The Witch’s Skin

Guestpost by Costanza De Cillia

If the body of the enemy, whether captured or killed, has always been the object of universal interest on the part of the human consortium, there was an era in which it was literally valid as a body of evidence: the period of witch hunts, in Europe, between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries. Then, as we will see, the suspect’s belonging to the abominable convent of the Devil was ascertained with a thorough personal search, during which the body of the alleged witch, chained and shaved, was searched in detail for tangible evidence of her nefarious sin.

This investigative methodology derives from the dictates of demonology, which arose in the wake of the papal bull of Innocent VIII Summis Desiderantes affectibus (1484): an anatomy of witchcraft elaborated by cultured literature, which – in numerous manuals, among which the Malleus Maleficarum (1486) is probably the most famous – taught how to conduct investigations to verify the guilt of the prisoner.

As early as the 12th century, with the spread of medical treatises, the diagnosis of the divine or evil nature of invading spirits became a distinction between holy bodies and deviant bodies, which demons, spiritual creatures endowed with semi-corporeality, could enter through the various openings. The human mouth, in particular, granted access to two distinct physiological systems: the spiritual one, having as its center the heart, which was usually possessed by the Holy Spirit, and the digestive system, the bowels, in which all contaminating impurities reside, thus the preferred residence of evil spirits.

Since demons loved to settle in the “cavities” of the human body, it was natural for them to prefer the female body – the ideal habitat whose anatomy, considered weak and full of openings, seemed to facilitate the entry of impure entities.

This only aggravated the already fragile theological and existential condition of the woman, seen as a deceiving and treacherous being who originated from Adam’s bent rib, and was therefore imperfect (designated as fe-mina, “she who has less faith”, a deficiency that she was thought to compensate with her insatiable lust).

This negative vision of women might be the reason for the imbalance between the number of witches and sorcerers, which is intercultural and present in all historical periods: psychology and ethnopsychiatry explain this asymmetry by indicating how the witch was perceived as the inverted image of the fertile woman; a phallic and devouring mother/stepmother, who arouses envy and libido to the point of making her a scapegoat. In a society that worshiped fertility, the female body, especially the elderly body, arose strong fears, due to an ambiguity that made it similar to that of an animal, a polluting and disturbing presence. Thus the witch was associated with threatening, harmful magical powers, which made her the opposite of a good housewife and mother, and affected the spheres related to childbirth, death and love; on the other hand, male sorcerers were usually accused of spells aimed at controlling the climate and the crops, therefore closer to daily working life.

But, as we said, it was in the 15th century that the conceptual transition from sorcery to witchcraft took place, that is, from the definition of witchcraft as an exercise of maleficia (malignant magic against others, in particular against the foundations of peasant community life: the harvest, health of young people, human and animal sexuality for reproductive purposes) to its qualification as a heresy based on the veneration of Satan.

The witch was no longer seen as a “bad neighbor” devoted to antisocial behavior, who resorted to supernatural means in order to satisfy her evil desires; she became guilty of crimina excepta, exceptional crimes by virtue of their gravity, aimed at the destruction of Christian society and committed because of her own voluntary enslavement, both spiritual and physical, to the Infernal Spouse.

These crimes were deemed so atrocious as to make devil worshipers worthy of the death penalty, as traitors to God and to the human assembly: incest, infanticide, anthropophagy, desecration of the holy bread and- of sacred vestments, mainly committed on the occasion of the Sabbath. In this periodic collective gathering – which the initiates reached by means of the nocturnal “journey through the air” attracting great attention during interrogations – the witches perpetuated their perdition with banquets, acts of blasphemy, dances and ritual orgies (dominated by the carnal relationship with the devil and inaugurated by the osculum oscenum, the kiss “under the tail” of the Goat, president of the assembly).

Of course these deeds were unforgivable, as they were based on the perversion of the Creed and the inversion of the sacraments of the Christian religion.

Given these premises, witchcraft became to be seen as an impious cult, a false religion – of which spells and charms are but a by-product, meant to harm the good members of the community – the profession of which was considered a crime, an act of treason and political sedition.

