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.
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.
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.
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.