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Do Crooks Have Criminal Faces?

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Cesare Lombroso.

Cesare Lombroso.

Cesare Lombroso believed that certain physical “defects” were crucial factors in whether or not someone was a criminal. In the 19th century, Professor Lombroso was looking after the inmates of a mental hospital when he began to search for a link between criminality and such things as skull sizes and facial bones. Lombroso set aside his scientific objectivity and he proved to his own satisfaction what he wanted to find; criminals look like bad guys.

The Criminal Knuckle-Dragger

Cesare Lombroso was born in Verona in 1835 and grew up to study medicine. As an army doctor, he began measuring the feature of soldiers, more than 3,000 of them. It was all part of his study of connections between physical appearance and crime.

However, the learned professor seems to have abandonned the scientific method. He set out to find evidence to support his belief rather than gathering information and seeing where it led.

While ministering to the inmates of a lunatic asylum, Lombroso came across Giuseppe Villella, a man with a long rap sheet involving arson and theft.

When Villella died, Lombroso carried out a post mortem and found what he was looking for, a hollow in the back of the man’s skull. Here was evidence, he concluded, that crooks were less-developed humans.

Lombroso noted that “At the sight of that skull, I seemed to see all of a sudden, lighted up as a vast plain under a flaming sky, 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.”

The professor works on his theory.

The professor works on his theory.

Criminal Attributes

Lombroso discovered many tell-tale signs that Luigi, or Carlo, or Antonio is going to be a villain:

  • High cheek bones above large jaws;
  • Ears shaped like jug handles;
  • A heavy brow ridge below a backward-sloping forehead;
  • Long arms; and,
  • Large eye sockets.

He was describing a human with similar facial characteristics to those of chimpanzees.


But, Lombroso didn’t stop there. His criminal types also exhibited “insensibility to pain, extremely acute sight, tattooing, excessive idleness, love of orgies and the irresistible craving for evil for its own sake, the desire not only to extinguish life in the victim, but to mutilate the corpse, tear its flesh, and drink its blood.”

Murderers had big, hook noses and bloodshot eyes that were small. Rapists could be easily spotted, the doctor said, because their big ears stuck out nearly at right angles to their heads.

A selection of Lombroso's exhibits.

A selection of Lombroso's exhibits.

Genetic Throwbacks

Lombroso wasn’t out of step with a lot of thinking at the time. Indeed, his work was influenced by Francis Galton, the man who founded the eugenics movement.

According to Galton’s statistical analysis certain races were deemed to be inferior and therefore closer to their ape ancestors. White, northern Europeans such as Galton were, of course, the farthest removed from chimps and gorillas.

The lower-grade humans could be identified by certain physical characteristics just as Lombroso’s ne’er-do-wells.

Journalism professor Douglas Starr writes that the genetic throwback notion fitted nicely into how “the ‘born criminal’ theory conveniently explained Europe’s rising crime rates.” It was also a handy way to avoid dealing with the poverty and squalor in which the working class lived and which were a far more likely cause for theft and violence.

So, if primitive, rogue genes were causing outbreaks of wrongdoing, the next obvious step was to eliminate the inherited traits. This is where we meet the French criminologist Maurice de Fleury. He asked “Is it really human to allow these monsters, these creatures of darkness, these nightmarish larvae to breathe?”

The University of Missouri Library adds that the “theory of the born or hereditary criminal provided the scientific basis of many attempts to solve the problem of crime in society by eliminating the reproductive opportunities for criminals through institutionalization, prisons and penal institutions, or surgical sterilization.”

The theories of Cesare Lombroso and others fell out of favour. By 1913, they were discredited, in particular by the publication of The English Convict by Charles Goring.

The British criminologist studied the characteristics of criminals with much more rigour that Lombroso. He found there was no statistical difference between lawbreakers and regular folk.

The French policeman Alphonse Bertillon (above) took Lombroso’s work as the starting point for creating such investigative tools as the mug shot.

The French policeman Alphonse Bertillon (above) took Lombroso’s work as the starting point for creating such investigative tools as the mug shot.

Lombroso’s Theory Revived

The idea that biology is a determinant of criminal behaviour has never gone away completely.

In 1965, an article appeared in Nature putting forward the notion that male criminals had an extra Y chromosome. But, it was based on flimsy evidence and the theory was kicked to the curb by a proper study in 1976.