Against this diabolical plot, comparable to an infection with which some sick sheep try to spread heresy within the flock of the faithful, a police operation was launched, whose severity reminds us of more modern concepts like zero-tolerance policies.

Despite the lack of proof of an actual, ritual form of devil worship (supporting the hypothesis that the Sabbath has always been just a myth), in this hunt two categories of tangible evidence were identified and considered conclusive, as they were directly observable: a public confession, which usually followed the denunciation by other witches, and the empirical verification of supernatural attributes.

The latter were carefully searched on the body of the accused, in a judicial torture session that anticipated the suffering of public execution: a degenerate medical examination, in which professional “witch-prickers” stuck special needles into the flesh of the alleged witch, looking for a bloodless and numb area of skin. This was the sign of the “devil’s paw”,shaped like a footprint, a spot, a red or blue dot: the witch’s mark, also known as signum diabolii or punctum/stygma diabolicum, present since birth on the skin of those who were “born witches” and doomed to be evil already in the womb of their mother. More frequently, it was a sign imprinted in the flesh by the Devil himself, at the end of the affiliation ceremony.

Parody of the stigmata of the saints, seal of servitude that sanctions the possession of the witch by Lucifer – simia Dei, the “monkey” who mocks and imitates God – the mark is imprinted with a bite or a scratch, on the forehead or in a hidden point of the body: on the shoulder or on the left side, inside the eyelid, on the abdomen or in locis secretissimis non nominandis (in the intimate parts or in the rectum).

Besides being reminiscent of the sign affixed by the Antichrist in Rev 13.16 (“the name of the beast or the number of his name”), this was considered, in line with the satanic ceremonial, the “reverse” of the circumcision in the Old Testament and of the sign of the cross in the New Testament; it attested to the witch’s perfidy, being its physical, visible and above all tangible manifestation. The mark was therefore an incriminating sign, which proved the woman took part in the Sabbath and belonged to the societas diabolii.

Subsequently, the commandments in Exod 22.18 (“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live“) and Lev 20.27 (“A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death” ) became imperative for earthly justice.

The search for the mark, however, appears to be an invention of cultured demonology, not very widespread in folklore and never applied with the same frequency as other demonstrations of witchcraft – with the exceptions of Civil War England, Scotland and, on the continent, Sweden, France and Switzerland.

The pricking of every part of the suspect’s body, therefore, seems to have found less diffusion than, for example, the swimming test (descendant of the “trial by water” present in European popular mythology since the Middle Ages), in which the bound witch was thrown into a pond or a well: her drowning was proof of innocence, while survival demonstrated the refusal by the pure element associated with baptism to touch her body, thus ascertaining her guilt.

Other known stratagems for detecting witches were drawing the suspects’ blood, boiling their urine and hair in a bottle, inserting a hot poker in their feces, burning straw from their home, pricking their portrait, and weighing them in comparison with a Bible; finally, there were more risky methods, vaguely superstitious, such as scratching the witch’s body (to neutralize the effects of her evil practices), or relying on the divinatory abilities of cunning men, healers practicing forms of “white”, beneficial magic.

Witchfinder general Matthew Hopkins (a well-known witch hunter, active in South East England between 1645 and 1647, with the assistance of the witch-pricker John Stearne) also suggested, in the treatise On the Discovery of Witches, to isolate the witch, subject her to a prolonged vigil for days and force her to walk incessantly, waiting for her imps or familiars to come to her rescue in front of the witnesses.

These vampire servant sprites, with the appearance of small pets, are purchased by the witch, inherited from her colleagues or donated to her by the Devil; in exchange for their help, she feeds them through a teat (supernumerary breast which honest women do not have) from which they suck yellowish milk, water and finally blood: if the sucking is suspended for more than twenty-four hours, this diabolical breast swells up to the point of bursting – a probatory indication, sufficient to impose the death sentence of the defendant. However, since the surplus breast was not often found, it was believed that many witches cut it off before being searched.

