How Diogo Alves' Head Ended up in a Jar
Bear in mind that it’s nearly Halloween when I wrote this article. It’s that time of the year where we love to get scared. But you don’t need to wait until Halloween to see the real horrors of life. Reality could be more frightening than any ghost stories around. And my adult life could attest to that.
But if you ask me, the notion that life is stranger than fiction is an understatement. When you get to see those live oddities up close, feeling surprised is just the start. Just like how I reacted when I read about Diogo Alves. His career as a criminal in 19th century Portugal might sound unremarkable. But being Portugal’s first serial killer might be a fitting claim to infamy though. But it was not his crimes that made him known today. In fact, long after his death he still scared a lot of people.
And that includes me.
The man became an oddity, and a piece of horror exhibit beyond death. Soon after he was hanged for his murders, scientists chose to chop off his head, and had it preserved in a jar. His well-preserved head could still be seen today in University of Lisbon. Where it’s lifeless stare terrifies and compels passersby.
Who is Diogo Alves
To start with, Diogo Alves was a Spanish born serial killer, where he murdered seventy people from 1836 and 1840. He was peasant born and started worked in Lisbon at the age of 19. Because of his young age, he became a servant for wealthy families. Eventually, after changing jobs he started gambling and drinking. He even had a lover, an innkeeper of Palhava Maria Gertrudes.
It was believed that this connection to the innkeeper was what caused Diogo to start murdering in 1836.
Diogo used to steal and falsify keys, and this was how he managed to gain access to the Reservato de Mae Aguas das Amoreiras. Basically, an underground gallery that lead to the Aquedato das Aguas Livres. His preferred site of murder.
His victims were poor passersby. After robbing them, Diogo blindfolded his hapless victims, dragged them to the top of the aqueduct and threw them. A sixty-five-meter drop ensured instant death. It earned him a second nickname “The Aqueduct Murder.” Second, because he had a first one. A somewhat cartoonish “Pancada” (blow). A nickname he earned after he fell from the horse and hit his head.
The preferred place of murder, the The Aquedito das Aguas Livres is a historic structure in Lisbon Portugal. The main course covers 18 kilometers, but the whole network extends up to 58 kilometers. The Aqueduct was the answer of King John V to the lack of drinking water of Lisbon. Under the direction of the Italian Architect Antonio Canevari, construction started in 1731. In 1732, a group of Portuguese architects and engineers replaced Canevari. The structure was still unfinished in 1748, but it began to bring water to the city of Lisbon. It survived the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, which devastated much of the city.
Aside from being a water system, the aqueduct also became the ideal killing ground for Diogo Alves. It might come as a surprise to most people how seventy deaths happening on the same place evaded police suspicion. By that time, the country was having an economic and political crisis, thanks to the Liberal Revolution of 1820. People were dealing with financial difficulties, hence the authorities thought that the body counts in the aqueducts were simply desperate people committing suicides. Chances are, Diogo was also aware of this, and he exploited the current situation to get away from his crimes. He knew that throwing people to their deaths would be passed for suicides instead of murders.
But soon after, his luck ran out and the law caught up with him.
Capture and Execution
With so many deaths happening in the aqueduct, people began to feel weird about the place. They became scared, and the aqueduct got closed. It would never be reopened for many decades.
And the closure of the aqueduct became a problem for Diogo.
The aqueduct was the only place Diogo could kill without being caught. Now, he had to find a new place, or his crime career is gone for good. This time, Diogo formed a gang that would break into houses to kill and rob families. But in 1840, Diogo was captured and sentenced to death. Though the murder of the aqueducts remained unproven, the jury had all the evidence on the killing of family members by his gang.
To make the story short, Diogo was hanged shortly, but the scientists and doctors of Escola Medico Cirurgica of Lisbon have other plans. They couldn’t explain how a human being could steal and falsify keys to the aqueduct, and how many people he killed. They want to know what motivated the man to kill so many people. Murders like this never happened before in Portugal. In fact, Diogo was the first serial killer of Portugal, and they wanted to understand why he was so evil.
Hence after he was hanged, they took his head to study it.
In order to know what’s going on inside Diogo’s head, scientists cut it off and preserved it. And up to this day, his head remains in a jar, floating in a solution of preservatives. To be exact, the preserving fluid is formaldehyde, and people sometimes liken the head to a potato with face and hair. It is kept in the Faculty of Medicine in Lisbon University.
Many described the head swimming in yellowing formalin as bearing a calm expression. Pretty much the opposite of a raving psychopath that once terrorized Lisbon. And as some of my friends noted, the serene expression proves to be disconcerting. The jar seems to be a bit small for the head. We could see the lips pressing against the wall of the jar. Arguably the head of the serial killer proves to be the most horrific exhibit in the University, and what a fitting end to the cruel aqueduct murderer. If psychopaths enjoy inflicting pain, Diogo was now remembered as an oddity. More as a freak show material. Officially he is the only man in history to serve two different sentences. A death penalty, and a life sentence in a jar full of embalming fluid.
1. Papathanasiou, Katerina (May 21, 2019). "Killer in a Jar: The Preserved Head of Diogo Alves". Valle Magazine.
2. Anna (May 16, 2019). "The Story of Diogo Alves. A Lisbon Serial Killer." Discover Walks Blog.