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Cesare Lombroso: A Founding Father of Criminology

Did you know an Italian was one of the first to use scientific methods to study crime?

True crime has always been a fascination for people. From those who gathered at the sites of Jack the Ripper’s murders to the millions of viewers who now watch Investigation Discovery every night, true crime has always held a rapt audience. 

These people have always asked themselves, what makes a criminal? Why do these people do such horrible things?  

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Cesare Lombroso, a late 1800s Italian doctor, asked himself the same questions. His quest to find the answers made him one of the first to use scientific methods to study crime and criminal behavior. 

Lombroso was born in 1835 and began his medical career working in asylums. He had always been fascinated with the criminal element of society and often came face to face with these perpetrators during his time in the institutions. Lombroso wanted to identify the factors that separated criminals, lunatics, and ordinary individuals. The doctor started using the inmates at the local prisons as test subjects. 

It was during these studies that Lombroso came into contact with Giuseppe Villella, a notorious thief and arsonist. The inmate made for an ideal subject as he loved to brag about his criminal accomplishments and provided the doctor with a wealth of information. After Villella death’s Lombroso found an indentation on the back of Villella’s skull during the autopsy. This resemblance led Lombroso to the conclusion that criminals like Villella are more primitive, thus more animalistic than modern-day humans. 

Some of the physical characteristics Lombroso identified included: enlarged jaws, high cheek-bones, and handle shaped ears. He also listed behavioral characteristics such as laziness, a preference for orgies, and, “The desire not only to extinguish life in the victim, but to mutilate the corpse, tear its flesh, and drink its blood.” 

Criminal man, according to the classification of Cesare Lombroso

Lombroso even went so far as to categorize different traits for the different types of criminals. Thieves had expressive faces and more dexterity. Murderers had bloodshot eyes and big long noses. Meanwhile, rapists had big ears that stuck out prominently from the head. Lombroso also concluded female criminals were crueler than their male counterparts. 

Using his findings Lombroso tried to reform Italy’s criminal justice system. He lobbied for the humane treatment of prisoners and pushed for work programs to turn these individuals into productive members of society. 

Eventually, Lombroso’s theories fell out of favor as scientists began to place more emphasis on environmental factors. However, you can see pieces of Lombroso’s theories in modern criminology, especially with the latest emphasis on psychological and behavioral profiles. 

It is thanks to individuals like Lombroso that the field of criminology has come so far.

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