There were those who distinguished between the witch’s mark and the supernumerary nipple, and those who instead gathered both under the same category of probative evidence; but there was nonetheless absolute consensus on the value of these dermatological anomalies, as they brought a certainty that other forms of torture could not provide. In fact Satan, showing that his power was superior to any natural law and every counter-magic, conferred on his proteges the “gift of silence”, or the ability to resist pain, thus preventing any confession.

Although the presence of a mark was considered a definitive proof, this did not dispel the suspicion that most of the witch-pricking business was actually a scam, conducted by itinerant impostors (even women disguised as men, such as James Paterson and John Dickson) who were attracted by good pay and the possibility to freely torture their “patients” – so much so that some of them were legally prosecuted, for the cruelty shown and the rapes they committed.

As we have seen, witches were condemned because of a symptom that in the following centuries will be seen as a simple scar, a tattoo drawn in contempt at the command of Lev 19.28 (“Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you”) or, in the case of supernumerary nipples, as congenital hyperthelia/hypermastia.

Regarding the “supernatural” resistance to pain shown by witches, these peculiar phenomena of local analgesia are explained by the raising of the pain threshold due to fear or exhaustion; skin numbness could also be the consequence of diseases and malnutrition suffered by the humblest fringes of the early modern European population. Doctors and alienists have also speculated about the possible role of hysteria and epilepsy (“suffocation of the uterus”: an umbrella term used for various gynecological problems), as well as nervous or ecstatic syndromes, in diabolical possessions.

Regardless of subsequent medical explanations, at the time of the witchcraft trials the discovering of a mark left no hope for the defendant: found guilty of the worst of crimes, these women would be burned at the stake on the Continent, so the cathartic and disinfectant fire could purify their body and soul and scatter their earthly remains like ashes in the wind; they would instead end up hanged in England and North America (where, it must be remembered, witchcraft was never perceived as a heresy, but remained an illegal act against society): suspended between heaven and earth, unworthy of both, they would suffer a shameful death on the “one-armed cross”, the gallows. Their execution, accompanied by an infamous burial, usually at the foot of the gallows itself, was halfway between a moralistic theatrical show and a sporting competition where human bodies were subjected to fatal labors.

A mise-en-scène that, with its pedagogical-terrorist connotations, was meant to arouse a healthy fear in the spectators, agitated by a visceral sense of moral and emotional ambivalence. A spectacle in which the victims were hated, and at the same time pitied in their misfortune.

Costanza De Cillia is a Doctor of Philosophy and Sciences of Religions. Her main fields of research are the aesthetics of violence and the anthropology of execution.

The Ouija Sessions Ep.3: LoBagola

At the beginning of the 20th century a famous “savage” bewitched the West: in the third episode of The Ouija Sessions, his spirit tells us about the incredible way he stayed afloat in a world that made the Exotic a circus attraction.

[Turn on English subtitles!]

Mors in fabula

Sorry, this entry is only available in Italian.

The Terrible Tucandeira

The initiation ritual of tucandeira is typical of the Sateré-Mawé people stationed along the Amazon River on the border between the states of Amazonas and Pará of Brazil.
The ritual is named after a giant ant (the Paraponera clavata, also known as “bullet ant”) whose painful sting, 30 times more poisonous than that of a bee, causes swelling, redness, fever and violent chills.

This test of courage and endurance sanctions a tennager’s entry into adulthood: every young man who wants to become a true warrior must submit to it.

The tucandeira takes place during the Amazonian summer months (October to December).
First the ants must be captured and taken from their anthills, usually located at the base of hollow trees, and they are enclosed in an empty bamboo called tum-tum. A mixture of water and cajú leaves is then prepared, and the ants are immersed and left in this anesthetic “soup”.

Once they are asleep, the ants are inserted one by one within the knitting of a straw glove, their fearsome stingers stuck on the inside of the mitten. They are then left to awaken from their numbness: realizing that they are trapped, the ants begin to get more and more angry.

When the time for the actual ritual finally arrives, the whole village meets to observe and encourage the adolescents who undergo initiation. It is the much feared moment of the test. Will they resist pain?

