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This chapter examines historic views on the potency, power and agency of the living criminal body in the early modern and modern periods as a way of understanding the potency of the criminal corpse. The main section of the chapter focuses on the witch as the most powerful of living criminal bodies. There is discussion on phrenological interpretations of criminality and the work of Cesare Lombroso on the ‘born criminal’. The meaning of cruentation, or the ordeal by bleeding corpse, is also explored.


Keywords:Witch, Phrenology, Humours, Bleeding corpse Lombroso

In the medieval and early modern period, it was widely thought that God left his imprints on all living things, and it was an aspect of natural magic for humans to try and interpret their meaning to understand better the world He had created. With regard to human bodies, this meant that the lines on the hand, the wrinkles on the forehead, the shape of the nose, the colour of hair, the number of moles and other visible bodily features, signified how God moulded each person and imbued him or her with an individual character, identity and destiny. This art or science of physiognomy drew on concepts from the ancient world that expounded all-encompassing theories regarding the interconnectedness of matter. The doctrine of signatures, which governed much of herbal medicine, observed, for instance, that plants, animals and objects that resembled parts of the body were imbued with healing properties appropriate to that body part. Thus, liverwort was used for liver complaints. In Christian terms, God left such clues throughout the natural world to aid humankind. Physiognomy was also tied up with Galenic humoral theory, in other words, the notion that the body was governed by four humours—black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm. Imbalances between these humours caused illness and behavioural problems, as well as hot and cold temperaments, which could only be cured by restoring a healthy equilibrium. The notion that criminals had ‘bad blood’ derived, for example, from the idea that they were prone to excess bile. In other words, they had bilious constitutions. The traits of potential criminality—or, at least, the humoral passions and characteristics symptomatic of criminal behaviour—might be externally observable. Therefore, people with red hair, which in Galenic terms denoted a hot, choleric temperament, were considered more prone to violence, and a monobrow denoted a dangerous person. Such associations remain in the popular consciousness even today.1

Renaissance anatomists believed that through their dissections of executed criminals they found physical evidence that the criminal body could also be anatomically different from normal bodies, just as saints’ bodies exhibited signs of divine influence. As Katharine Park has noted, ‘the deeds of both were assumed to be supernaturally inspired, whether by God or the Devil.’ Thus, when Florentine physician Antonio Benivieni (1443–1502) dissected a notorious thief, he found what he believed to be hair covering his heart. This, he concluded, was due to a particularly hot complexion.2 Advances in anatomical science over the next two centuries rendered such interpretations obsolete, but the ambition to be able to identify the signs of innate criminality in and on the human body did not go away. The search was now on for the biological causation of crime, rather than for signs of divine influence.

The late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century anatomy schools had a regular supply of criminal corpses, and for some, influenced by early psychiatry, this opportunity enabled the study of the relationship between brain development and criminality. The most controversial exponent was the German physiologist Franz Josef Gall (1758–1828), who was the first to distinguish clearly between the grey and white matter of the brain. Gall’s studies led him to believe that different parts or ‘organs’ of the brain controlled different character and behavioural traits; their lesser or greater size determined their expression through action and thought in everyday life. Gall believed, furthermore, that the skull developed in relation to the size of the different parts of the brain. This scientific idea that the bumps on the skull reflected the shape of the brain and, therefore, could be used to determine the character of the individual led to the pseudoscience of phrenology. Gall and the phrenologists identified two particular areas diagnostic of criminality: the organs of destructiveness and combativeness. Gall had originally identified an ‘organ of murder’, having found protuberances in the same place on two murderers’ skulls, but his influential disciple Johann Spurzheim (1776–1832) disliked naming an organ ‘according to its abuse’ and so labelled it according to the propensity for destructive behaviour.3 Gall and Spurzheim’s analysis of the skulls of unwed mothers accused of infanticide apparently revealed, furthermore, that 25 out of 29 had a weak ‘organ of love of children’. The implications of all this were deeply provocative from a religious point of view, as they challenged the fundamental link between sin and criminal behaviour. Gall was accused of undermining the unity of the soul, free will and Christianity itself. His publications were placed on the Catholic Church’s Index of forbidden books.4

The use of phrenology as a predictive branch of criminology was also controversial. It stood to reason that if criminals could be identified phrenologically, then one could anticipate, control and prevent crime. The potential was explosive for penal policy. Writing in 1836, the Procurator Fiscal of Lanarkshire, George Salmond, thought that the new science could lead to ‘the better classification of criminals confined before and after trial, to the selection and treatment of convicts, and even to the more certain identification of such criminals as might effect their escape from justice or confinement.’5 But for every murderer’s skull that seemed to confirm criminal tendencies, there were others that did not match. William Saville was hanged in Nottingham in 1844 for the murder of his wife and three children, yet a phrenological study of Saville concluded in frustration: ‘there was nothing in the posterior part of the head which attracted particular attention. The organs of Destructiveness were not in the least protuberant. Combativeness and Amativeness were moderate. Now, what are we to say to all this? As an individual, I feel quite confounded.’6 However, it was investigations inside the skull that thoroughly undermined the theory. From early on, fellow anatomists critiqued Gall’s theories and those of his followers. The American surgeon T. Sewall stated categorically in 1837: ‘the division of the brain into phrenological organs is entirely hypothetical; it is not sustained by dissection’. Because the early phrenologists had used comparative animal anatomy to draw up the typology of the various organs of the brain, referring to leonine, canine or dove-like qualities, for example, one initial advocate of Gall’s work, John C. Warren, professor at the Massachusetts Medical College, decided to anatomise the head of a lion to confirm that the organs of combativeness and courage were unduly large. However, he found instead that they were no bigger than the corresponding organs of phrenologically inoffensive sheep.7

One sceptic wrote in the 1830s, ‘phrenology has more lives than any cat, or it could not have survived till now, perplexing weak minds, though supported by very clever ones.’8 Indeed, while phrenology eventually fizzled out of medical discourse during the mid-nineteenth century, it inspired the new discipline of criminal anthropology, and the notion of the ‘born criminal’ espoused by the influential Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso (1835–1909). He and others measured, weighed and analysed hundreds of living and executed criminals to draw up a scientific typology of characteristics. Some features were behavioural consequences, such as a higher frequency of wrinkles—the criminal being more prone to cynical laughter—but other features were considered inherent, biological throwbacks to a more primitive stage of humanity and arrested development. Still, Lombroso had to admit that only 40% of convicted male criminals he analysed bore a characteristic criminal feature, and even less a combination that could convincingly predict criminal behaviour.9 The criminal anthropologists also looked inside the body. It was thought in Italian folklore that the absence of blushing was a sign of a dissolute life, so blood-flows in different parts of the criminal body were measured and the dilation of blood vessels in the face analysed, leading Lombroso to confirm that criminals were not prone to facial flushes. His studies ‘showed’ that of a sample of 122 female criminals, 79% of murderers, 82% of infanticides and 90% of thieves could not blush.10 Lombroso and his ilk were, in some respects, trying to confirm centuries-old received wisdom that had been underpinned by humoral theory. He also observed, for instance, that red-haired people were disproportionately more prone to criminality, particularly crimes of lust.

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The eighteenth- and nineteenth-century attempts to identify and classify born criminals or, at least, indicate individual’s propensity for crime, were framed as scientific endeavours, and some good science as well as a lot of very bad science emerged from the work of phrenologists and criminal anthropologists. But in one sense, they were driven by the same venerable desire as the natural magicians centuries before, that is they were trying to understand how nature not nurture stigmatised the criminal body.