The hereditary criminal

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Havelock Ellis’s 1890 bestselling book, ‘The Criminal’ was written to explain to a British audience the main discoveries of European (principally, Italian) criminology. The subject had emerged as a serious and rational science, Ellis argued, about which the English were almost entirely ignorant.

Ellis has gone down in history as one of the good guys; in 1896, he was one of the first writers to record his own experiences on mescaline. In 1897 he published Sexual Inversion, the first English monograph on homosexuality, which Ellis insisted was neither a sin nor a sickness.

Applying his sympathetic intelligence to the career criminal, and guided by the most sophisticated research of his day, what were Ellis’s conclusions?

He found that crime was a biological mandate, its code printed on the criminal’s body. These were some of their recognisable characteristics: “scanty” beards (in men), an abundance of beards (in women), small heads, large heads, enlarged lower jaws, enlarged canines (to this extent, he sees to have confused criminals with vampires), underdeveloped teeth, medium-length noses, black hair, receeding hairlines, pallid skin, early wrinkles, continuous eye-brows, early grey hair, “a curious fixed look of the eye”, young parents (theives), elderly parents (murderers), “extraordinary and ape-like agility,” left-handedness, ambidextry, a lack of intelligence, hyper-intelligence, tatoos (40 percent of children at one Turin reform school were already sporting messages of defiance, initials, or promises of love or vengeance).

I’ve included one of three pages of his book which are dedicated to drawings of what Ellis insisted were recurring criminal profiles.

Ellis also gives examples of criminal slang, which, Ellis insists, was identical to the dialects spoken by England’s racialised others – Jews and gypsies. “I was jogging down a blooming slum in Chapel,” Ellis hears one thief say, “when I butted a reeler, who was sporting a red slang. I broke off his red jerry, and boned the clock, which was a red one, but I was spotted by a copper, who claimed me. I was lugged before the beak who gave me six doss in the Steel. The week after I was chucked up I did a snatch near St Paul’s, was collared, lagged, and got this bit of seven stretch…” Red apparently means golden. Readers can judge for themselves whether this really was, as Ellis seems to think, an example of immigrant Yiddish/Romany.

What comes out of his book, really, is the sense that criminals belong to a class utterly distinct from the rest of society. You can jail them (Ellis was against both capital and corporal punishment), measure them, weigh them, etc, and they will be a distinct group of people in all ways separate from the majority of society around them.

It never occurs to him that some of these supposed distinctive traits (pallor, underdeveloped teeth) were really just signs of poverty, or that others (eg tattooing) were a product, not a cause, of criminality.

One thing I find heartening about Ellis’s book is his insistence that he is analysing nothing, rather what he is doing is simply recording the most authoritative science of his day – the work of Professor Lombruso of Turin, and Professor Enrico Ferri in Rome. It is a wise thing to remind ourselves sometimes that subjects grow up in university, acquire a reputation of knowledge and a scaffolding of supportive research, but are ultimately mistaken.

Finally, why bring up Ellis now, when his ideas are as discredited as the phrenology on which his book, at several points, leans?

As I’ve warned elsewhere, we are about to enter a new golden age of criminological research which is based on the computing power of machines and their ability to spot patterns. Such research tells us for example that if you want to spot a repeat criminal there are few more reliable statistics than the age at which a child first came into contact with the police. (Ellis, you will be pleased to hear, has a section remarking on the wisdom of this very same finding).

In practice, what such research does is very similar to the sociologists of 100 years ago: it treats law as sacrosanct, its breach as the same thing whether the law being broken is trivial or vast, whether it is one which isn’t really treated as a crime (dangerous driving) or one which is and shouldn’t be. Just as the sociologists of 100 years ago were busy with their rulers and weighing machines, the genius of the computer is said to lie precisely in its ability to spot a pattern which no-one else has seen.

But if we are back in 20 or 30 years time predicting criminality once again on the length of people’s hair – the technology of today has a much greater ability (through its influences such as probation apps) to decide how long a convicted person spends in jail.

Do not think I’ve written this post to show how much smarter people are today than the Victorian. Not for one minute. I’ve written it because we’re actually -more- gullible in relation to our machines.

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