He who leads the dance intones a song, adapting the words to the circumstance. The women sit in front of the group of men and accompany the melody. Some candidates paint their hands black with Genipa berries and then drink a very strong liquor called taruhà, based on fermented cassava, useful for reducing pain and giving the necessary strength to face the ritual. Those who undergo the tucandeira for the first five times must apply to certain diets. When the ants awaken, the actual ritual begins. The dance director slips the gloves on the candidates’ hands and blows tobacco smoke into the gloves to further irritate the ants. Then the musicians begin to play rudimentary wooden tubes while the boys dance.

(A. Moscè , I Sateré Mawé e il rito della tucandeira, in “Etnie”, 23/01/2014)

The angry ants begin to prick the hands of the young, who are made to dance to distract themselves from the pain. In a short time their hands and arms get paralyzed; in order to pass the test, the candidate must wear the gloves for at least ten minutes.


After this time, the gloves are removed and the pain begins to manifest itself again. It will take twenty-four hours for the effect of inoculated neurotoxins to subside; the young man will be the victim of excruciating pain and sometimes prey to uncontrollable tremors even in the following days.
And this is just the beginning for him: to be fully completed, the ritual will have to be repeated 19 more times.

Through this ritual, a Sateré Mawé recognizes his origins, laws and customs; and from adolescence on, he will have to repeat it at least twenty times to be able to draw its beneficial effects. The whole population participates in the ritual and observes how the candidates face it. It is an important time to get to know each other, gather, and contract future marriages.
The tucandeira is also a propitiatory rite, through which a boy can become a good fisherman and hunter, have luck in life and work, turn into a strong and courageous man. People come together very willingly for this ritual, which in addition to its festive and playful aspect is also an opportunity to recall the cosmogonic myths of the origin of the stars, the sun, the moon, water, air and all living things.

(A. Moscè, Ibid.)

In this National Geographic video on tucandeira, the chief summarizes in an admirable way the ultimate meaning of these practices:

“If you live your life without suffering anything, or without any kind of effort, it won’t be worth anything to you.”

(Thanks, Giulio!)

 

ILLUSTRATI GENESIS: Day 4

Seven little lessons to rediscover our everyday life.
Seven days for the Creation… of a new perspective.

DAY 4 – THE SUN, THE MOON AND THE STARS

The well-known detail: It’s dawn. Same as every morning, the alarm goes off at 7.30: while we were asleep, time continued to go by. Another day is gone and now we have to wake up and face the future that is waiting for us.

The background: When we think about the passing of time, in our mind we picture a kind of road or ribbon unravelling through a figurative landscape. The future is in front of us and the past behind us. Everything is in constant motion: we move forward on the time line (“we’re getting closer to the end of the year”), but the flow is actually continuous and so the landscape is inevitably sliding towards us as well (“The end of the year’s coming”).
Whether the observer moves through the landscape or the landscape moves towards them, in both cases we always use spatial metaphors when we talk about time. But we would be wrong to believe these metaphors are the only possible ones: anthropologists and linguists who study different cultures have come across temporal models which are radically different from ours.
For many African cultures, for example, time is related to events. Therefore, it only passes if something is happening:

Europeans make mistakes when they think that people in traditional African societies are “wasting time” when sitting idly under a tree without activities. When Africans are not doing anything, they produce no happenings, no markings of rhythm, no ‘time’. […] When the time concept is event-related, it means that no event is no time. There is nothing to ‘waste’ and nothing to ‘save’. […] One logical result is that the taxi-browse (“the bus operating in the bush”) will leave, not at a fixed moment of the day, but when it is full, when it has enough passengers to pay for the fee, so that it can make the trip. Similarly, a meeting will start “when people (most of them) have come,” not at a point fixed beforehand on an abstract clock. It is the event, “it is full” or “people have come,” that triggers action, not the moment according to a measurable time standard.(1)

Also the idea that the future is in front of us and the past behind us is not universal.
For the Malagasy it is exactly the opposite: the future is behind us, and the past is ahead of us. The observer doesn’t move and time reaches them from behind. Their most common New Year’s greeting is arahaba fa tratry ny taona (“congratulations on being caught up by the new year”).
In this model, the past is ahead because it is known, and therefore visible; the future, on the contrary, must necessarily be behind us, because nobody can see it.

