As we delve into this second part on the criminal mind, think about what background you’d like your criminally motivated character(s) to have . . . maybe some of the physical attributes we’ll talk about here, or some mental illness, or defect. When creating your characters, don’t be afraid to make them bizarre. I am sure you have read about some bizarre criminals and their even more bizarre crimes. Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. However, as an author, you have the power to create fiction even stranger than the truth!
Phrenologists also began to branch out into other areas of society. They were consulted in medicine, politics and used in the arts as well. Criminals were thought to have damaged brains that produced an over-abundance of aggression or hostility. Phrenologists believed this condition was caused by outside influences that stimulated the brain to overdevelop, such as lethargy, booze, and too much study as a child or too much religion. Criminals should be placed in a “moral hospital” where they would be taught good things and cut off from bad influences. Some phrenologists wanted to imprison people based on the results of a skull examination if it showed even a potential for hostility.
Gradually, phrenology began to fall from favor. Unscrupulous entrepreneurs and con men traveled the country, bilking people out of money and valuables with false readings. Phony “scientists” seemed to be everywhere, offering to give expensive lectures on the latest “advances” in the new sciences. Odd machines that automatically provided a phrenological reading of the skull began to appear at movie theaters and department stores. A person would sit in a chair and a metal helmet was placed on the head which measured bumps and crevices in the skull. A report would then print out a detailed reading of the patient’s personality. One of these phrenology machines can still be seen today at the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices in Minneapolis.
By the 1930s, phrenology had come under heavy criticism on many different fronts. Physicians, psychologists, scientists, and universities began to attack the entire concept of phrenology. Defects in Gall’s theories were exposed. One of the major failings of phrenology was that it made no sense that soft brain tissue could cause indentations in the skull. Additionally, the regions of the brain assigned to specific personality traits varied from one phrenologist to the next. Finally, people realized there was no hard evidence to support any of Gall’s theories. Eventually, phrenology became quackery and the theorists moved on.
Despite the failures of phrenology, the mysterious connection between crime and physiology persisted. Cesare Lombroso, (1835-1909) was the next researcher to build upon the theories of Gall. Lombroso was an Italian physician who performed hundreds of post mortem examinations on criminals during the late 19th century. He noticed that many of these criminals shared some of the same physical characteristics. Lombroso compiled a list of these characteristics which included a receding hairline, forehead wrinkles, bumpy face, broad noses, fleshy lips, sloping shoulders, long arms, and pointy fingers. Lombroso associated these stigmata with primitive man. This condition was called atavism.
Lombroso became convinced that a criminal was an immoral person, a sort of throwback to primitive man who had not developed to the same biological level as the modern, non-criminal man. Lombroso called this inferior being the “born criminal”, a being who was pre-destined for criminal behavior due to his physical configuration. According to Lombroso, the “born criminal” descended from a “degenerate family with frequent cases of insanity, deafness, syphilis, epilepsy and alcoholism among its members.”
Lombroso’s theories began to unravel when several weaknesses were discovered in his research. Virtually all of Lombroso’s presumptions were based on studies performed only on convicted criminals. He did not use a control group to which he could compare his results. Therefore, his conclusions could not be broadened to include the general population as a whole. This basic flaw in his research came to be known as “the Lombrosian fallacy.”
Although women compromise approximately 51% of the population, they make up less than 1% of serial killers. The differences between male and female murderers are many. A recent study revealed that female serial killers were older than their male counterparts and were more likely to be drug abusers and alcoholics. Women were found to be suffering from a litany of psychological disorders while males were most often sociopaths. Female serial killers usually poisoned or smothered their victims who were previously known to them. Men usually stalked their prey while women most often lured victims to their deaths. In another study of 14 female killers, all were found to have suffered from abusive relationships in dysfunctional families, almost a trademark of all female killers.
Brain irregularities or physical trauma, such as head injury, may also play a role in criminality. Although research indicates brain damage can cause a sudden personality change, it is not true in each and every case. On August 1, 1966, a distraught Charles Whitman, 24, climbed to the top of a 307-foot observation tower at the University of Texas in Austin. A few hours before, he had stabbed his mother to death and shot her in the back of the head. An ex-Marine who had a fascination about guns, Whitman brought a formidable arsenal with him. For nearly two hours, using a high-powered rifle, he randomly shot 48 people, killing 18. The day before, he left a note that read: “After my death, I wish an autopsy on me to be performed to see if there is any mental disorder.” During the postmortem exam, doctors discovered that Whitman had a severe brain tumor. But whether it had been the cause of Whitman’s murderous rampage was never proven.
In a similar case many years later, a head injury may have transformed a man into a serial killer. During an ocean voyage to America in 1945, Raymond Fernandez, 30, experienced a life-changing event. As the young man climbed a flight of steps to the ship’s main deck, a hatch cover slammed onto the top of his head. Fernandez suffered a serious concussion and remained in a coma for a week. When he awoke, it was clear that he had undergone a personality transformation. Whereas before he was courteous, well-mannered and displayed an even disposition, he soon became argumentative, quick to anger and difficult to control. Over the next few years, Fernandez may have murdered 17 women with the help of his girlfriend, Martha Beck. They were eventually executed at Sing Sing prison in 1951.