4 Suspect Historical Theories for Predicting Criminality

When was the last time you looked a stranger in the face and made a snap judgment about how they behave? If you've graduated kindergarten, you know you're not supposed to. But for centuries, scientists and philosophers believed that physical traits corresponded to personality. Even Aristotle thought there was a connection between the book and its cover.

Today, physiognomy—as the study of facial features linked to personality became known—is considered a pseudoscience, but it was the first application of any science at all to criminology. Some argue that it helped pave the way for the development of forensics and tools like psychological profiling; others point out that attempts to link biology to criminal behavior are often deeply problematic, and have been used to justify discrimination against various ethnic and religious groups.

Controversial though they may be, theories linking biology to criminal behavior have not gone away. From skull shape to body types, here are some of the ways we've tried to use what's on the surface to unearth the monsters underneath.

1. PHRENOLOGY

As a young man in late 18th-century Vienna, physician Franz Josef Gall wondered why his classmates were so good at memorization while he struggled. And why did he surpass them in other areas? After noticing that those who were particularly skilled at memorization had prominent eyes, he spent years searching for a biological explanation for differences in mental characteristics. Eventually, he landed on a theory that aimed to explain all human behavior.

Gall based his theory, soon to be known as phrenology, on the notion that the brain was composed of 27 separate “faculties,” or organs, each responsible for a behavioral trait—benevolence, covetousness, arrogance, and wit, just to name a few. He believed that the size of an organ was correlated to its power and that the skull took its shape from the brain. As such, by examining the shape of the skull one could determine personality. Eventually, Gall's followers introduced the idea that people were born with their faculties in balance and were essentially good, but under- or over- development, diseases of, or damage to any of these faculties could cause an imbalance that would lead to a particular behavior.

Phrenology soon took off in Europe and then in North America. It wasn't long until Gall's acolytes were applying his principles to the study of criminality, examining the skulls of criminals for clues about their personality and publishing books and treatises that showed others how to do the same. For phrenologists, crime was a result of an overgrowth or other anomaly in a particular faculty—say, destructiveness.

By attributing behavior to a brain defect, phrenology broke with existing notions of deviant behavior. Pre-Enlightenment theory had held that such behavior was the result of “evil” or supernatural forces. During the Enlightenment, free will reigned supreme, and criminality was seen as an exercise of that will, the only deterrent for which was severe punishment. Phrenology removed free will from the equation. While those with “normal” faculties could commit crimes based on free will and should be punished accordingly, the habitually criminal were not necessarily responsible for their actions—they behaved the way they did because of mental disorder, one which could be addressed and treated. It's no coincidence that phrenologists were among the most vocal opponents of capital and corporal punishment and major proponents of rehabilitation in the middle of the 19th century.

Phrenology declined in popularity in the second half of the 19th century, although it persisted into the 20th century in some areas. For a brief moment, it was the first and most comprehensive scientific approach we had to criminology.

2. DEGENERATION

A page from Cesare Lombroso's book l'Uomo Delinquente, 1889
A page from Cesare Lombroso's book l'Uomo Delinquente, 1889

Sometimes called the “father of criminology,” Italian physician Cesare Lombroso spent much of his career examining the bodies (both dead and alive) of convicted criminals and the mentally ill. The army doctor and professor of psychiatry was struck by both Darwin's theories and the work of Italian evolutionists during the 1860s, and evolution greatly influenced his later work.

Like Gall, Lombroso experienced a “eureka” moment while making a minute examination of a human head—only in his case, it was the skull of the recently deceased thief and arsonist Giuseppe Villella. Villella had a small indentation at the back of his skull; unusual for a human, but common in some primates. Lombroso noticed the trait in a few other crooks, and theorized that criminals were in fact some evolutionary throwback to primitive humans. He began to argue that deviance was inherited in many of these “born delinquents,” and they could be differentiated from the masses by physical characteristics that he claimed resembled our primate ancestors: large jaws, jug ears, high cheekbones, bloodshot eyes, to name a few attributes. Behavioral traits like idleness and non-biological features like tattoos could also be a sign.

Lombroso ran experiments on prisoners, the insane, and even low-lifes he wrangled from Italian alleyways. He took measurements of their bodies and features and tested their blood pressure, pain resistance, and reaction to other stimuli. Over the years, he established a set of features associated with different types of crime. His theory, known as degeneration, laid the foundation for a systematic approach to crime and even punishment. Like the phrenologists, Lombroso and his acolytes argued against capital punishment for those whose degeneration was not particularly advanced but triggered by an environmental factor—they were to be treated rather than locked up.

While wildly popular during his lifetime (he even argued the merits of his theory with Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy while visiting the writer's home), Lombroso's ideas faded from prominence as sociological theories of crime became more popular at the turn of the 20th century. Besides his emphasis on a scientific approach to criminology, his legacy consists of a museum in Turin stocked with the skulls and other ephemera he collected throughout his career ... along with the good doctor's own head, preserved in a jar.