We can find a similar concept in the Aymara language, spoken in the Andean Highlands (Bolivia, Peru and Chile). In this language, they use the word nayra, a term indicating what stands before, when talking about the past. Similarly the world for ‘back’, qhipa, also indicates the future. This concept partially derives

from the strong emphasis Aymara puts on visual perception as a source of knowledge. The Aymara language precisely distinguishes the source of knowledge of any reported information by grammatically imposing a distinction between personal and nonpersonal knowledge and by marking them with verbal inflection or syntactic structures. […] So, in Aymara, if a speaker says “Yesterday, my mother cooked potatoes,” he or she will have to indicate whether the source of knowledge is personal or nonpersonal. If the speaker meant “She cooked potatoes, but I did not see her do it”.

Therefore it should not come as a surprise that

Aymara speakers tend to speak more often and in more detail about the past than about the future. Indeed, often elderly Aymara speakers simply refused to talk about the future on the grounds that little or nothing sensible could be said about it.(2)

The Fourth Lesson: The idea of time derives from the alternation of the sun and the stars, the succession of light and darkness. Just like every idea, it is relative and it changes according to historical eras, latitudes and languages. So, let’s try a little experiment. After turning off the alarm, try and imagine that the new day is behind you. You cannot face it because it’s not facing you. You cannot know what it is going to bring, but you feel it lurking behind you. This idea might sound a bit scary, but it is also liberating: you just have to yield and let the future reach you.

The first three Days of ILLUSTRATI GENESIS are available here and here.

1) Ø. Dahl, “When The Future Comes From Behind: Malagasy and Other Time Concepts and Some Consequences For Communication”, in International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 19:2 (1995), pp. 197-209
2) R.E. Núñez ed E. Sweetser, “With the Future Behind Them: Convergent Evidence From Aymara Language and Gesture in the Crosslinguistic Comparison of Spatial Construals of Time”, in Cognitive Science, 30 (2006), pp. 401–450

The Mummies of Palermo: A Silent Dialogue

This article originally appeared on the first number (entitled “Apocrifo Siciliano”) of the book/magazine Cariddi – Rivista Vorace, published by Rossomalpelo Edizioni. The magazine explores the forgotten, occult, magical and fantastical side of Sicily, in a collective effort which saw the participation of journalists, writers, illustratoris, literature scholars and photographers confronting Sicily’s countless faces.
Cariddi is in Italian only, but you can order it on Amazon and other online stores, or you can order a copy by writing an email to the publishing house.

You never forget your first.
As soon as I entered the Capuchin Catacombs, I had the impression of finding myself in front of a gigantic exercitus mortuorum, a frightening army of revenants. Dead bodies all around, their skin parched and withered, hundreds of gaping mouths, jaws lowered by centuries of gravity, empty yet terribly expressive eye sockets. The feeling lasted a few seconds, because in reality down in the hypogeum so perfect a peace reigned that the initial bewilderment gave way to a different feeling: I felt I was an intruder.

A stranger, a living man in a sacred space inhabited by the dead; all those who come down here suddenly fall silent. The visitor is under scrutiny.
I was also alien to a culture, the Sicilian culture, showing such an inconceivable familiarity with the dead for someone born and raised in Northern Italy. Here death, I thought, was not hidden behind slabs of marble, on the contrary: it was turned into a spectacle. Presented theatrically, exhibited as mirabilis – worthy of admiration – here was on display the true repressed unconscious of our time: the Corpse.

The Corpse had been carefully worked by the friars, following a process refined over time. One of the technical terms anthropologists use to indicate the process of draining and mummifying bodies is “thanato-metamorphosis”, which gives a good idea of the actual, structural transformation to which the body is subjected.
Moreover, such conservation was considerably expensive, and only the wealthiest could afford it (even in death, there are first and second class citizens). But this is not surprising if we think of the countless monumental citadels of the dead, which the living are willing to raise at the cost of enormous efforts and fortunes. What struck me, as I strolled by the mummies, was that in this case the investment didn’t have the purpose of building a grand, sumptuous mausoleum, but rather of freezing, as much as possible, the features of these dead people over time.

