Criminal Heads

Two dissected heads. Color plate by Gautier D’Agoty (1746).

Starting from the end of the Middle Ages, the bodies of those condemned to death were commonly used for anatomical dissections. It was a sort of additional penalty, because autopsy was still perceived as a sort of desecration; perhaps because this “cruelty” aroused a certain sense of guilt, it was common for the dissected bodies to be granted a burial in consecrated ground, something that would normally have been precluded to criminals.

But during the nineteenth century dissecting the bodies of criminals began to have a more specific reason, namely to understand how the anatomy of a criminal differed from the norm. A practice that continued until almost mid-twentieth century.
The following picture shows the head of Peter Kürten (1883-1931), the infamous Vampire of Düsseldorf whose deeds inspired Fritz Lang’s masterpiece M (1931). Today it is exhibited at Ripley’s Believe It Or Not by Winsconsin Dells.

Cesare Lombroso, who in spite of his controversial theories was one of the pioneers and founders of modern criminology, was convinced that the criminal carried in his anatomy the anomalous signs of a genetic atavism.

The Museum dedicated to him, in Turin, retraces his reasoning, his convictions influenced by theories in vogue at the time, and gives an account of the impressive collection of heads he studied and preserved. Lombroso himself wanted to become part of his museum, where today the criminologist’s entire skeleton is on display; his preserved, boneless head is not visible to the public.

Head of Cesare Lombroso.

Similar autopsies on the skull and brain of the murderers almost invariably led to the same conclusion: no appreciable anatomical difference compared to the common man.

A deterministic criminology — the idea, that is, that criminal behavior derives from some anatomical, biological, genetic anomaly — has a comforting appeal for those who believe they are normal.
This is the classic process of creation/labeling of the different, what Foucault called “the machinery that makes qualifications and disqualifications“: if the criminal is different, if his nature is deviant (etymologically, he strays from the right path on which we place ourselves), then we will sleep soundly.

Numerous research suggests that in reality anyone is susceptible to adopt socially deplorable behavior, given certain premises, and even betray their ethical principles as soon as some specific psychological mechanisms are activated (see P. Bocchiaro, Psicologia del male, 2009). Yet the idea that the “abnormal” individual contains in himself some kind of predestination to deviance continues to be popular even today: in the best case this is a cognitive bias, in the worst case it’s plain deceit. A striking example of mala fides is provided by those scientific studies financed by tobacco or gambling multinationals, aimed at showing that addiction is the product of biological predisposition in some individuals (thus relieving the funders of such reasearch from all responsibility).

But let’s go back to the obsession of nineteenth-century scientists for the heads of criminals.
What is interesting in our eyes is that often, in these anatomical specimens, what was preserved was not even the internal structure, but rather the criminal’s features.

In the picture below you can see the skin of the face of Martin Dumollard (1810-1862), who killed more than 6 women. Today it is kept at the Musée Testut-Latarjet in Lyon.
It was tanned while his skull was being studied in search of anomalies. It was the skull, not the skin, the focus of the research. Why then take the trouble to prepare also his face, detached from the skull?

Dumollard is certainly not the only example. Also at the Testut-Latarjet lies the facial skin of Jules-Joseph Seringer, guilty of killing his mother, stepfather and step-sister. The museum also exhibits a plaster cast of the murderer, which offers a more realistic account of the killer’s features, compared to this hideous mask.

For the purposes of physiognomic and phrenological studies of the time, this plaster bust would have been a much better support than a skinned face. Why not then stick to the cast?

The impression is that preserving the face or the head of a criminal was, beyond any scientific interest, a way to ensure that the memory of guilt could never vanish. A condemnation to perpetual memory, the symbolic equivalent of those good old heads on spikes, placed at the gates of the city — as a deterrent, certainly, but also and above all as a spectacle of the pervasiveness of order, a proof of the inevitability of punishment.

Head of Diogo Alves, beheaded in 1841.

Head of Narcisse Porthault, guillotined in 1846. Ph. Jack Burman.

 

Head of Henri Landru, guillotined in 1922.

 

Head of Fritz Haarmann, beheaded in 1925.

This sort of upside-down damnatio memoriæ, meant to immortalize the offending individual instead of erasing him from collective memory, can be found in etchings, in the practice of the death masks and, in more recent times, in the photographs of guillotined criminals.

Death masks of hanged Victorian criminals (source).

Guillotined: Juan Vidal (1910), Auguste DeGroote (1893), Joseph Vacher (1898), Canute Vromant (1909), Lénard, Oillic, Thépaut and Carbucci (1866), Jean-Baptiste Picard (1862), Abel Pollet (1909), Charles Swartewagher (1905), Louis Lefevre (1915), Edmond Claeys (1893), Albert Fournier (1920), Théophile Deroo (1909), Jean Van de Bogaert (1905), Auguste Pollet (1909).

All these heads chopped off by the executioner, whilst referring to an ideal of justice, actually celebrate the triumph of power.

But there are four peculiar heads, which impose themselves as a subversive and ironic contrappasso. Four more heads of criminals, which were used to mock the prison regime.


These are the effigies that, placed on the cushions to deceive the guards, allowed Frank Morris, together with John and Clarence Anglin, to famously escape from Alcatraz (the fourth accomplice, Allen West, remained behind). Sculpted with soap, toothpaste, toilet paper and cement powder, and decorated with hair collected at the prison’s barbershop, these fake heads are the only remaining memory of the three inmates who managed to escape from the maximum security prison — along with their mug shots.