3. SOMATOTYPES

Body type is blamed for a lot these days—a propensity for obesity, jeans that don't fit quite right. But in the early 20th century, an American psychologist named William Sheldon looked a little deeper.

Sheldon examined some 4000 photographs of college students and distilled their bodies into three categories, or somatotypes: endomorphs, mesomorphs, and ectomorphs. Endomorphs were soft, round, and put on fat easily; they were also amiable, relaxed, and extroverted. Mesomorphs were hard, muscular, and broad-chested; they were also assertive, aggressive, and insensitive. Finally, ectomorphs were long, narrow, and fragile-looking; they were also more introverted and anxious. Bodies fell into a spectrum defined by the degree to which they exhibited each of these three traits.

In a study of 200 delinquent youths, Sheldon concluded that mesomorphs had the greatest predisposition for impulsive (and thus perhaps criminal) behavior. While his work was criticized for its methodology, Sheldon did attract more than a few students, some of whom modified his theory to include social pressures; for example, it was possible that society treated people with certain physical characteristics a certain way, thereby encouraging delinquency.

4. XYY SYNDROME

XYY syndrome karyotype
An XYY syndrome karyotype

In 1961, a 44-year-old man underwent genetic testing after discovering his child had Down syndrome. The test results surprised his doctor—the man had an extra Y chromosome. Over the following decades, further testing revealed that XYY syndrome, as it became known, was rather common, appearing in men at a rate of 1 in 1000.

In 1965, when a study from a Scottish institution for people with dangerous, violent, or criminal propensities reported a high frequency of XYY syndrome among its population, scientists and the media alike began to wonder if that extra chromosome somehow caused violence and aggression in men. XYY was used as a defense in the trial of a French murderer, and has been brought up in regard to the case of Richard Speck, the student nurse killer of Chicago, though he turned out not to have the extra Y. Books and TV shows featured XYY killers even into the 1990s.

But what does the science say? While men with XYY syndrome tend to be taller, more active, and have a greater chance of having learning or behavioral problems, there's been no evidence showing a decrease in intelligence or a higher propensity for violence or aggression. In fact, most XYY men are unaware of their genetic quirk and blend perfectly well into the rest of the population. While two Dutch studies did show an increase in criminal convictions among XYY men, researchers have posited that this could be explained away based on socioeconomic variables that have also been linked to the chromosome aberrations.

For now, the XYY theory remains just a theory—as well as a convenient plot device.

Keep Your Cat Busy With a Board Game That Doubles as a Scratch Pad

Cheerble
Cheerble

No matter how much you love playing with your cat, waving a feather toy in front of its face can get monotonous after a while (for the both of you). To shake up playtime, the Cheerble three-in-one board game looks to provide your feline housemate with hours of hands-free entertainment.

Cheerble's board game, which is currently raising money on Kickstarter, is designed to keep even the most restless cats stimulated. The first component of the game is the electronic Cheerble ball, which rolls on its own when your cat touches it with their paw or nose—no remote control required. And on days when your cat is especially energetic, you can adjust the ball's settings to roll and bounce in a way that matches their stamina.

Cheerable cat toy on Kickstarter.
Cheerble

The Cheerble balls are meant to pair with the Cheerble game board, which consists of a box that has plenty of room for balls to roll around. The board is also covered on one side with a platform that has holes big enough for your cat to fit their paws through, so they can hunt the balls like a game of Whack-a-Mole. And if your cat ever loses interest in chasing the ball, the board also includes a built-in scratch pad and fluffy wand toy to slap around. A simplified version of the board game includes the scratch pad without the wand or hole maze, so you can tailor your purchase for your cat's interests.

Cheerble cat board game.
Cheerble

Since launching its campaign on Kickstarter on April 23, Cheerble has raised over $128,000, already blowing past its initial goal of $6416. You can back the Kickstarter today to claim a Cheerble product, with $32 getting you a ball and $58 getting you the board game. You can make your pledge here, with shipping estimated for July 2020.

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“Slick” Julia Lyons: The Con Artist Who Posed as a Nurse During the 1918 Flu Pandemic—Then Robbed Her Patients

An actual nurse tends to a patient during the 1918 influenza pandemic.
An actual nurse tends to a patient during the 1918 influenza pandemic.
Harris & Ewing, Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In September 1918, a 23-year-old woman “of marvelous gowns and haughty mien” was arrested at Chicago’s La Salle Hotel after a crime spree that included posing as a Department of Justice representative, cashing stolen checks, and performing “various miracles at getting ready money,” according to a Chicago Tribune article.

The authorities underestimated their slippery prisoner, who escaped from the South Clark Street police station before answering for her alleged offenses. By no means, however, had her brush with the law scared her straight. Soon after her police station disappearing act, Julia Lyons—also known as Marie Walker, Ruth Hicks, Mrs. H. J. Behrens, and a range of other aliases—concocted an even more devious scheme.