Ah yes, time. Down there time flowed differently than on the city surface, or perhaps it didn’t flow at all. As if suspended by miracle, time had stopped devouring and transfiguring all matter.
As I dwelled on ancient faces, worn out clothes, and withered hands, the purpose of this practice became clear: it was meant to preserve not just the memory of the deceased, but their very identity.
Unlike the basic concept behind ossuaries, where the dead are all the same, the mummification process has the virtue of making each body different from the other, thus giving the remains a distinct personality – an effect further amplified if a mummy is dressed in the clothes he or she wore when alive.
Among all the barriers men have raised in the quixotic attempt to deny impermanence, this is perhaps the one that comes closest to success; it is a strange strategy, because instead of warding off death, it seems to embrace it until it becomes part of everyday life. So these individuals never really died: family members could come back and visit them, talk to them, take care of them. They were ancestors who had never quite crossed the threshold.

Little by little, I began sensing the benign and sympathetic nature of the mummies’ gaze – the kindness that shines through anyone who’s really aware of mortality. Their skeletal faces, which could be frightening at first, actually appeared serene if observed long enough; so much so that I was no longer sure I should pity their condition. Within me I began a sort of conversation with this silent crowd, the guardians of an inviolable secret. Perhaps, as their whispers reached out for me from the other side, all they were trying to do was reassure me; maybe they were talking the end of all trouble.

That unspoken, mysterious dialogue between us never stopped since that day.
A few years later I returned to the Catacombs together with photographer Carlo Vannini. We stayed about a week in the company of mummies, day and night. Who knows if they recognized me? For my part I learned to tell them apart, one by one, and to discern each of their voices – for they still called me without words.

My first book, published for Logos Edizioni, was The Eternal Vigil.
In 2017 the book was reissued with a preface by the scientific conservator of the catacombs, paleopathologist Dario Piombino-Mascali – who in turn, as I’m writing this, has just published what promises to be the definitive historical-scientific guide on the Catacombs, for Kalòs Edizioni.
From the analysis of mummies a paleopathologist is able to get clues about their life habits, and unravel their personal history: to an expert like him, these bodies really do speak. But I am sure that in this very moment they’re also whispering to the visitors who just descended the staircase and stepped into the underground corridors, enchanted by the extraordinary vision.
These mummies, to which I am bound by ties inscrutable and deep, murmur to anyone who really knows how to listen.

Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: Episode 3

In the 3rd episode of the Bizzarro Bazar Web Series we talk about some scientists who tried to hybridize monkeys with humans, about an incredible raincoat made of intestines, and about the Holy Foreskin of Jesus Christ.
[Be sure to turn on English subtitles.]

If you like this episode be sure to subscribe to the channel, and most of all spread the word. Enjoy!

Written & Hosted by Ivan Cenzi
Directed by Francesco Erba
Produced by Ivan Cenzi, Francesco Erba, Theatrum Mundi & Onda Videoproduzioni

Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: Episode 2

In the 2nd episode of the Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: pharmacy mummies and products of the human body used in medicine; a mysterious artist; a theater built from the carcass of a whale. [Remember to turn English subtitles on.]

If you like this episode be sure to subscribe to the channel, and most of all spread the word. Enjoy!

Written & Hosted by Ivan Cenzi
Directed by Francesco Erba
Produced by Ivan Cenzi, Francesco Erba, Theatrum Mundi & Onda Videoproduzioni

Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: Episode 1

Here we are!

Here is the first episode of the Bizzarro Bazar Web Series: animal trials, cannibal forks, and one strange extreme sport.
If you like this episode be sure to subscribe to the channel, and most of all spread the word. Enjoy!

Written & Hosted by Ivan Cenzi
Directed by Francesco Erba
Produced by Ivan Cenzi, Francesco Erba, Theatrum Mundi & Onda Videoproduzioni

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.