But then, there’s a Cornell University study from 2011. Subjects were shown photos of criminals and non-criminals. Jeffrey Valla, lead author of the study, said “We found a small but reliable effect. Subjects rated the criminal photos as significantly more likely to have committed a crime than non-criminals.” However, the participants could not distinguish between violent and non-violent criminals.

A couple of Chinese professors have brought hi-tech to the party. Scientists at Shanghai’s Jiao Tong University have been using facial recognition software to analyze 2,000 photos of twenty-something male criminals. The hope was that a neural network could spot differences between good guys and bad guys.

According to Emerging Technology “The results are unsettling. [The scientists] found that the neural network could correctly identify criminals and non-criminals with an accuracy of 89.5 percent.”

The characteristic giveaways are:

  • A larger curvature of the upper lip;
  • A shorter distance between the inner corners of the eyes; and,
  • A small angle of two lines from the corners of the mouth to the tip of the nose.

To say that these findings are controversial is an understatement. Can the results be applied to Caucasian or Negroid faces? Younger or older people? Women?

If the answer is yes, then we might be on the brink of identifying crooks before they commit a crime. What does society do with that piece of knowledge?


Bonus Factoids

  • When Cesare Lombroso died his will stipulated that a colleague autopsy his body and that his head be preserved in a glass jar. Today, this artifact is on view at Turin’s Museum of Criminal Anthropology.
  • Jukes was the name given to a composite of impoverished American families. In 1877, sociologist Richard Dugdale published a study of this 42-member group and found a large portion of them had trouble with the law. He named the matriarch the “Mother of Criminals” responsible for spreading the seed that contaminated the relatives by blood or marriage. Dugdale’s was the first report of several on what came to be known as “degenerate families.” These studies were used to bolster the theory of eugenics that called for the improvement of the species through selective breeding.
  • The Dorian Grey Effect may explain why people and facial recognition technology can pick out criminal faces better that chance would predict. The effect is named after the Oscar Wilde novel in which its central character sells his soul in exchange for his dissolute lifestyle having no effect on his body. The theory postulates that a criminal life imprints itself in subtle, but recognizable, ways on facial features.


  • “Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909).” Science Museum, undated.
  • “The ‘Born Criminal’? Lombroso and the Origins of Modern Criminology.” Diana Bretherick, History Extra, February 14, 2019.
  • “Cesare Lombroso’s Criminal Man.” University of Missouri Library, March 16, 2012.
  • “Gut Instinct: We Can Identify Criminals on Sight, Study Finds.” George Lowery, Cornell Chronicle, April 7, 2011.
  • “Neural Network Learns to Identify Criminals by Their Faces.” Emerging Technology from the arXiv, MIT Technology Review, November 22, 2016.
  • “The Inheritance of Crime.” Douglas Starr, Aeon, July 7, 2016.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Rupert Taylor


Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on March 28, 2019:

Hi, Rupert, a very good nature person can on some unusual cause turn to criminality. But on such occasion, nature has even destiny such a person lands on a good spot.

Let's be reminded that when the late legendary boxer, Muhammed Ali lost his bicycle to a thief, he woe to get it back with a strong hand. But alas he lands on the boxing ring. But suppose he joins a bad group or crowd, he'll land in criminality. Could we safely say that Muhammed Ali is a born criminal? The answer is no.

So, facial features no matter how scientifically challenging including the genetic treats hardly solve all criminal bents. Here in my country Nigeria, my university graduates both male and females takes to crime because of lack of jobs. Small primary schooland secondary school boys and girls now practice crims. It is taken an a cult affair. I hope you mark this as an understanding. Your article is wonderful and informative. Thanks for sharing.

Patty Inglish MS from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on March 28, 2019:

George Burns! He probably could have played a villain, now that I think about it.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on March 28, 2019:

Patty. I kept thinking that Lombroso's list described George Burns.

Patty Inglish MS from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on March 28, 2019:

The characteristic giveaways from "Emerging Technology" sound like the face of Jack Nicholson as Joker in Tom Burton's "Batman." That face still gives me the creeps!

I learned many things from this article that I did not hear in my criminology classes, so thanks a bunch!

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on March 28, 2019:

I was totally ignorant of this technology. I have compassion for someone who might have looked like a criminal, but was not one. This is very interesting, and I as you said controversial. The 89.5% is unsettling, but the violence factor seems to be unverifid if I understood what that study was saying. This certainly gives you something to consider.