Il boia gentile

Sorry, this post is only available in Italian.

È finalmente disponibile in preordine un libretto che, credo, farà la gioia di più di un lettore: si tratta di Memorie di un boia che amava i fiori, edito da Bakemono Lab, scritto da Nicola Lucchi, illustrato da Stefano Bessoni e corredato da un mio saggio sulla decapitazione.

La storia è quella di Charles-Henri Sanson, boia parigino che durante la rivoluzione francese eseguì circa 3000 esecuzioni tramite ghigliottina. Il racconto della vita di Sanson, che Nicola Lucchi ha voluto rivisitare con un esercizio di equilibrismo tra vicende sanguinose e toni delicati, ci svela un retroscena insospettato, e cioè che quest’uomo pur essendo uno dei boia più “prolifici” della storia rimase sempre combattuto riguardo alla pena di morte. Animo colto e gentile, suonatore di violino con l’hobby delle erbe medicinali, Sanson era noto per la caritatevole empatia che mostrava verso le sue vittime, a cui offriva spesso conforto prima dell’esecuzione. La sua figura contribuì a umanizzare il mestiere del carnefice anche agli occhi del pubblico.

Il volume è illustrato da Stefano Bessoni, che chi legge questo blog conosce ormai benissimo: i suoi disegni macabri e poetici sono il perfetto complemento per la storia stralunata del boia con la passione per i fiori.

L’ultima ventina di pagine è occupata da un mio saggio sulla decapitazione attraverso la storia, e su come l’introduzione della ghigliottina non solo cambiò il modo di guardare alle esecuzioni ma diede anche inizio a una querelle filosofica sulla metafisica dell’anima.

Fino al 31 ottobre 2020, chi ordinerà il libro a questo link avrà diritto a uno sconto sul prezzo di copertina e riceverà la sua copia con disegno di Stefano Bessoni.


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.

The Carney Landis Experiment

Suppose you’re making your way through a jungle, and in pulling aside a bush you find yourself before a huge snake, ready to attack you. All of a sudden adrenaline rushes through your body, your eyes open wide, and you instantly begin to sweat as your heartbeat skyrockets: in a word, you feel afraid.
But is your fear triggering all these physical reactions, or is it the other way around?
To make a less disquieting example, let’s say you fall in love at first sight with someone. Are the endorphines to be accounted for your excitation, or is your excitation causing their discharge through your body?
What comes first, physiological change or emotion? Which is the cause and which is the effect?

This dilemma was a main concern in the first studies on emotion (and it still is, in the field of affective neurosciences). Among the first and most influential hypothesis was the James-Lange theory, which maintained the primacy of physiological changes over feelings: the brain detects a modification in the stimuli coming from the nervous system, and it “interprets” them by giving birth to an emotion.

One of the problems with this theory was the impossibility of obtaining clear evidence. The skeptics argued that if every emotion arises mechanically within the body, then there should be a gland or an organ which, when conveniently stimulated, will invariably trigger the same emotion in every person. Today we know a little bit more of how emotions work, in regard to the amygdala and the different areas of cerebral cortex, but at the beginning of the Twentieth Century the objection against the James-Lange theory was basically this — “come on, find me the muscle of sadness!

In 1924, Carney Landis, a Minnesota University graduate student, set out to understand experimentally whether these physiological changes are the same for everybody. He focused on those modifications that are the most evident and easy to study: the movement of facial muscles when emotion arises. His study was meant to find repetitive patterns in facial expressions.

To understand if all subjects reacted in the same way to emotions, Landis recruited a good number of his fellow graduate students, and began by painting their faces with standard marks, in order to highlight their grimaces and the related movement of facial muscles.
The experiment consisted in subjecting them to different stimuli, while taking pictures of their faces.

At first volunteers were asked to complete some rather harmless tasks: they had to listen to jazz music, smell ammonia, read a passage from the Bible, tell a lie. But the results were quite discouraging, so Landis decided it was time to raise the stakes.

He began to show his subjects pornographic images. Then some medical photos of people with horrendous skin conditions. Then he tried firing a gunshot to capture on film the exact moment of their fright. Still, Landis was having a hard time getting the expressions he wanted, and in all probability he began to feel frustrated. And here his experiment took a dark turn.

He invited his subjects to stick their hand in a bucket, without looking. The bucket was full of live frogs. Click, went his camera.
Landis encouraged them to search around the bottom of the mysterious bucket. Overcoming their revulsion, the unfortunate volunteers had to rummage through the slimy frogs until they found the real surprise: electrical wires, ready to deliver a good shock. Click. Click.
But the worst was yet to come.

The experiment reached its climax when Landis put a live mouse in the subject’s left hand, and a knife in the other. He flatly ordered to decapitate the mouse.
Most of his incredulous and stunned subjects asked Landis if he was joking. He wasn’t, they actually had to cut off the little animal’s head, or he himself would do it in front of their eyes.
At this point, as Landis had hoped, the reactions really became obvious — but unfortunately they also turned out to be more complex than he expected. Confronted with this high-stress situation, some persons started crying, others hysterically laughed; some completely froze, others burst out into swearing.

Two thirds of the paricipants ended up complying with the researcher’s order, and carried out the macabre execution. In any case, the remaining third had to witness the beheading, performed by Landis himself.
As we said, the subjects were mainly other students, but one notable exception was a 13 years-old boy who happened to be at the department as a patient, on the account of psychological issues and high blood pressure. His reaction was documented by Landis’ ruthless snapshots.

Perhaps the most embarassing aspect of the whole story was that the final results for this cruel test — which no ethical board would today authorize — were not even particularly noteworthy.
Landis, in his Studies of Emotional Reactions, II., General Behavior and Facial Expression (published on the Journal of Comparative Psychology, 4 [5], 447-509) came to these conclusions:

1) there is no typical facial expression accompanying any emotion aroused in the experiment;
2) emotions are not characterized by a typical expression or recurring pattern of muscular behavior;
3) smiling was the most common reaction, even during unpleasant experiences;
4) asymmetrical bodily reactions almost never occurred;
5) men were more expressive than women.

Hardly anything that could justify a mouse massacre, and the trauma inflicted upon the paritcipants.

After obtaining his degree, Carney Landis devoted himself to sexual psychopatology. He went on to have a brillant carreer at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. And he never harmed a rodent again, despite the fact that he is now mostly remembered for this ill-considered juvenile experiment rather than for his subsequent fourty years of honorable research.

There is, however, one last detail worth mentioning.
Alex Boese in his Elephants On Acid, underlines how the most interesting figure of all this bizarre experiment went unnoticed: the fact that two thirds of the subjects, although protesting and suffering, obeyed the terrible order.
And this percentage is in fact similar to the one recorded during the infamous Milgram experiment, in which a scientist commanded the subjects to inflict an electric shock to a third individual (in reality, an actor who pretended to receive the painful discharge). In that case as well, despite the ethical conflict, the simple fact that the order came from an authority figure was enough to push the subjects into carrying out an action they perceived as aberrant.

The Milgram experiment took place in 1961, almost forty years after the Landis experiment. “It is often this way with experiments — says Boese — A scientis sets out to prove one thing, but stumbles upon something completely different, something far more intriguing. For this reason, good researchers know they should always pay close attention to strange events that occur during their experiments. A great discovery might be lurking right beneath their eyes – or beneath te blade of their knife.

On facial expressions related to emotions, see also my former post on Guillaume Duchenne (sorry, Italian language only).