The Rose-Lipped, Pearly-Toothed Price Gouger

As The Washington Post reports, Chicago was in the throes of the 1918 influenza pandemic that fall, and hospitals were enlisting nurses to tend to patients at home. Lyons, correctly assuming that healthcare officials wouldn’t be vetting volunteers very thoroughly, registered as a nurse under several pseudonyms and spent the next two months caring for a string of ailing men and women across the city.

Lyons’s modus operandi was simple: After getting a prescription filled, she’d charge her patient much more than the actual cost. Once, she claimed $63 for a dose of oxygen that had actually cost $5 (which, once adjusted for inflation, is the same as charging $1077 for an $85 item today). Sometimes, “Flu Julia,” as the Chicago Tribune nicknamed her, even summoned a so-called doctor—later identified by the police as a “dope seller and narcotic supplier”—to forge the prescriptions for her. Then she’d flee the property, absconding with cash, jewelry, clothing, and any other valuables she could find lying around the house.

As for the physical well-being of her flu-ridden victims, Lyons could not have cared less. When 9-year-old Eddie Rogan fetched her to help his older brother George, who was “out of his head with illness,” Lyons retorted, “Oh, let him rave. He’s used to raving.” Unsurprisingly, George died.

Though pitiless at times, Lyons flashed her “rose-lipped smile and pearly teeth” and fabricated charming stories to gain the confidence of her clueless patients. To win over “old Father Shelhauer,” for example, she asked, “Don’t you remember me? Why, when I was a little girl I used to hitch on your wagons!” Shelhauer believed her, and threw a snooping detective off the scent by vouching for Lyons, whom he said he had known since she was a little girl.

Clever as she was, Lyons couldn’t evade capture forever. In November 1918, detectives eventually linked her to Eva Jacobs, another “girl of the shady world,” and wiretapped the home of “Suicide Bess” Davis, where Jacobs was staying. Through their eavesdropping, they discovered Lyons’s plans to marry a restaurant owner named Charlie. They trailed Charlie, who unwittingly led them straight to his new—and felonious—bride.

“The wedding’s all bust up! You got me!,” Lyons shouted as the detectives surrounded her. They carted the couple back to the station, where they asked a bewildered Charlie how long he had known Lyons. “Ten days!” he said. “That is, I thought I knew her.”

When it came time for Lyons to appear in court, Deputy Sheriff John Hickey volunteered to transport her.

“Be careful, she’s pretty slick,” Chief Bailiff John C. Ryan told him. “Don’t let her get away.” Detectives Frank Smith and Robert Jacobs, who had headed the investigation and arrested Lyons in the first place, echoed the sentiment, citing Lyons’s previous escape from South Clark Street.

“She’ll go if she gets a chance. Better put the irons on,” Jacobs advised. Hickey shook off their warnings with a casual “Oh, she won’t get away from me.”

He was wrong.

“Slick Julia” Escapes Again

Hickey did successfully deposit Lyons at the courthouse, where about 50 victims testified against her. An hour and a half after Hickey left with Lyons to bring her back to jail, however, the police received a phone call from an “excited” Hickey with some shocking news: Lyons had leapt from the moving vehicle and climbed into a getaway car—which sped away so quickly that Hickey had no hopes of chasing it down.

Hickey’s story seemed fishy. For one, he mentioned that they had stopped at a bank so Lyons could withdraw some cash, leading officials to believe that Hickey may have accepted a bribe to set her free. They also happened to be suspiciously far from their intended destination.

“If they were way out there,” Ryan told the Chicago Tribune, “They must have been cabareting together.”

Furthermore, a friend of Lyons named Pearl Auldridge actually confessed to the police that the entire plot had been prearranged with Hickey. He was suspended, and investigators were forced to resume their hunt for “Slick Julia.”

A Schemer 'Til the End

In March 1919, after poring through nurses’ registries for a possible lead, detectives finally located Lyons, under the name Mrs. James, at a house on Fullerton Boulevard, where she was caring for a Mrs. White.

“Mrs. M.S. James, née Flu Julia, née Slicker Julia, who walked away one November day from former Deputy Sheriff John Hickey, walked back into custody, involuntarily, last night,” the Chicago Tribune wrote on March 21, 1919.

In addition to her 19 previous counts of larceny, “obtaining money by false pretenses,” and “conducting a confidence game,” Lyons racked up a new charge: bigamy. Her marriage to Charlie the restaurateur still existed on paper, and Lyons had taken a new husband, a soldier named E.M. James, whom she had known for four days.

With no unscrupulous officer around to help Lyons escape yet again, she was left to the mercy of the court system. True to her sobriquet, “Slick Julia” stayed scheming until the very end of her trial, first claiming that she had been forced into committing crimes against her will by a “band of thieves,” and then pleading insanity. Nobody was convinced; the jury found Lyons guilty of larceny and the judge sentenced her to serve one to 10 years in a penitentiary.

Just like that, “Flu Julia” traded in her nurse's uniform for a prison uniform—though whether she donned her healthcare costume again after her release remains a mystery.