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Lombroso’s contributions to Criminology :: Crime, Scandal, Spectacle

Lombroso’s contributions to Criminology

Cesare Lombroso founded his criminal theory following Darwin’s theory of evolution and defining the born criminal as a subspecies of homo sapiens. He believed the criminal to be an undeveloped, atavistic and evolutionary inferior being who is the product of a degeneration. He compared the behavior of criminals to that of animals, plants, children and indigenous tribes, reaching the conclusion that “many of the characteristics found in savages and among colored races are also to be found in habitual criminals” (Sylvester 71) .

median occipital fossa

median occipital fossa

His theory of the “born criminal” came from the data collected from over four hundred autopsies of criminals and over six thousands analysis he made on criminals who were still alive. His most striking discovery came after being commanded to perform an autopsy on a criminal named Vilella, who had died in the insane asylum of Pavia. When Lombroso was examining the criminal’s skull, he discovered an anomaly commonly found in lower apes, birds and rodents which he named median occipital fossa. For Lombroso this “was not merely an idea, but a revelation. At the sight of that skull, I seemed to see all of a sudden (…) the problem of the nature of the criminal – an atavistic being who reproduces in his person the ferocious instincts of primitive humanity and the inferior animals” (Ferrero XIV).

After his discovery, he conducted studies on twenty five thousands inmates of prisons all over Europe and used the data to observe their shared characteristics. He measured their skulls, took notes on different kinds of foreheads, eyes, noses, mouths and chins, and came up with characteristics shared by the same type of criminal, as well as with characteristics shared by everyone. Some of the physical characteristics he found irregular denture, facial asymmetry, big ears and defective eyes, among others. As his research was getting developed, Lombroso made a classification that placed criminals into two categories, divided into three subcategories.

The first categories includes three types of criminals with shared characteristics; these are the born criminal, the epileptic criminal and the insane criminal. Lombroso believed that these criminals were noticeable in society because they looked as if they did not belong in that time, because of their atavistic features such as “enormous jaws, high check bones,

Facial characteristics described by  Lombroso, some of which may indicate  criminality

Facial characteristics described by
Lombroso, some of which may indicate

prominent superciliary arches (…), excessive idleness” (Ferrero XV). He also described that insane criminals act in unnatural ways due to their insanity, and that epileptic criminals cannot control their actions because of their epilepsy.

The second category focuses on the criminaloid, who can also be compared to the habitual criminal and the occasional criminal. People belonging in this second category differ from the ones in the first because they are not criminals by nature. The criminaloid is hesitant before committing a crime and will easily confess his deeds. The occasional criminal can be described as the one who commits a crime spontaneously and the habitual criminal commits crimes because of the company he keeps, committing crimes through imitation of his peers.

It is also possible to affirm that in each of these categories, Lombroso found clear distinctions between the characteristics found in male and female criminals, being the born criminal the one with the biggest number of differences between both sexes.

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