Although unwittingly, Morris and his associates had made a real détournement of a narrative which had been established for thousands of years: an iconography that aimed to turn the head and face of the condemned man into a mere simulacrum, in order to dehumanize him.

Collectible tattoos

For some days now I have been receiving suggestions about Dr. Masaichi Fukushi‘s tattoo collection, belonging to Tokyo University Pathology Department. I am willing to write about it, because the topic is more multifaceted than it looks.

Said collection is both well-known and somewhat obscure.
Born in 1878, Dr. Fukushi was studying the formation of nevi on the skin around 1907, when his research led him to examine the correlation between the movement of melanine through vascularized epidermis and the injection of pigments under the skin in tattoos. His interest was further fueled by a peculiar discovery: the presence of a tattoo seemed to prevent the signs of syphilis from appearing in that area of the body.

In 1920 Dr. Fukushi entered the Mitsui Memorial Hospital, a charity structure where treatment was offered to the most disadvantaged social classes. In this environment, he came in contact with many tattooed persons and, after a short period in Germany, he continued his research on the formation of congenital moles at Nippon Medical University. Here, often carrying out autopsies, he developed an original method of preserving tattooed epidermis he took from corpses; he therefore began collecting various samples, managing to stretch the skin so that it could be exhibited inside a glass frame.

It seems Dr. Fukushi did not have an exclusively scientific interest in tattoos, but was also quite compassionate. Tattooed people, in fact, often came from the poorest and most problematic bracket of japanese society, and Fukushi’s sympathy for the less fortunate even pushed him, in some instances, to take over the expenses for those who could not afford to complete an unfinished tattoo. In return, the doctor asked for permission to remove their skin post mortem. But his passion for tattoos also took the form of photographic records: he collected more than 3.000 pictures, which were destroyed during the bombing of Tokyo in WWII.
This was not the only loss, for a good number of tattooed skins were stolen in Chicago as the doctor was touring the States giving a series of academic lectures between 1927 and 1928.
Fukushi’s work gained international attention in the 40s and the 50s, when several articles appeared on the newspapers, such as the one above published on Life magazine.

Life

As we said earlier, the collection endured heavy losses during the 1945 bombings. However some skin samples, which had been secured elsewhere, were saved and — after being handed down to Fukushi’s son, Kalsunari — they could be today inside the Pathology Department, even if not available to the public. It is said that among the specimens there are some nearly complete skin suits, showing tattoos over the whole body surface. All this is hard to verify, as the Department is not open to the public and no official information seems to be found online.

Then again, if in the Western world tattoo is by now such a widespread trend that it hardly sparks any controversy, it still remains quite taboo in Japan.
Some time ago, the great Italian tattoo artist Pietro Sedda (author of the marvelous Black Novel For Lovers) told me about his last trip to Japan, and how in that country tattooers still operate almost in secret, in small, anonymous parlors with no store signs, often hidden inside common apartment buildings. The fact that tattoos are normally seen in a negative way could be related to the traditional association of this art form with yakuza members, even though in some juvenile contexts fashion tattoos are quite common nowadays.

A tattoo stygma existed in Western countries up to half a century ago, ratified by explicit prohibitions in papal bulls. One famous exception were the tattoos made by “marker friars” of the Loreto Sanctuary, who painted christian, propitiatory or widowhood symbols on the hands of the faithful. But in general the only ones who decorated their bodies were traditionally the outcast, marginalized members of the community: pirates, mercenaries, deserters, outlaws. In his most famous essay, Criminal Man (1876), Cesare Lombroso classified every tattoo variation he had encountered in prisoners, interpreting them through his (now outdated) theory of atavism: criminals were, in his view, Darwinianly unevolved individuals who tattooed themselves as if responding to an innate primitiveness, typical of savage peoples — who not surprisingly practiced tribal tattooing.

Coming back to the human hides preserved by Dr. Fukushi, this is not the only, nor the largest, collection of its kind. The record goes to London’s Wellcome Collection, which houses around 300 individual pieces of tattoed skin (as opposed to the 105 specimens allegedly stored in Tokyo), dating back to the end of XIX Century.

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The edges of these specimens show a typical arched pattern due to being pinned while drying. And the world opened up by these traces from the past is quite touching, as are the motivations that can be guessed behind an indelible inscription on the skin. Today a tattoo is often little more than a basic decoration, a tribal motif (the meaning of which is often ignored) around an ankle, an embellishment that turns the body into a sort of narcissistic canvas; in a time when a tattoo was instead a symbol of rebellion against the establishment, and in itself could cause many troubles, the choice of the subject was of paramount relevance. Every love tattoo likely implied a dangerous or “forbidden” relationship; every sentence injected under the skin by the needle became the ultimate statement, a philosophy of life.

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These collections, however macabre they may seem, open a window on a non-aligned sensibility. They are, so to speak, an illustrated atlas of that part of society which is normally not contemplated nor sung by official history: rejects, losers, outsiders.
Collected in a time when they were meant as a taxonomy of symbols allowing identification and prevention of specific “perverse” psychologies, they now speak of a humanity who let their freak flag fly.

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(Thanks to all those who submitted the Fukushi collection.)