity. It rose to popularity in an age before fingerprint analysis and shed light on the high rates of recidivism in American penitentiaries that policy makers had fallen ignorant to. “Recommitment rates” for Sing Sing prison, specifically, during the years 1817 and 1842 demonstrate that the likelihood of recidivism was far greater in the 19th century than reform.[1] By classifying between first time and repeat offenders, the Bertillon system lent support to the idea that efforts to reform criminals in prison were failing, and cast serious doubt over phrenological ideas that the criminal man was someone who could be turned away from his propensity of lawlessness.